13 January 2011

Effective media reporting of sea level rise projections: 1989–2009

[UPDATE 1/19: Nature Climate Change selects this paper as a "Research Highlight".]

We have a new, peer-reviewed paper just out on media coverage of climate change, specifically sea level rise to 2100. We find that overall the major print media in the US and UK has done a nice job reporting on this topic.  This post describes our paper and its findings.  The image above comes from the paper and shows (a) media reports of predicted sea level rise to 2100, (b) IPCC projections of sea level rise to 2100, and (c) projections of sea level rise to 2100 found in the peer-reviewed literature.

The print media is often the subject of criticism for its coverage of climate change.  The criticism usually occurs in the context of a high-profile article that this or that person happens to disagree with.  Since there are varied agendas and perspectives on climate change it is virtually certain that someone in the climate debate is not going to like pretty much any article, leading to a steady chorus of criticism.

This has led my colleague Tom Yulsman here at the University of Colorado to comment:
[D]uring this past year, environmental journalists have been the subject of lots of criticism, often vituperative, from both sides in the climate change wars.

If you read any number of partisan climate bloggers who claim to carry the torch of scientific truth, we’re mostly stupid, we’re hopelessly biased, we’re carrying water for warmist scientists, or we’re stenographers who copy down whatever the denialists have to say because we’re too dumb to know what false balance is.

It might be tempting to conclude that since we’re catching hell from both sides, on balance we’re probably getting it about right. But I think the topic is too overwhelmingly complex, and there are too many people covering the issue in myriad ways (daily reporters, magazine writers, bloggers, documentarians, even formerly ink-stained-wretch academics like me), to make such a sweeping generalization.
Tom is right -- one can be led astray by relying on anecdotal impressions to assess the quality of reporting on any topic.  So to get a better understanding of media coverage of climate change we decided to investigate the issue quantitatively.

Led by our former post-doc Ursula Rick, I along with Max Boykoff asked a straightforward question: How well did the print media represent scientific predictions or projections of sea level rise to 2100?  We picked sea level rise to 2100 because it is so often used and it is also an objective measure.  To conduct out analysis we looked at seven major newspapers in the US and the UK (New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Financial Times, The Times (London), The Guardian and The Telegraph).

We found that the major print media in the US and UK, with a few exceptions, was generally successful in its reporting, and concluded in our paper:
The numbers and ranges reported suggest, in aggregate, reporting on sea level rise among the sources that we have examined has been consistent with scientific literature on the issue.

U K Rick et al 2011 Environ. Res. Lett. 6 014004 doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/6/1/014004
You can read our full analysis here. Comments welcomed!