Improving climate coverage: risks, hopes — and wikipedia and Colbert?

Many young Americans say that they get a lot of their news from people such as Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.

Does Colbert’s humor help clarify climate change — or not? Is it effective — why or why not? Should this be viewed as news?

For many traditional journalists, just choosing to cover climate change can be seen as a political statement and criticized by people who think that humans aren’t causing climate change. Scientists who study the subject are subject to death threats.

In this context, what are some approaches to improving the quality of public information and conversation about climate change?

Lynne Cherry — a well-known children’s book author, illustrator and filmmaker — shares some suggestions in this guest post on the New York Times dotearth blog. Lynne is famous for her book, The Great Kapok Tree, which tells the story of a man in the rainforest who decides not to chop down a kapok tree after dreaming of the animals and other creatures who would miss the tree. The story has a positive message, and Lynne encourages journalists to report about climate change in ways that give people hope of slowing the change.

David Ropeik, a former Boston television reporter who has become one of the country’s top speakers and writers about risk perception, recommends in this blog post that journalists and the public consider more carefully the reasons why they should and not be fearful of climate change.

What do you think of these suggestions by Cherry and Ropeik? Would you add others?

As reported by Bloomberg last summer, there is some evidence that in the US an increasing number of people believe that humans are causing climate change. After taking little action on climate change in his first term, President Obama mentioned the issue in his inaugural address and asked his vice president to explain his views further.

What role do you think journalists have played in making climate change so controversial that it’s become “the partial birth abortion issue of the decade,” as the Washington Post puts it? What can journalists do now, if anything, to de-politicize climate change?

What role do outside-the-mainstream sources of news like Colbert and wikipedia play? How can journalists interact with increasingly important news sources which are, like these, outside of mainstream news organizations? What do you think of this story about the power of one wikipedia editor to influence perception of climate change and its role in perceptions of Hurricane Sandy?

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About emiliaaskari

Journalist, teacher, news game designer. Promoting digital literacy and content creation in the public interest.

2 Responses to “Improving climate coverage: risks, hopes — and wikipedia and Colbert?”

  1. I’m really excited about David Ropeik coming to our class. I went to an informal talk that he held in the School of Public health today and his ideas sparked a lot of really interesting conversation. He presented the idea that we are controlled by our emotions and basically hardwired to make mistakes in judgement based on how we feel about them rather than fact making decisions. He then posed the question of how we approach this problem in risk policy.

    We discussed several ideas relating to how we make decisions and frame policies and how to address the topics of benefits and freedom in this context. I’m curious what role information accessibility plays in this. Yes, we are emotional beings, but our emotions are also the most accessible and default decision making information. In contrast, it take a lot more work to get enough facts to compete with our instincts and ideas shaped by culture. If this information was more accessible, this might help to balance our irrational limbic system. The challenge to risk communicators is to present the facts without directly saying that people are scared of the wrong things.

    I’m curious to see how the conversation is different in our class with a different audience and focus.

  2. I think mainstream journalism has a skewed view of what counts as objective journalism. The comparison to the “partial birth abortion” issue is spot on because journalists give too much weight to climate change deniers (often, I think, without questioning ulterior and often fiscal motives). Because there is the idea that reporters have to represent “all sides” in a debate. But what happens when one side is clearly not based on scientific fact, but is in fact often based on other motives? In an article about a gang rape of an eleven year old girl in Texas the New York Times caught a lot of flack (rightfully so) for uncritically publishing quotes from residents saying essentially that the eleven year old tempted the men and maybe if she hadn’t dressed so provocatively she wouldn’t have been attacked. And what of the men whose lives will be ruined if they get charged with rape? What looks like “objective reporting” is really legitimizing that ridiculous and reductive view of what was gang rape of a child. In an editorial last fall, Margarey Sullivan, the public editor for the NYTimes, asserted in relation to climate change that journalists have to avoid false equivalencies.

    “The issue has come up frequently with science-related stories, particularly those involving climate change. The Times has moved toward regularly writing, in its own voice, that mounting evidence indicates humans are indeed causing climate change, but it does not dismiss the skeptics altogether.”

    This is a necessary step forward, but I understand the fear that the mainstream media has since they’re constantly accused of having a liberal bias. But in the case of climate change I’m going to quote Stephen Colbert. “Reality has a liberal bias.” And journalists should put fact ahead of fear. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t report on climate change skeptics, but they should, in my opinion, be skeptical of what motives these skeptics have and report accordingly.

    Non-mainstream outlets can influence the way reporters cover climate change by holding them accountable and to more openly criticizing climate change deniers as they do on openly progressive outlets like AlterNet and Think Progress. On the flipside climate change deniers can go to establish rightwing outlets like Newsmax and hear the opinions of scientists who often have a fiscal incentive to deny climate change is man-made which can cloud the debate and give legitimacy to climate change deniers. This can create and echo chamber, everyone can reinforce their worldview by going to their little niche in the Internet. That’s why it’s important for the mainstream establishment media to actually provide critical analysis.

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