April 1, 2017— In 2013’s Informing the News, the eminent journalism scholar Thomas Patterson comprehensively reviewed the evidence in support of the well-worn criticisms of our contemporary news system. Journalists too often: give equal weight to accurate representations and faulty facts and flawed opinions, focus on conflict and strategy over substance, and favor personalities, dramatic events, and infotainment over big picture analysis and context. These trends are unlikely to change unless journalists more deeply understand the subjects they cover and how their stories can affect societal decisions, he concluded. Patterson called for a new “knowledge-based journalism” in which reporters excelled not only at interviewing, investigating, and storytelling but also in applying relevant specialized expertise. “If news is to be a means of getting people to think and talk sensibly about public affairs, it needs to contain the contextual information that enables citizens to make sense of events” he urged.
The challenge for news organizations, argued Patterson, is not to cater to audience interests but to take important issues such as climate change and make them interesting. News organizations investing in knowledge-based journalism are more likely to produce content that audiences search for and recommend to others. Such high quality content can help repair news organizations’ sagging reputations and boost their finances by giving an outlet enduring relevance and audience share in an ultra-competitive world of many online choices, he argued.
From across the Atlantic, the late German communication researcher Wolfgang Donsbach echoed Patterson’s call for journalism to stake out its role as society’s “new knowledge profession.” A specialized understanding of an expert field enables journalists to make “sound judgments on the newsworthiness of events,” he wrote. “Only then can they ask critical questions to the actors, find the right experts, and only then can they resist infiltration of non-professional factors into their decision-making.” Not only is “content” knowledge of a subject such as economics or environmental science needed, argued Patterson and Donsbach, but so too is “process” knowledge. This second dimension includes recognition of the factors that influence journalists’ news judgments, as well as the effects of news coverage decisions on audiences. Process knowledge can, for example, be applied by journalists to guard against personal biases and mistakes, to choose among different storytelling techniques that more effectively engage audiences, and to take advantage of various digital tools to enhance understanding and reach.
Building on these seminal ideas, in a 2015 essay we identified specific knowledge-based journalistic practices and media structures that might enable more constructive debate in science controversies. In doing so, we introduced three complementary models for doing knowledge-based journalism on which we elaborate in this chapter: the knowledge broker, dialogue broker, and policy broker. By combining these approaches in coverage of politicized debates, journalists and their news organizations can contextualize and critically evaluate expert knowledge and competing claims, facilitate discussion that bridges entrenched ideological divisions, and promote consideration of a broader menu of policy options and technologies.
To further illuminate these models, in this chapter we draw on examples of veteran journalists whose work can serve as an inspiration for new generations of professionals. Because they are experts in their fields and have years of experience covering relevant topics or beats, these veteran journalists are able to fuse complex knowledge and on-the-ground reportage into a storyline that is clear, readable, and engaging to a broader audience. They connect the dots for readers, offering a wider lens, bigger picture, and evaluation of complex ideas and fast-moving trends. As knowledge-based journalists they often engage in deductive analysis across cases and issues, working from the top down, drawing connections, making inferences, theorizing about causes and solutions, and offering judgments. They combine the habits of mind of a scholar with the skills of a master storyteller, providing the context and explaining the ideas that enable citizens to make sense of complex science controversies and trends.
In the first model, journalists play an essential role as “knowledge brokers,” unpacking the process of expert knowledge production for their readers, examining how and why scientific research was done, sometimes positing alternative interpretations or drawing connections to ongoing debates about a complex problem such as mental health, climate change, or infectious disease. Knowledge brokers focus on the institutions, assumptions, ideologies, political factors, and personalities that influence the production and interpretation of scientific research. Through this perspective, readers learn not only about the basic facts of science, but also how scientific research is conducted, interpreted, communicated, and contested. These veteran journalists often apply “weight-of-evidence reporting,” a technique in which journalists seek out and convey where the preponderance of expert opinion lies on an issue. Yet most journalists who apply this valuable idea strongly defer to expert judgment and do “not get into the weeds of the scientific evidence.” Knowledge brokers go further, probing deeper into the specialized research they write about, examining how and why it was produced, synthesizing and comparing findings across disciplines, and evaluating its usefulness when applied to proposed solutions.
