Kategorie: 7 Science journalism

The Biggest Story of the Century:
How to Tell It

Comment to: „The Biggest Story of the Century Needs More Coverage“ by James Fahn on 2018-11-15 in the blog of Scientific American https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-biggest-story-of-the-century-needs-more-coverage/

Dear James,
thanks for sharing your article in Scientific American.
Unfortunately there is no comment function under your article. So I choose this way to comment.

Honest, often, open – and transparent

Rightly you write that „journalists have a responsibility to be honest about our planetary prospects, and to report as often and openly as possible about climate change.“

Despite the fact, that publishers and other media have a much greater responsibility to increase climate and climate policy reporting, it is not honest and not open to frighten people with phrases like „planetary catastrophe“. There will be no doomsday on the day we reach 1.5 degrees C (or 2 degrees C). There will not even be „a single 1.5 degree C world“, as the IPCC authors stress in their special report 15 (SR15), as well as „there is no single answer to the question of whether it is feasible to limit warming to 1.5°C and adapt to the consequences“.

What openness and transparency mean

Source: IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C

It should be part of honest and open reporting to tell people, that the 1.5°C level may be passed already in 2025 according to the model calculations in IPCC SR15, but likely some time between 2030 and 2055. This means, that the earth will not perish in 2040.

In my opinion it is misleading to tell people that climate change cost „the planetary economy an estimated $54 trillion“.

It is perverse, but true: every war, every catastrophe increases the GDP at least of a richer country, creates jobs, and lets the economy roll. Just look at hurricane Katrina 2005 which helped considerably that the construction businesses in Louisiana flourish.

Foto: Neubert

On the other hand, villas and mansions of wealthy families on beaches, luxury office sky scrapers, or inadequately secured construction sites in the rich countries add disproportionally to the price tag. Whereas the death toll paid by the poor is not included. Economic costs contribute nothing to stories about climate issues. They are only important for insurances.

Do not connect things where there is no connection

Another thing: Many of my fellow journalists irresponsibly connect climate change in their stories with the wild fires in the California, Europe and Russia this year. Why did no one explain people that the global area burned appears to have overall declined over past decades, and that there is increasing evidence that there is less fire in the global landscape today than centuries ago! Misleading stories tend to foster availability cascades, leading to false decisions in the end.

You mention the US and Brazilian climate deniers. Well, there are many more of such figures in governments and administrations around the world. But it worries me much more that climate polluters occupy positions as directors in environmental organisations like Erik Solheim of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). You did not mention him, and Margaret Sullivan, who’s article you linked in your piece[ref]Margaret Sullivan (2018-10-08): The planet is on a fast path to destruction. The media must cover this like it’s the only story that matters. The Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com[/ref], even quotes him uncritically. He spent nearly half a million USD within 3 years just for travelling – usually by plane. Fortunately he left his job now.

Do not mourn: Our civilisation is not compatible with nature

You mention Margaret Sullivan’s piece in the Washington Post as: she „explains quite eloquently that our civilisation may be at stake“. Although I cannot interpret her column the same way, it may be true that our civilisation is at stake.

But what does that mean? Scientifically seen, it means that our civilisation is not compatible with nature. In the past we thought that nature is not compatible with our civilisation and we did everything to make nature compatible – with the results we experience today and will experience in the near future. So we need not to mourn our civilisation, better say good bye to it and find a new one.

Admittedly our civilisation has been quite successful in solving human and societal problems. Between 1990 and 2015 the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined by more than half, the proportion of undernourished people in the developing regions has fallen by almost half, the working middle class has almost tripled, child mortality rate has declined by more than half, more than 90 per cent of the global population can use an improved drinking water source today, terrestrial and marine protected areas in many regions have increased substantially (in Latin America and the Caribbean it rose from 8.8 per cent to 23.4 per cent).[ref]UN Millennium Developing Goals 2015[/ref]

However, the poorest and most vulnerable people are still left behind and millions of poor people still live in poverty and hunger, without access to basic services.

