Sunday, 21 November 2010

Can women (and men and intersex peeps) save the world?

Caroline Lucas told me recently that she thought it was a "very important" thing to write about environmental feminism when I said I wanted to write a feature about it.

Climate Rush calls for "deeds not words" on climate change


However, getting published on the trend of female-led environmental campaigning is not as easy as I thought. Too niche, perhaps. Or maybe those two words 'environmentalism' and 'feminism' congeal to form an unattractive patina of earnest do-gooders' intentions. Ism-anathema to editors. The public at large is not deeply interested in either, either.

Hopefully, if you are still reading, you are keen on one or both of gender equality and preventing the worst of climate change. Excellent. Let's begin.

I met Lucas at a suffragette-inspired eco-activist Climate Rush vigil commemorating the centenary of Black Friday, a riot involving suffragettes and the police. Guess who came off worse a hundred years ago? The unarmed suffragettes were assaulted, abused and two even died.

Lucas appears constant in her support of Climate Rush; she joined the 'On the Run' road-show last year, and speaks regularly at Climate Rush events. On her own website, a blog post states that:

Dr Lucas is a keen supporter of Climate Rush, a campaign which uses creative direct action to protest against the government’s commitment to environmentally destructive projects such as airport expansion and new coal fired power stations. Together with Climate Rush, she is calling for a revolution in renewable energy and a transition to a fair and sustainable green economy.

At the vigil for Black Friday, Lucas spoke of her own personal inspiration drawn from the suffragettes:

"The suffragettes showed their real commitment, year after year, and there is much we can learn from that. One of the most inspiring bits of that building [Parliament] for me, it's not the wonderful members lobby, or the wonderful public lobby, or the wonderful chamber, it's actually a little broom cupboard. It's a broom cupboard in the basement, about 3ft squared - the most important place to me in the House of Commons because it is where Emily Davison, the suffragette, locked herself in overnight so that when she was found on the day of the census, she could say that her address was the House of Commons."

Climate Rush is calling for the government to fulfil its promise in May to be the greenest government ever. The picture so far is looking patchy: for instance, DEFRA fared badly in the cuts, but the Green Bank will be a 'proper bank' that is needed to stimulate the green economy. Lucas is far from convinced, however, saying:
We had a debate in the House of Commons today [17 Nov] [on environment] and I can report that all of 12 MPs were present. That is shameful. This is why the Climate Rush movement is so important. We can never let is happen again that only 12 MPs think climate change is a sufficient priority to get themselves along to a meeting to discuss it.

There were about 200 climate "rushettes", as Climate Rush call their followers who took part in the vigil. There were women, children, teens, and men - some decked out in Edwardian dress and veils and "Deeds not words sashes. I met a 15-year-old girl on the protest with her mother. She said that Tamsin Omond, one of the founders of Climate Rush, is her hero, and she's starting a school newspaper that will feature the vigil in the first issue.

At a time in our cultural story where the lack of decent female rolemodels is bemoaned, I happen to think that it's a very great thing to have inspirational leaders such as Omond who take action on the world's biggest challenge

This has been a good year for female environmentalists. In one of the happiest moments of the year for anyone who cares about the environment, Lucas became the first green MP. Bryony Worthington, climate change policy expert and campaigner and one of the founders of Sandbag.org.uk, was recently made a Labour peer.

And it's not just in the sphere of politics that powerful women are campaigning on climate change. Ellen MacArthur recently launched a sustainability foundation, and declared that this would be her occupation from now on. Lawyer and author Polly Higgins is campaigning to make Ecocide an international law. At the book launch of Higgins' Eradicating Ecocide, she called for people to "be unreasonable" [watch below] and kick up a storming fuss for the greater good. This resonates with the Climate Rush tagline: 'Well behaved women rarely make history.'.



Higgins wants people to become activists, because political pressure is needed to make a difference on environment issues, as well as behaviour change. And there is also a grassroots movement for women to act on the environment.