Somewhat paradoxically, only by way of this critically motivated reporting can public trust in science be maintained. Rather than portray science and scientists as truth’s ultimate custodians, knowledge brokers reveal for readers how science really works. When controversies related to fraud, bias, interpretation, scandal, hype, honest errors, or conflicts of interest emerge, those who are attentive to this form of journalism are more likely to be able to judge when such behaviors are outliers or the norm. Just as peer-review and other established norms within science serve as correctives to such failures, as outsiders knowledge brokers fulfill a similarly vital and complementary role.
Across several decades, as a prototypic knowledge broker, Scientific American staff writer John Horgan pioneered a valuable style of science criticism. Dissatisfied with the constraints of traditional reporting, he turned to more opinion-based, interpretative reporting while also looking for “exaggerated or erroneous scientific claims” to question and debunk. “I convinced myself that that was actually a good thing to do because science had become such an authority that there was a need for a scientific critic …,” he noted. “It’s a paradox: it’s using subjectivity to ultimately get a more clear, objective picture of things.”
In his award winning reporting, Horgan not only skewered the exaggerated claims of scientists who promised world-changing discoveries, but also grappled with ideas of philosophers of science. These themes coalesced in the 1996 best-seller The End of Science in which Horgan argued that science was so successful in its description of the natural world that it had reached the limits of its knowledge. No new scientific frameworks will surpass the explanatory power of Darwinian natural section and genetics in biology or the standard model in physics, he argued. The End of Science crystallized Horgan’s signature critical perspective which offered readers a consistently skeptical evaluation of the limitations of scientific knowledge. In 1999, Horgan expanded on this perspective in The Undiscovered Mind, arguing that behavioral genetics, evolutionary psychology, cognitive science and other fields had still not delivered a conclusive theory of consciousness and personality, or provided satisfying answers to other big questions.
The author of two subsequent books, Horgan also applies his critical approach in his long-running Scientific American “Cross-Check” blog, a format that benefits from his strong personal voice and trademark skepticism. “I think that science is ill-served by its own public relations…,” he says. “I actually like to think that I’m doing good deeds for science itself and helping dispel some of these illusions that people have about science . . . I think science needs it.” Inspired by the philosopher Karl Popper’s insights on the tentative, provisional nature of science, Horgan’s longstanding goal is to impart a form of hopeful skepticism which can “protect us from our own lust for answers while keeping us open-minded enough to recognize genuine truth if and when it arrives.”
Veteran environmental journalist Andrew Revkin, who currently writes for ProPublica, is a second example of a knowledge broker. At his former New York Times “Dot Earth” blog, he frequently warned about the tendency for research institutions and journals to hype scientific findings about climate change and to overlook the inherent uncertainty in research. This hyping becomes amplified by advocates, journalists, and bloggers on either side of an environmental debate and by news organizations and reporters who have a strong incentive to always search for “the front page thought.” Consider the role that Revkin played as a knowledge broker in relation to a 2015 study published by the climate scientist James Hansen. Using evidence from complex computer modeling, Hansen and his sixteen co-authors warned that polar ice sheets are likely to melt at a far faster rate than previously estimated. Within a few decades, coastal cities from Boston to Shanghai could be under water, risking military conflict, mass migration, and economic collapse that “might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization,” warned Hansen and his colleagues.
Despite the alarming conclusions, Hansen’s study occupied an ambivalent, unsettled position within the tradition of peer-reviewed publication. It was submitted to the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics where much of the peer review process occurs online in an open-access format. Over a period of months, experts are asked to read the paper and post substantive online comments. Only after reviewing the amassed expert comments do the editors decide whether the paper will be accepted for formal publication. But before the paper was posted online to undergo review, Hansen worked with a public relations firm to distribute the paper to journalists and to hold a telephone press conference at which they could ask questions. His goal, he told reporters, was to influence the outcome of international climate change negotiations to be held at the end of the year.
