How to beat the media in the climate street fight

Forest scientist Simon Lewis in Nature: “Researchers must take a more aggressive approach to counter shoddy journalism and set the scientific record straight”

What lessons are there for scientists in politically charged areas who find themselves in a similar position? Do your research. What is the reporter’s track record? Anticipate that every sentence you say or write may be dissected and interpreted in the least charitable manner possible. And if things go wrong, seek advice from public-relations experts, and where necessary, media lawyers. In my experience, science-media professionals are almost as lost as scientists themselves, when dealing with topics as emotive as climate change.

That’s tropical forest researcher and Royal Society research fellow Simon Lewis in a column in the journal Nature this week, “How to beat the media in the climate street fight.”  Lewis’s headline refers to the early editorial in Nature“Scientists must now emphasize the science, while acknowledging that they are in a street fight.”

Here’s the full column:

When science hits the news, researchers often moan about the quality of the coverage. A sharp reminder of the issue rolls round this month “” the anniversary of the global media frenzy over the release of e-mails from climate researchers at the University of East Anglia, UK. So what should scientists do when reporting quality falls off a cliff? Earlier this year, I was seriously misrepresented by a newspaper and thrown into a political storm. Rather than take it lying down, I set the record straight. It has been an odd journey, and I think there are lessons for how we scientists should deal with the media.

In January, the absurd claim from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035 launched a hunt to find other exaggerated risks of climate change. A British blogger, Richard North, found an IPCC statement that part of the Amazon rainforest may be at risk from droughts, referenced to an environment group’s report, not the scientific literature. North dubbed it Amazongate, and told the world that the IPCC view “seems to be a complete fabrication”.

As a tropical-forest expert, I found my telephone ringing for three days. Journalists asked me to comment on the IPCC line that “up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation”. My short answer was that in context, the statement was broadly correct; but the wording was not careful, and the IPCC should have cited the primary literature. My comments were broadcast across the BBC, but for most news outlets it was a non-story.

The Sunday Times saw it differently. Its reporter, Jonathan Leake, asked both leading and genuinely inquisitive questions. I sent him scientific papers, and we discussed them. He agreed to read the finished piece to me over the telephone before publication. It stated, correctly, that the future of the Amazon is very uncertain, because the available data are limited. I was quietly pleased that I had ‘spun’ what I saw as a blogger’s anti-IPCC tirade into a story about the science. Yet I was wrong. The newspaper headline was “UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim”, and worse, I was the expert quoted to support it. The article had been completely rewritten, essentially parroting North’s blog, to include new quotes from me (genuine, but heavily edited and misleadingly taken out of context), and fabricated assertions about my views. An accompanying editorial called for the IPCC chairman to resign.

I was furious. Worse, the two conflicting versions of my views “” on the BBC and in The Sunday Times “” constituted a serious affront to my professional credibility. But what could I do? I added a comment under the online version of the article that my views were not accurately reported, and sent a letter for publication to The Sunday Times.

Weeks later the misleading article had been reproduced over 20,000 times on the Internet. My letter had been ignored and website comment deleted. Furthermore, my words and standing as an expert were being used by other newspapers to allege widespread corruption by IPCC scientists. As an Editorial on climate disinformation in this journal said at the time: “Scientists must now emphasize the science, while acknowledging that they are in a street fight.” I needed to fight back.

After advice from a friend in public relations and press officers at scientific organizations, I filed an official complaint to the Press Complaints Commission, the UK media watchdog. The commission could order the newspaper to print a correction, but would that happen and was it enough? I needed to make the complaint itself a story.

I contacted The Guardian newspaper, which published an article about my complaint. To reach the US audience, I handed the full complaint as an exclusive to perhaps the world’s most influential political climate-change blog, Joe Romm’s

JR:  See Exclusive: Forest scientist fights back against ‘distorted’ UK article on Amazon and IPCC and Exclusive audio: Sunday Times tells Simon Lewis, “it has been recognised that the story was flawed.”

For a scientist to take such an active media role was unorthodox, but it felt good. And it worked. It was widely recognized that the story was wrong and I had been badly treated. The New York Times featured me in a front-page article.

