Does the Media Convey Science Effectively?

When it comes to climate change, global warming, melting ice, rising sea levels and the many other environmental problems we face today there is a lot of evidence to support the concerns of climate scientists.  The questions is, is that evidence being communicated adequately.

Photo courtesy of The Looking Spoon

Photo courtesy of The Looking Spoon

In my first post I discussed the causes and effects of melting ice around Greenland and other global ice stores.

Now, I would like to discuss the reporting of the facts and fallacies that are commonly conveyed regarding rising global temperatures.

Science is important in understanding risk, especially when it comes to complicated processes that help the world exist in its current state: The Carbon Cycle, The Nitrogen Cycle and The Water Cycle. They basically concern how everything moves between land, water, and the atmosphere.

But the media can’t just report the science because, as I have pointed out in previous blog entries, the science is complicated and readers and views are easily put off.

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

That’s just the water cycle.

And that discussion doesn’t include long term water storage in the Greenland and other ice sheets.

Did you click on the Wikipedia pages mentioned above? If you did, then maybe you would also be interested in reading an article from The New York Times that included technical scientific terms and was admirably specific in it’s reasoning.

If you didn’t, I don’t blame you. Few of us has the time to do intense research on every single issue on top of our already hectic lives. There are a lot of people who don’t care about the specifics would rather read a summary. Unless catastrophe strikes.

But there lies the problem. We read the minimum, and allow the media to draw conclusions for us.

Photo Courtesy of Sky Dancing Blog

Photo Courtesy of Sky Dancing Blog

Then we read about the melting “ice caps” and the struggling polar bears and perhaps feel guilty for driving just down the street for a cup of coffee. It’s a tragedy, but it doesn’t directly affect us. The science behind melting ice around the world which is tied to “global warming” which can be attributed to our changing climate.

In fact, the science, while informative of cause and effect, can be scary and make us feel doomed. Do you feel like you could fix a doomed world?


Photo Courtesy of Smithsonian Mag

Because of the consistent reports on crisis, the “black swan” events I mentioned in my last post, many people feel that their contribution is not enough to merit effort or they lose interest completely. Liz Szabo describes this in the case of school shootings and how the media affects our perception of mental illness in “Costs of Not Caring: Nowhere to Go.” She argues that on this case we are exchanging hospital beds for jail beds. We can also apply this to media coverage of melting ice. We talk about victims of rising sea levels, or make victims out of local animals. We discuss the bad, and when we offer solutions we feel overwhelmed by the costs.

This can be explained with the issue attention cycle. According to Anthony Downs, the cycle starts pre-problem, until there is an alarmed response (to something like a black swan event). After the response there is a realization of the costs to fix the problem which leads to a decline in interest. In the media the ending, what can be referred to as “post-problem”

Photo Courtesy of CMC Politics of Journalism

Photo Courtesy of CMC Politics of Journalism

But there’s hope.

According to Denise Robbins, communicating the science effectively can help:

“Catastrophic climate change is a simple message with many complexities, so these media deep-dives may be necessary for the message to break through.” – Years of Living Dangerously- Is this the new trend?

Robbins also argues that conveying the fact that these problems are solvable is important. Reducing emissions, reducing waste and recycling are all simple acts that can have a big meaning.

We don’t have to become experts, we just have to care enough to pay attention. We just need to keep a critical eye on the media, to be open to new information, and to check our facts.

Photo Courtesy of Gina Lujan

Photo Courtesy of Gina Lujan

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