The Path to Better Investigative Science Reporting

March 1, 2016

Reporter’s Toolbox

By JOHN UPTON

Climate Central photographer Ted Blanco used a drone to document privately owned wetland forests in Louisiana, near the sites of new wood pellet mills and a wood pellet port.
                                                                    Photo by John Upton

Investigative journalism and science reporting are both enjoying post-recession era renaissances. That makes 2016 an ideal time to consider how these fields can overlap.

Traditional investigative reporting reveals actions that violate rules or social standards. Science journalism seeks to explain scientific knowledge of how everything works. In my opinion, investigative science reporting’s major role is to reveal whether rules and standards are based on the latest and best knowledge and information.

This work matters a great deal, and when we fail as journalists, the consequences can be dire.

As I see it, widespread resistance to the reality that industrial activities are warming the planet can be traced back to a weakened and often unqualified press corps. For years, news editors and reporters pitted the statements of climate scientists against those of corporate spokespeople and their allies from other scientific fields, including astronomy. That created the false impression of uncertainty, allowing climate science denialism to fester.

With global warming crossing the 1°C threshold in 2015, which was the warmest year on record globally, it’s becoming clear that those years of sloppy science journalism now threaten the viability of life on Earth as we know it.

Journalists must learn from the mistake. As environmental journalists, we have an opportunity to lead our colleagues down a better path. A greater focus on investigative science journalism could help.

Project leads to startling conclusion

After years of producing in-depth science stories, I recently had the opportunity to put my ideas about investigative science reporting into practice like never before. I spent nearly half a year reporting for my news organization, the research and journalism nonprofit Climate Central, on a single difficult story.

During the project, I reflected on my own long-standing ideas around how investigative science reporting can work best. I’ve put together a series of nine tips I hope will help others as well.

First, a bit about the investigation. The nut of the story was that wood pellets from the United States are being burned in Europe instead of coal to satisfy climate policy. The practice exists only because it is being subsidized by European governments as a solution to climate change. The reporting challenge was to figure out how the climate is being affected, and how forests are being affected.

By spending a lot of time in the field, by interviewing dozens of scientists and by reading and critically analyzing dozens of the most relevant reports and scientific papers, I reached the startling conclusion that the subsidized industry is actually accelerating global warming, while harming sensitive American forests.

Wood energy can be environmentally beneficial, but only in specific circumstances. Those circumstances, I discovered, do not resemble the current transatlantic trade in wood fuel to produce electricity.

The industry that has popped into existence to harvest trees and produce wood pellets in North America and burn them in Europe has kept this reality suppressed. It has achieved this largely by confusing journalists with overly general scientific reports and analyses. When discussing environmental benefits, the reports and analyses touted by industry tend to focus on local energy generation using waste wood — not on their real-world practices.

Nine ways to do the job better

  1. Be prepared for a lot of non-science reporting. A large part of my story involved understanding and explaining the nascent use of large quantities of wood to produce electricity. Science couldn’t inform this aspect of my reporting, because scientists rarely sit around analyzing industries. That’s not their bailiwick.

    So I interviewed stock market analysts, company CEOs, industry consultants and others to help me grasp the scope and rapid growth of the industry. I visited forestry operations and wood pellet mills to learn how the pellets are made. I also toured power plants, and learned the difference between small plants that burn wood chips and large ones that burn wood pellets.

    The industry is heavily shaped by government policies, so I had to learn about those, too — and that involved reading a lot of official E.U. and U.K. government documents.

  2. Understand the questions that you want to answer. Investigative journalism often begins by figuring out what laws and standards are in place, and then it seeks to determine whether companies and public officials are playing by those rules. Investigative science journalism takes a step back, asking whether those laws and standards have been informed by the latest and best knowledge, with “science being the system that develops and manages the knowledge.”

    When you begin an investigative science reporting project, figure out — in general terms — which questions you seek to answer. I asked, “How does this industry affect the climate, and how does it affect forests?”

  3. Read journal articles, but don’t assume you can trust them.

    Like the editing process, peer review can be extremely valuable when done right — but worse than useless when done wrong.

