In the second part of a Q&A that began with WWU scientists Doug Clark and John Rybczyk last week, Warren Cornwall, the faculty advisor for WWU's student-produced environmental magazine, The Planet, discusses the challenges of communicating about science in general and climate change in particular, and how the global conversation needs to shift for these communications strategies to bear more fruit.
WT: Warren, what do you think are the challenges in communicating about science in general and climate change in particular to a general audience?
For starters, I think most people are fascinated by scientific discoveries. Whether it’s particle accelerators, detection of gravitational waves, a new species of animal, or CRISPR gene editing, we are constantly witnessing new and exciting insights into how the world works. Journalists and other communicators need to tap into that interest.
Pulling off that magic, however, isn’t always easy. One of the chief challenges is that while science is fascinating and powerful, it can also be highly technical. It takes work to figure out how to convey to a general audience how CRISPR works or why it’s such an important breakthrough. Journalists are constantly looking for ways to craft stories that people will read on their phone over lunch or listen to on a podcast, when the original research papers are almost impossible to read and understand.
Along with that, there’s the importance of conveying the nuance, uncertainty and caveats that come with scientific research. Storytelling tropes can be in tension with accurate reporting about science. There’s an appetite for “Eureka!” moments in which scientists suddenly uncover something. But science is almost always a product of long, laborious work. People look for a main character in a story – the lone scientist heroically toiling away before making a discovery. But so much research is team based. So how do you show that? Finally, there’s a desire for certainty. Does this chemical cause cancer or not? Did climate change cause this heat wave or not? Is red wine good for me or not? So much of science comes with an asterisk of uncertainty and partial answers. That’s the nature of science. But it’s challenging to convey that in stories when readers are seeking clarity and decisiveness.
That challenge of conveying uncertainty becomes particularly difficult when reporting on a politically potent issue like climate change. Scientific caveats can get amplified or distorted in the political world. The 2010 book “Merchants of Doubt” does a brilliant job of showing how scientific uncertainty gets weaponized, used as a way of undermining people’s confidence in scientific findings. So as a journalist, there’s often a question of how to convey to the public in a clear, succinct way how confident scientists are in certain findings.
WT: The 2006 movie “An Inconvenient Truth” is viewed as both a huge boost to climate-change awareness as well as one of its biggest negatives, because for so many Americans it was viewed as part of Al Gore’s presidential campaign, not just a documentary about the growing threat of global warming. Do today’s science writers, whether they are students like those working on The Planet, or writers who are working on big projects as you have for major media outlets, face many of the same challenges the makers of that film did 13 years ago?
Any time journalists are reporting on a subject involving a political controversy or powerful interests they should expect to encounter skepticism or pushback. At one level, that’s great. People should hold journalists to high standards and expect them to get the facts right and tell a thorough, complete story. Journalists need to be sure they have their facts nailed down, that they aren’t overreaching in their conclusions or going beyond what they really know. Realizing that someone might call your work into question can be an extra motivator to make sure your reporting is solid.
Journalists also need to make decisions about what position they are going to take as they report on an issue. Some journalists are more open to adopting a particular stance in their reporting, where it’s clear that they are advocating for particular action or a particular side. I think “An Inconvenient Truth” did that. Other journalists try to adhere to a more traditional news model of impartiality, where they strive to convey the facts with as little bias as possible, acting as a sort of “referee.” (I should note that this doesn’t mean reporters just let people make up their own facts and everything gets the same treatment. When I’m writing about earth science, I’m not in the habit of calling the Flat Earth Society.)
In some ways, things have gotten more challenging since 2006. Traditional news organizations have lost a lot of resources and staffing, creating a vacuum once filled by professional reporters. Political attacks against the media have grown more fierce (who knew I and fellow journalists would be declared a public enemy by the President of the United States). I also think there’s a lack of public understanding about how many journalists do their jobs, and what lengths they go to when trying to hold themselves and their reporting to professional standards. Instead, there’s just a default position to assume that reporters are biased.
I would say that staff at The Planet work very hard to make sure the stories are accurate and based in fact. They still get pushback on some stories, and sometimes the critics have a point. Not every story is perfect. But I think the students creating the magazine are aspiring to deliver high-quality news that people can trust for its accuracy.
Reporters have to work to connect the dots without overstating what’s really known or injecting their own opinion.
WT: How do you think communicators can do a better job breaking down the levels of skepticism that still exist, despite the findings of groups such as the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?
I’ll assume you’re talking about skepticism about whether humans are changing the climate. I’m not sure that’s the job of journalism, or one that it can accomplish. As a journalist, I’m trying to inform the public. And I’m always looking for new ways to tell stories that will grab readers’ attention and make them say “Wow, I didn’t know that.”
But there’s research suggesting that in the case of climate change, adding more facts doesn’t have a big impact on how people view the science. It has become, for some anyway, a matter of belief or a marker of a broader ideological stance.
If that’s the case, then the work I and other journalists are doing may not do what you are asking of it. I think that a journalist’s job is to inform, investigate, and entertain. You want to deliver important, newsworthy, factual information to people; you want shine light on stories that are hidden because they are complex, overlooked, or being obscured by powerful interests; and you want to do it in a way that really connects with people (that’s what I mean by entertain). If journalists do all those things, then you’re doing your job. Whether that breaks down skepticism or prompts people to take action might be a separate task.
WT: Your upcoming issue of "The Planet" is devoted wholly towards stories around climate change. What were some of the issues your writers faced not only in coming up with story ideas that the public can relate to, but in telling those stories and finding sources?
One of the challenges in writing about climate change is finding new stories to tell. I worry that the public gets fatigued with an issue and stops really reading, listening or watching the news. It just slides off them at a superficial level. That can happen with climate change coverage, because it’s in the news so much and so much of the coverage looks a lot the same.
Another challenge is that climate change reporting can get wonky very quickly. Carbon taxes, calculating carbon footprints and climate model forecasts are all important, but risk being so dry that people will just stop reading or listening.
Planet reporters and editors had to work to find stories that get at the heart of this vital issue, but in ways that are new or engaging. That means looking for local people whose stories intersect with key parts of the climate story in ways that are illuminating and interesting. It might be a businessperson responding to British Columbia’s carbon tax, a scientist wrangling beavers to help restore watersheds as climate change compounds water stress, or a homeowner trying to squeeze that last bit of efficiency out of a home that was once an energy hog.
Finding those people isn’t always easy. A lot of people’s lives might be touched by climate change, but it’s not always at the front of their minds. So sources don’t always have a lot to say. Changes in climate are also subtle, and the effects can be mixed with other factors like natural variation and random chance. So people coping with flooding in Birch Bay, for example, might not think about climate change. Reporters have to work to connect the dots without overstating what’s really known or injecting their own opinion. I’m optimistic that they are on track for a terrific issue.
Warren Cornwall is an award-winning environmental, science and outdoor recreation journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times, Science, Slate, The Boston Globe Magazine, Outside online, National Geographic News, and The Seattle Times. He is also a correspondent for the journal Science. See the first Q&A in this series, with WWU’s John Rybczyk and Doug Clark, here.