Reporting on scientific research on climate change

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UNESCO, Nairobi, Kenya

Covering climate science is not easy. But journalists who can report accurately on the science in ways their audiences can understand will find they have many more opportunities to tell stories. Rather than just reporting what the scientists have found, the key challenges for journalists are to understand the real-life implications of new research for media audiences and to explain to these audiences how the new information is relevant to them.

Finding research to report

The first step for journalists is to know when scientists publish their studies. To stay in touch with the latest research journalists can subscribe to press releases from academic journals and follow what other journalists around the world are writing about climate change. Scientists usually publish their research in journals that are not free to access, but scientists will often be happy to email journalists copies of their new papers.

Websites to search for reports on climate science include the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (www.ipcc. ch/), the Public Library of Science (www.plos.org), Google Scholar (www.scholar.google.com), the Directory of Open Access Journals (www.doaj.org), and numerous think tanks a from around the world.

When reporting on a new study, journalists should read and understand the findings of several other relevant studies. These can provide important context: how do these studies compare to one another? Do their findings corroborate one another? Do the new results draw previous findings into question? Interpreting complicated statistics is not easy; even experts can draw the wrong conclusions from their peers’ research. So, know your limitations, and – after careful read- throughs and background research – don’t be afraid to reach out to the researchers to gain clarification. Direct quotes can help give the researchers a voice in your article.

Of course, reporting the findings of a study is just one component of a journalist’s job: providing a balanced assessment is just as important. Just because a study is peer-reviewed does not mean it is above critical evaluation. Journalists must remember to be as nuanced as possible, and remember that even when scientist – or their press officers – say their research is “revolutionary,” very rarely does a study completely contradict a large body of scientific research. To most effectively cast a critical eye on academic studies, journalists should examine the purpose of this study (what does this contribute to the field?), researchers’ methodology (what controls and variables did they account for?), and report funding (did a corporation with a vested interest in the findings one way or the other support this research?).

Journalists who report on new science should seek the views of scientists who work in the same field but were not involved in the research. To identify people to interview, journalists can search on Google Scholar to see which researchers are active in a particular field of study. There are other ways for journalists to get ready access to climate scientists, including many IPCC members

Avoiding sensationalism

Just as journalists should take care when interpreting the results of an academic study, they should go to great lengths to avoid sensationalism in their reporting. While it is of course important to draw the appropriate linkages between climate change and extreme weather, it is unwise to attribute any single event to global warming. As key figures who inform public policy and individual behaviour, journalists are responsible for presenting new facts – even dire warnings – in an objective light, and considering all external factors that may be at play. Additionally, as building trust with an audience is crucial to a reporter’s success, blowing a claim out of proportion will trigger a reader to (rightfully) approach future articles with scepticism.

Journalists who report on climate change need to explain two scientific concepts — risk and uncertainty — to non- scientific audiences. It’s a big challenge, not least because scientists themselves have struggled for years to explain these concepts to journalists. Risk is all about the likelihood of something happening, and the likelihood of that thing being a problem (relative to other problems). Uncertainty is a measure of how sure scientists are about something being real.

Reporting scientific uncertainty

As the Union of Concerned Scientists puts it: “To most of us, uncertainty means not knowing. To scientists, however, uncertainty is how well something is known” [italics added]. While scientists know that research points towards a greater understanding of a phenomenon or event even if there is uncertainty, the very existence that uncertainty can be enough for the public and policymakers to conclude that something is not real. In the case of climate change, that’s a dangerous difference.

One challenge is that while scientists use numbers that describe how statistically probable something is, non-scientists use words to explain how certain they are. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses a simple chart to convert the numbers into words, so a probability above 99 per cent means “virtually certain”, a value above 66 per cent means “likely” and so on.

However, one person’s understanding of “likely” is the same as another person’s understanding of “virtually certain”. Journalists may help their audience understand more clearly if they report both the verbal and numerical terms, and use the full numerical range of certainty. For instance: “Scientists say they think is it likely (66-85%) that the region will experience more frequent flooding if global temperatures rise on average by 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.”

Journalists can also report on the factors that scientists say account for their uncertainty. In the example above, they might say: “We are sure that there will be more rain but we can’t predict yet when it will fall, and timing is a big factor in flooding.”

Journalists should note that scientists can have various levels of certainty about a given subject. Take rising sea levels. Scientists are sure the seas are rising – they can measure that directly. They are nearly certain about what is causing sea levels to rise. But they are much less certain about how much sea levels will rise in different parts of the world, and when.

Such scientific uncertainty makes it important for journalists to avoid comparing unlike scenarios and aggregating statistics from different studies or regions. Doing so may be tempting, but will not illustrate the entire picture.

Reporting on risk

Risk is the other major scientific concept for journalists to understand and explain. Journalists who report on risks to people or the environment must take care neither to exaggerate nor underplay the scale of any threat. Though deceptively simple, risk is one of the hardest things to communicate accurately, partially because it can be very hard to actually determine what is a real risk, and partially because public perceptions of risk can be very different from those of scientists and other experts.

To report accurately on risk, journalists must be able to understand statistics and be able to explain them in a way that is accurate and clear to their audience. Journalists who fail to do so can create disproportionate fears or unrealistic hopes, lose the trust of their audiences, and can discourage scientists from talking to the media for fear that reporters will distort their findings. 

Risk is not the same as danger: it is a measure of the likelihood of danger. We know that some things, such as plane crashes, are very deadly but extremely unlikely. So, overall, the risk of flying is low.

When reporting on a risk it is important to state what the risk is relative to. For instance, a study may conclude that climate change would double the risk of major floods in a coastal city. This 100 per cent increase sounds serious, but if the current frequency of floods is low, a doubling is still a relatively small risk. Journalists should also note susceptibility to risk varies greatly by demographic, so they should try to explain what other factors could heighten a risk, such as age, gender, livelihood, or wealth.

Journalists should understand how significant the evidence of risk is, as individual studies often contradict one another. If one study identifies a certain risk, but twenty others on the same subject find no risk, journalists should be wary of reporting the risk until they seek the views of credible independent sources.

The easiest way for a journalist to be sure that they understand a risk is to talk with the source of the information, such as the author of a scientific report. Reporters can also check whether they can effectively communicate the risk by asking colleagues to see if they understand it. To help make sense of risks, it can be useful to compare them to other well-known factors that people are more familiar with. A comparison with the risk of dying in a road traffic accident can help to show the likelihood of a threat, while a comparison with the total number of people who die each year of all causes in a given place can help to show the scale of a threat.

Sources of information

US Department of Energy guide “Reporting on climate change: understanding the science” http://www.elistore.org/ Data/products/d13-11.pdf

New Scientist magazine’s guide to the science of climate change http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn11462- climate-change-a-guide-for-the-perplexed.html

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change website has some pages for journalists, which include press releases, information about meetings, and fact sheets. http://www.ipcc.ch/press_information/press_information.htm

SciDev.Net’s guide to communicating statistics and risk http://www.scidev.net/en/science-communication/ practical-guides/communicating-statistics-and-risk.html

Union of Concerned Scientists – Certainty vs. Uncertainty: Understanding scientific terms about climate change http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science_and_impacts/science/certainty-vs-uncertainty.html