A nice insider’s view of the poor state of journalism and other stuff

change by kevindooley

Exclusive: Former correspondent and editor explains the drop in quality of BBC’s climate coverage – Shocker: For 2011, BBC has “explicitly parked climate change in the category ‘Done That Already, Nothing New to Say’.”
[Via Climate Progress]

This past Monday night, discussing climate change at a very poorly-attended (as usual, when the subject is global warming or peak oil) screening at the Frontline Journalists’ Club in London of the movie Collapse with Michael Ruppert — yes, flawed, but with much sound analysis about oil and energy — I heard from a former BBC producer colleague that internal editorial discussions now under way at the BBC on planning next year’s news agenda have in fact explicitly parked climate change in the category “Done That Already, Nothing New to Say.”

Deep in the comments for “Exclusive: Journalism professor Jay Rosen on why climate science reporting is so bad” was an amazing perspective by former BBC correspondent and editor Mark Brayne. It seeks to explain where the BBC is coming from on climate, though it applies more broadly to Western journalists.

Having been raised by journalists, I held the BBC in the highest esteem for most of my life. I suspect most CP readers have, too. Recently, though, the quality of their coverage of climate change has declined catastrophically, as I and others have noted (see “Dreadful climate story by BBC’s Richard Black” and links below). So I asked Brayne if he would revise and extend his remarks, and the result is below.

UPDATE: He adds more thoughts in the comments here.

His three decades as a journalist make this sobering analysis a must-read for anyone wondering why British — and American — reporting on climate change has declined in quality recently:

As a former BBC foreign correspondent (Moscow, Berlin, Vienna, Beijing) during the Cold War, and former World Service editor now struggling with the monumental failure of contemporary journalism on climate change (Nicholas Stern’s 2007 comments about the market are just as relevant for the news media), I have to agree with recent commentators on Climate Progress who see the roots of this failure more in newsroom culture and subtle peer expectation than in a direct and explicit response to political or commercial demands (although those play their part, of course).

My former colleagues at the BBC, including Richard Black and others whom I know as good men and women all, remain trapped like most Western-style journalists in the old paradigm of news as event, not process, always needing to be shiny, new and different.

As a correspondent, and later at every nine o’clock morning editorial meeting at the World Service on every weekday through the 1990s, I and my colleagues would grapple with this – how to tell a complex story in just a few lines, with enough of a news peg to interest our listeners. And listeners, viewers and readers have short attention spans – they’ll tune out if they sense it’s just the same old stuff.

So, in order to sell and appeal, whether public service or commercial, journalism needs events. We need clear causes, agents and forces to be visibly responsible. We need (not that we put it like this) a narrative of baddies and goodies. Where the climate is concerned, things are slow-moving, complex, and what’s more, we ourselves are the baddies. That’s not something listeners and viewers want or wanted to be told.

Given our human evolutionary need for primal reassurance that we are safe, and that bad things are happening over there and not here, the events that journalism reports tend to focus mainly on conflict, ideally involving stories of the dramatically dead. World Service news bulletins would often drip with blood, as do the standard news agendas of most Western media. If it bleeds, I’m afraid it does lead.

That’s factor one. Consider then how the editorial decisions of each news editor are taken in the context of those made by his or her immediate predecessor on the last shift, and by the shift and the week and the months and the years before that. As I know from my years in the field, it’s very, very hard to go against the received news agenda wisdom.

Add in, as a third factor, the post-1960s, post-modernist, post-Watergate (especially) but actually quite arrogant self-belief of Western journalists as brave, embattled warriors fighting for truth against devious authority, and I’m afraid it doesn’t surprise me that the news business finds the climate story so hard to tell.


The entire analysis provides real insight into why science journalism is so often crap. The business model for so much news today – as a profit center – prevents the objective examination of climate science, or most any science.

If the BBC is faltering under these pressures, how can lesser media outlets stand up? What is worrisome but, I think, true can be found at the end of the analysis:

As such, I often ask myself — and, obsessively, others — what it will take to get Western-style, ratings-and-profit-led journalism, reflecting as it does the emotions of politics, economics and public opinion, to take climate change and sustainability as seriously as it deserves, as a present, existential threat to the very survival of our species.

Putting it bluntly, I regret to have concluded that this will only happen once very large numbers of people start dying. As in, hundreds of thousands to millions, and quite clearly climate-change-related.  

The mainstream news media will only become part of the solution after the damage has been done – and that is no part at all. So, perhaps we need to find new models and new outlets for real reporting that does not have the advertiser-driven pressure for bleeding ledes.

In the comment he left, Broyne suggests that they ‘constructively” work to frighten people. He describes the same sort of Cargo Cult Worlds problem I have – people simply ignore facts and retreat into models of the world that are comforting but false.

I don’t think frightening people will really work because people simply stop listening. I do think he touches one possible solution, one I think has to work. Climate change is a hugely complex problem. It is not one we can expect one group, journalists, to solve.