“Climate Seer James Hansen Issues His Direst Forecast Yet,” was the over-the-top headline of a Daily Beast article that followed the press conference. The implications of Hansen’s findings are “vast and profound,” wrote the reporter. The “blockbuster study” and its “apocalyptic scenario” presents a “huge headache for diplomats,” exploding the all too modest goals of climate diplomacy. “Earth’s Most Famous Climate Scientist Issues Bombshell Sea Level Warning,” was the same-day headline at Slate magazine. The implications of Hansen’s “breathtaking new study” are “mindboggling,” Slate told its readers. “New York City—and every other coastal city on the planet—may only have a few more decades of habitability left.”
Journalists at The New York Times, Associated Press, the BBC, and The Guardian were among those who chose not to cover the paper, judging it premature to run a story before peer review had begun. Revkin at his Dot Earth blog chose an alternative strategy. In two lengthy posts, he did not merely report the specific findings of the study; instead he analyzed the authors’ apparent motivations, relating to readers Hansen’s career arc as “climatologist-turned-campaigner.” Revkin also identified key differences between arguments in the online discussion paper posted at the journal and the supporting materials supplied to journalists, which included claims that dramatic sea level rise was “likely to occur this century.” He also posted replies to emails he had sent requesting reactions to the paper from leading climatologists, many of them critical of the assumptions employed by Hansen and his colleagues.
Drawing on correspondence with two geologists, Revkin filed a review at the journal’s site arguing that Hansen’s paper contained geological evidence that could be considered too one-sided. Other commenters at the journal subsequently questioned Revkin’s expertise. “Scientific review,” wrote one, “is for those who *know the topic* to comment, and it’s abundantly clear, that ain’t you.” Revkin in response asked the journal to clarify who was included in the “scientific community,” and who had authority to comment as part of the open review process. He then related this exchange back to the readers of his New York Times blog, including excerpts and links so that readers could follow up in more detail.
As scholar Morgan Meyer writes, journalists as knowledge brokers can do more than just assess or critique science: they can also transform expert knowledge by offering new interpretations and conclusions that subsequently influence the thinking of scientists. Laurie Garrett is a leading example of this knowledge broker function. Her early-career reporting from the frontlines of global public health threats culminated in the 1994 book The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance. That book told the story of the global spread of viruses such as HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, and Ebola, detailing how humans abetted the rise and resurgence of these infections through weak global public health systems, misuse of antibiotics and antivirals, local warfare, and refugee migration.
In The Coming Plague, Garrett integrated a diversity of disciplines into a new way of understanding infectious diseases, framing them as a unified problem manageable only by approaches that are informed by interdisciplinary research. Her work raised public awareness of infectious disease by showing readers the devastation wrought by these new plagues, boosting the profile, prestige, and funding of researchers and organizations combating diseases. In 2000, Garrett followed with Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health where she argued for a systemic solution to protect populations around the world from lethal epidemics. The book’s critique of health policy moved her work into the political realm. In 2004, she became a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, where she combines the roles of reporter, researcher, and expert commentator, authoring popular articles, policy reports, and even serving as a script consultant to the 2011 Hollywood thriller “Contagion.”
As news organizations invest in a range of innovative digital and online initiatives, a second complementary strategy for doing knowledge-based journalism is likely to prove particularly relevant. In this “dialogue broker” model, an expert journalist uses blogging, podcasts, video interviews, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media tools to convene discussions among a network of professionally and politically diverse contributors and readers.
This approach that connects a range of contributors is an example of networked journalism. But the dialogue broker method is driven also by a view that dialogue can help readers to understand the viewpoint of others and accept the fact that they disagree. New York University’s Jay Rosen argued that complex, polarized debates such as those over climate change or biotechnology are unlikely to reach political consensus. But he wrote: “what’s possible is a world where different stakeholders ‘get’ that the world looks different to people who hold different stakes.”
