Against climate change tribalism

Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma may be best known today for its picturesque lakes and trails, but for three weeks in 1954 the park was also the setting for one of the most famous experiments in social psychology. In the Robbers Cave experiment, Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues at the University of Oklahoma recruited twenty-two boys, all fifth graders from similar social backgrounds, to attend what they billed as a specially designed summer camp.

The boys were immediately split into two groups: the Eagles and the Rattlers. For the first week, the teams were kept on separate ends of the camp while they participated in a variety of bonding activities. The boys didn’t find out about the other team’s existence until the start of the second week. Having never met each other, the boys quickly began to refer to the other team as “outsiders” and “intruders.”

Following a series of competitive games, the boys’ rivalry grew more intense. They started hurling insults, calling each other “pigs,” “sissies,” and “cheaters.” Their perception of reality shifted. When researchers asked the Eagles and Rattlers to gather up beans from the ground and compare photos of how many each group collected, the boys bragged that their team outmatched the other.

In reality, the photos showed the same number of beans for each group. Fueled by competition and social isolation, the teams raided their rival’s cabins late at night. The Eagles burned the Rattlers flag; some boys started collecting rocks to throw at the others. Worried about physical injury, the experimenters called off the competitions.

More than sixty years later, the Robbers Cave study stands as a metaphor for today’s hyperpartisan politics. Seemingly every policy debate is a competition between two intensely hostile teams.

Those on the right and left oppose compromise by their political leaders, view the other party as extreme and uncivil, and believe that their side should benefit the most from any decision.

Dehumanizing opponents

A recent study by Nathan P. Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason, political scientists at Louisiana State University and University of Maryland, found that more than 40 percent of Americans surveyed viewed the opposing party as “downright evil.”

Incredibly, 20 percent of Democrats and 16 percent of Republicans said they believed on occasion that the country would be better off if large numbers of the opposition died. In other extreme examples, party loyalists dehumanized their political adversaries.

In the case of both parties, nearly one out of five survey respondents agreed with the statement that their political opponents “lack the traits to be considered fully human–they behave like animals.” According to their study, if the opposing party won the 2020 election, 18 percent of Democrats and 14 percent of Republicans reported they believed violence would be justified.The best-educated and informed partisans tend to be the most intensely tribal, engaging in “my side” reasoning that prioritizes victory over a desire for the greater good.

Research shows that the most well-informed partisans are quick to endorse their party’s policy positions–not as a matter of principle but, as New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall writes, “as a public act designed to signal their tribal loyalty as a Democrat or Republican.”

On no other issue are such animosities, prejudices, and biases more prevalent — and more problematic — than on climate change.

Finding comfort in tribalism

For those of us who advocate for action to address climate change, we are often told to be more like how we perceive our political opponents: more ruthless, more cunning, more aggressive, more willing to bend facts to our side, and more committed to the most audacious and ambitious policies regardless of their flaws. We are all too quick to rally around the banner of those voices that emphasize “us versus them,” “good versus bad,” and “winning versus losing.”

We view those opposed to action on climate change as extreme but seldom apply the same label to those on our side. Green New Deal advocates, for example, have framed the choice for Americans in starkly binary terms: Either join us in a Utopian quest to transform the United States into a social democracy or face the catastrophic consequences of a dystopian climate future.

There are no other choices. Their battle is equally against moderates and pragmatists as it is against conservatives.

As a community of advocates, we have become obsessed with the psychology and communication strategies of conservative “deniers,” with many scholars striving to expose the faults in conservative psychology, the duplicitous nature of fossil fuel companies, and the many ways in which Fox News and right-wing think tanks seed “denial” and engage in a “war on science.”

This research has in turn infected mainstream journalism and commentary, in which readers at outlets such as The Guardian and The Washington Post are consistently left with the impression that “anti-science,” “denier” Republicans may in fact be cognitively incapable of reason or compromise on behalf of clean energy policy, similar in nature to Holocaust deniers.

Only seven years ago scholars were actually debating the wisdom of calling those who oppose action on climate change “deniers.” Geographers Saffron O’Neill and Max Boykoff in a letter to the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences (PNAS) raised concerns about an earlier study at the journal that had divided experts into “convinced” and “unconvinced” camps, interchangeably using the terms deniers, skeptics, and contrarians to refer to the unconvinced.

“Continued indiscriminate use of the terms will further polarize views on climate change,” warned O’Neill and Boykoff, “reduce media coverage to tit-for-tat finger-pointing, and do little to advance the unsteady relationship among climate science, society, and policy.”