It is well-publicised that the Women's Institute is enjoying a trendy resurgence and becoming increasingly influential. But perhaps it is little known that this year they have published an action pack on climate change campaigning encouraging their members to become guerilla gardeners and activists. In it, they state:

"In the UK, women remain influential consumers of domestic products and utilities, providing them with the opportunity to choose greener and less polluting energy suppliers and appliances, or consider the impacts of their food choices, for example. Women are also still the primary educators of the next generation and therefore have huge power to change the way in which today's children think about their coexistence with the planet."

According to a study* published earlier this year in the journal Population and Environment, American women care more about the environment than American men (!). The study was based on a gender analysis of eight years' of Gallup poll data. Leo Hickman blogged this in more detail, and pointed out a the suggestion that feminism rather than gender is linked to concern for the environment (women are more likely to be feminists, one presumes):
Somma and Tolleson-Rinehart (1997)** find that individuals – both women and men – who support feminist goals express greater environmental concern.

The correlation is there, but how it comes about is not clear. Perhaps people who are concerned about social issues and inequalities are just people who are concerned about social issues and inequalities - whether it is gender inequality in this country or ecological inequality between the world's North and South.

However important feminism turns out to be in explaining the gender differential in the developed world, it is certain that women are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, according the UN. The Women's Environmental Network (WEN) have also produced a report on gender and climate change describing that women are more likely to live in poverty, globally, so are more likely to bear the brunt of environmental destruction. The report finds:
"[W]omen are more likely than men to
  • die in climate change-related disasters, and suffer from increased workload, loss of income, health problems, and violence and harassment in the aftermath of such events;
  • be displaced, or encounter problems when other (usually male) family members migrate for economic reasons;
  • experience increased burden of water and fuel collection, and resulting health problems, due to increased incidence of drought or other changes in climate;
  • feel the effects of rising food prices most acutely, and be the first to suffer during food shortages;
  • suffer exacerbated health inequalities;
  • suffer from violence, including sexual violence, in resource conflicts;
  • be expected to, and need to, adapt to the effects of climate change, increasing their workload;
  • suffer as a result of intended solutions to the problem of climate change, such as forestry projects and biofuel production."

The WEN report also highlights research that women are more focused on behavioural rather than technological solutions compared to men. I wonder if this is because of social constructs around gender, such as that women are no good at engineering or that men are less empathetic? The Women's Engineering Society, and I'm sure plenty of men, would have something to say about that.

Workshops on gender and climate change run jointly by WEN with UK Feminista are "oversubscribed", the WEN comms officer tells me - another indicator that feminists are heavily into the environment.

Whether you are a woman, man or an intersex or transgender person, anyone can be a feminist, and anyone can follow join the very lively women-led movement to act on the environment - whether it is joining protests, getting informed or lobbying your MP. Go forth and be unreasonable!

Refs:
*The effects of gender on climate change knowledge and concern in the American public, Aaron M. McCright, POPULATION & ENVIRONMENT, Volume 32, Number 166-87DOI: 10.1007/s11111-010-0113-1
**Tracking the Elusive Green Women: Sex, Environmentalism, and Feminism in the United States and Europ, Mark Somm,  Sue Tolleson-Rinehart, Political Research Quarterly March 1997 vol. 50 no. 1 153-169, doi: 10.1177/106591299705000108







Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Long-awaited blog on climate skepticism

Part 3 in a series on climate change journalism

Sometimes you wait a long time for something and then it just lands in your lap when you're not looking. Or maybe it is under an embargo you can't break.

Either way this is a ripe time to write about climate skepticism in the media. First of all, Bob Ward, climate change communication guru at the Grantham Research Institute at LSE wrote a 'Viewpoint' in Weather at the tail end of last month in which he advocated climate researchers taking more responsibility for countering the claims of climate skeptics in the aftermath of Climategate and the IPCC errors.

The nasty shock of the 'recoil effect'

The increased prominence of skeptical views in the media the past year is described by Adam Corner, a researcher into understanding risk at Cardiff Universtiy, as a 'recoil effect' - occuring despite the fact that climate science has since been cleared. Big fat caveat: climate researchers may have a role to play in this but ultimately the buck of misleading climate change coverage stops with journalists and editors. Margot O'Neill described the challenges facing the media in a blogpost for ABC, chiefly the aftershock of Climategate and the ensuing "public confusion about whether there is a reliable scientific consensus".

