Our Media Fails Us, at Fast and Slow Pace, on Climate

On Black Friday, the federal government (reluctantly, it seems worth noting under the Trump administration) released the Fourth National Climate Assessment. The report was released a few weeks early from its initial planned release at the fall 2018 meeting of the American Geophysical Union, a major scientific society focusing on the Earth sciences. This has been rightfully spotlighted as perhaps one of the most glaring examples of a Friday news dump in the Trump administration, given President Trump’s hostility to most climate and environmental policy. Then again, August 25, 2017 was also considered an egregious dump  – as Politico, The Atlantic, Washington Post, and many others reported at the time – so there’s a lot to put in perspective.

While I think it is right to point out this is a Friday news dump, a lot of the comments I see from both media figures and advocates rankles me here. The comments aren’t that the NCA is going to get lost in the news cycle; the concern is that it won’t receive adequate coverage at all to the broader public. But I don’t really see a developed point about WHY that should be true. Sure, people don’t read much news on holiday weekends – but they pick up the news again within a day or two. If someone sees a hypothetical article about the NCA on Monday morning or watches a news clip on it at lunch, it will be new to them if they haven’t read/watched/heard news all weekend. Fresh coverage of the NCA during this week would literally be the opposite of the common sense of “news fatigue” in politics, especially when following everything Trump does or doesn’t do (or trying not to follow it). (Or you can just black out the world.)

To me, this reads as our political and media classes just admitting failure in trying to adequately cover things that don’t fit into an instant 24 hour news cycle. (A news cycle that barely anyone but politics junkies follow in detail.) The NCA isn’t a singular event or press conference. The release happens once, but the contents of the assessment are the culmination of work and study going back to the Obama administration and have literally epochal consequences for our species. Can our media seriously not think of a way to make this have news relevance beyond the first 48 hours the document was released? If they can’t, I don’t think they take climate change or the environment much more seriously than our federal politicians do.

The NCA represents thousands of labor-hours of work (over 1000 people worked on it across a dozen agencies) on a pressing issue and it deserves thorough coverage, regardless of when it is released. Which is to say, that yeah, I get that it can seem kind of boring and so it can be hard to reach people. As I’m writing in another draft post, the combination of “large government bureaucracy” and “science” is not the dream topic most people will rush to learn more about. But that’s not an excuse to skip out on the work, especially when the point of news is to educate and inform the public.

This sort of reminds me of the criticism that Last Word on Nothing (a collaborative science writing blog) received when several of its contributors gave pretty stereotypical answers for why they hated writing about physics. I saw a revival of that dust-up a year ago when a science writer on Twitter said they appreciated that gravitational waves won the Nobel in physics because they hated having to explain topics from nuclear or materials physics to people. But gravitational waves only recently became a thing with good explanations for the general public. I remember when I was interested in astronomy in high school, you could barely find anything that went in detail in a non-technical way. Heck, check out a 2010 version of the Wikipedia page on gravitational waves and see how different it is from the current one. Gravitational waves becoming an “easy” physics concept to explain took years of work by scientists and science journalists and communicators to figure out better ways of describing it to broader audiences. It also required dedication to build up on previous explanations until it hit some critical level of pop cultural diffusion where you could expect enough people to remember what gravitational waves are or why they’re studied. And scientists, journalists, and communicators spent that time because they knew the topic of gravitational waves would be important to the public one day. If we’re not willing to make that commitment and spend that kind of time on something as important as helping the public understand climate change, that worries me. And it also makes me think of Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s recent tweet on the treatment of science in many political publications. We won’t be able to envision better futures and talk about how to achieve them if we can barely make space to talk about the one we’re de facto choosing by our inaction.

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