Don't let the juicy get in the way of the important.
Our “Communicating Climate Change” series will examine the challenges involved with writing on climate issues. It will often feature interviews with communicators, like Joe Romm, Kate Sheppard and Andy Revkin.
I will start this post by assuring you that I am well aware of its irony. I am about to advocate an avoidance of media-friendly scandals, and in so doing, will inevitably discuss them. I can live with it if you can. I will link out only sparingly.
Climate-related journalism has been dominated for the last few months by the scientific community equivalent of trashy romance novel plot twists. Overhyped e-mail scandals, questions of scientist misconduct, retracted studies and, believe it or not, even an actual trashy romance novel (couldn't resist that link; he actually wrote about "voluptuous breasts"!). Mix in all these things with the general failure of Copenhagen, a dead-but-not-really-dead-but-probably-mostly-dead climate or energy bill on Capitol Hill and various other tidbits like UNFCCC chief Yvo de Boer's resignation and you get a journalistic train wreck. And yes, I can't take my eyes off of it.
As most who read thoroughly know, all these setbacks to the climate science community have little or nothing to do with the science itself. But since most of the media and even more of the world don't understand that, the media coverage of the trashiness has an effect on the public's perception of what is still pretty much rock solid science. It truly is amazing how much ink (okay, electrons) have been spilled on some of this stuff—honestly, the Guardian needed a twelve-part series on the hacked e-mails story? It isn't hard to understand why the public's confidence in climate science and the "realness" of global warming are diminishing.
One counterbalance to this terrible type of coverage lies in some of the smarter blogs out there, where writers can spend as much time as they want taking down the misinformation or just setting the record a bit straighter when possible. Joe Romm at Climate Progress does this all the time, and thank God we've got RealClimate.org around to deal with things like that Guardian series. Of course, a lot more people read the Guardian than read RealClimate.
I used to be amazed that a scientific topic—what is the climate doing, how will it impact the planet and us, and what can we do to prevent some of those impacts—is generally discussed in almost entirely political fashion. No other realm of science has ever been dropped into the political arena like this one. But now, I'm more amazed that climate science is treated more like tabloid fodder than politics. I suppose the progression was likely, but it is still hard to get one's head around.
The solution, though, is too simple to ever actually happen on a large scale. Just don't cover these things. Fine, the hacked e-mails were worth a look, but once it was established that it really changes nothing, just let the thing go. Elsewhere, we don't need to write a story every time Senator Inhofe goes on another five minute rant in a committee hearing. This isn't news.
Of all the challenges to writing about climate change and related issues, this seems to me to be the simplest one to overcome. All you have to do is not do something. Just try it. It's more fun than you think.