Ward suggests scientists need to communicate more effectively with the public and the media; on the subject of personal integrity as well as scientific results. He also adds that: "More leaders will be needed who can skillfully take on confrontational media interviews and go head-to-head with slippery opponents."

He explains this is because climate skeptics often: "take advantage of scientists' sensitivity to allegations of bias or subjectivity and take advantage of this by accusing researchers of being advocates if they suggest that greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced. Researchers need to be smarter when dealing with such tactics and the rhetorical tricks that their opponents use in public debate."

And hey presto! In a probably completely unrelated event, the LA Times and Grist published a truly remarkable piece about climate scientist in the US mobilising to counter-act the pervasiveness of skeptics in climate change journalism. According the the LA Times this week:

"On Monday, the American Geophysical Union, the country's largest association of climate scientists, plans to announce that 700 climate scientists have agreed to speak out as experts on questions about global warming and the role of man-made air pollution.

John Abraham of St. Thomas University in Minnesota, who last May wrote a widely disseminated response to climate change skeptics, is also pulling together a "climate rapid response team," which includes scientists prepared to go before what they consider potentially hostile audiences on conservative talk radio and television shows."

John Abraham is a proactive kind of scientist. Earlier this year he 'eviscerated' Lord Monckton's climate skeptic arguments in a painstaking point-by-point presentation, and further responded to the litigious peer's criticisms on the Skeptical Science site. Hopefully Abraham and others like him will be as skillful at manipulating the media as the climate change skeptic lobbies. But will they be skillful enough to drown out the minority of highly vocal dissenters from the scientific consensus?

The fight begins.

Ref:
Communicating Climate Change, Robert Edward Thomas Ward, Weather, DOI: 10.1002/wea.683 [sadly no free version for me to link to]

Monday, 16 August 2010

How to be less maladaptive


Or, what are the messages we should be sending out about climate change?

Most of us are somewhere on the ‘maladaptive’ scale according to professor of public ethics and author of Requiem for a Species, Clive Hamilton, meaning that our actions don’t correspond to what we know about climate change. This is a form of denial. 

So how do we get our “actions and principles to dance together”, paraphrasing  climate change communications expert George Marshall, author of Carbon Detox. Apparently it’s a psychological precept that we humans seek a close balance between our beliefs and behaviour.

Let's dance.
Pic: Wikimedia/ http://www.flickr.com/people/jennifrog/
We’ve got far to go. While a recent YouGov survey showed Brit’s interest in climate change has significantly decreased from 80 per cent in 2006 to 62 per cent in 2010, the evidence for an average temperature rise of 4 degrees Celcius mounts.

A poll last year showed that only 41 per cent of Brits believe that climate change is manmade. Compare this to the fact that the UN’s IPPC have called the evidence for manmade climate change “unequivocal”.

Apathy. Denial. It’s clear that the attitudes of people need to be shifted. And possibly, they could be influenced on the basis of what is known about the psychology of getting people to act on climate change. An argument for this is that the media has been part of the reason most people are still not acting in a significant way on climate change, so it must consciously be part of the solution.

It’s a big challenge because there are many barriers to acting on climate change – so says my mate Morgan Phillip’s PhD thesis.  There are many things in our lives competing with it for our headspace, our consideration and our aspirations as well as our time. Things such as: celebrity culture, consumerism, sports, our televisions (four hours a day!) – not to mention our jobs, home lives and our families and social life.

Another big issue is the distance factor. Yes, it might be a crime if there are already climate refugees and conflicts are already fuelled by lack of resources. But, writes George Marshall in Yes Magazine:

“… [P]eople have decided that they can keep climate change outside their “norms of attention” through a selective framing that creates the maximum distance. In opinion poll research the majority of people will define it as far away (“it’s a global problem, not a local problem”) or far in the future (“it’s a huge problem for future generations”),”

Another issue is that predicting climate change is done via the seemingly abstract science of climate modelling, and also the numbers themselves are hard to wrap our heads around.

