Anyone who still holds to the old-fashioned idea that journalists should seek to inform their readers by being inquiring and independent (as well as a pain in the butt at times) will likely weep a little to read the recent thoughts of American journalism professor Renita Coleman. She recommends engaging with ‘climate sceptics’ by cutting out references to ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’, and replacing them with ‘weather’. By these means, she suggests sceptics will seek out news about climate change, and they would be likely to “take steps to help mitigate its damage”.
The idea, of course, is idiotic. It is impossible to write a coherent story about the climate changing over a period, along with temperatures rising or falling, by confusing such trends with one-off weather events. But confusion seems to reign supreme in the academic world inhabited by Professor Coleman. “We need to think a little more nuanced, if you will, about what kinds of things we are doing to make people think we are trying to persuade them when we know we are not,” she adds. Can I leave this with readers to work out what she is saying – it beats me.
As does a sentence in her paper’s abstract that runs: “An experiment shows this frame works by reducing persuasion knowledge and increasing perceived behavioural control, resulting in science sceptics being significantly more likely to intend to take action, engage with the news, and agree with the story’s perspective.”
Nope, still can’t make head or tail, but reference to behavioural control and taking action, along with agreeing with the story so-called perspective, doesn’t inspire confidence. Coleman is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. Before she went into academia, she is said to have had a 15-year career in journalism in North Carolina and Florida. How the copies of the Raleigh News and Observer and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune must have flown off the shelves, back in the day.
Professor Coleman wrote her recent paper with another journalism professor, Esther Thorson from Michigan State. The paper is behind a paywall, although detailed comments were published by NiemanLab, an operation backed by the Nieman Foundation whose stated mission is to promote and elevate the standard of journalism. In addition to the ‘weather’ change, the authors suggest that journalists “avoid mentioning who or what causes climate change”.
Again, old-school journalists might note that just one sentence knocks out two of the five investigatory ‘W’ questions that should be in every writer’s armoury – ‘Who? What? When? Where? Why?’, (I say old-school journalists, but this line of examination can be traced back to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics). Of course it is assumed that human-caused climate change is a settled matter, not to be challenged or investigated in any way. Journalists are told to “focus heavily on solutions, or what the public can do to prepare or adapt to the impacts of climate change”.
In fact the paper proposes radical changes to the way climate change is reported. To date, most mainstream media has elected to spread misinformation, doom and alarm by using phrases such as ‘global heating’ and ‘climate breakdown’. The researchers found that changing language made a difference. “Removing any references to what causes climate change reduced perceptions that the news stories were trying to manipulate or persuade readers,” it was noted. Surely the Washington Post, BBC and Guardian do not try to manipulate their audiences. You could have knocked your correspondent down with a feather.
However, the climate science site Watts Up With That? sees problems for the new approach. Leaving out trigger words like ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ might lead to less engagement among climate alarmists. WUWT proposes a possible solution – maybe journalists need to publish two different versions of the same story. Or can they aim to engage different audiences on different weeks, it asks.
But it concludes: “Here’s a radical thought – perhaps journalists could ease back on the trigger words and other attempts to manipulate the emotions of their audience, and just try presenting the facts.”
Chris Morrison is the Daily Sceptic’s Environment Editor