Climate reporters ‘must explain risk’

Doubtful about climate change? Confused by it? Or scared out of your wits? Then perhaps what you’re being told about it is not helping you to get the full story.

A study from the University of Oxford suggests that the way in which climate change is framed too often speaks simply of  uncertainty, when it could be more helpful to speak as well of risk.

What is seldom helpful, it says, is to try explaining climate change simply as a looming disaster – a trap into which many journalists and some scientists can fall.

The study says blending the two themes can sometimes work: “Using the language of risk in the context of uncertainty can be a helpful way of presenting the problem to policy makers; but more research is needed about the effect on the general public of different types of risk language…”

The study is based on an examination of around 350 articles published in three newspapers in each of six countries (the UK, France, Australia, India, Norway and the USA) between 2007 and 2012, with a combined circulation of at least 15 million readers.

The work of researchers from Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ), which is part of the university, it finds that the messages which readers receive are chiefly those of disaster or uncertainty.

The researchers found what they call a disaster narrative in 82% of the articles in the sample, and a similar proportion about uncertainty. Explanations of the explicit risks of different policy options featured in just 26% of the articles surveyed, and around 25% mentioned the opportunities presented by climate change.

But these were overwhelmingly the opportunities from not doing anything about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Only five articles (under 2%) mentioned the opportunities from switching to a low-carbon economy.

Hard to understand

“Explicit risk” is a term used in the study to mean articles where the word “risk” was used, where the odds, probabilities or chance of something adverse happening were given, or where everyday concepts or language relating to insurance, betting, or the precautionary principle were included.

The study concludes that advances in climate modelling and attribution are likely to lead to what it calls the “more helpful” language of explicit risk being increasingly used by journalists.

The sample covered two reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007; the IPCC report on weather extremes in 2012; and the recent melt of Arctic sea ice.

The study’s lead author, James Painter, says: “There is plenty of evidence showing that in many countries, the general public finds scientific uncertainty difficult to understand and confuses it with ignorance. We also know that disaster messages can be a turnoff, so for some people risk may be a more helpful language to use in this debate.

“Journalists are generally attracted to gloom and doom stories, but they are going to become more exposed to the language and concept of risks in covering climate science…

“For policy makers, this should shift the debate away from what would count as conclusive proof towards a more helpful analysis of the comparative costs and risks of following different policy options.”

Not waiting for certainty

The study forms the basis of a book by James Painter, Climate Change in the Media – Reporting Risk and Uncertainty, published on 18 September.

Describing human-caused climate change as “probably the greatest challenge this century”, he says scientific uncertainty is often misunderstood, particularly by non-scientists, and misinterpreted as ignorance: “Many people fail to recognise the distinction between ‘school science’, which is a source of solid facts and reliable understanding, and ‘research science’ where uncertainty is engrained and is often the impetus for further investigation.”

To talk of risk, Painter argues, can shift public debate away from the idea that decisions should be delayed until there is conclusive proof or absolute certainty.

He writes: “There is also a growing body of literature suggesting that risk language may be a good, or at least a less bad, way of communicating climate change to the general public.”

The study’s recommendations include ensuring that journalists are better trained in writing about numbers and probabilities, “more use of probabilistic forecasting in public weather forecasting on television”, and more resources to enable the IPCC to communicate effectively.

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