Act now or forever hold your peace
So, all in all, it doesn’t seem like something we need to act on now. But it is. Luckily, there are some psychologists that have been looking at how to remedy this. I wonder what campaigning but upfront and objective journalists can learn from them. What kinds of messages should we be putting out if we care about informing and truth-telling but also the consequences of what we write?

The take-home message of the big American Psychological Association report on climate change psychology that was published last year was: climate change doom creates inaction. This makes sense: tell people enough bad stuff regularly enough and it’s all too tempting to put fingers in ears.

This could be a reason, taken in its purest form, not to write (or listen to) sensationalist stories that warn of an environmental apocalypse. But the truth can be pretty grim itself. So how can you write about it an not leave people feeling disempowered?

A solution could be balance out news pieces – and let’s be honest, most news tends to be about bad things that happen – with some positive news. This could be about inspiring stuff that people are already doing to take the reins on climate change and might get people energised to do something or solutions-based or adaptation stories. It sounds pretty bland in black and white, but it is uplifting to read about people who are innovating, campaigning and are leading the way. I recommend Positive News, Lucy Siegle’s Innovators column – and I will be writing something on grassroots green heroes shortly.

Sell it or shake it
Sustainability consultancy Futerra argue for communicating climate change in a way that works. They write in their report Sell the Sizzle that “We wish that understanding climate change would automatically lead to lifestyles [sic] changes. But it doesn’t.”

Instead, they propose selling a vision of a sustainable future. The sizzle of a sausage sells. Heaven sells. Hell does not. In an article on TheEcologist.co.uk Solitaire Townsend says:

'For years we've tried to 'sell' climate change, but a lot of people aren't buying… Threats of climate hell haven't seemed to hold us back from running headlong towards it. We must build a visual and compelling vision of low carbon heaven. And this vision must be desirable. If [it] isn't more desirable than what we've got now then why bother reaching for it?'

This line of thinking seems to be a logical conclusion to the APA’s findings (although the APA were more focused on identifying issues to overcome rather than solutions – so far).

However, Hamilton disagrees. He tells me “We need to belt people over the head with the facts at this point in the debate.” He thinks that if the public goes through the process of feeling anxious, afraid or sad about the extent of climate change, they will go through transformation – that elusive bridge between values and actions that Futerra dismisses in their report New Rules New Game

Is deep reflection the bridge between our values and action?

What is needed for this, Hamilton argues, is deep reflection on the truth of climate change – it’s only when people touch upon it superficially that they fail to be affected. And once you’ve been shaken to the core – the ‘burning embers’ diagram does a pretty good job – there is no way you can fail to act. Even the licensing ‘green halo’ effect can be reduced “if people see those activities as necessary,” says Toronto University researcher Chen-Bo Zong.

But I wonder about whether this approach is *too* terrifying. Where does emotional support for this process come from? “People heal and make change when they feel supported, understood and challenged.” Writes RenĂ©e Lertzman in TheEcologist.co.uk.

So I ask Hamilton whether positive communications had a role to play in lifting deep-thinking people out of their climate depression and into action. He responded that positive stories are okay in the context of the reality of how bad it is.

I don't know if I agree - that still sounds a bit depressing. Surely we must get the balance right between informing and offering hope? A dash of requiem and a dollop of sizzle, if you like.

Except possibly neither of these approaches is right. In a Twitter natter on the topic with 10:10-er @Cian he said:

“Maybe one of the issues of the past 20 years is that we've tried various forms of 1 message”.

Sauce not sizzle?
Malcolm Gladwell’s talk on spaghetti sauce (see below) gets at the point that you can reach many more people if you offer them options – chunky, Italian style and so on rather than just one generic sauce.


George Marshall recognises we are not all just one generic public and so he organises his book Carbon Detox around a handful of marketing types. One set of instructions for the goal-orientated ‘Winner’ and one for the make-a-difference ‘Striver.’ I’m pretty sure this kind of approach has a sound basis in a meta-analysis of behaviour change literature (paywall. Or check out p222-223 on constellations of behaviours if you can).