Their warnings, however, had little impact on the direction of scholarship, strategy, or journalistic coverage. Today’s ubiquitous branding of Republicans as the party of “denial” greatly exaggerates the intensity of opposition to climate and clean energy solutions among those on the center-right, creating a self-reinforcing spiral of false perceptions.

The more we become angry and the more we catastrophize about the future, the less likely we are to find common ground or even be able to treat our political opponents as human beings. And social media is only making everything worse.

For the past few years, polling has consistently shown that majorities of registered voters, including Independents and moderate Republicans, believe that global warming is mostly caused by human activities and say that they support climate regulations and clean energy policies.

Beyond this general voter sentiment, according to the Yale Climate Opinion Maps project, most adults in every Congressional district across the country say they support fossil fuel companies paying a carbon tax, regulating CO2 as a pollutant, and setting strict restrictions on emissions from coal power plants.

But research also indicates that many Republicans who privately support solutions to climate change refrain from publicly doing so out of an exaggerated fear of retaliation from their peers, a fear that has been magnified by efforts among some scholars and journalists to socially stigmatize the supposedly mass number of deniers among their ranks.

The more we become angry and the more we catastrophize about the future, the less likely we are to find common ground or even be able to treat our political opponents as human beings. And social media is only making everything worse.

Playing to the most basic elements of human nature, social media has done great damage to the climate change movement, destroying our ability to think collectively and discuss productively across lines of difference.

Artificial intelligence-driven platforms serve up a constant stream of news and commentary that reflects our existing biases and beliefs rather than content that might challenge them.

Those specializing in the dark arts of social media “engagement” have used these platforms to hack our brains, training our focus on conservatives and the evildoings of the fossil fuel industry while the end times loom.

Because it kidnaps our attention, the most inflammatory, most outrageous, and most catastrophic content is rewarded by social media algorithms, ensuring that it travels the furthest. Since social media is a place where we find comfort in our tribal identity, posting, liking, and spreading ideologically affirming content generates social value, regardless of the source, quality, or veracity of the content we may be sharing.

When claims are challenged, such as the viability of a 100 percent path to renewables or the political feasibility of the Green New Deal, climate advocates often respond by digging in their heels and attacking the critic, further demonstrating their loyalty.

In doing so, they follow the lead of a climate blogger or “Twitter celebrity,” who through their commentary make it easy for us to remain loyal to ideas or policies that have come to symbolize what it means to be a “climate hawk” or activist.

More thoughtful conversations

“Moderation is not an ideology; it is a way of being. It stands for humility of the head and ardor in the heart,” writes New York Times columnist David Brooks. “When you listen to your neighbor, you see how many perspectives there are and you’re intellectually humble in the face of that pluralism. When you listen to your neighbor, you see that deep down we’re the same and you hunger to deepen that connection.”

There can be no progress on climate change until we rebuild our civic capacity to discuss, debate, and disagree in ways that do not turn every aspect of climate politics into an identity-driven tribal war between good and evil.

We must harness our organizational resources and personal gifts to serve not as partisan persuaders but as partners in face-to-face dialogue with other Americans and decision-makers, embracing our common humanity.

But to embrace our common humanity, we must adopt and encourage the practice of what Georgetown University’s Cal Newport calls “digital minimalism,” a philosophy that helps you question what digital communication tools (and behaviors surrounding these tools) add the most value to your life.

It is impossible to resist the siren song of climate tribalism if, like the average American, you spend several hours a day on your smartphone swiping, scrolling, skimming, liking, hearting, retweeting, forwarding, and responding to other people’s thoughts, especially if they apply to climate change politics.

When a new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is released or the proposed Green New Deal is announced, your first thought in today’s news feed culture of righteousness is not your own original idea but almost inevitably someone else’s appealing to your worse biases.

Spending less time on social media and your smartphone will free up mental energy for contemplation and deep reading of a diversity of high-quality sources, alone with your thoughts, wrestling with uncertainties and complexities, scrutinizing your assumptions and beliefs.

Minimizing social media usage will also enable you to be more present and less judgmental during face-to-face discussions.

The initial focus of a conversation about a contentious topic such as climate change with a neighbor, community member, or elected official should be to simply recognize and affirm shared identities, ideals, and beliefs. Reframing climate change in terms of public health or religious duty, for example, may help foster a more thoughtful conversation.

Still, there are no magic messages capable of overcoming false beliefs or converting someone to your side. Yet with trust and relationships established, further dialogue can focus on working together toward common goals related to energy decarbonization and societal resilience.

If common goals on a specific topic may not exist, investing in more thoughtful conversations and the forums to engage in those conversations can at least help reestablish the norms of civility that have been lost in our society, enabling climate change advocates and those we disagree with to come to respect the nature and reasons for our differences.

