Last week, PBS admirably acknowledged several mistakes after airing a segment on climate change that “balanced” scientists who acknowledge the problem with a weatherman who continues to dispute the temperature record. The problems with that particular segment have been addressed, but the tricky issue of navigating climate misinformation remains.
Ideally, journalists would never need to mention untruths. Why report on myths about science when you may be inadvertently causing your audience to remember and believe them?
But we live in an era of what Grist's David Roberts has called “post-truth politics.” It would be strange to report on the politics of climate change without acknowledging that many elected Republicans continue to deny it. The trick is to not leave your audience similarly confused.
This is not easy, and it helps to be a specialist -- or to become one. But there's a few basic rules of thumb, many of which are informed by SkepticalScience's straightforward and well-researched Debunking Handbook.
For stories on climate science, as opposed to climate solutions, there needs to be a focus on the facts. That means, as environmental journalist Bud Ward wrote, manmade global warming should simply be taken as a "given." The evidence for manmade climate change has only grown stronger, yet 66 percent of Americans incorrectly think that “there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening.” Stories that "balance" mainstream scientists that specialize in the issue with contrarians add to this confusion. Unless you're setting out to debunk common climate science myths, why seek out the few contrarians at all?
But if and when there comes the need to quote Rep. Jim Inhofe or the Heartland Institute, journalists should keep in mind that their audience will probably trust anything they air. So they need to give their audience a warning when they are about to be told false information, and be prepared to challenge the common myths.
They'll also need to explain why these claims are false, not just state that they are. These explanations will be most effective if they come from unexpected sources: the conservatives, evangelicals, and Republican representatives, advisors and scientists that acknowledge the risks of climate change. Sometimes the best explanations don't involve any words: seeing is believing. And by disclosing any industry connections these sources may have, you'll allow your audience to decide if they have ulterior motives for propagating misleading information.
One of the major problems with the media's climate coverage is not quality, but quantity. The media has set the agenda, and climate change is largely absent from it. Media coverage of climate change in the U.S. has plummeted, even as the nation has experienced record high temperatures.
The story about climate change is often that climate change is not the story. But the extreme weather events associated with climate change also provide an opportunity for journalists to talk about climate change in a way that their audience can relate to. Climate change stories can be news-y, human, local, and uplifting. Or they can be public health stories and back to basics features.