Last year, the hacked emails of climate scientists from the University of East Anglia spawned what has hitherto become known as "Climategate -- a mini media tempest that briefly provided climate change deniers with what they believed to be grist for their favorite mill: that climate change is some sort of worldwide conspiratorial scam. There was never a whole lot to hang a scandal on, but that didn't stop the frenzy that pushed "Climategate" onto front pages and network news shows.
Of course, since then, the grownups have stepped back to the fore, and five independent investigations have, as Steve Benen points out, "concluded that the integrity of the science is entirely sound" and that the "deniers' arguments were debunked." Where's the coverage, though? Last week, CJR's Curtis Brainard put out a call:
Each of these [independent investigations] has, in turn, drawn significant coverage in mainstream media and independent blogs of all varieties and points of view (see round-ups here, here, and here for instance). But only a few brief articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines, and they were usually buried deep inside. It is not surprising that editors have been reluctant to highlight each and every report as it came along (lamentably, documents and letters of this sort are commonly dismissed as having little news value). However, journalists love a good trend, and, as the BBC's Richard Black noted on this blog, these reports are "beginning to look like a pattern." As such, the press (especially the American press) needs to give this story more comprehensive, high profile treatment.
The story is primarily about the mounting rebuttal of this winter's assaults on climate scientists and their work, but also about how the scientific process and assessment of research can be improved. Again, all of the inquiries so far have recommended that individual scientists and the IPCC boost transparency and refine some their methodologies, especially where quality control of data and information is concerned. With the panel gearing up for its fifth assessment report, reporters must explore how they are going to do that.
Brainard pretty deftly underscores what sort of stories drive coverage: a braying spectacle of scandal-mongering is sure to get attention. Dry, academic studies written by experts, not so much. He hangs his hopes on the media's affection for "trend stories," which always tend to command attention -- though it's better if the "trend" is something that falls within a "style" reporter's bailiwick. Scientists who want to get their news out to the public may want to consider doing so in "listicle" form.
As Benen points out, credit Howard Kurtz with carrying the ball here:
On CNN yesterday, Howard Kurtz took note of the trend: "The New York Times, to its credit, put this British report on the front page. Most of the major papers I looked at stuck it inside. CNN's 'Situation Room' did a full story on it, but there was not many mentions on cable news, nothing on the broadcast networks."
This is, unfortunately, quite common. The right erupts with anger, the media treats the "controversy" as a legitimate story, and the public hears all about it. We eventually learn that the story was nonsense, but at that point, the media has lost all interest.
In a futility-themed, hilarious side note, Benen points out that Kurtz calls Fox News infotainer Glenn Beck to task for not revisiting the "Climategate" story now after previously blowing it out of all proportion. (Kurtz mistakes Glenn Beck's eponymous Hour of Glower for a "news show," it seems.)