The Sunday Times offered to publish a single-line apology. I knew others had extracted greater concessions and kicked harder. It eventually agreed to remove the article from its website, and replace it with a formal correction and apology, also printed prominently in the newspaper. The retraction was reported around the world.

Environmental commentators hailed the apology as vindication for the IPCC (which it wasn’t quite, as its statements were not faultless). Climate sceptics launched a counter-attack by claiming that no apology was due because the IPCC statement was not perfect. But for me the storm had passed.

What lessons are there for scientists in politically charged areas who find themselves in a similar position? Do your research. What is the reporter’s track record? Anticipate that every sentence you say or write may be dissected and interpreted in the least charitable manner possible. And if things go wrong, seek advice from public-relations experts, and where necessary, media lawyers. In my experience, science-media professionals are almost as lost as scientists themselves, when dealing with topics as emotive as climate change.

The media dictate what most people know about contemporary scientific debates. Given the need for informed policy, scientists need to learn to better read and engage with this media landscape. Closing the newspaper with a sigh is not enough.

Hear!  Hear!

Or, as conservation ecologist CJA Bradshaw put it in on his blog, ConservationBytes, when he reprinted the column in a piece titled, Appalling behaviour of even the most influential journalists:

Amen, brother.

I’ll say it again – scientists now have the power to fight back directly – you have access to free social media like blogging, Twitter, Facebook and many others. Use them to your advantage and get the CORRECT word out there about the great science you’re doing.

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25 Responses to How to beat the media in the climate street fight

  1. MapleLeaf says:

    Way to go Dr. Lewis, you are an inspiration.

    I think this important point by Joe really needs to be highlighted:

    “Scientists now have the power to fight back directly – you have access to free social media like blogging, Twitter, Facebook and many others. Use them to your advantage and get the CORRECT word out there about the great science you’re doing.”

    Fellow scientists reading this, please, as uncomfortable as it may seem at first, reach out and engage and educate the public, and you can do it on your terms too (e.g., Twitter).

    [JR: It is Bradshaw who wrote that.]

  2. It is stories like this that have me so convinced that media itself is a form of activism.

    How much people power would it have taken to counter this sort of meme that was beaten back through engaging in the “climate street fight” directly through the media? Could any amount of grassroots organizing prevent the decimation of individuals’ and organizations’ credibility like this sort of media organizing could?

    This certainly is not to say that there isn’t a place for on the ground activism vs “butt in chair activism” as Brad Johnson put it when I poised it to him. However, media must carry the message that on the ground activists are pushing for, as they are different tactics as part of the same strategy. It shouldn’t have to be researchers conducting media activism in order to retain their credibility, much less convince policy makers to enact their findings, but that is where we are. If they do not, no amount of grassroots organizing can prevent those findings and researchers at large from being discredited in the fashion described in this post.

    Our media must run parallel with our movements, and until it does, we need to organize our media ourselves in order to persuade properly within our democratic discourse.

  3. Mike Roddy says:

    Scientists at NASA and NOAA need to study this post. I especially like the line that continuing to greet more distorted media coverage with a sigh is not going to work.

    Remember, people cannot see CO2, and global warming is gradual and erratic, if it is perceived at all. This provides an opening for incompetent or commercially compromised reporters to interpret data that they do not fully understand. And the public derives almost all of its information about global warming from media reports, making the quality and accuracy critical.

    Simon learned that the existing infrastructure to correct bad media stories is inadequate, and he had to spend the time to do this himself. Scientists don’t like to do this- you can feel as soiled dealing with media as you can from talking to politicians. They will need to get over this aversion. The incredibly important knowledge they continue to develop carries the responsiblity to communicate it properly, including facing down those who distort their work.

  4. Colorado Bob says:

    The current post at Boing Boing –

    Where climate myths come from

    Has Earth been getting cooler since 1998?

    Aren’t all the planets in our solar system heating up because the sun is getting hotter?

    Both questions are heavily circulated on the Internet. And the answer to both is, “No.” But these ideas came from somewhere. People didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. In this video, Peter Hadfield—a science journalist who’s worked for New Scientist and the BBC—digs into the sources behind two big climate myths and explains how simple misunderstandings end up creating false “facts”, which spread because nobody goes back and looks at the original, peer-reviewed work.

