A Question for the Media

December 14th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

I’ve generally thought that the media has done a nice job on covering the climate issue over the past 20 years. There are of course leaders and laggards, but overall, I think that the community of journalists has done a nice job on a very tough issue. However, there are times when I am less impressed. Here is one example.


Nature magazine, arguably the leading scientific journal in the world, published a paper this week by two widely-respected scholars — Gabriel Vecchi and Brian Soden — suggesting that global warming may have a minimal effect on hurricanes. Over two days the media — as measured by Google News — published a grand total of 3 news stories on this paper. Now contrast this with a paper published in July in a fairly obscure journal by two other respected scholars — Peter Webster and Greg Holland — suggesting that global warming has a huge effect on hurricanes. That paper resulted in 79 news stories stories over two days.

What accounts for the 26 to 1 ratio in news stories?

11 Responses to “A Question for the Media”

  1. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Tom Yulsman sends in the following:

    Follow-on studies disproving something that had previously received a lot of attention generally don’t receive as much coverage because, for better or for worse, reporters and editors just don’t find that kind of story as newsworthy. A house burning down is definitely newsworthy. But no one would run a story saying “no houses burned down in Boulder today.” Of course, this is not the best analogy. Even so, I think the same mentality applies. Also, you have to consider that many reporters who cover climate change are over in Bali right now. Others are at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco. So they’ve got more than they can handle at the moment. And between the news about Arctic ice, the intense negotiations in Bali, as well as sexy press conferences at the AGU such as “Climate tipping points: Are we there yet?” with Richard Alley, James Hansen, Peter Webster, I suspect there is now more climate news around than news editors can find space for. Then there are the weariness and cynicism factors to consider…

    By the way, there actually were only two stories. The Science Daily item was a modified press release, not a reported story. You’ll note that the other two were published by newspapers in Houston and Florida — two cities that deal with hurricanes on a routine basis. In those towns, any suggestion that they don’t have to worry about global warming bringing them more hurricanes is quite newsworthy.

    – Tom Yulsman

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  3. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Thanks Tom!

    You reply raises an interesting question — What is a “follow on study”? Vecchi/Soden were not responding to anyone, it was original research. Holland/Webster was certainly not the first such paper, and in fact was written as a response to several Landsea papers, so was that a “follow on”? (If so, it contradicts your assertion about follow-ons getting less attention.) I’d suggest that neither paper was actually a “follow on”.

    Are you actually saying that the media has a bias towards studies that assert a global warming linkage over those that do not? Especially when there is a political meeting ongoing as backdrop?

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  5. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Andy Revkin offers some thoughts:


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  7. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Eric Berger sends in the following:

    I wrote one of the articles.

    Let’s start with the fact that the lede was buried in the paper. The news here is that natural variability within certain hurricane basins appears to be much more influential on hurricane activity than global warming. But the way the paper is written the scientists didn’t seem to want to emphasize this too much, perhaps because they didn’t want to be labeled as skeptics. But their findings, if potential intensity is a valid marker for hurricane activity is any measure, are quite clear: hurricane activity isn’t going to change much even with 3C warming in the oceans. Only a careful reading of the paper revealed this, however, and Nature’s news release wasn’t very helpful. At first glance the paper was quite confusing. (At least to the lay reader).

    I certainly can’t tell whether the paper constitutes a smoking gun. (I asked Kerry Emanuel for his thoughts, and he graciously replied, but his answer was too technical for inclusion in my article, and I didn’t fully understand it). But it did seem a lot more scientifically rigorous than most previous arguments against a link between global warming and hurricanes; which simply state we don’t.know enough about past hurricane activity to determine whether modern hurricane activity is unprecedented. This went well beyond the-hurricane-record-sucks-so-we-can’t-draw-any-conclusions line of reasoning.

    Finally, I thought it would be interesting to see if climate skeptics endorsed the research following my article. For to do so would require embracing climate modeling, upon which the paper is based.

    Eric Berger
    Houston Chronicle Science Writer
    SciGuy: http://blogs.chron.com/sciguy/

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  9. jfleck Says:

    There’s not much to add to what Revkin said, so I’ll merely offer this anecdote from my newsroom. We’ve got a smart senior editor who likes to say, “We don’t write about planes that don’t crash.” A story about doom is always going to be sexier than a story about not doom. It’s a fundamental media bias that you can see all over the climate debate – the play Bryson’s “European deep freeze” paper got, as opposed to the papers that can later disputing it, is my favorite example. But it plays out as a much deeper bias problem, and climate coverage is only a minor example. The coverage of rare diseases over those that routinely kill large number of people is another example. The coverage of one type of food-borne illness that seems extraordinary – contaminated spinach – over the far more common problem of improperly prepared and stored home-cooked meals is another example. We could shoot these fish in a barrel all day.