    Different members of a team of scientists that produced a study should be interviewed. Their interpretations of the findings will be shaped by personal biases. Scientists who weren’t involved with the study also need to be interviewed. A good scientist won’t just be eager to explain what he or she already knows, but will tell you what he or she still wants to know.

  4. Ask the standard questions about scientific studies.
    • Who funded the research? Why?
    • What did the study reveal? What previous findings and ideas did it confirm — or reject?
    • How did the researchers involved in the study work together? Who did which parts of the analysis?
    • How thorough was the methodology? Are there shortcomings, such as small sample sizes?
    • Have findings described in press releases and media coverage accurately reflected the findings described in the study?
    • Does the study describe findings from experiments, or does it review the findings of other studies? The personal biases of scientists can easily lead to misleading review studies.
  5. Interview a lot of scientists from a lot of different backgrounds. The crux of investigative science reporting is figuring out which findings and assertions can be trusted and which are dubious or uncertain. That often involves identifying scientific consensuses among those who are qualified to reach judgment, which requires a lot of interviewing.

    It also requires a lot of vetting. A forestry scientist who produces a paper on emissions from wood energy won’t necessarily be an expert on the topic. An atmospheric scientist won’t necessarily understand potential ecological impacts or benefits from different logging practices.

  6. Look for a clear science answer, but don’t assume that you will find one. It’s the job of an investigative science journalist to sort contemporary scientific fact from scientific conjecture, misinterpretations and outdated findings. Sorting through all of this involves persistence, and extensive reading and interviewing. Be dogged, but if you can’t reach a clear conclusion, don’t force one into your story. Claiming a scientifically rigorous answer exists where one does not can be as misleading as doing the opposite.

  7. Allow industry to comment on scientific research, but be wary of quoting it. If anybody is going to critically analyze research that’s potentially damaging to a corporation’s bottom line, it’s going to be the people who are employed or paid by that corporation.

    Sure enough, the wood pellet energy companies told me that alot of research I intended to cite in my coverage was flawed, and that the scientists behind it were incompetent. But their inability to meaningfully rebuke the substance of the findings helped assure me that the findings were valid and reliable.

    Because the corporate critiques were unsubstantiated, I did not mention those particular criticisms in my series. If they had been substantiated, I would have found a scientist to quote instead.

    Published criticisms of science should come from scientists and other independent experts who are specifically qualified to discuss it — not from those whose bottom lines are threatened by it.

  8. You don’t have to mention all scientific disputes. The global wood pellet energy industry obfuscates the science around several main issues.

    It tries to pretend that producing pellets doesn’t require trees to be cut down (by implying they’re made from waste wood). Once you cut through that spin and realize that trees are being cut down to make pellets, it’s argued that cutting down trees to produce pellets makes forests healthier (because increased forestry revenue increases spending on forestry). Finally, the companies claim that the carbon dioxide released when wood is burned doesn’t warm the globe (because when forests grow back, they absorb carbon dioxide) — even though burning wood releases more carbon dioxide pollution than coal.

    Once debunked, claims such as these do not need to be included in a story. Such decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis. To include debunked claims in a story, even if referencing the disputes around them, can sometimes be dishonest, because it could suggest that legitimate scientific doubt exists where really there is none.

  9. Be sure the editor and reporter share the same goals. When I filed the first draft of my series, it described entrenched disputes between corporations and environmentalists regarding environmental impacts, many of which focused on science.

    But one of the first things that my editor Geoff Grant did was cut that section. I was disappointed to have wasted time writing it, but I knew that I agreed with the decision. By working as part of a team that dedicated itself to the same ideals that I held, the series was much better than it would have been otherwise.

I aim to put these ideas into greater practice during the years ahead, and to continue to refine this list and my approach along the way. Your suggestions are warmly welcomed.

John Upton is a senior science writer for Climate Central in New York, and his investigative report on the impact on climate of burning wood pellets, “Pulp Fiction,” can be read here. Upton has written for The New York Times, Slate, Nautilus, VICE, Grist, Pacific Standard, Modern Farmer, 7x7 San Francisco and Audubon magazine. He can be reached at johnupton@gmail.com.

 


* From the quarterly news magazine SEJournal, Spring 2016. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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