14 December 2009

Talking about Climate: A Monday Night Town Hall Meeting

Posted by Michael McFadden

What does “model” mean to you? What about “warmth”? “Positive feedback”?

Some words mean widely different things to scientists and non-scientists. Susan Joy Hassol, award-winning communicator, advises climate scientists to avoid such words when talking to non-specialists about research.

Hassol and Kim Curtis of Resource Media addressed some 65 people at a lively town hall meeting Monday night on how to present climate research results effectively.

To people who don’t understand how “models” describe changes in climate, “projections” or “studies” will probably make more sense , Hassol said. “Positive feedback”—not the kind you get from your boss—is really a “self-reinforcing cycle”. If you don’t mean that “enhanced” change is for the better, use “increased.” The result typically comes with a “confidence interval,” not an “error.” “Greenhouse gas” might seem warm and sunny, but it is really a “heat-trapping blanket.”

Many journalists are jaded, skeptical, weary, underpaid generalists who lack the time to make detailed study of a 500-page report or wait for a scientist to get back from vacation. Curtis, who worked as an investigative reporter for 12 years before joining Resource Media, a non-profit communications organization, gave a “Journalism 101 Primer for Scientists.”

When a reporter calls, she said, ask: When is your deadline? What is the story about? Who else have you called? How can I help? And make a plan to call back. Then hang up, jot down some notes, ask advice from a public information officer, and call the reporter back in a timely manner. Set the rules before you start talking, whether “on the record,” “off the record” or “on background.” If talking on the record (and assume that you are, unless you’ve stated otherwise), craft a simple message and repeat it. Rephrase questions if necessary. Tell good stories and make eye contact.

The audience groaned and even shouted at examples of scientists’ statements quoted out of context, and of statements that simply give the wrong impression. A couple of researchers asked how to know when a reporter can be trusted, and struggled to understand whether what they are being taught is “spin.” But many in the audience worked to rephrase examples of misleading and sleep-inducing quotes using the guidelines Hassol and Curtis provided.

A sprinkling of communications professionals in the audience came to check out what miscommunications between journalists and scientists still remain.

–Olga Kuchment, UC Santa Cruz Science Communication Graduate Student