In this scenario, what are needed then are knowledge-based journalists who convene discussions that force critical reflection and examination, rather than playing to an ideologically like-minded audience. By way of blog posts and other digital tools, dialogue brokers feature multiple, contrasting perspectives, while offering context on the scientific and policy arguments made. Their original posts are often updated in light of new developments, reactions from other journalists and experts, and feedback from readers. This is “a journalism of linking rather than pinning things down, that is situated within a model of knowledge-as-process rather than knowledge-as-product,” writes new media scholar Donald Matheson.
A dialogue-based form of networked journalism reflects many of the arguments of social theorists studying the politically contested terrain of issues such as climate change. As Rayner argues, progress lies not in staking out a hardline position on a contested terrain and then castigating those that are in disagreement, but in recognizing and understanding multiple positions, and finding ways to negotiate constructively among them. Dismissing alternative perspectives not only weakens our ability to understand the complexity of these issues but also risks the loss of legitimacy and trust among key constituencies, he warns.
Revkin at his New York Times’ Dot Earth blog not only functioned as an explainer and informed critic of science (knowledge broker), but also served as a skilled convener (dialogue broker), using his blog and a variety of other digital tools to facilitate discussions among experts, advocates, and readers while contextualizing specific claims. His role as convener and dialogue broker at Dot Earth was informed by his reading of research in the social sciences which challenged his long held assumption as a journalist that the “solution to global warming was, basically, clearer communication: …If we could just explain the problem more clearly, people would see it more clearly, and then they would change.” At Dot Earth, to foster a dialogue with readers, he prefered posing questions, describing answers from experts and others. Revkin viewed his role as “interrogatory – exploring questions, not giving you my answer…I think anyone who tells you they know the answer on some of these complex issues is not being particularly honest.”
Nathanael Johnson’s 2013 Grist.org series on genetically modified (GM) food is a second example of the dialogue broker approach. His goal in the series was to go beyond the polarized thinking on the topic and he ended up brokering a conversation between critics and proponents of the technology. Through that dialogue, he promoted a shared understanding of why people disagree so strongly on the subject. As Johnson wrote, there is obvious value to journalists attempting to broker such a conversation for their audiences, especially on an issue such as GM food in which many Grist.org readers tend to doubt its safety and distrust the scientists who argue on behalf of the technology. He wrote:
“If you try to cross-check the claims of people on either side of the GM debate, you run into problems, because these warring clans speak different dialects. Their foundational assumptions point them in opposite directions, facing different landscapes and talking past each other. This can leave outsiders feeling that someone is lying. But often the miscommunication comes down to a difference in perspectives.”
Given the complexity of science controversies, and the difficulty involved in falsifying predictions about the future, it is possible for equally plausible narratives about effective policy options and solutions to exist. This ambiguity presents the opportunity for advocates to promote prescriptions that align with their vision of a “good society.” As environmental studies scholar Roger Pielke Jr. aptly notes, wickedly complex problems such as climate change become “a bit like a policy inkblot on which people map onto the issue their hopes and values associated with their vision for what a better world would look like.” In the face of such ambiguity, journalists play a key role by helping to construct a common outlook and language among networks of experts, advocates, and political leaders that aids in the coordination of decisions and actions. Yet if one problem definition and set of solutions is prioritized in news coverage to the exclusion of others, such influence can lock in powerful forms of groupthink that dismiss valuable alternative interpretations and courses of action.
What is needed then is a style of knowledge-based journalism that can counter groupthink and diffuse polarization in science controversies by expanding the range of policy options and technologies under consideration by the public and political community. This policy broker model for journalists is informed by research by Pielke Jr., who demonstrates through a series of case studies that the broader the menu of policies and technologies available to decision-makers in science-related debates, the greater the opportunity for decision-makers to reach agreement on paths forward. Writing about the climate change debate, he argued that much of the political argument over scientific uncertainty would fade — once new technologies are available. These advances would make it easier to conduct low-cost meaningful action on climate change. It would be then easier to gain support from across the political spectrum and from developed and developing countries. For example, he argued in a 2013 coauthored article that carbon capture that limits emissions from coal and natural gas power plans could “transform the political debate”. This is because the technology “does not demand a radical alteration of national economies, global trade, or personal lifestyles” and therefore “enfranchises the very groups that have the most to lose from conventional climate policies.”