On the surface, this looks good. People can chose what action to take based on their personality and preferences. But even when you add nuance, not all of the problems are resolved. We’re still in a sauce. For instance, if you go about telling winners that it’s okay to have the occasional high-carbon treat (in lieu of a habitually high-carbon lifestyle) and strivers that they have to lead the way forwards for the environmental movement by being activists – isn’t the disparity kind of unfair?

I don’t know what the solutions to this are. Maybe we just have to accept people have to do what works for them – as long as they are engaging in significant behaviour change. Some people might be more ahead of the curve than others, and maybe they won’t resent the winners all their materialistic desires. Humphf.

Back to the journalism
I think I’ve shown that there is some contention over the best ways to communicate climate change to get people be interested again and act. And I’m not sure this really helps us as campaigning journalists apart from that we should keep all bases covered: belt people with the truth; sell them an alternative, utopian vision by writing about solutions; and give lots of variety in green lifestyle stories.

It seems an uncomfortable that this approach is full of contradictions and we don’t yet know the right formula to give people the ‘right’ amount of information about the science and despair, and the ‘right’ amount of inspiration and multi-faceted practical advice to pull them out of it to get them off their bums to do something about their behaviour. There is a lot at stake. 

Perhaps what’s needed is a more individually-tailored news and features site that plugs in to where you are on your psychological process of dealing with climate change. Will there be a point in the future where the internet will interact with our belief systems? Discuss.


Refs:

Assessing dangerous climate change through an update of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “reasons for concern”PNAS March 17, 2009 vol. 106 no. 11 4133-4137, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0812355106

Heimlich, J. & Ardoin, N.M. (2008) Understanding Behaviour to understand behaviour change: a literature review, Environmental Education Research, Vol. 14, No. 3, pp. 215-237, DOI: 10.1080/13504620802148881


Thursday, 8 July 2010

Campaigning climate journalism

As a nascent environment journalist, I’ve had a furrowed brow more then once over the past few months thinking about the responsibilities of the job at hand.

The main questions that preoccupy me are:

1. To what extent should climate change* journalism aim to motivate people to act on climate change? (*Where I write climate change you could sometimes easily substitute conservation, which might be an even more important than climate change.)

2. If you were to consider campaigning as essential to climate change journalism, what are the messages we should be sending out, anyway? And to whom?

3. How do we deal with sceptics?

4. What’s the future of climate change journalism? What are the possible solutions to the flaws in some of the dodgier climate change coverage, or just climate change coverage in general?

I’m going to be tackling these in a series of blogposts starting now.

Campaigning climate change

To lay all my cards on the table from the beginning, I think climate change journalists have a moral responsibility to get people to act to mitigate the shitstorm that’s on its way.

This is because journalists have a privileged position in society. Although the so-called ‘fourth pillar’ is among the least trusted profession, they have an unusual power to exert influence.

It is difficult to quantify the causal relationship between the quality and quantity of climate change coverage in the UK’s media and its effect on public opinion because of a lack of research, according to Bob Ward (a climate change policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment) in Climate Change and the Media. But a study done by Butler and Pidgeon in 2007 showed that the type of media consumed made a difference to the readers’ perspectives on climate change.

It’s this power to affect attitudes that gives journalists a unique position to act on what the UN Secretary General, Ban-Ki Moon, has called climate change the “defining issue of our era”. If the media can wield its influence to campaign for both stronger mitigation policy and personal and community sustainability, then it is increasingly possible people will rise to the challenge of ameliorating climate change.

Hold your horses

But wait a minute, what about traditional journalistic values? Aren’t journalists meant to be mediators sifting the facts through a sieve of balance, impartiality and other journalistic values?

I quite like environment journalist and author Eric Roston’s definition of journalism, which he pinged to me over email:

Journalism is the word we use to describe how researchers who are financially independent from their subjects scrutinize people in power and contextualize these findings for a general audience. It's composed of two things, investigation and storytelling--and the possibilities for both are changing more rapidly than any single person can understand.

So if journalism is in flux, perhaps it should be admissible for journalists to wield their influence to get people to act on climate change? – After all, it’s in their own best interests.

