Scientists Critique Media Reports on Climate

June 1, 2016



A graphic from a new climate reporting watchdog group that is ranking news and opinion pieces in high-profile national news outlets, like this report by Justin Gillis in The New York Times. Photo/Graphic:


There’s a new cop on the beat when it comes to critiquing media news reports and opinion columns on climate change science.

But it’s unlikely to come across as just another press-bashing exercise by advocates for or against what generally is cast as the “mainstream” science on the issue. In fact, the new climate reporting “watchdog” group, months in development and still early in its evolution, is made up of more than 100 Ph.D. scientists, among them a fair sampling widely recognized and respected in climate science circles.

The group voices its critiques, both positive and more often critical, by way of its web site, founded by research scientist Emmanuel Vincent, Ph.D. with the University of California, Merced.

With dozens of individual media critiques now posted online, Vincent and the other scientists have focused on news and opinion pieces in high-visibility national news outlets: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN, The Guardian, and online sites such as Mashable, Forbes and Vox.

Vincent says the site has averaged about two critiques a month, an output he hopes to soon double.

In an interview, Vincent said the effort is focusing primarily on major news outlets likely to have the most influence. He says positive and critical reviews have been about evenly split, and he feels it important to both flag well-done pieces and also those “readers should be skeptical about.” Over time, he hopes to increase public confidence in those outlets most consistently earning favorable reviews.

Initial takeaways

Credentialed media outlets and their reporters may take some comfort in what Vincent identified as “early lessons” from the site’s work so far: “Most of the inaccurate stories are not by professional journalists, but by contributors who do not have the same professional commitment to accuracy.”

Particularly disturbing, Vincent said, are the mistaken claims — ostensibly based on science — that repeat the same flawed arguments “over and over.” To Vincent, those illustrate “not just a mistake, but a voluntary mistake” about which general audiences should be especially skeptical.

An online section describing the site’s review process outlines how articles and columns are scored for accuracy, logic and reasoning, fairness, objectivity and precision. The methodology involves use of the Hypothesis notation program and includes a “credibility rating” ranging from N/A (not applicable, perhaps because the piece deals with politics or policy and not science) to -2 (very low score, major inaccuracies and/or omissions of key information) through +2 (very high score, no inaccuracies).

In their online commentaries, the ClimateFeedback contributors pull no punches. Examples of some critical remarks: “very misleading and biased article,” “a rehash of several points that have been refuted many times over,” “quite poor journalism, if the term even applies,” “peddles the usual false statements masquerading as opinion that we have been seeing for years, and would not be published by a reputable publisher.”

Some pieces earned the site’s kudos, with commentaries such as: “fairly reports on one of the findings of one article that has recently been published in the scientific journal Nature,” “a well written and balanced article that draws on a range of scientific opinion from well-established climate scientists, hurricane specialists and forecasters,” “It’s tricky to evaluate the contribution of climate change to a particular weather event, but generally speaking, the author provides an accurate summary of the challenges of this research, and the range of scientific thinking about it.”

Vincent says he sees the project as being mutually beneficial to the journalistic and academic worlds and climate science generally. “I hope it will be easy for readers to distinguish between real science journalism and opinions of amateur contributors [lacking that] professional commitment to accuracy [and forsaking] ethical journalistic standards.”

Bud Ward is a co-founder of SEJ, and editor of Yale Climate Connections. A fuller report on the Climate Feedback project can be found on Ward’s site, along with a radio segment not yet aired at press time.


* From the quarterly news magazine SEJournal, Summer 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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