*This article is adapted from a speech given at the 2019 U.S. Climate Leadership Summit held in Washington, D.C. A version was also published previously at Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

Cite this:

Nisbet, Matthew C. “Against Climate Change Tribalism: We Gamble with the Future by Dehumanizing Our Opponents.” Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 44, no. 1, Jan.-Feb. 2020.

The March for Science: Partisan protests put public trust in scientists at risk

May 1, 2017– On April 22, thousands of scientists and their supporters gathered in Washington, D.C., and at more than 600 other locations across the world to participate in the March for Science. Pegged to Earth Day, protesters voiced their opposition to proposed federal cuts to funding for scientific research and the planned rollback of environmental rules and public health regulations. They raised alarm over the appointment of political officials dismissive of climate change and of President Donald J. Trump’s false claims about vaccines and global warming.

Previous Democratic administrations have made questionable decisions on science policy, but regardless of where you stand politically, the actions so far of the Trump administration should be deeply disturbing to anyone who cares about the future of the scientific enterprise, much less the planet. Yet it is unlikely that the March for Science will have much of an impact on federal policy over the next few years. Instead, in the long run, the March for Science may have only deepened partisan differences, while jeopardizing trust in the impartiality and credibility of scientists.

Blind to mistakes

“When you become scientifically literate, I claim, you become an environmentalist,” Bill Nye, an honorary cochair of the March for Science told the Washington Post (Gibson 2017). Many signs carried by protesters echoed that assumption, emphasizing themes like “Make America Smart Again,” “Science is the cure for bullshit,” and “Knowing stuff is good.”

Another March for Science sign quoted astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson admirably stating that “I dream of a future where the truth is what shapes people’s politics, rather than politics shaping what people think is true.” Yet as risk communication expert David Ropeik (2017) countered, decades of social science research suggests that human cognition and decisions rarely if ever work in that way.

A version of this article appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

Humans are not robots. A deficit in science literacy is not why political leaders and the public disagree over climate change, vaccines, or government funding. By fundamentally misdiagnosing the causes of political conflict today, March for Science advocates may be undermining their own cause. Numerous studies show it is often the best educated and most scientifically literate who are prone to biased reasoning and false beliefs about contentious science issues. The reason for this surprising paradox is that individuals with higher science literacy tend to be more adept at recognizing arguments congenial to their partisan identity, are more attuned to what others like them think, are more likely to react to these cues in ideologically consistent ways, and tend to be more personally skilled at offering arguments to support their preexisting positions (National Academies 2017; Nisbet 2016).

For example, studies find that better educated conservatives who score higher on measures of basic science literacy are more likely to doubt the human causes of climate change. Their beliefs about climate science conform to their sense that actions to address climate change would mean more government regulation, which conservatives tend to oppose (Kahan 2015). Similarly, better educated liberals engage in biased processing of expert advice when forming opinions about the risks of natural gas fracking, genetically modified food, and nuclear energy. In this case, liberal fears are rooted in a generalized suspicion of technologies identified with large corporations (Nisbet et al. 2015).

The same relationship holds in relation to support for government funding of science. Liberals and conservatives who score low on science literacy tend to hold equivalent levels of support for science funding. But analysis shows that as science literacy increases, conservatives grow more opposed to funding while liberals grow more supportive, a shift in line with their differing beliefs about the role of government in society (Gauchat 2015).In sum, our beliefs about contentious science issues reflect who we are socially and politically. The better educated and more literate we are, the more adept we are at recognizing the connection between a political issue and our group identity and interests (Kahan 2015).

Similar factors influence policy decisions. As the late sociologist Dorothy Nelkin (1978) observed nearly forty years ago, political disputes such as those over climate change, vaccination, and scientific funding are fundamentally controversies over political control: Who gets to decide the priority that these issues should take over others, or the actions and costs taken to address problems? Which values, interpretations, groups, and worldviews matter and which should be given greatest weight?

For these reasons, much of the rationale behind the March for Science is not only off target, but the event itself and similar future activities may only intensify political deadlock rather than overcome it.

Staying credible

Although the March for Science was framed as nonpartisan, the messaging leading up to and during the event was anything but helpful. Early on, reflecting contemporary debates on college campuses, organizers were besieged by concerns over issues related to inclusion and identity. Some criticized the organizers for not paying enough attention to these topics, which prompted the posting online of a diversity statement. In response, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker tweeted: “Scientists’ March on Washington plan compromises its goals with anti-science PC/identity politics/hard-left rhetoric” (Sheridan and Facher 2017).