Roston thinks no – although he says there is a continuum of what constitutes journalism – he tells me:

I would disagree that climate journalists should campaign for anything other than tools that help them conduct their work -- open data, "sunlight" policies that require certain disclosures from government, declassification of relevant materials, and maybe the most important, "shield" protection that prevents journalists from being legally compelled to reveal confidential sources. Our society is quite litigious, and a big concern I have about new journalism models is how journalists will be protected from investigation subjects protected by high-powered lawyers.

Powers of persuasion

I agree that these are very important freedoms and rights to maintain, but I also think that you must consider the impact you have on people when you write on the uniquely challenging problem of climate change. But acknowledging this responsibility also makes me feel uneasy. If climate change is so immense a problem that needs a complete culture change, like the austerity measures of the world wars, then doesn’t campaigning journalism, taken to the extreme, smack of a kind of brainwashing propaganda?

This quandary is well articulated by Bob Ward. He writes to me:

“The danger with campaigning is that it distorts reporting of an issue, so audiences do not receive a neutral, objective account of the news - basically it crosses the line from providing information into the realm of motivating action. In this case, audiences may lose trust in the source of information. Then again, the scientific evidence on climate change indicates that it could result in the future in profound and fundamental risks to billions of people across the world, so would it be desirable for the media to report on the risk of climate change as if it journalists have no interest in whether the Earth suffers the worst impacts?”

Signposting

One answer is: it depends on how clearly different types of climate change stories are signposted. David Dobbs, a science journalist who writes for the New York Times and previously wrote about the environment says:

“There's reporting and there's persuading. I think you need to be clear to yourself and to the reader which you're up to. In the job's tightest definition — straight reporting — the responsibility is to inform, honestly and accurately. Yet as we all know, just reporting accurately will often influence readers, whether you set out to or not.

"If you're setting out to persuade, however, you should make that clear, even if not explicitly. Your facts should be just as solid as ever. But it should be clear to both you and the reader that you're marshalling those facts in service of an argument, rather as more-or-less straight information.”

So for Dobbs, if something is an op-ed, it needs to be demarcated from news clearly. So far, so straightforward, as all journalism should do this in accordance with industry regulator guidelines.

I asked the editor of the Guardian’s environment website, James Randerson, whether he thinks that the intention behind their environment editorial is always clear, and he responded that everything that is part of the 10:10 campaign is clearly labelled, as are lifestyle, eg Ask Leo & Lucy and comment piece, eg George Monbiot.

In the case of the Guardian I agree that individual pieces are well signposted. It is a given that their editorial stance is that the environment, alongside civil liberties, is a special area of interest. Randerson says: “Climate change is one of those things we do have a campaigning stance on. That means we do think there is a responsibility, not only to tell people news, but also to motivate them to understand what they can do about the news… to say what actions are effective and what’s just greenwash.He adds that straight news stories on climate change are reported and written in the same way as any other topic - without a campaigning slant.

In need of a makeover

However, in general climate change journalism can suffer from an image problem because of some journalism that recklessly sensationalises or distorts the facts – or even ignores them completely.

Historically, the press doesn’t have a good record on climate change reporting. According to Nick Davies, in Flat Earth News, “Scientists spent two decades warning the planet was heating up while journalists simply balanced what they were saying with denials from experts and oil companies.’” In this case “balancing” reporting with the manufactured doubt presents an inaccurate, misleading overview of the science.

Even now, there can still be problems with balance, particularly in broadcast media, which its British regulators, OFCOM, states must be impartial. According to investigative journalist George Monbiot in his book Heat: “Until mid 2005, the BBC seemed incapable of hosting a discussion on climate change without bringing in one of the Exxon-sponsored deniers to claim it was not taking place.”

In a case in point, Dr S. Fred Singer was called in to debate online ‘What does the future hold for climate change?’ as a climate change expert. However, Davies writes in Flat Earth News that The Union of Concerned Scientists found Singer’s work was promoted through 11 of Exxon's anti-climate change lobbying groups.

If balance is one of the four horsemen of the journalistic apocalyse, the three others are: sensationalism, denialism and straightforward distortion.

