A Flood of Unusual Accuracy

This Mother Jones article discusses findings from a recent Environmental Research letter, which concluded that the mass media, represented by major US and UK publications, is accurately presenting the scientific research on climate-related sea level rise projections to 2100.   The article goes on to conclude that increased and more in-depth reporting of scientific research "can contribute to more measured considerations of climate impacts and policy action in the public sphere."


Posted on Mother Jones, January 25, 2011

A Flood of Unusual Accuracy

By Julia Whitty

Credit: Malene Thyssen, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Malene Thyssen, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

An interesting analysis in Environmental Research Letters of the accuracy of media reporting of climate-related sea level rise. The premise: That the mass media associates sea level rise with climate change and reports on it frequently, yet the scientific community remains dubious of the media's accuracy.

So how good or bad is the situation really? The authors examined the accuracy of reporting between 1989 and 2009 by seven prominent US and UK newspapers:

  • New York Times
  • Washington Post
  • Los Angeles Times
  • Financial Times
  • The Times (London)
  • The Guardian
  • The Telegraph
 Credit: NASA.

Credit: NASA.

Their findings—a surprise to me and I suspect to the authors too—that journalists have done an excellent job portraying scientific research on sea level rise projections to 2100.

So why the unease? 

Well it turns out that while coverage of the issue of sea level rise has risen in the past 20 years, it's done so in fits and starts pegged to major news cycles—the release of an IPCC report, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the 2009 COP-15.

Credit: Environmental Research Letters DOI:10.1088/1748-9326/6/1/014004)Credit: Environmental Research Letters DOI:10.1088/1748-9326/6/1/014004
There's been little to no coverage of direct research, the completion of specific projections, or the publication of incremental but important papers. For those milestones, the mass media is largely silent. Obviously this speaks to the different tool sets of media and science—media being the microphone, science the microscope. If we can ever get them working together, we'll get real traction against the flood.

Credit: Wikinedia Commons.Credit: Wikimedia Commons. The authors conclude:

Mass media presentations of climate change remain key influences that bound discourses and shape the spectrum of possibility for climate mitigation and adaptation actions. Amid much recent criticism of climate science and the media on the high-stakes, high profile and highly politicized issue, accurate reporting on projections for sea level rise by 2100 demonstrates a bright spot at the interface of climate science and mass media. These findings can contribute to more measured considerations of climate impacts and policy action in the public sphere.

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