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Publishers’ guide to accurate scientific reporting | What’s New in Publishing

How to find reputable, easy-to-understand reports on climate change

Three-quarters of adults in the UK worry about climate change, so it’s paramount for media outlets to produce reliable, accurate content. However, for journalists without a scientific background, it can be difficult to decide which science will hold up to scrutiny, and how best to report on the scientific method. Here Charlie Rapple, chief customer officer and co-founder of scientific research communication company Kudos, offers some advice.

According to Christian Broughton, managing director of The Independent, there have been three phases of climate journalism in the British media. The first focused on the reliability of scientific claims, the second on the detail and data, such as the impacts of global warming by 1.5 degrees versus 2 degrees, and the current: “what are we going to do about it?” phase. 

In the current phase, the stories shared often seem depressing, politicised and difficult to understand. However, the public is becoming increasingly interested in climate change and its effects, making it even more important for media outlets to produce regular updates.

An uphill battle

Today’s publishers are operating in a difficult era of climate misinformation and fake news. Not only must they contend with the complexities of the science, but it is becoming more difficult than ever to trust the sources. According to IPCC experts, the media representation of climate science has become more accurate over time, but there are occasions of misleading information with negative implications for climate policy.  This is most apparent on social media.

For example, results found in AVVAZ’s 2021 report on How Facebook Fails to Keep Up with the Evolving Tactics of Today’s Climate Misinformers showed that “climate misinformers have shifted to “lukewarmers” — individuals who agree that climate change is real, while pushing narratives to climate deniers that risk undermining effective policy action. These policy positions are often supported by outright falsehoods, cherry-picked data, and misleading claims.”

Research shows that fake news often spreads faster than true news online. Once published, it is often spread through circular reporting and social media, where one source publishes misinformation and is cited and shared by other news outlets. A 2018 MIT study analysed news over a period of eleven years and found that fake news and rumours were 70 percent more likely to be shared, while true stories took six times longer to reach 1,500 people. Whether there is an intent to deceive or not, misinformation undermines the credibility of media reporting and can confuse the public. 

Finding reputable data

Giving the public quality evidence helps them form opinions grounded in science. However, it’s hard for journalists to know where to look for reputable research articles. This is because science is published across a wide range of academic publications and typically sits behind paywalls. 

When looking at research, some key questions to ask are: What sources have been cited for the facts given? Is there any involvement with academic organisations? Does the paper suggest an agenda, or can you trust them to be impartial?

According to the University of Guelph library, analysing research can be broken down into three steps:

  1. Identify how and why the research was carried out: what was the objective of the study and what methods were used to attract results. Also look at how much data was collected and interpreted and how that related to the original hypothesis or problem
  2. Establish the research context: this involves looking at the person or people that conducted the research, their interests and their reasons for doing it. Journalists can also look at respondents’ characteristics i.e age, location to see how broad the demographics were
  3. Evaluate the research: when analysing research, it’s not all about looking for mistakes or falsehoods in the report. It’s more about assessing the strengths and weaknesses or the report and drawing a conclusion on whether the source can be trustworthy or not. 

Understanding the science

Climate scientists often criticize journalists for sharing misleading articles about the current situation, but the blame isn’t always solely on the journalist. Research is often difficult for a non-academic to understand, which increases the likelihood of misinterpreting findings — scientific reports are written for other scientists and not the untrained eye. 

To maximize the benefits of having such research on hand, there needs to be more effort to communicate science both across and sectoral boundaries — making sure it is found, understood and applied by media, healthcare practitioners, policymakers and others. 

Plain language summaries of research for example, can be particularly helpful in the scientific communication process, giving journalists the top-level information needed to make reporting decisions. Bringing summaries together in one place and sharing them with publishing houses will allow the media to showcase the latest research, and be confident that it is reputable.

Armed with better understanding, publishers can use the important takeaways from the research to make more informed decisions on their writing.

To explore the latest research on climate change, from committing to net zero, to phasing out coal power visit the Kudos’ Climate Change Knowledge Cooperative.

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