Successes for humanity and societies built on CO2

But it is important to tell openly, that the past successes for humanity and societies are built on ever increasing carbon dioxide emissions, which are incompatible with nature.

Thus we cannot avoid that our civilisation will be gone one day making room for a new civilisation. I fear that just changing our existing civilisation will not be enough. The question is: Can we do it now, as long as we have the freedom of choices (democracy), or do we wait until we have no choice at all when nature (and thus physical law) overtakes?

As journalists we have to tell people the full truth, including the options we have, and the options we do not have. Physics will leave us no options. Mathematical models deliver projections, but no predictions or forecasts. That is a very important difference to be considered in all our reporting and stories, but it is too often neglected!

Telling about options within physical boundaries

Therefore we should put more focus on the variables and the uncertainties which climate models produce in order to force our governments to take the right decisions.

Foto: Neubert

For example, just switching from dirty to clean energy in our home country (in my case Germany) is by far not enough. We have to take the carbon footprints into consideration, which our consumer products create in other countries (e.g. China). The increased production of solar and wind power units added considerably to the carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere, and finite resources have been deleted, like Cobalt, Neodym, Indium, Gallium, Tellur, Selen, and others (many from DR Congo!), but also Silver, Aluminium and Copper. Probably it is time to switch off the lights, to scrap our cars (even the electric ones), to ban blockchains (Bitcoin and the like).

For stories about our options for adaption and mitigation such information are of course parts of openness and transparency.

However, it is increasingly possible to attribute weather disasters to climate physics. This research gives us increasingly better tools to convince courts in order to doom governments and administrations. Why do we widely ignore such attempts in our journalism? Such tools are able to empower people and organisations!

Gain more knowledge

My impression after more than 30 years in science journalism is that the knowledge base in physics and mathematics especially within environmental and climate journalism is eroding and replaced by advocacy communication. Having knowledge in biology, ecology is not enough. Even when reporting about climate court rulings, a solid understanding of physics, chemistry and mathematics is inevitable because they are also foundational in lawsuits.

It does not help to grumble and paint doomsday pictures which journalists falsely repeat over and over again. Instead it should be part of an open, comprising, transparent and critical journalism to show the physical options and the borders of our earth system on one side, and the societal actions on the other side in order to help our audiences to find the right tracks and balances, avoiding biases.

Flying by plane to the coming Climate Conference: Shame on you

Finally: I wonder how many journalists and delegates from Europe will take the train or the bus when going to the Climate Conference in Katowice in Poland, which starts in a few days. Katowice is quite in the centre of Europe and very easy to reach by train mostly in less than a day.

Probably many delegates from Sweden will prefer public sea-ground transport, as is becoming a fashion in Sweden, not to fly. Swedes nowadays feel ashamed when they have to admit that they took an airplane (#flygskam). There are even ministers who take the train to Brussels, about 1,500 kilometres away. From my own experience I can say that it is quite comfortable to work on the train. But how did such awareness rose among the citizens in a country? Interesting question…

All the best
/ Hajo

Science Debates:
Journalism or PR?


When proposing science debates as tools, opportunities and even tasks for science journalists, a colleague came up and said scoffingly: »It’s still only PR.«

He was not wrong – considering the currently fashionable science debates. (mehr …)

Debate-Driven Science Journalism

Hanns-J. Neubert (links) und Shawn L. Otto. (Foto: Wolfgang C. Goede)

Hanns-J. Neubert (links) und Shawn L. Otto. (Foto: Wolfgang C. Goede)

Science and research arouse desire. Politicians for example hope for solutions for problem which overstrain them, companies look for ever new innovations for their discontinued models in order to increase profits, and lobby groups want to exert influence because knowledge is power.

But what about the scientists themselves and the citizens?

(mehr …)

Rethinking Science Debates


Pipeline (Photo: btr/Wikimedia)

It looks like science debates have been discovered as another public relation tool for science and technology. Governments, institutes, even research projects contrive debates – basically to gain acceptance from citizens in order to continue undisturbed.

(mehr …)

Bloggers, the better journalists?

