Lessons from the North: How Reporters and Communicators Are Adapting to Climate Change

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The middle section of her home collapsed because permafrost beneath it is melting. A fishing ground used by her family for decades, if not centuries, is no longer accessible. Talking with this young woman from Nunavut, it quickly becomes clear that climate change is not an abstract, it is a fact of life.

Picture of Frobisher Bay, IqaluitFrom Churchill to Sudbury, from Yellowknife to Iqaluit, we at RMA have had the chance to work with some remarkable people across the north. We’ve worked with people who are, for example, studying migration patterns, doing environmental assessments for natural resource projects, flying Twin Otter aircraft or trying to solve energy, healthcare and social issues in northern and Indigenous communities. Like the woman from Iqaluit in the above example, many of these people have fascinating stories to tell.

The reason her story is so important is it illustrates a change in focus across the north (and in other places as well). The public discussion has expanded from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to include adaptation – what we can and should be doing to deal with the real changes that are happening now and will continue. This change in focus is reflected in public communications and outreach by government, non-profit organizations and others. We now talk about two dimensions – both mitigation and adaptation.

Both Sides of a Story

In light of this, it is strange to think that despite the overwhelming evidence, there is still a perception among some, particularly in North America, that there is a real debate about whether or not climate change is real and if people are the main cause. This faulty perception has, of course, been stoked by some politicians and vested interests, and has run rampant across the Internet, but we can also put some of the responsibility on the news media.

“While the news media owns a piece of the faulty perceptions that there is a significant scientific debate, so do those scientists and their organizations who have communicated poorly or not at all, allowing other less credible sources to fill the vacuum or play off the confusion with their own simplistic, inaccurate and self-serving information.”

While it seems to be a cottage industry to “blame the media” these days, the news media has had a role in building and perpetuating the myth that there is a polarized debate between two equally valid schools of thought about climate change and its cause.

The reporter’s working definition of objectivity is to put in “both sides of the story”. This approach can pose a serious problem with matters of science. It means that if 99.9% of experts think one way and .1% think another (and usually based on poor “evidence”), giving each side an equal voice in the news story may give the illusion that the two sides have equal weight and validity. We’ve seen this skewing of reality happen around climate change and other issues of science, such as the supposed health effects of Wi-Fi signals, to name just one of many examples.

Self-Correcting?

The good news is that over the long term there seems to be a self-correcting process at work. It is less common today in Canada to see a legitimate news story by an accredited journalist that gives a lot of space or airtime to poorly supported positions on climate change or claims that immunization causes autism.

Another bit of good news is that the media’s experience with climate change over the past 20 years has prompted a lot of reflection and consideration among producers, editors and reporters, many of whom now recognize the potential pitfalls of the “he said, she said” approach when communicating about science.

Science Communication

So, it can be argued that climate change and general science reporting is better than it used to be. This can also be attributed to improved communication skills by scientists, experts and their organizations, many of whom now recognize the importance of communicating in ways the non-expert can understand. While the news media owns a piece of the faulty perceptions that there is a significant scientific debate, so do those scientists and their organizations who have communicated poorly or not at all, allowing other less credible sources to fill the vacuum or play off the confusion with their own simplistic, inaccurate and self-serving information.

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The successful science communicators look to build upon those ideas and experiences they share with the audience rather than focusing on trying to fill information gaps by transmitting facts using dense technical or academic language. And while the resulting communication inevitably lands in the sea of baseless claims and shouting opinions that is the Internet, the successful science communicator will have been able to put their perspective to the public and the media in a clear, understandable and interesting way.

There are many communications lessons to be learned from the climate change story as it has evolved over the past few decades. In the same way that the people of the north (and elsewhere) are finding ways to adapt to climate change, it seems that the media and science communicators are also adapting. Many have learned that poor science reporting and communication has real, tangible impacts and that engaging others in science is not only important, it is crucial.

What do you think is the best technique for communicating science? How do you think the news media reports on scientific issues? Let us know in the comment section below.

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