Journos again.

As a respite from all the people whinging about scientists being poor communicators, Eli writes Blaming the Other Guy While Copying from the Guy Who Buys the Drinks in which he points out the obvious: the people doing a crap job of communicating science are the journalists.

To which I’d add: that of course there is a stratum of journalists that are doing an excellent job of communicating lies and untruths, and a few telling the truth.

But if the public wanted intelligently written journalism that actually explored issues carefully, they would get it. Alas (as far as I can tell), most of them want entertaniment, but they want to feel good about watching it, so they want to pretend they are watching news, so effectively they are asking to be lied to. And that is what they get.


* Science communication: Who is responsible (for its failing)? (Bart)

30 thoughts on “Journos again.”

  1. We all tend to rate journalists based on how well they reflect our own biases, regardless of how correct those biases may be. Beyond left vs right, the media is drawn to conflict, controversy and falls from grace. It is the nature of the beast. Getting your message through the media filter is a learned skill.


  2. Eli,

    Invariably, the interviewer’s agenda, knowledge base and point of view differ from the interviewee’s – not necessarily hostile, but different. Even friendly interviewers can botch it.

    Most interviewers come in with some story line already in place. If the interviewee doesn’t make sure to firmly get his message across, he won’t.

    [I agree with you. But I differ on the interpretation. I would call this “journos doing a crap job”. They have got lazy -W]

    Politicians and entertainers, who do lots of interviewers, learn to avoid or ignore questions that are off message and answers that can be taken the wrong way. It’s why talking points were invented.


  3. Perhaps it is wise, when dealing with a journalist (being interviewed, for example), to ask them straight out at the beginning — “What role are you looking for me to play in your article? What are you hoping I will say?” The journalist will likely flinch and say that they hope you’ll be truthful or somesuch, but maybe it will make him/her think about the lens they are seeing you through or the filter they are hearing you through.


  4. Hello again my dear comrade,

    I was just reading about you over here:

    Anyway, I’m waiting on the seat of my pants for you to talk about this recent post on WUWT:

    So why did Mann answer the committee’s question of:

    “Did you engage in, or participate in, directly or indirectly, any actions with the intent to delete, conceal or otherwise destroy emails, information and/or data, related to AR4, as suggested by Phil Jones?’

    In the negative when he did in fact ask Wahl to delete the emails? Doesn’t the committee’s failure follow through or assess the facts accurately prove the assertion that it was a complete whitewash?

    On a side note, I’m currently reading a book about psychopaths. I haven’t finished it yet so I haven’t posted a review, but if you are curious then you can get it at amazon – it is called “Puzzling People: The Labyrinth of the Psychopath.”


  5. Eli,

    Wouldn’t have commented on the comments without reading the comments. Nor do I dispute that journos are often sloppy, ill informed and incapable of convincing the general public of climate dangers. I just think you are riding the wrong horse, in part because of wishful thinking about what journalism is or should be.

    I believe your fundamental error is continuing to focus on winning arguments about climate science, rather than on actively solving the problem climate science says must be solved. The understanding that fossil fuels must be replaced predates climate concerns, and would remain even if those climate concerns proved to be unwarranted.

    The best comment on your thread was made by Bart – perhaps quoting MT, “What now?”


  6. > understanding that fossil fuels must be replaced
    > predates climate concerns, and would remain even
    > if those climate concerns proved to be unwarranted.

    The problem — Somerville in the Congressional hearings yesterday said it’s “scary” — is the rate of change.

    “Replacing” can assume a replacement will slip in smoothly–no economic hiccup. “Replacing” allows, requires, delay until a replacement is available.

    Stopping means stopping. Look at the rates of change.


  7. Hank,

    Technology is just now at the point where we can begin replacing fossil fuels. It’s a 35 – 50 year process that has already begun. There is no requirement for delay.


  8. Oh was that last post defined as “trolling?”

    [Seems to be your speciality. Wurble redacted -W]

    I’m still eagerly awaiting your analysis on how the Penn State “investigation” of Mann is still valid despite one of their exonrative statements being proven to be completely false.

    [Sounds like more trolling, but go on, if you insist: either post a concise summary here with refs, or a link. Unless you’re talking about Wahl-to-Wahl coverage in which case I’d suggest you don’t bother -W]


  9. I disagree – even if the public wanted intelligently written journalism that explored issues properly they wouldn’t get it. For certain values of ‘the public’ of course. I don’t think there is a monolithic public, so some get good reliable information from blogs, others would like good information but it is not always available from the newspapers which they happen to read.


