21 February 2013

An Example of Good Science Journalism

Posted by Dan Satterfield

This is a repost from the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media-

Less Snow but More Blizzards…

AP’s Explanatory Journalism Trumps ‘Brazen Contradiction’

AP science reporter Seth Borenstein sets a high bar for explanatory journalism with piece on how declining snowfall and a heavy blizzard can both be linked to a warmer climate.

“Scant snowfall and barren ski slopes.”

And “a whopper of a blizzard.”

It’s what climate skeptics see as “a brazen contradiction” when experts point to climate change as a factor in both. Climate change causes everything, even extreme opposites, they like to object.

The issue calls out loud for what journalism students were taught constitutes “explanatory journalism.”

There’s no hard fast-breaking news story commanding column inches or air time. There’s no “peg – for instance a key anniversary – propelling the news machine. What there must be instead is a reporter capable of ferreting-out the facts, and editors willing to provide the space and time to do so.

AP’s Washington, D.C.-based science correspondent, Seth Borenstein, showed how it’s done in a February 18 wire service article of fewer than 1,000 words. Addressing the seeming “contradiction,” Borenstein explained that “the answer lies in atmospheric physics. A warmer atmosphere can hold, and dump, more moisture, snow experts say.” He pointed to upcoming studies making the case that “here can be more giant blizzards yet less snow overall each year.”

Borenstein cited data bearing out this hypothesis. He reported that a Rutgers University group has found Northern Hemisphere snow cover having declined by one-million square miles over the past 45 years. Another study, he wrote, has computer models predicting annual global snowfall will shrink over the next 50 years by more than a foot, with parts of the U.S. “likely to see annual snowfall drop between 30 percent and 70 percent” by 2100.

“Shorter show season, less snow overall, but the occasional knockout punch” is how Princeton University scientist Michael Oppenheimer sums-up the situation. “That’s the new world we live in,” Borenstein quotes him as saying. He quotes other respected scientists – for instance National Snow and Ice Data Center Director Mark Serreze – as supporting that view.

Less snow overall but some “whoppers,” Borenstein explains. “Increasingly, it seems that we’re on that ragged edge,” Serreze told him.

“When those big storms finally hit, there is more than just added moisture in the air; there’s extra moisture coming from the warm ocean,” Borenstein wrote, summarizing the views of two climate scientists who spoke with him about the would-be “contradiction.”

“It fits the pattern we expect to unfold,” Oppenheimer said in summing things up.

Not so much a contradiction after all, it turns out. But only with the kind of explanatory journalism exemplified in this case by Borenstein and AP – and increasing viewed as something of an endangered species in today’s shrinking newsrooms – can the possible confusion be clarified.

It’s the kind of reporting that has made Borenstein a preferred punching bag among many committed “skeptics,” while at the same time earning him the respect of many of his journalism peers.

Too bad there’s not a lot more of it.