New Journalism-Science Initiatives Alter How News Is Shaped

October 15, 2009

 

By BOB WYSS

When Michael Lemonick recently completed a story for Newsweek about a plan to help less developed nations cope with climate change, he did not give the article at first to his editors.

Instead, he asked several scientists to review it. Sometimes, Lemonick knew, scientists want to make changes that will bore readers. Then he must debate them about the changes. But this time the changes were few and easy to make. He turned the story in, and Newsweek ran it.

Lemonick works for Climate Central, a non-profit news organization composed of scientists and journalists who provide news about the science of global warming.

The former Time magazine correspondent is still getting used to conferring with his science colleagues because the arrangement breaks the old rules giving the writer and editor final say over a story.

"At Climate Central I don't own the story, I collaborate with scientists to present a story that is reasonable and engaging," he said. So far he has found the process far more "intellectually honest."

A growing number of scientists appear to be climbing down from their ivory towers. In doing so, they are threatening to change journalism, including how the environment is covered. The most prominent example is Climate Central, which was established last year and features the work of a longtime scientist and journalist, Heidi Cullen, formerly with The Weather Channel. At the Princeton, N.J.-based organization, scientists upset about how the press has reported climate issues have begun producing the news for print, broadcast and online sources.

Other scientists are seeking training so that they can better communicate with the press, the public and decision-makers.

For nearly 10 years now the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS) has been training scientists on how to communicate with reporters. The organization has worked closely with the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program at Stanford, Calif. which shares many of the same goals.

Increasingly, programs on how scientists can better communicate are showing up at a variety of scientific meetings and conferences.

Nancy Baron, director of ocean science outreach for COMPASS, estimates the organization trains more than a thousand scientists each year in programs ranging from several hours up to a week.

Not everyone in the science community agrees that the role of a scientist is to talk to the public.

"There are many, many scientists who still do not think it is their job," she said. "Primarily the older scientists have that viewpoint. Many of the younger scientists clearly see the need."

Climate Central has been hailed as a new model for science and environmental journalism. While scientists at the organization do not completely agree on what the future holds,clearly a change is already under  way.

Below are reports on two of these organizations at the forefront of the movement to open up science.

COMPASS 

COMPASS was originally created to assist marine scientists but it has helped train scientists in a broad range of disciplines.

The workshops will vary but they are usually run by journalists and can include lectures, coaching during mock interviews and other sessions that are taped and critiqued either by the journalist or by the entire group of scientists. Topics can range from discussions about why the cultures of science and journalism clash, advice on how to think like a journalist, to better understanding of how to get one's message across. The organization is funded by a combination of grants and workshop fees.

The most ambitious of these workshops is held by the 20 fellows selected each year from around the country by the Leopold Program at Stanford University. Fellows spend a week of training from COMPASS on learning communication skills, and another session on how to deal with public policy makers.

Baron said that the training programs aimed primarily at academic or research groups, such as a specific university or a science-based organization. However, it has also provided assistance to groups such as the Wildlife Conservation Society. The New York-based organization, created in 1895, says that its mission is "to save wildlife and wild places across the globe." Baron said that in such situations the organization is asked to include not only its own staff scientists but to also invite other government and academic scientists with similar interests.

She said COMPASS has no interest in simply serving as a public relations tool to help get an organizational message or brand out. "We only want to help the scientists get out a science message," she said.

COMPASS also works with individual scientists or teams of scientists who have completed ground-breaking research and want to make sure their study receives attention in the press. This more individualized training usually happens only a few times a year, usually when a study is about to be released by Science or at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

In these sessions the scientists can receive help with preparing press releases and press packages, and assistance in getting ready for interviews and press conferences. This can include staging mock interviews and then critiquing them.

Baron said these sessions came about when scientists sought out COMPASS for help and the organization responded. She said the studies are carefully vetted to make certain that they are well grounded in science and not advocacy.

When Baron was interviewed this past summer she was in the midst of working with scientists preparing for a July 31 release in Science about the state of the world's fisheries. The study by 20 scientists received widespread coverage from the wire services, major newspapers, broadcasters including PBS and online sites both nationally and internationally.

