There’s been a great discussion over at Prometheus about a story last week in the New York Times by Bill Broad about atmospheric CO2 and paleoclimate. Given that it’s unlikely that very many people actually get 42 comments into a thread, I’ve pulled out my comment here so all three of Inkstain’s readers (hi Mom!) don’t miss it.
Dr. Yulsman –
Thanks for a provocative post that has triggered quite a useful discussion.
There are a number of points worth making. First, I’d be very skeptical of the Boykoff and Boykoff analysis if I were you. I’ve written about this in more detail elsewhere, but in brief the Boykoffs seem to have conflated the science with the policy response. As such, they appear to have scored stories as exhibiting “false balance” when they quote both sides of the political/policy debate. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t/isn’t a false balance problem in journalists’ description of the science, but it does suggest their methodology is almost certain to overstate its prevalance.
Second, and more importantly, there’s an unexamined premise that I’d love to hear you and the other academics in this discussion address: what is the actual effect of journalism of the type we’re discussing here on the public’s understanding and on the political/policy discussions and outcomes? If the Boykoff hypothesis is correct, and if media coverage matters, then you ought to be able to detect the results in polling data. But this seems not to be the case. The public, as Roger Jr. has ably argued here in the past, is quite comfortable with the scientific consensus on climate change. So whatever “false balance” there is in news media coverage doesn’t seem to be fooling the readers. They’re obviously wise to our tricks. 🙂
The problem is that everyone involved in this discussion – Raypierre over at RealClimate, Roger Sr. above, you – all have some idea of what it is journalists *ought* to be doing (and what the gifted and intelligent Bill Broad ought to have done), but the discussion isn’t premised on any actual evidence about what happens in the minds of the actual readers consuming this. In the absence of any such evidence, all the discussants are mapping their own views of the debate onto Broad’s piece, which becomes something of a Rorschach test.
I had a particularly interesting experience recently in this regard involving a story of my own.
It was based on a climate science meeting that featured Roger Sr. and an unusually large proportion of those out on the fringes of the scientific mainstream on these issues. It quoted these scientists at some length, while also repeatedly explaining where the mainstream consensus lies and showing how they fit into the normal sort of scientific discourse that goes on in pretty much any field between the mainstream and outliers. I was criticized by both sides of those tangled up in the “yes/no” debate: by supporters of climate change action for sowing doubt by quoting skeptics, and by political skeptics for my repeated invocation of the consensus as a framinng device.
The experience suggested to me that we journalists (well, me, anyway, though the way this discussion comes up over and over again suggests the viewpoint is far more widespread) have some pretty naive ideas about what readers get out of what we write. And before we go much further in the discussion of what journalists ought to be doing, we need a much clearer idea of what readers are actually getting out of what we write.