Contrast this piece from the Indy on 6 degrees Celcius rise by the end of the century with this, I think less sensationalist piece on the same report by the New Scientist.

A recent example of distortion from the UK press is that the Mail and Daily Telegraph misconstrued the work of a climate scientist called Mojab Latif to state the case that snowy weather in the UK this January contradicts the climate change consensus. Latif responded to clarify the meaning of his research in the Guardian.

Commentators can don a contrarian stance. This probably appeals to the right-leaning audiences of certain papers, ker-ching for the right-wing press. An example of a commentor that denies manmade global warming is happening is James Delingpole, writing for the Daily Telegraph. In this piece for the Telegraph blogs, he uses Climategate as a basis to deny the consensus of climate science. He calls it the: “Anthropogenic Global Warming myth (aka AGW; aka ManBearPig)”.

To read more about what some see as a concerted effort to undermine climate science, read this extract of Requiem for a Species by Clive Hamilton on the Guardian online.

(As an aside re Climategate, James Randerson told me about Fred Pearce’s massive investigation into the Climategate emails: “He says we’ve dug up all this dirt but it’s nowhere near as bad as many people have been saying, so where does it leave us? It leaves us that climate change is clearly happening, it’s clearly a problem, and there are issues [with the hacked emails] but they don’t change this. If we hadn’t done the big investigation first that would be just him [Pearce] spouting off, but because he’s done the investigation he can say that with credibility.”)

In a recent interview where I speak with Clive Hamilton, he says that the media does have a responsibility to compensate for bad coverage in the past. He thinks the main priority is to tell the truth (so far, so traditional) so people are informed and that’s the first step to what he calls ‘adaptive’ behaviour, meaning you act in line with the evidence. I’ve not read Requiem for a Species yet, but at his talk at the RSA (listen here) a couple of weeks ago, he did also talk about the importance of hope, and offering a positive vision. He told me some “positive stories are okay within a context of the reality of climate change.” (More on how we get might motivate people to act in the next post.

Wash hair, not brains

It is this question of making up for past sins that made me think of how far it’s possible to go without adding your own special bias onto stories to enhance their capacity to influence people to act. Where does one article or a body of work cross the fuzzy line from campaigning to a kind of manipulation? I ask Dobbs what is his take on this? He writes:

There's a sense in which any attempt to persuade is manipulative: You are, after all, manipulating an argument in order to get someone to change their minds or their behavior [sic]. But, again, this gets scungy when you twist facts to your cause or otherwise play sleight-of-hand. Transparency is the thing: Integrity to the facts, honesty about intentions, and you're playing fair.”

Okay, so I have to admit to mostly being a Guardian reader (I’m not going to look at each paper in depth, don’t you think this post is long enough as it is?) but it does seem to me that they will tackle news such as the retraction of a global warming paper and of course deep coverage of Climategate, which, as Randerson points out: “There’s no way we would publish that stuff if we were following a monomaniacal line that is like climate change is going to kill us all and everything has to fit into that.”

Although it must be uncomfortable covering stories that aren’t in line with their editorial stance, objectivity is the trump card. Not ‘balance’ but representing the truth of the situation as you see it – I mean, there’s no such thing as true objectivity since we are all the subjects of our perceptions. But as long as you do proper journalist-y things with the information you have, and you aim to be as objective as possible within the awareness of your own biases, what more can you do?


REF: doi: 10.1088/1755-1307/6/26/262008

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Investigative science journalism

One of the big, important topics covered in the Science Media Centre's
report on science journalism for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), was the plight of investigative science reporting. Here's an extract, below.

One concern that was raised repeatedly by commentators on science journalism including academics and even one journal editor was the domination of the news agenda by stories from the weekly science and medical journals. Curt Supplee45, a former science reporter in the US claims that 60-70% of the weekly quota of science stories comes straight from the pages of four or five big journals including Science,

Nature, the BMJ and the Lancet which he described as ‘a pretty dumb way to cover science from the public’s perspective’. Another commentator said that we need to ‘challenge the stranglehold of medical journals which are essentially setting the agenda of science with very little challenge’. Some linked this trend to the absence of any tradition of investigative journalism within science writing and others argued that science journalists tend to ‘go native’ and refrain from asking scientists the really tough questions.