These conclusions are similar to those of Dan Kahan and colleagues studying the process by which the public forms opinions about controversial science topics (see Kahan, chapter…). Their findings suggest that perceptions of culturally contested issues such as climate change are often policy and technology dependent and that polarization is likely to be diffused under conditions where the focus is on a diverse rather than a narrow set of options. “People with individualistic values resist scientific evidence that climate change is a serious threat because they have come to assume that industry-constraining carbon emission limits are the main solution,” argues Kahan. “They would probably look at the evidence more favourably, however, if made aware that the possible responses to climate change include nuclear power and geoengineering, enterprises that to them symbolize human resourcefulness.”
Consider how these principles apply to the role of journalists as policy brokers in the debate over climate change. Between 2007 to 2010, among those lobbying for action to address the issue, the focus was on setting a global price on carbon that would catalyze a “soft energy path” revolution, shifting the economy from a reliance on fossil fuels to dependence on wind, solar, and energy efficiency technologies. In contrast, there was much more limited attention to advanced “hard energy path” technologies such as nuclear energy or carbon capture and storage that would help to reduce emissions in ways far less transformative to the global economy. In the years since, several journalists serving in the role of policy broker have helped to diversify the range of technological options considered in the climate debate, calling greater attention to hard energy path technologies and government-led innovation strategies. These journalists challenged longstanding claims by many environmentalists and activists that solar, wind, and other renewables are the only energy technologies needed to combat climate change. In doing so, they shifted policy debate away from the narrow goal of making fossil fuels more costly to a broader focus on making a diverse portfolio of low carbon technologies less expensive.
In a series of columns leading up to and during the 2015 United Nations summit on climate change, The New York Times’ “Economic Scene” columnist Eduardo Porter was among the more prominent journalists playing the role of policy broker by questioning the conventional assumptions of climate advocates. Porter brought a unique perspective and background to the topic. Holding two degrees in physics, the twenty-year veteran reporter had covered business, finance, and politics from Brazil, Tokyo, London, Mexico, and Los Angeles before joining The Times in 2004 as an editorial specialist on economics.
In his columns, Porter critically assessed arguments that narrowly focused on soft energy paths and energy efficiency strategies. He also strongly challenged journalists and academics on the left flank of the environmental movement who argued that solving climate change also necessitated a halt to economic growth and an end to the global capitalist system. These longstanding arguments had recently gained considerable attention by way of Naomi Klein’s 2014 international best-seller This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.
Porter countered that proposals like Klein’s pushing a 100 percent renewables and efficiency strategy “too often lack strong analytical foundations, and are driven more by hope than science.” In this case, “the goal of bringing the world’s carbon emissions under control is put at the service of other agendas, ideological or economic, limiting the world’s options,” he concluded. As an alternative path, Porter wrote that success on climate change “requires experimenting intensely along many technological avenues, learning quickly from failures and moving on.” Drawing on various studies and analyses, Porter argued for investment in carbon capture and storage technologies and for the expansion of nuclear power. These technologies in combination with renewables would be needed to rapidly decarbonize the world economy while meeting the demands for growth from India, China, Africa and the rest of the developing world. They will also be required as backup power sources for intermittent solar and wind technologies.
Porter similarly warned that arguments promoting the need for negative economic growth threatened to derail the UN climate negotiations. “Whatever the ethical merits of the case, the proposition of no growth has absolutely no chance to succeed,” he wrote. Interviewing historians and economists, he noted that by reducing the competition for scarce resources, economic growth over the past century had delivered enormous societal benefits, helping to reduce war and conflict, enabling consensual politics and democracy, and empowering women. Even if Klein and her allies were correct that climate change meant the upending of capitalism and globalization, Porter doubted “it would bring about the workers’ utopia” they imagined. Instead in a world without economic growth, the conflict for scarce resources would mean that the powerless and most vulnerable were the most likely to suffer, he warned. Rather than putting an end to capitalism, the world’s poor could best be served by developing a broad menu of new energy technologies that shift the world away from fossil fuels.