  5. The press (even liberal press) continues to fall into the trap of false equivalence in order to fulfill some need to be balanced.
    Or not, maybe they need the conflict.

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The inevitable result of the mainstream media becoming an oligopoly, completely in the hands of businessmen, [snip] whose only interest in life is profit maximisation. Whereas once, even a few decades ago, the media oligarchs played the ‘free speech’ game, and allowed dissenting opinions from outside a straight Rightwing, market capitalist, the West is the summit of human achievement paradigm, today it is unmitigated and increasingly hysterical,propaganda on all fronts.
    Undoubtedly the bosses thought that, the Cold War having been ‘won’ and the threat of ‘socialism’ consigned to the ‘dust-bin’ of history,they had nothing left to fear,nor any reason to hide their true features. Within years every voice to the Left of Genghis Khan was purged, the ‘fairness principle’ was abolished in the USA by the FCC under Reagan’s orders, and the horrifying, dystopian, moronic and incredibly vicious universe of talk-back bigotry, and FoxNews Orwellianism (Fair and Balanced-it is to laugh!)was unleashed. The role of the media as a brainwashing apparatus has never been revealed more nakedly.
    The mainstream media behaviour concerning anthropogenic climate change has been typical, in other words unscrupulous,unprincipled, dishonest and morally insane. The peddling of lies and misinformation has been relentless, and, in Australia, we have also had to suffer the nauseating spectacle of Rupert Moloch’s local FoxNews clone, ‘The Australian’, the very epicentre of local denialism, claiming, with hypocrisy way beyond anything even Orwell could have imagined, that they have been the only ‘balanced’ voice in the debate. As Uncle Adolph said, and as my father used to repeat ad delirium ‘If you’re going to tell a lie, tell a Big One’. The sane and rational and humane fraction of humanity, which I trust remains a majority,is in a fight to the death (literally for our species) with creatures who lost their souls, sold to Mammon and Ego,long ago.

  7. Catchblue22 says:

    In terms of this fight, I think it is useful to look back to past scientific battles. I find the history of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution quite instructive. Thomas Henry Huxley was nicknamed Darwin’s Bulldog for his vigorous defence of Darwin’s theory. We are fighting deeply irrational forces. The answer, I believe is to confront our opponents with vigorously rational responses.

  8. Frank Zaski says:

    We need to:
    Make a preemptive strike by sending articles and canned global warming story lines to EVERY media in the country. Story lines writers can modify a bit and publish.
    Issue versions and updates every week. A wise PR executive said you have to feed the media each week or they will start concentrating on the competition.
    Add versions by state or region for local appeal and more personal impact.
    Many articles could address the denier’s favorite claims, one by one and collectively.
    Create a library of easy to find, clip and send paragraphs on specific global warming points and each denial issue.
    Make this list available so that individual environmentalists can easily send one, two, or more to a writer, the editor, announcer, station manager, etc.
    List daily on the web media targets so that many of use can take 5 minutes and respond by flooding them with real facts and information.
    Have a list of articulate climate scientists available who can be quickly answer media requests.

  9. Paulm says:

    I think scientist often haven’t themselves got a firm grip of the risk involved with this climate warming issue. They keep hedging on the hopeful, rather than laying out what the consequences really are, barring some miracle political or otherwise.

    The truth is grim and this is what should be communicated in a responsible manner. There should be no ambiguity, for instance, that we are toast at 2c and that 2+c is the reality. This is the future we should accept it and start adapting to it . Addapting to it also means CO2 reduction as fast as possible.

    Scientist have to be honest with themselves as well as with us.

  10. Nick Palmer says:

    Well done Mr Lewis. In a street fight the person who plays by the Queensberry rules will lose. That is why politely countering Gish Gallop lies and disinformation is a losing strategy. When Joe told the interviewer that Marc Morano was just making stuff up, it was a very powerful moment. I think he should have done it louder and more forcefully and also should have highlighted, to the watching public, the misleading Gish Gallop rhetorical techniques that Morano was using.

