Keeping Out of the Box

During three decades spent studying the highly charged issue of climate change, I've not been bashful about offering my scientific conclusions - or even my opinions about appropriate public policy. Acting both as a research scientist and as a policy advocate poses some special challenges, and prominent among them is the matter of dealing with the press.

To my mind, the popular media haven't done the best job of covering the science behind this contentious topic. The roots of their difficulties are easy to understand. The first problem is their need for brevity: They have little time on the air, or space on the page, to delve into details. In addition, in covering controversy, especially when there are polarized political positions, journalists generally strive to report "both sides." Got the Democrat? Better get the Republican, too. Doing so ostensibly provides journalistic balance. But achieving the same evenhandedness in describing complex questions typical of science can be considerably more difficult, because there are rarely two mainstream views on any given subject. There may be a complete spectrum of reasoned opinion - or there may be considerable consensus among knowledgeable experts, with the only dissenting voices coming from a few extremists or special interests.

Still, many reporters have been trained to "get both sides." So by agreeing to an interview, a scientist risks getting his or her views stuffed into one of two boxed storylines. In the case of my specialty, climate change, it's either "you're worried" or "it will all be okay." In talking to reporters, I routinely discuss a wide range of possibilities.