Newsroom of Al Jazeera in Doha, Qatar
Photo: Neubert

There is a future for professional journalists. In particular those who have their specialities, like science journalists. There is no reason to complain about the competition of bloggers and the social media networks, to sing the swan-song on journalism. Blogs, Facebook or Twitter are not drivers of news. Instead they are a still small pathways to news published on the home pages of traditional media. Brands are still enjoying the highest credibility, as the US report State of the News Media 2012[1] found out.

(mehr …)

What will power Europe’s future?

Panel during the workshop „What will Power Euroe’s Future?“ From left: Edward Sykes (UK), Viola Egikova (Russia), Barbara Drillsma (UK), Mariko Takahashi (Japan)

The catastrophic failure of the Japanese power plant in Fukushima has divided Europe over the future use of nuclear energy. In almost every country, there have been calls to reassess the risks and benefits of nuclear power and to slow down the construction of new power plants.

The European debate raises some critical, and difficult, questions. Thus Hanns-J. Neubert organised a workshop on 2012-07-15 during the EuroScience Open Forum ESOF2012 that explored the societal, cultural and journalistic concerns. It looked at science journalism coverage of the tensions between science/technology, economical constraints and political purposes using the example of nuclear power and energy in general.
(mehr …)

Taken for a ride?

View of Benidorm from Gran Hotel Bali. Picture: FDV

For our British friends, “Benidorm” is a prime-time sitcom of the British ITV set in Spain1. For all the others it is a holiday resort at the coast of Costa Blanca, half an hour away from Alicante, Spain. It is known for its Manhattan-like skyline, a symbol for the cementation of Spain’s shoreline, for its building and ground speculation scandals since the late 1950s, and a synonym for cheap underclass holidays.

Prize for Environmental Journalism

I was in Benidorm last summer on the occasion of the award ceremony for the First International Prize for Environmental Journalism about the Mediterranean Sea, worth 18,000 EUR – thus a really big one.

The Prize was announced by Casa Mediterraneo, a cultural organisation for networking with all states around the Mediterranean Sea under the umbrella of the Spanish foreign ministry. However, applications were welcomed from all over the world as long as the works deal with the environment of the Mediterranean. It was endorsed by EUSJA member AECC, the Spanish Association of Scientific Communication, and also by the Spanish Association of Environmental Information Journalists – thus an honourable one. EUSJA and the World Federation of Science Journalists WFSJ circulated the call for applications a year before2.

The first prize went to Felix Tena, editor at the Spanish Canal 9 TVV, for its documentary “El Pais de las palmeras” and to Jacopo Pasotti3 for his excellent story “Mare Nero” in National Geographic with his own pictures documenting the oil pollution and the chase for polluters in the Mediterranean Sea. Jacopo Pasotti, writing in several languages, is member of actually two of EUSJA’s associations, the Swiss Club of Science Journalism and the Italian SWIM.

Off the symbol of cementation

I went out to the island off Benidorm in order to gain the full view of the sky-scraping hotels along the two small people covered beach stripes. The view was negatively impressing, but positively impressing was the island itself, a well preserved nature reserve of high ecological value4.

The environmental journalism prize was scheduled to be awarded every two years, with the the award ceremony taking place in Benidorm. Thus this year (2011) Casa Mediterraneo advertised the second round for the prize during the World Conference of Science Journalists WCSJ in Doha, Qatar. There EUSJA board members met the director of Casa Mediterraneo, Yolanda Parrado, the officer responsible for the prize, Elia Carceller, and the mayor of Benidorm, socialist Agustin Navarro. Of course we asked: “Why Benidorm, a resort with quite a low reputation of sustainability?”

Already in 2008 the BBC published a piece entitled “Benidorm – the new face of eco-tourism”5. And now we heard even more astonishing things: Wastewater recycling, energy efficiency, solar power, environmental education, regional food, great nature reserves.

Curious about eco-tourism

Yes, we became curious as we received information demanding more closer looks, promising good stories.

Thus we asked the people from Casa Mediterraneo and the mayor if they would not be interested to show the efforts of Benidorm to become the most sustainable holiday resort in Spain. They promised to consider our proposal.