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  11. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    From Tom Yulsman:

    So here, in exaggerated form, is our situation:

    A reporter files a story saying that scientists believe hurricanes on global warming steroids will trash major coastal cities. This is, as Revkin says on Dot.Earth, a “front page thought.” The headline will scream, “HURRICANES COULD DESTROY MIAMI AS GLOBAL WARMING WORSENS,” and you can bet your bottom dollar that the newspapers will fly off the racks — or I should say that the eyeballs will fly to the page and stay there for awhile. (That will make advertisers happy, which will make newspaper management happy, which is why news editors and reporters are looking for these “front page thoughts.”) Conversely, if six months later a reporter files a story saying that another group of scientists has found that global warming does not do to hurricanes what steroids did for Roger Clemens, people will certainly want to know that. But they won’t be as inclined to want to know the details. The headline — HURRICANES NOT WORSENED BY GLOBAL WARMING — basically tells you what you need to know. In fact, the new finding is so much less provocative than the original “hot” idea, as Revkin puts it, that I had a difficult time writing a provocative headline for it. This story is simply not making it to the front page. And if it is competing with hot stories from Bali and the AGU, it may not make it to any part of the paper at all.

    My point is that assertions of danger, disaster, calamity, etc., are much more likely to grab and hold the attention of a much wider range of readers than a statement that, well, on second thought, the danger doesn’t exist because of these highly technical reasons. In the end, this has nothing to do with a liberal or conservative bias. It’s all about eyeballs.

    So, on to your question: Does the media have a bias towards studies that assert a global warming linkage over those that do not? I would answer by saying that studies showing a linkage between hurricanes and global warming are, on average, more likely to get more play than those that find no linkage —with this one key exception: If there is a good dose of conflict, then there is a greater chance that both will get near equal play.

    With the current study, I suspect that many science writers were so distracted that they didn’t have time to make the calls to find the conflict in this story. But here’s my prediction: As soon as Bali and the AGU end, and Kerry Emmanuel and others get their act together to issue a rebuttal, reporters will see a good, old fashioned conflict to write about. As a result, there will be a few stories about “the latest chapter in the global warming-hurricane intensity debate.”

    Lastly, concerning “follow on” studies. The Vecchi/Soden paper does indeed follow on from Holland and Webster’s research. And what comes next will follow on from Vecchi/Soden.

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  13. Mark Bahner Says:

    “Are you actually saying that the media has a bias towards studies that assert a global warming linkage over those that do not?”

    Let’s see…is the Pope Catholic? Hmmmm…

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  15. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    From Lab Lemming by email:

    Dear Roger Jr.,
    re: media distortion of exciting or confirmatory results vs. status quo:

    It happens in all fields- see this log of media reports of 2 papers on an obscure type of diamond:
    (sorry, can’t navigate your comment sign-in)

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  17. Harry Haymuss Says:

    Mark Bahmer asks, tongue in cheek:

    “Are you actually saying that the media has a bias towards studies that assert a global warming linkage over those that do not?”

    Making money is the prime directive. Alarmism sells. The only exceptions are the unemployed.

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  19. Mark Bahner Says:

    “Mark Bahner asks, tongue in cheek:

    ‘Are you actually saying that the media has a bias towards studies that assert a global warming linkage over those that do not?’”

    Actually, that was what Roger asked. I asked whether the Pope was Catholic. (The word on the street is that he is.)

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  21. WHoward Says:

    “Are you actually saying that the media has a bias towards studies that assert a global warming linkage over those that do not?”

    I think the journalists who have noted the media has a bias towards bad news, calamities, etc. are making a good point, and I don’t think there’s an inherent bias toward the idea of anthropogenic global warming in and of itself.

    I think there’s a way to test this idea: go back to the late ’60s and early ’70s when the climate “catastrophe” people were worried about was global cooling. That is, there was concern that we were hastening the inception of the next ice age by the injection of sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere.

    Did the media then pay more attention, and devote more headlines, to papers suggesting “the ice age is coming” than to papers which suggested otherwise?

    This could be a good project for a student of science journalism, or of history of science.