  10. Well, I already did provide some precise quotes and links before which you deleted in its entirety. But let’s try it this way, I’ll make some statements which I believe are correct, and then you can tell me where I’m wrong. I’ll then provide the requested links/quotes that I believe prove my assertion and you can tell me how I’m misinterpreting the sources.

    1) Penn state asked Mann if he had directly or indirectly participated in the deletion of emails.

    2) Mann said he did not directly participate

    3) Penn State therefore concludes that he did not directly or indirectly participate

    4) Later, Wahl says Mann forwarded him an email Jones wrote which asked him to delete the emails regarding AR4

    5) Wahl said that he complied with that request and deleted them

    6) I conclude that forwarding that email, without comment, which requested that Wahl delete the emails is “indirect participation” in the deletion of the emails regarding AR4.

    So where am I going wrong?

    [Err, you’re trolling, that’s where you’re going wrong. But it may amuse some folk so I’ll leave it up. Don’t feed him though, folks -W]


  11. As this is now open to specific cases, who is to blame for the communication of children in G.B. won’t know snow one year and increased snow is consistent with warming global temperatures another? I read it in the paper – journalists quoting climate scientists.

    For those who see climate change as an existential threat, this journo vs scientist topic is like dangling keys in front of toddlers.


  12. Pay attention, PK. The long-term expectation of less snow remains. In the shorter term we have these unpredicted (by models) polar vortex breakdowns, yielding more snow at northern mid-latitudes, but which are clearly a symptpm of Arctic amplification. Not good news at all.


  13. But in fact, Eli used examples that contradicted his allegation of churnalism. He apparently somehow hoped his readers wouldn’t, you know, you know, click on the links he provided. Or maybe he hadn’t himself. Dunno.

    As for example, Eli’s case of churnalism and the bacteria from space: His link led us directly to Alan Boyle’s journalistic debunking (a sort of anti-churnalism) as its very first reference. It doesn’t take much Googling to find out that such debunking dominated coverage – not the churnalism. “Press coverage, such as it has been, is decidedly skeptical from just about the get go,” is how Charlie Petit described it in his initial survey of the coverage*. The lone example of churnalism seems to have been the original Fox News piece. It’s not wrong to criticize that original piece, but given that the bulk of the coverage seemed to get it right, it seems an odd choice on Eli’s part to support his argument.

    Or Eli’s link to the Livescience piece on the arsenic critters, which describes the decidedly non-journalistic kerfuffle that ensued as reporters interviewed independent scientists who were critical of the work, only to have the paper’s authors clam up and, um, communicate poorly.

    It’s a closer example to what Eli’s looking for but, again, after a wave of bad journalism, good journalism quickly jumped in and the thing self-corrected.

    I don’t disagree that bad science journalism exists, and that when it does it’s a problem. But Eli’s farcical straw man was cherry-picked in a way that was frankly astounding given his usual zeal in calling out the other guys when they engage in that kind of intellectual dishonesty.



  14. Yes, and the discussion does not deal with scientists who are excellent communicators and not purveying straw (Alley, et al.)

    What is clear is that this is a discussion worth having and the Flecks and Yulsmans of the world are hunkering down.

    Where John and Tom are the conferences and workshops to clean up science journalism? Where is the institutional push back?

    Where are the Johns and Toms when someone like Kloor says that the reader is the problem, churnalism is fine? But oh no, Eli is a bad bunny. Sorry, that as the saying goes is a load of nonsense.


  15. As many of the comments here there and else where point out, anyone today talking to a journalist adopts a defensive position and, in many cases either refuses or routes requests for interviews through a public relations professional.

    Why this trusting attitude (and yes John, Eli is contradicting hisself here)? The answer, of course wrt science is that in general scientists have learned their lessons. Increasingly churnalism is dominated by sources who have learned how to manipulate the press and the press is dominated by those who manipulate the remaining sources.


  16. Eli,

    It’s pretty astounding to see someone so fiercely protective of science act so irrational. John Fleck has taken the time to respond to your criticism both here, at your site, mine, and at MT’s.

    But he might as well be talking to a wall. A representative example from you from this thread :

    “Where are the Johns and Toms when someone like Kloor says that the reader is the problem, churnalism is fine? But oh no, Eli is a bad bunny. Sorry, that as the saying goes is a load of nonsense.”