Climate change requires scientists, politicians, educators, social workers, doctors, environmentalists and also journalists to be involved. It requires the harnessing of our social media tools to leverage our social networks, in order to move the information around rapidly enough so that the diverse solutions can be found.

It may also require us to ignore those groups – or route around – which do not want a solution and want to gum up the works. These groups are maladaptive and slow to adopt change. Thus they will not be part of the solution and only will be part of the problem. But their inability to deal with change makes them unable to effectively stop our progress, if we properly harness our tools and diversity.

Future Shock is hurting our abilities to solve our complex problems. But we now have the tools to permit Shockwave Riders to coalese and effect change because they are not afraid of it.

Arctic Sea Ice volume lowest ever seen

NSIDC director: “The volume of ice left in the Arctic likely reached the lowest ever level this month.” – Serreze: “I stand by my previous statements that the Arctic summer sea ice cover is in a death spiral. It’s not going to recover.”

[Via Climate Progress]

We are proud of being the first sailing vessel, together with “Peter 1st”, that ever has sailed through both the Northeast and Northwest Passage in one short Arctic summer.”

This amazing Arctic melt season is finally coming to an end. We just about equaled 2008 for the second lowest sea ice extent and area. But volume matters more — and here it looks like we’re setting the record.

We’ve seen that National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) scientists have tracked a sharp drop in oldest, thickest Arctic sea ice. So it’s no surprise that the Polar Science Center’s PIOMAS model for mid-September shows a record low volume for the month and hence the year and hence “any time in recent geologic history”:


Daily Sea Ice volume anomalies for each day are computed relative to the 1979 to 2009 average for that day. The trend for the 1979- present period is shown in blue. Shaded areas show one and two standard deviations from the trend.

This graph shows more than a 1000 km^3 drop in ice volume over the record low last year of 5,800 km^3 (67% below its 1979 maximum). I did check with PSC about their confidence level in this relative decline.


We might see a new climate regime here. More summer open ocean means more heat is stored. More heat storage means less ice forms. Less ice means more open water. This results in a positive feedback which will result in less volume as time goes on.

Not good news.

Posted in Environment, Science. Tags: , . Comments Off

Helping science journalism violate Sturgeon’s Law

journal by J Dueck

Should science journalists take sides?
[Via Not Exactly Rocket Science]

Tonight I took part in a debate at the Royal Institution of Great Britain entitled “Should science journalists takes sides?” The event was chaired by Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre and panellists included myself, Mark Henderson from the Times, Ceri Thomas from BBC’s Today programme and Steve Rayner, the Director of the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society. This is a slightly extended version of what I said during my five minutes of the debate.

The title of this debate opens itself up to multiple interpretations: whose ‘side’ are we talking about? It is clear to me that science journalists should not take the side of any particular scientist, of a specific idea, or even of science itself. But it is imperative that we take the side of truth. That may seem obvious but many of the strictures of traditional journalism are incompatible with even that simple goal.

The problem comes from a desire to be objective or neutral. This is what Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, famously calls the View from Nowhere. You’re detached from the proceedings that you report on. You don’t take sides. You watch from afar. The problem is that reality doesn’t work like that and a commitment to the view from nowhere has many problems.


A paraphrase of Sturgeon’s Law is : “Ninety percent of science fiction is crap. But then, 90% of everything is crap.”

This is a really nice post with a great perspective on science journalism. It might serve as a starting point for altering the numbers in Sturgeon’s Law, perhaps making the 10% that is not crap a slightly higher amount.

HIs six problems are:

  • False objectivity
  • Laziness
  • Poor understanding of the audience
  • Naiveté
  • Ethical breaches
  • Objective truth

I think he hits it out of the park, particularly when focussed on science journalism, although much could be applied to the rest of MSM. There is an objective truth, there are real solutions and a firm grasp of the natural world that comes from science. That is why our approach to science has been so successful since the Enlightenment.

Few journalists seem to get that or seem to put in the time to do their jobs well. But that is only another statement of Sturgeon’s Law. So of course 90% of science journalism is crap. That is what we expect. But what we can now do is to find that 10% and give them more notice and support – separate them from the chaff.

Because the web lets us find that 10% so much faster. Using these 6 problems as a start, it becomes much easier to put journalists into the 90% bucket or the 10% bucket. The more we read and comment on the 10% that are not crud, perhaps we can provide bottom-up support for their efforts.

We might be able to use the tools on the Web to increase the percentage of these good writers from 10% to maybe 12%. We might never be able to get rid of lazy, naive, poorly written science journalism, but we can go a long way to filtering them out so we can find the good ones and find ways to support their work.

Effective science writing is a very powerful tool for creating communities that can adapt to the world around us. The world changes very rapidly and if we can not run a good enough Red Queen’s Race to keep up, we will fail. Good science writing moves people out of possible Cargo Cult Worlds by providing incredible narratives.

Communication will be a big part of creating adaptive communities. Identifying those who are really good at that will be very useful.

[Listening to: Land Of Confusion from the album “Invisible Touch” by Genesis]


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