Thursday, 22 July 2010

The media on UEA: guilty as charged?

At the press briefing in the SMC for the third and final inquiry into the UEA emails, Sir Muir Russell, Chair of the review, dared to hope that a line may now be drawn under this particular row, if not under the debate over climate change itself. But one row that has been reignited by Russell is whether the media were right to give this story such prominence in the first place when no smoking gun has been discovered and no 'scalps' have been delivered.

Dr Myles Allen, Oxford climate researcher, used his reaction to the Russell review to reiterate his early criticism of the media:

"What everyone has lost sight of is the spectacular failure of mainstream journalism to keep the whole affair in perspective. Again and again, stories are sexed up with arch hints that these 'revelations' might somehow impact on the evidence for human impact on climate."

Allen speaks for many scientists who have been dismayed by the apparent willingness of the media to give credence to the selective interpretation of the hacked emails that was first splashed around the world.

I have blogged before on why we should not appeal for special treatment for climate science, but there are also specific reasons why I don't agree that the vindication of Professor Phil Jones et al on the substantive issues of their science and integrity amounts to a guilty verdict against the media. It's just not that simple.

Firstly I think it's crucial to emphasise that the UK's specialist science and environment reporters simply did not know whether the references to 'tricks', 'hiding the decline' and keeping some research out of the IPCC's report amounted to an orchestrated attempt to distort and exaggerate the case for man-made climate change. What's more, many of their editors, sceptical by nature, were not in the mood to give their specialists the benefit of the doubt. A febrile mood developed in some newsrooms, with specialist reporters under pressure to prove that they had not gone native and got this story seriously wrong.

Compounding this was the lack of a detailed rebuttal and explanation from Jones himself and others at UEA. While many have suggested that this vacuum was disastrous, it's not hard to see how it happened. Jones was coping with the news that he had been the victim of a crime with international implications, and the University has now admitted that their own shock at the contents and the need to verify the accuracy of the emails contributed to their delayed response.

And on top of that the entire story was breaking just days before the Copenhagen summit. Many news organisations had so much journalistic fire-power directed at Copenhagen that they struggled to find the journalists to read and scrutinise the emails - hence the Guardian bringing in veteran environment reporter Fred Pearce.

Either way the world's media were largely left to their own devices in establishing whether or not these emails amounted to the conspiracy that was being alleged. Given what they could have meant about the most important science story of our age, I would suggest that ignoring or downplaying this story was not an option and would have done climate science no favours.

Obviously this was frustrating for Myles Allen and the many other climate scientists who were familiar with Phil Jones and the work of CRU. They knew what three reviews have now found: that these researchers were known for their scientific integrity and, far from exaggerating their findings and courting media attention, had tended to be cautious in their interpretation of their data and shunned the media spotlight.

While some scientists came out early on to defend the strength of climate science, the responsibility for verifying these emails, working out what they meant scientifically and putting them into some kind of context fell largely to the UK's science and environment journalists. Aware that the emails were being seized on by the most vocal critics of climate science to drive home their message that climate change is a huge hoax, these journalists none the less had to make judgements about where and how to cover this story in the absence of the detailed answers that only Phil Jones and his colleagues could provide.

Ask any of the science and environment journalists who first reported this story whether they got everything right and they will be the first to say no. Under fire from the sceptics for not doing more and the scientific community for doing too much, and under the watchful gaze of editors, specialist reporters worked hard to report this messy, complex and important story accurately and proportionately. Of course there were exceptions. Some newspapers could hardly hide their glee and we saw the kind of lurid headlines that all stories attract in the midst of a feeding frenzy, but on the whole the early reporting was a serious attempt to get to grips with the seemingly alarming facts by a largely responsible group of specialist reporters. The argument put by some scientists that the media should have held off reporting this story until the official enquiries rolled in is just totally unrealistic. Of course we would all love a media that waited a little longer for solid facts to emerge, and no journalist should have declared Phil Jones guilty in those early days. But if we consistently applied this idea we would be asking the media not to report the oil spill in the Gulf or the MPs expenses scandal. We would be asking the media not to be the media.

The other thing that critics of the media coverage of UEA miss is that it provided huge opportunities for climate scientists. The SMC was alerted to the UEA story in the very early days after a call from James Randerson on the Guardian asking for individual reactions from climate researchers and a comment piece to go alongside his news report. This appetite for reaction from the scientific community has continued apace over the past six months and the SMC has never before been so successful at placing opinion pieces from scientists on relatively arcane issues like peer review and scientific uncertainty. Thoughtful scientists like Professors Bob Watson, John Beddington, Alan Thorpe, Mike Hulme, Dr Chris Huntingford and others have been invited to play a prominent role in the media debate and have risen to the challenge. Indeed Myles Allen has been encouraged by the Guardian to vent his wrath at their coverage in print and in public debate.

And the journalists too have done their bit to put the UEA emails into a broader context. Despite the particular criticisms heaped on Fred Pearce, the specialist climate reporter who wrote so much copy for the Guardian that it has now been published as a book, close reading shows that throughout his reports Pearce was at pains to refer to the balance of evidence on climate change, the context in which emails were sent and the long and painful background to what he describes as 'Climate Wars'. Many specialists attempted their own analysis of the most contentious emails, and, way before the official enquiries had reported, many journalists had explained that a 'trick' simply meant a clever - and legitimate - way of doing something rather than a deception. And as the UEA emails merged with IPCC errors to create the predictable 'Climate-Gate', editorials started to appear concluding that the media too has a responsibility to get better at reporting the uncertainties. The SMC's founding philosophy was to encourage scientists to see science in the headlines as an opportunity as well as a threat, and I predict that future analyses of the UEA story will show that it was far from all bad for the scientific community.

The final thing I would say to anyone singling out the media's coverage of UEA for criticism is that it suggests that the media reporting of climate change before UEA was always balanced and proportionate. It was not. There have been too many stories on climate science in the past few years where the caveats, uncertainties and nuances expressed by scientists have failed to make it into the next day's headlines. Such was the appetite for alarmist coverage of climate change that at one stage new research that could not be reported under a banner of 'worse than previously expected', 'beyond the tipping point' or 'catastrophic climate change' would struggle to get covered. One respected think tank described the coverage as 'climate porn' and a variety of academics published studies showing that the exaggerated framing may have the effect of putting people off taking action to tackle climate change. The best climate researchers have always been uncomfortable with the simplistic presentation of climate research in the media but, with the exception of UEA's Professor Mike Hulme, few have said so publicly. One of the results of that silence has been that the scientific community now stand accused of glossing over the uncertainties in climate science with the Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Sir John Beddington appealing to scientists to communicate uncertainty more openly. Most climate researchers do emphasise these uncertainties when publishing their work and speaking to each other. But it is also true that some scientists were prepared to go along with the media's playing down of uncertainties because they feared that too much emphasis on the remaining uncertainties would dilute the message or be seized on by their critics - a position which many now accept has backfired.

Nobody embroiled in climate science has enjoyed all aspects of the media's coverage of UEA, and the whole saga is well described by Fred Pearce as a human tragedy. But I have now chaired the press briefings of all three inquiries into what went wrong. The same journalists that brought us the grim headlines about the story of UEA emails have now delivered the headlines about the exoneration of their authors. That the media coverage of UEA revealed no smoking gun is not an argument against the media's interrogation of the emails - it is an argument in favour of the scientific research discussed in those emails which has stood the test of the most enormous scrutiny. Research that Phil Jones will now hopefully be allowed to continue!