“Tourism in Benidorm: sustainability with Mediterranean taste” was the title of an urgent study trip invitation sent to the EUSJA delegates on 19 October, as a result of our talks in Doha. But the trip was already scheduled for 27 to 28 October, thus the deadline for an application had to be the next day. EUSJA had never before announced a study trip with such a short deadline.

But the EUSJA journalists showed enormous flexibility as applications rushed in, but only 12 could be considered. Their names were sent to our Spanish host.

The outrageous happens

As soon as Casa Mediterraneo received the names of the EUSJA journalists, immediately 7 were rejected and uninvited – another unparalleled incident in the 40 years long history of EUSJA.

As a reason the organiser said, that no journalists from southern Europe were on the list, and that it now wants to look for other, even non-science journalists on its own.

The EUSJA Board considered this a serious offence against the European science journalists and the European public. For the Board it was absolutely not acceptable that journalists were disregarded this way, and that a lot of time and effort had been trashed. Thus we complained strongly in a letter to the Director of Casa Mediterraneo.

We even asked the selected participants to boycott the trip, if they can still manage it. Some thought about it, but had already reserved newspaper space or airtime for a story.

However, the endeavour to find other journalists from southern European countries seemed to have failed. So two days before departure, the study trip was completely cancelled by Casa Mediterraneo.

Controversial opinions

A lively e-mail discussion among the delegates sprang up. Some complained about the short announcement, while others wrote, that journalists have to be flexible.

One complained that the Board accepted an invitation from a “tourist board” while having no influence on the programme. However, Casa Mediterraneo is not a “tourist board” as mentioned above and the idea for the trip was born during WCSJ in Doha.

Others demurred also of the PR character of the trip. But every study trip has a certain amount of PR messages, even WCSJ was full of such PR messages, as one replied.

There was even a voice that Benidorm is the “opposite to sustainable tourism and the worst you can imagine to be done in an originally very nice Mediterranean village. Benidorm promoting a prize on environmental journalism … seem to me like an contradiction.” But our own researches and talks gave us different pictures – which could have been verified by seeing the place and talking to residents.

A closer look is necessary

Thus it is a pity that EUSJA now missed a quite interesting, maybe also controversial trip. The discussions after the cancellation showed us that prejudices are still governing our minds and prevent us from looking closer at things. “Science journalism critical questioning in the public sphere” is the motto of the next WCSJ 2013. This is just what could have been done during a study trip to a critically discussed tourist resort. We should indeed be more open while at the same time discriminate between PR, sitcoms and facts.

  1. Benidorm, the sitcom: http://www.comedy.co.uk/guide/tv/benidorm/ ↩

  2. Announcing the Environmental Journalism Prize: http://www.wfsj.org/resources/item.php?id=232 ↩

  3. Jacopo Pasotti: http://www.jacopopasotti.com/about.html ↩

  4. Brebbis, C.A., F.D. Pineda (2010): Sustainable Tourism IV (WIT Transactions on Ecology and the Environment): http://amzn.to/uAzbBW ↩

  5. BBC (2008): „Benidorm – the new face of eco-tourism“: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7402603.stm ↩

19. November 2011 Kommentar hinzufügen

The Missing Mediator – Science Debates in a Knowledge Society

Hanns-J. Neubert was organiser and speaker at ESOF on 7 July 2010 in Turin, Italy. He reported about the German Science Debate (Wissenschaftsdebatte), initiated by TELI, and proposed to have science debates all over Europe, which could be facilitated by the European Union of Science Journalists‘ Associations EUSJA through its member organisations in 24 countries.

Speakers: Shawn Otto, Michele Ciavarella, Wolfgang Goede, Hanns-J. Neubert
Moderator: Barbara Drillsma

Neubert’s presentation (PDF)

On air: Do climate sceptics deserve to be part of the climate change debate?

Neubert guest in a BBC radio broadcast talk, 2009-12-08

Listen to clipping (MP3)

BBC World Service: World Have Your Say. More about the programme