Changing the Language of Climate Change

April 15, 2013

Special Energy Report: Part Three


Journalists and scientists board pontoon boats on Gull Lake to talk about water temperature, algal blooms and changes in aquatic ecology. Photo © Adam Hinterthuer

For years, we've heard over and over about how X parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 2050 will leave us with a 90 percent chance that ... Huh? Whatever!

This kind of language has left a large percentage of the general populace confused and vulnerable to disinformation about climate change. But last year — thanks in part to workshops run by SEJ — we witnessed a noticeable change in the science community's tone, as well as its ability to cut through misinformation on climate change with straight-forward language indicating its serious immediacy. And importantly, we hear scientists finally start talking about climate change in present tense.

Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, SEJ partnered with the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University to organize two climate change communications workshops that brought scientists and journalists together in an effort to break the molds of traditional communication and brainstorm over methods, styles and language that might best reach the general public. The SEJ workshops asked several questions: 

  • Is climate change so big and bad as to merit public service journalism similar to civil rights? 
  • Are there ways that scientists and journalists can collaborate, or at least cooperate, more directly to tell this story better? 
  • How can scientists become better messengers, and how can they avoid being misquoted, or taken out of context, in media stories? 
  • How can journalists get the quotes they need to tell the urgency of this story from scientists only willing to give the facts? 
  • Is it time to separate the general scientific consensus on climate change from the larger political debate in mainstream climate change stories?

The first workshop was held in Cleveland, Ohio, at the Great Lakes Science Center on June 9, 2012, bringing together about 15 scientists and 15 journalists from across the region. We heard from speakers on topics like human health, Great Lakes impacts and adaptation, and the sociology of climate change communications. Then we convened various role-playing exercises, e.g., the scientists and journalists worked together in groups of four to come up with the top stories from the speakersf presentations, including headlines, ledes and main thrusts of the articles.

We encountered everything from total resistance to openly embracing the notion of closer collaboration between science and journalism communities in telling the climate change story. But all agreed that the issue was important enough to explore all options to communicate the story better.

The second workshop, July 8-10, 2012, was held at Michigan State University's Kellogg Biological Station on Gull Lake in southwestern Michigan. KBS is a Long-Term Ecological Research, or LTER, station focusing mostly on agriculture and fresh water systems.

We partnered 12 scientists and 12 journalists from the Great Lakes regions one-on-one with pre-conference homework, had them room together at KBS, and present together during the workshops.

Workshops bridged scientist-journalist gaps

We received rave reviews in evaluations from last year's workshops. Here's a sampling:

“I have learned much more about framing the issue and the challenges that are presented... and also somewhat more about what makes a story to journalists.”

“I already had high confidence about environmental as opposed to ‘beat’ journalists. But it has increased even more. I’ve learned that their passion about the story is just as high as my own as a scientist.”

“I have a greater appreciation for the complexities surrounding the communications challenges scientists face, and I understand that they aren’t the same for each scientist.”

“I think one of the most important lessons learned from this workshop is that scientists and journalists telling the story of climate change are working from very similar perspectives. Both groups want to find essential truths, convenient or not, and interpret them for the public.”

New focus on regional engagement

The one-on-one pairing of the Michigan workshop worked very well for many reasons, and we’ll be repeating it in future workshops, including one planned for KBS this June that will again partner 12 scientists with 12 journalists. Only this time we’re bringing the scientists in from among the LTER sites across the country and will partner them with journalists from their region.

If, for most people, climate change feels remote, like it’s something that will happen well into the future or will only impact poor people far, far away, the focus this year is to bring climate change closer to home to engage regional audiences on how it affects their communities.

For two days our scientist/journalist pairs will brainstorm the best ways to reach lay audiences. Each pair will discuss regional impacts and how they’ve been communicated. What worked? What didn’t? What can be learned from successful examples of cooperation between scientists, journalists, civic leaders, the public?

We will examine regional impacts, vulnerability, adaptation and mitigation in the context of communication strategies. Roleplaying exercises will examine the science and journalism communities and force everyone out of their comfort zones.

“I sense that the scientists gained more than the journalists,” noted partner organizer Dave Poulson with the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. “That’s not to downplay the journalistic gains. They were there… Sometimes the question that the journalist wants to ask a scientist is not necessarily the best question to ask (i.e., the scientist can’t/won’t answer). Work with the scientists to ask the appropriate question!”

That sounds a lot like collaboration, which is where our rapidly morphing journalism world might best go to meet the unprecedented challenges of climate change reporting.

Jay Letto is SEJ’s conference director and a former researcher at the Kellogg Biological Station.

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* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2013. 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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