Research & Insights

Science, Environmental Journalists Warming To New Notions Of “Objectivity”

Can environmental writers produce fair and balanced reporting on global warming without being duped into spreading false claims from climate change deniers as part of their coverage?

Researchers who’ve studied this issue say that question is prompting environmental reporters to approach objectivity differently than in past years.  Instead of trying to report both sides of the issue, some are now limiting their coverage of global warming to just the facts that carry the weight of scientific evidence.

“A key component of traditional journalistic objectivity is ‘balance,’ in which reporters try to tell ‘both sides of the story,” write Sara Shipley Hiles and Amanda Hinnant of the University of Missouri, in the August 2014 edition of Science Communication.

That emphasis on traditional balance in covering the environment, however, has resulted journalists in past years occasionally writing stories that have led the public “massively astray” they add.

For their paper, Hiles and Hinnant interviewed elite science journalists to better understand how reporters stay true to both their journalistic and scientific roots.

Some of the writers they interviewed felt that at times – out of a desire to be objective —  they had been “duped by the agenda-building efforts of the fossil fuel industry into covering the climate change story as a controversy.” Hiles and Hinnant said that many of those who became aware “of this mistake, vowed not to be misled again.”

As a result, many environmental reporters have decided instead to lean more heavily on authoritative sources like governmental and university scientists and avoid the ever-present ‘debate’ format. However, when covering political stories that involve debates over climate change policy, journalists include the arguments being made on both sides. In those cases, reporting is more like what one reporter describes as the typical “he said, she said construct” of a political story.

Hiles’ and Hinnant’s findings suggest it’s also important that scientists and advocates stick to facts when working with journalists and avoid coloring their information in way that might be viewed as partisan.

“Scientists who are interested in communicating to the public and supporting journalists as translators for a lay audience would benefit by understanding that journalists have their own process that involves weighing evidence and expertise,” they explain.

Ditto for social change communicators.

Science Communication, August 2014

Sara Shipley Hiles and Amanda Hinnant, University of Missouri

Posted: October 21, 2014
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