A study that mapped the health of the world's oceans, released in February 2008 at the AAAS meeting, received similar assistance from COMPASS. The media preparations involved in that release were discussed at a breakfast meeting at last year's SEJ conference in Roanoke, Va.

Climate Central

It is one thing to occasionally talk to reporters or prepare for a press conference, and another for scientists to go to work for a news organization such as Climate Central.

"Ultimately what we are seeking is to bring the scientific research, as it relates to climate change, to the public," explained Cullen. "We are like a little research organization that tries to visualize climate change research."

Designed on a non-profit model similar to ProPublica, which specializes in investigative journalism, Climate Central has a staff of 15 composed primarily of scientists with several longtime journalists. The combination of the economic recession and the ongoing transformation of the news media has posed unexpected problems, according to Berrien Moore III, operations manager.

While Climate Central has a $4 million annual budget, largely because of a grant from the Schmidt Family Foundation, Moore said that losses in many philanthropic endowments have made fund-raising more difficult. Moore, who formerly ran the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space at the University of New Hampshire, has begun turning to government sources to finance up to one-third of the operation.

The dramatic cutbacks in print and broadcasting posed even more complicated issues for Climate Central in deciding where and how to disseminate its reporting. The organization spent much of this year working on a website that would serve as a platform to provide news, stories and broadcasts and other climate information to existing media and the public.

In the interim, Climate Central has produced a series of stories that aired on the PBS NewsHour. The first was a feature on how a climate-related drought in Montana was changing stream flows and threatening trout populations. Others have aired on the effects of climate on Iowa's corn crop, Georgia coal production, and the installation of a carbon counter in New York City.

Cullen, who has a doctorate from Columbia University and formerly hosted Forecast Earth on The Weather Channel, is excited about the possibilities this new venture holds. She said the goal is to make science, and especially climate news, more readily accessible and visual.

For instance, for the Montana and other NewsHour stories, Climate Central has produced annotated scripts that document sources. She would also like to provide climate facts to meteorologists in the top markets. So on a particularly warm day, they could report on how many additional days at that level could be anticipated by the end of the century.

Lemonick also had been producing stories for print publications, although he anticipated he w ould be working more for the website as it developed.

The biggest challenge for the practitioners has been the often spirited discussions that break out between the journalists and the scientists on how to produce a story or broadcast that is both scientifically sound and yet still interesting to the general public.

"The scientists sometimes will say that this issue is far too complex of a process to dumb down," said Cullen. "There is a lot of discussion on this and some scientists are not comfortable with going too far in this direction."

Lemonick added, "We are learning each other's culture in a pretty fundamental way."

The other guiding tenet for the news stories is that they have to be based solidly on the science and not stray into advocacy. One reason many of the scientists on the staff agreed to leave their research or teaching positions is that they were so outraged by the combination of politics and distorted news coverage on the climate issue that they felt impelled to do something.

So far, news organizations, many of which have been dramatically reduced in both staff and resources, have accepted the stories and broadcasts with no qualms.

Lemonick said Newsweek accepted his climate story with very few questions about his affiliation to Climate Central because he has had a long-term relationship with the editor who he has kept abreast of the organization's development. Editors at other publications have sometimes asked questions to clarify Climate Central's non-profit status and funding sources before accepting his stories.

Most of those interviewed at Climate Central believed that the non-profit model they are using will likely be developed more in the future to get out technical information.

Will scientists take the roles played in the past by journalists? "No, I don't think so," replied Cullen. "What is interesting is that everything is changing so much. Some scientists will put their foot into the journalistic shoe, but we need hard-core journalists just as much as we need scientists."

Moore thinks more scientists will join the fray, and he says it is already happening in areas such as medicine. "I think it will happen for two reasons," he said. "First, science is becoming increasingly more important, including to the fabric of economic life. And two, the new media situation now allows for that involvement to take place."

But in joining the public tussle, scientists will likely be challenged and will have to work hard to protect their credibility and the integrity of their research. Added Moore: "It will definitely come with more risks."

Bob Wyss is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut and the author of Covering the Environment. He teaches journalism and science students how to better communicate.

** From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal Fall 2009 issue.
 

BOB WYSS