Climate change denial: my experience with the media

This is my third post relating to a project that looked at climate change denial as it was being taught in a Canadian university (see here for background, and here for response to some criticism).  We were expecting the skeptical community to pick it up, and the report was written mostly for that audience.  What we were not expecting was international media coverage and a few dozen blog posts.  Here, I will briefly reflect on what the media contact was like.

The Positive

Prior to publication, we knew that some blogs would be interested.  We had discussed the report with those who were more familiar with the debate and they agreed that it needed wide dissemination.  We were delighted when the report was picked up by the Guardian newspaper, a range of Canadian newspapers (Vancouver Sun, Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Calgary Herald, reposted here, as those articles are no longer available) and the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation – the Canadian version of the BBC).  The coverage was pretty well-balanced between the need to report what we had done and the desire for balance.  The Postmedia articles, in particular, went some way to representing the views of Tom Harris who had delivered the course.  We didn’t expect or want one-sided coverage, it is important to have a discussion about the nature of academic freedom (which hasn’t been the focus of many media articles, unfortunately), and we were really pleased with what happened.  By way of example, you can listen to the CBC Radio coverage here:

The difference between the blogs and the mainstream media (MSM) was pretty extreme.  The MSM attempted to provide balance and simplification for a general audience, and in doing so missed much of what we were trying to say.  The blogosphere, on the other hand, had no pretense towards balance and many of the blogs had no qualms over delving deep into the technical scientific literature to explore specific points.  Skeptical Science, Desmog Blog, Open Mind, and Rabett Run all covered detailed technical criticisms based on our report, contributing additional insight and data to supplement our own analysis.

The Negative

We can look at the negative coverage in more detail because there was far less of it.  The most telling thing about the negative coverage that we received was that it focused largely on the media’s representation of our report.  Watt’s Up With That (WUWT), a website run by Anthony Wat (misspelled intentionally because he misspelled my name on his site…), lambasted a single Guardian piece (one of several MSM pieces) rather than addressing any of the broader issues.  Read the comments there for an interesting insight into the conspiracy theories, martyr complexes, and accusations of scientific fraud that are commonplace in climate change denialism.  Those comments contain some discussion of sea level rise and Arctic ice loss, but the exchange is so vitriolic (on both sides) that nothing is resolved.  WUWT actually has some reasonably interesting discussions on technical issues sometimes, and Anthony Watt (intentional, again) has at least attempted to publish his thoughts in peer-reviewed scientific journals (although once his hard work had passed through peer review it no longer supported his original thesis that poor weather stations overestimate warming).

Other negative coverage came from “Sun TV”.  Tom Harris, described by the host as “friend of the show” and who I believe has a regular slot on the channel, was invited on to respond to the criticism.  Interestingly, I wasn’t invited on the show.  CBC Radio called to tell me that they were going to interview me alone for the piece I linked to above.  I pointed out that they should really have Tom Harris on for balance and they agreed, scheduling Tom to run second so he could respond to my comments.  Apparently Harris didn’t feel inclined to argue on my behalf in return in front of Sun TV.  The tagline on the Sun TV piece was “Greenie Smear Job”.  It is a shame that the network couldn’t have engaged a little more with the intellectual side of the debate, but from what I hear about Sun TV they don’t really go in for that kind of thing.  If you are interested in seeing Tom Harris’ response, it is here:

Final thoughts

Contact with the MSM and blogs require a different approach.  MSM outlets need talking points in the form of sound bites.  Blogs are much more capable of a division of labour where some can digest complex information (and they are sometimes better qualified and better positioned to do so!) while others look at other aspects such as media coverage and background information.  However, they are much more approachable.  The positive coverage tended to look at the details and the science behind the report, while the negative coverage looked at the tone, approach, and media coverage.  You shouldn’t fear negative coverage, because it can be revealing about the nature of both sides of a debate.

More info:

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