Journalism in Turbulent Times
The advent in recent years of several innovative digital news ventures focused on deeper forms of explanatory, analytical, and data-driven journalism suggests that at least some news industry leaders, investors, and philanthropists have recognized the need for new forms of knowledge-based journalism. In 2015, the billionaire owner of The Boston Globe launched STAT, a deep vertical digital news organization covering the health, medical, and life sciences. “Over the next 20 years, some of the most important stories in the world are going to emerge in the life-sciences arena,” said STAT founder John Henry. The goal of STAT is to be “the country’s go-to news source for the life-sciences.” To report on and analyze the life sciences, STAT hired a roster of knowledge-based journalists with dozens of years of combined experience covering the beat. Examples include regular columnists Sharon Begley who “who goes behind the headlines to make sense of scientific claims” and Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus of the Retraction Watch blog who focus on issues of misconduct, fraud, and scientific integrity.
In other examples, the startup news site Vox.com, co-founded in 2014 by former Washington Post “Wonkblog” writer Ezra Klein, focuses on explanatory journalism with a type of Wikipedia-like tagging of terms and concepts that gives readers in-depth background on an issue, delivered by way of the latest digital design techniques. Launched in 2014, “The Upshot” at the New York Times is a blog-like section that aims to enhance reader understanding of news through analysis and data visualization with contributions from journalists and academics, enabling readers to “grasp big, complicated stories so well that they can explain the whys and how’s of those stories to their friends, relatives and colleagues.” The Washington Post.com soon followed, creating a series of science, technology, and environment-focused blogs in which journalists contribute daily reporting, analysis, and commentary. The online startups Buzzfeed and Mashable have hired veteran science journalists to contribute deeper reported news stories. Bloomberg, Politico, and Energy & Environment News have invested in deep vertical coverage of science, technology, and environmental policy respectively, funded by way of subscriptions and advertising that target the business, advocacy, and lobbying communities. Philanthropists and foundations have also underwritten the launch of notable non-profit news ventures such as Grist.org, Inside Climate News, Climate Central, and The Conversation, while continuing support of coverage at outlets like Mother Jones, The Nation, and public radio.
These for-profit and non-profit news ventures are not without their limits and trade-offs, have yet to prove their sustainability, and deserve critical scholarly analysis. Among the relevant questions: how do audiences interpret the mix of news, analysis, and opinion found across these outlets, especially as content is accessed, shared, and commented on by way of social media? How do knowledge-based journalists gain and maintain their credibility and following in an era of partisan audiences? What influence does the advertising, subscription, and funding model of a news organization have on journalistic decisions and the interpretation of complex issues like climate change or food biotechnology?
For many university journalism programs, these new media ventures and questions are the latest evidence that they need to rethink their traditional trade school focus on interviewing and storytelling skills. Indeed, with journalism programs under pressure because of languishing enrollment, their future may depend on shifting to more effectively meet the needs of society and the profession. Their future may depend less on enrolling undergraduate majors and Masters students, but in retraining students and professionals with backgrounds in specialized fields, offering them a variety of minors, certificates, badges, short courses, and fellowships. In this regard, philanthropists can play a vital role, underwriting specialized programs that meet the need for a new kind of knowledge-based journalist and communicator. At the University of Toronto, for example, a unique program recruits academics and professionals with existing subject matter expertise and trains them to pitch stories to news organizations as freelance journalists covering their own disciplines. In all, the complementary models and examples of knowledge-based journalism that we describe in this chapter are a starting point to learn from and evaluate. Research, vision, and leadership will be needed to bring about the shifts needed in how journalism covers science and its various controversies, but, in the process, there are already many bright examples to build on.
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