    The public doesn’t like to think it is being fooled by smart people so they are very vulnerable to slick types like Morano who keep telling them that they are being fooled by smart non-slick people who, nevertheless, can be apparently shamed in debate by a “straight talking man of the people”.

    Scientists and presenters of the scientific case really need to get tougher and start turning the spotlight on the bullshit, the deceit and the malignant stupidity of the professional deniers.

    A good rhetorical technique when faced with a Morano type would be to turn to camera and ask the viewers to think about the consequences if you or the Morano type were wrong yet you had persuaded the world that action should be taken/no action should be taken and invite them to imagine their children’s future.

    Morano type wrong: Hell and high water, probably for thousands of years. Fossil fuel peaks and declines and civilisation also rapidly goes downhill declines for a different reason

    You wrong: Egg on science’s face. Freedom from the consequences of declining fossil fuel; independence from foreign energy suppliers

    Ask the audience what course of action seems most sensible – who would they prefer to be right so that the best strategy was adopted – ask them if they feel lucky?

  11. John Mason says:

    Excellent piece. He is quite right. I became so frustrated with this “false balance” nonsense a while back that I penned the following brief piece of attempted satire:

    “An urgent call for a public enquiry was echoing around the internet this morning following the revelation that some simple mathematical equations that guide UK policy across a wide spectrum of areas might be flawed and the flaw deliberately concealed. For many years, it has been accepted by the establishment that if you add two and two together, you get four. But emails hacked from a leading UK university’s maths department show, it has been alleged, that this is far from established fact. “It’s just a theory, nothing more than that”, one commentator said. Another added, “You can do anything with numbers, get any result you goddam like”, whilst a third said “they probably do make four, but it’s only a small number and there are bigger things to worry about”.

    A university spokesman wearily explained to me that the overwhelming consensus among mathematicians was that two and two indeed did make four, had done so for a very long time and that sceptic claims of some of the twos being written in bold or italics had absolutely no bearing on the outcome. Meanwhile, in a related development, the BBC has come in for criticism for giving airtime to a prominent sceptic, who said on this morning’s Today programme that, in the case of two and two, the maths was far from settled and that it could quite possibly make five. The BBC defended their position, stating that their inclusion of the sceptic argument was “in the interests of balance”. But academics say that the situation is too dangerous to allow any more confusion of what should be acknowledged as settled elementary mathematics. One pointed out that this could otherwise have severe and unpredictable consequences for many people, from darts players to banking executives, “and especially darts players, as their ability to add numbers up correctly is an essential skill in their career development”.

    All the best – John

  12. Susan Anderson says:

    This is very sad. Scientists have better things to do with their time. And if the shills are not paid, they must be independently wealthy or have a lot of time on their hands. Today I’ve been trying to get past the indefatigable denial machine on DotEarth but no comment is ever left unanswered. In my case, I have chosen this battle and sometimes can find time to engage in it.

    But we need our scientists to be allowed to do their jobs. That’s what they trained for and that’s what they are paid to do, though the implication by wealthy interests’ shills that their pay is in the same scale as the money flying around from entrenched fossil fuel interests is nonsensical.

    Nonetheless, I am extremely grateful to Simon Lewis for his efforts. It’s just that those 20,000 citations are still out there and still being used to confuse the ignorant; even the removal of the lies is used as an argument about insider influence.

  13. New name for deniers/skeptics

  14. Mitch Golden says:

    I think it is worth pointing out that the Sunday Times in the UK is a Murdoch paper. This sort of thing is not an accident and may very well have come higher up in the editorial chain than the particular writer.

    One should be aware of who one is talking to, and the likelihood that they will have an agenda to distort what you’re saying.

  15. I love the satire.

    But seriously, this is a battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary people. With so much at stake, we should not lie down and ignore the media. I applaud the blogosphere for having the temerity to hang on and fight.

    The real problem is that we are running out of time. Action needed to start decades ago, but of course, we have to keep fighting because every delay commits more of our future to the dust bin.

    Keep up the good work Joe

  16. Daniel J. Andrews says:

    Colorado Bob–thanks for the link to the Peter Hadfield video. Hadn’t seen his videos before and I will have to check out his other ones now.

