The relationship between scientific experts and news media producers around issues of climate change has been a complicated and often contentious one, as the slow-moving and complex story has frequently challenged, and clashed with, journalistic norms of newsworthiness, speed, and narrative compression. Even as climate scientists have become more concerned by their evidence-based findings involving projected risks, doubts and confusion over communications addressing those risks have increased. Scientists increasingly have been called upon to speak more clearly and forcefully to the public through news media about evidence and risks—and to do so in the face of rapidly changing news media norms that only complicate those communications. Professional science and environment journalists—whose ranks have been thinned steadily by media industry financial pressures—have meanwhile come under more scrutiny in terms of their understanding; accuracy; and, at times, perceived bias. A number of important organizations have recognized the need to educate and empower a broad range of scientists and journalists to be more effective at communicating about the complexities of climate science and about the societal and economic impacts of a warming climate. For example, organizations such as Climate Communication have been launched to support scientists in their dealings with media, while the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change itself has continued to focus on the communication of climate science. The Earth Journalism Network, Society of Environmental Journalists, Poynter Institute, and the International Center for Journalists have worked to build media capacity globally to cover climate change stories. Efforts at Stanford University, the University of Oxford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and the University of Rhode Island sponsor programming and fellowships that in part help bolster journalism in this area. Through face-to-face workshops and online efforts, The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has sought to link the media and science communities. Meanwhile, powerful, widely read sites and blogs such as “Dot Earth,” hosted by the New York Times, Climate Central, Real Climate, The Conversation, and Climate Progress have fostered professional dialogue, greater awareness of science, and called attention to reporting and communications issues. Journalists and scientists have had ongoing conversations as part of the regular publication and reporting processes, and professional conferences and events bring the two communities together. Issues that continue to animate these discussions include conveying the degree to which climate science can be said to be “settled” and how to address uncertainty. Through some of these capacity-building efforts, news media have become increasingly aware of audience dynamics including how citizens respond to pessimistic reports, or “doom and gloom,” versus solutions-oriented reports. Professional dialogue has also revolved around the ethical dimensions of conveying a story at the level of global importance. Still, with issues of climate change communication on display for more than two decades now, certain tensions and dynamics persist. Notably, journalists seek clarity from scientists, while climate change experts and advocates for and against taking climate action often continue to demand that journalists resist the temptation to oversimplify or hype the latest empirical findings, while at the same time urging that journalists do not underestimate potential climate risks.
John Wihbey and Bud Ward
Climate journalism is a moving target. Driven by its changing technological and economic contexts, challenged by the complex subject matter of climate change, and immersed in a polarized and politicized debate, climate journalism has shifted and diversified in recent decades. These transformations hint at the emergence of a more interpretive, sometimes advocacy-oriented journalism that explores new roles beyond that of the detached conduit of elite voices. At the same time, different patterns of doing climate journalism have evolved, because climate journalists are not a homogeneous group. Among the diversity of journalists covering the issue, a small group of expert science and environmental reporters stand out as opinion leaders and sources for other journalists covering climate change only occasionally. The former group’s expertise and specialization allow them to develop a more investigative and critical attitude toward both the deniers of anthropogenic climate change and toward climate science.