    [PA redacted; see below -W] I mean, how do people like William even take you seriously beats the hell out of me. Secondly, where did I say “that the reader is the problem”? Please point that out. Ah never mind. I’ll just direct you directly to the person you likely got it from, and it happens to be this pretty damn sharp comment:

    [PA redacted. Folks, please stay polite. If someone else has attacked you in what you believe to be an impolite way, please email me and if I agree I’ll redact their comment. Just being rude isn’t acceptable -W]


  17. Re 22:

    This thread is helpfully unhelpful:

    The comment here puts it nicely:


    I have stated before that there’s plenty of climate change related news on a daily basis, and admittedly it’s of uneven quality. That is the nature of the beast. You all need to accept that. So in my mind the Wall Street Journal and NYT editorial pages cancel each other out. It seems silly to take issue with something like op-eds and editorial pages. You beef seems to be with the worker bees of journalism, no?

    Yet the fact is (as Tom Fuller observed in comment #36), that the biggest stumbling block here is that many of you conflate or confuse “media” with journalism.

    I also can’t force someone to read a climate change story in Scientific American or the NYT instead of watching Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

    In any event, the information is there for the interested consumer that does minimal searching. I stress the “interested consumer.”

    Additionally, on any given day, the websites of many major publications carry news and information related to climate change. I can’t make someone become a more discerning consumer. (Although Stony Brook University, to my knowledge, does now include a mandatory course for its undergrads in how to be a discerning news consumer. Maybe a course like that should be at more schools.)


    In short, the consumer’s fault for believing what they get told. Suckers!

    [I don’t think ” the Wall Street Journal and NYT editorial pages cancel each other out” is acceptable. It seems to admit the charge: that the journalism is poor, on both sides -W]


  18. Eli –

    Where to begin.

    You started this discussion by way of citing a series of specific examples, as if they were somehow supposed to serve as an example of the problem at hand.

    Far from hunkering down, I jumped on your blog and started discussing the specific cases you raised and the underlying issues involved, with a number of lengthy comments and some serious back and forth with some of your more thoughtful commenters.

    I similarly did whatever the opposite of hunkering is over on Yulsman’s and Kloor’s and MT’s blogs – that is, trying to seriously discuss the issues as I see them. No hunkering here, I think.

    I’m not trying to change the subject. I’m trying to discuss the subject you raised. You said journalism is awful, and “churnalism” was your evidence. OK! Discuss! You seem to be, sorry to steal your best material, kind of hunkered down in the rabbit hole.

    So I’m happy to answer the questions you ask here, but do me the courtesy of answering my own: what specifically in the coverage of the bacteria from space, the arsenic bacteria and the vaccine fiasco would you define as “churnalism”, how does it compare to the other coverage of those same issues in volume and reach, and what does that variety of coverage say about the quality or lack of quality of journalism. How does that evidence – again, start with your own links, that’d be fine – support your assertion that “churnalism” is a “moral failing worn proudly by an entire profession.” Any examples of my entire profession wearing it proudly would be a great help.

    I’m happy to answer your question, because there’s an incredibly robust ongoing career training and education community in our field working to help mid-career journalists do better and to reach out to new journalists to help teach them best practices.

    Here are three groups that I am now or have in the past been involved with that have national conferences, along with regional, local, and ongoing on line efforts: (organized by, among others, Yulsman – a great gathering where we come together to talk about the challenges of the communication problems) (conferences, small local group meetings, ongoing group discussions of these issues – tremendous outreach by folks like Bud Ward to bring new writers into the fold and share best practices and teach the very sort of values that y’all think are important – an active social media community allowing journalists to support one another working on these issues in real time) (again, small local group meetings, regional interactions, as well as national gathering, with great outreach by veterans to share best practices etc.)

    Here’s Jan Knight in the SEJournal on false balance:

    Here’s the Knight Foundation, which funds journalism education and mid-career outreach:

    Here’s Bill Kovarik, an educator and active SEJ member, with an example of what he teaches his students:

    Here’s Chris Mooney on the false balance problem in CJR, a journal devoted in part to sharing best practices and critiquing the failings of contemporary journalism (this piece, which was very influential at the time it was written in 2004, had disappeared from the web, so Chris reposted it on his blog after a number of us requested):

    Here, via NASW, is Charlie Petit (of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker – the Knight Foundation funds a lot of good work in this area aimed at improving journalistic practices) on the BBC’s false balance problem:

    I could go on, but suffice to say our community is very active in this regard.


  19. “A brief primer: Copy check is not fact check. When you check a fact, often all it takes is a phone call. You call the source, you summarize or read a brief section, and the source clarifies the facts. That’s not copy checking. …

    What’s not good journalistic practice, however, is telling your readers a fairy tale about how science functions….”

    hat tip to:


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