You get the picture - and it ain't pretty. My favourite solution suggested by the report is a 'Before the headlines' service for time-strapped journalists feeding analysis, context and so on to them before the event that they churn out another story based on a press release. This idea came from the popular 'Behind the headlines' service from NHS Choices. Check it out for evidence-based blazing of media stories.

Other possible solutions are funding investigations or training with the non-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism and funding for month-long investigation fellowships. Also the report looked the the 64 million Dollar question: how else are we going to fund investigations into health, technology, the environment etc?

Putting questions to the pros

So, I was at the City University debate on whether science in the media was "In rude or ailing health?". Actually it turned into a bit of a spat about the (it seems) age-old blogger vs journalist argument. My favourite comment of all time was Ed Yong comparing the blogger/journalist debate with the film The Titanic - it is tedious and never ends up going anywhere (please forgive the paraphrasing, Ed). There are a couple of blogs that covered the City debate here at Chalk and Cheese by Charlotte King and here at A Life of Pi by Harriet Vickers. The hashtag was #scimedia for those that want to check out comments and links to more blogs on Twitter.

The other exciting thing was that Fiona Fox announced £77,000 to go towards training journalists in science, hoping to improve newsroom science literacy.

I thought that although the debate was very entertaining, it did seem to miss any sensible opinion on the future of funding investigative science journalism – not just critical analysis, which should be par for course. So I thought I'd straw poll the panelists on what kind of solutions they would favour for future funding.

Fiona Fox from the SMC said a lot of interesting things, as follows:

"In the States it’s all philanthropy and Pro Publica their model is brilliant – they take money from philanthropists but they also work jointly with papers on investigations [who pay them]."

The problem with this, as Fiona admitted to me, is that we haven't the same history with philanthropists digging into their pockets for journalism in this country. She is seeking to reverse this by lobbying science minister Lord Drayson to divert some science prize funds towards science journalism.

Two other solutions she's in favour of are gaining institution funding:

"I think as long as there are really strong protective walls between the funding and the journalism why not in The States the National Science Foundation funds all kinds of journalistic ventures but it doesn’t have editorial control".

And also research council funding:

"It’s not automatically corrupt. The BBC is funded by the government but I see no evidence that the government interfers in the day to day business of the BBC – why can’t we look at some of these models?"
Andrew Jack of the Financial Times said he was for encouraging investigative journalism within media organisations, but also for more "external stimuli", such as awards for science reporting. He also sees a future for: "institutions, whether academic or non-profitboth be funding directly in some form, either through their own resources or funding scholarships."

Ed Yong agrees that Pro Publica and also Spot.us, which describes itself a a community-powered journalism, are possible funding models for the future. He cites the case of Lindsay Hoshaw's New York Times story on the garbage patch as a Spot.us success story, funded by donors on the site on the basis of Lindsay's pitch. Here is how it worked, and see below to hear about it it Lindsay's words.



However, Ed highlights this is tentative: "if anyone knew the answer of how to fund... [investigative journalism], then I wouldn’t be sitting here being interviewed I’d be sitting at home getting massaged by Rupert Murdoch." Fair point.

The Economist's Natasha Loder is also tentative about the BIJ and Spot.us as possible ways forward as she thinks there are possible costs incurred to organisations who might take on investigative work in terms of fact-checking and legal risks, but are a good idea on the whole to cure what she calls "inefficient" science journalism:
"If you could only get a handful a week of new and novel and original stories, funded by a different source, you can immediately diversify what’s being published."
However, Natasha says her favourite idea is for the ABSW to give month-long fellowships to reporters to produce investigative work. I wonder whether this will apply to freelancers too or only the small handfuls of science specialists already employed full-time by organisations? Hmmmm. When Natasha pointed out there were only 80-odd staff positions in the UK it made a lot of us MA science journalism and sci comms ponder and scratch our heads. Heigh-ho: here's to the future, here's to new funding models and entrepreneurialism.