  17. Jeff Huggins says:

    Vital and Timely (and Fair) Questions About The Media

    I don’t know—so I pose the question—which of the following statements are true?

    1. News media organizations, their owners, their leaders, and many of their professionals do not understand and appreciate the role and immense influences the news media have in modern society.

    2. They do not understand the responsibilities that attend that role and those influences.

    3. They do not understand what those responsibilities entail.

    4. They are ignorant of how to fulfill those responsibilities effectively.

    5. They are ignorant, even, of how to avoid substantially undermining the fulfillment of those responsibilities and of how to at least avoid doing actual harm.

    6. They lack the courage, creativity, or will to do the things necessary in order to fulfill those responsibilities.

    One thing is clear: The news media are failing the American public, American society, and humankind. Thus, at least one or more of the above statements must be true, and very substantially so.

    Which ones? And how do we face and address the problem asap?

    These are questions that we should be asking and that the news media should be asking themselves, soon.

    Be Well,


  18. David Smith says:

    Jeff @ 12 – While all 6 seem to play a role, I believe that #6 Is crucial – Lack of personal courage, creativity and will to meet their responsabilities. Translated… cowardice and stupidity. They do not realize the havoc they may be reeking on the world by their thoughtlesness.

  19. Sailesh Rao says:

    Richard Dawkins said,

    “Science boosts its claims to the truth by its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command…”

    In that one sentence, he captured the fundamental axioms of the culture of industrial civilization, that of dominion over and disconnectedness from Nature. In this, our dominant culture today, Nature is primarily viewed as a passive resource pool for human consumption.

    Unfortunately, these fundamental axioms are utterly false. The dominion over Nature is patently absurd as human impotence in the face of Hurricane Katrina, the Pakistani floods or species extinctions illustrate. Disconnectedness is also an illusion as many traditional cultures have known for several millennia. Nature always reacts to every human act since actions have consequences. Unfortunately, climate scientists are now facing the unenviable task of convincing those who were raised in this culture that its main pillars are false. In Climate change, matter and energy are about to unleash their reaction to industrial civilization’s 250 year “resource usage” of the planet and climate scientists now have to convince humanity that Richard Dawkins’s boast is empty.

    Regardless of how the media reports, it is understandably difficult for the brush clearing, wolf hunting, rugged individualists of the US to swallow this overturning of their main cultural pillars.

  20. Roger says:

    Climate street fight? Beat the media? Shoddy journalism?

    What has changed? Chop off a dragon’s head and three take its place.

    You are not fighting the media, but the whole public. People don’t want truth, only words that make them feel good for doing nothing. The news media knows this. Why else would they go to such lengths to distort and fabricate? For example, California’s stated goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. But they dare not reveal how that will happen, or the news media would have a heyday and the locals would promptly flush that goal down the toilet. All other climate change proposals in this country are safely swirling in the cesspool.

    Keep working at it though. Maybe someday the public will listen when The[ir] River Runs Black.

  21. Roger says:

    Jeff Huggins @17 says: “The news media are failing the American public, American society, and humankind.”

    On the contrary; see Roger @20. The news media is catering to the will of the American public. Failing humankind? Yes.

  22. GasMan says:

    I am a vehement supporter of climateprogress and clean energy legislation. I think it is the most important issue facing the human race today. But in 2010 this issue in congress would have devastated the democrats in Congress, more so than what we saw on 11/2. In effect The American public has lost sight of this issue. Climate deniers have done a much better job with their message than we have.

  23. Colorado Bob says:

    David @ 16 –

    Me neither , he does a very good job.

  24. Dave E says:

    Excellent piece, but I was a little troubled by the statement “…hailed the apology as vindication for the IPCC (which it wasn’t quite, as its statements were not faultless).” I think it is very hard for a scientist to make statements without qualifications–unfortunately, the general public does not seem to understand these qualifications and jumps on them as reasons to invalidate the entire argument. Wasn’t the ealier comment that the IPCC statement was “broadly correct” sufficient? Dropping the parenthetical expression would remove the possibility of deniers quoting that out of context and just make the argument that much stronger (unless, of course, if complicates your relations with other scientists).

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