Twitter remained a source of controversy for organizers. A few days before the event, the official March for Science account declared that the U.S. bombing of an ISIS compound in Afghanistan was an example of how “science is weaponized against marginalized people.” The Tweet was later deleted, earning ridicule from right-wing bloggers (Kelly 2017).

On the day of the march, across cities, some participants donned pink “brain caps,” a reference to the pink “pussy caps” worn at the January 2017 Women’s March. In a similar tribute, T-shirts and signs declared “Keep your tiny hands off my science.” Many signs played on the official Hillary Clinton campaign theme “I’m with her,” with an arrow pointing to planet Earth instead. Some signs mocked Trump by employing allusions to science, referencing him as an “absolute zero” and “black hole.” Other cheeky slogans included “Less invasions, more equations,” and “I’ve seen smarter cabinets at IKEA” (Politi 2017).

In these cases, the March for Science constitutes a potentially hazardous misfire. By choosing public protest as a main strategy, and by voicing messages that have an obvious partisan and ideological slant, the March for Science made it that much easier for Americans to lean on their group identities in forming opinions about contentious issues.

A much discussed recent study published in Environmental Communi­cation, a journal where I serve as editor-in-chief, suggests that scientists may have more discretion to advocate on behalf of policy positions than they assumed, without hurting their credibility (Kotcher et al. 2017). Yet the preliminary study did not test what happens to the perceived credibility of scientists when those policy positions are argued in the context of clear partisan messages communicated by way of protests such as the March for Science.

Since the 1970s, public confidence in almost every major institution has plummeted. Yet confidence in the leadership of the scientific community has remained strong (Funk and Kennedy 2017). As a consequence, scientists in society today enjoy almost unrivaled communication capital. The challenge they face following the March for Science is how to use this capital wisely and effectively.


Nisbet, M.C. (2017, July/August). The March for Science: Partisan Protests Put at Risk Public Trust in Scientists. Skeptical Inquirer Magazine. 


  • Funk, C., and B. Kennedy. 2017. Public confidence in scientists has remained stable for decades. Pew Research Center (April 6).
  • Gauchat, G. 2015. The political context of science in the United States: Public acceptance of evidence-based policy and science funding. Social Forces 2: 723–746.
  • Gibson, C. 2017. The March for Science was a moment made for Nye. The Washington Post (April 23).
  • Kahan, D. 2015. Climate science communication and the measurement problem. Political Psychology 36(S1): 1–43.
  • Kelly, J. 2017. March for science: Sympathy for our Enemies. National Review (April 1).
  • Kotcher, J.E., T.A. Myers, E.K. Vraga, et al. 2017. Does engagement in advocacy hurt the credibility of scientists? Results from a randomized national survey experiment. Environmental Communication 11(3): 415–429.
  • National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Communicating Sci­ence Effectively: A Research Agenda. Wash­ington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  • Nelkin, D. 1978. Controversy: Politics of Technical Decisions. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publicans.
  • Nisbet, M.C. 2016. The science literacy paradox: Why really smart people often have the most biased opinions. Skeptical Inquirer 40(5): 21–23.
  • Nisbet, E.C., K.E. Cooper, and R.K. Garrett. 2015. The partisan brain: How dissonant science messages lead conservatives and liberals to (dis) trust science. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 658(1): 36–66.
  • Politi, D. 2017. Here are some of the best signs from the March for Science. (April 22).
  • Ropeik, D. 2017. Why the March for Science failed as demonstrated by its own protest signs. (April 24).
  • Sheridan, K., and L. Facher. 2017. Science march on Washington, billed as historic, plagued by organizational turmoil. (March 22).

Models of knowledge-based journalism: Brokering knowledge, dialogue, and policy ideas

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.[1]

A version of this article appears in the Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication.

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.”[2]  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.[3]

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.

Knowledge Brokers

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.[4] Yet most journalists who apply this valuable idea strongly defer to expert judgment and do “not get into the weeds of the scientific evidence.”[5] 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.”[6]

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.[7]  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.”[8] 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.”[9]

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.[10]

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.[11]  “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.”[12]

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.[13]

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.[14]  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.[15] 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.[16]  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.”

 Dialogue Brokers

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.[17] 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.”[18]

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.[19]

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.[20]

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.”[21]  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.”[22]

Nathanael Johnson’s 2013 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 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.”[23]

Policy Brokers

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.”[24] 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.[25]

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.[26]  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.”[27]

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.”[28]

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.[29] 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.[30]

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.[31]

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.”[32] 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.[33]

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.”[34] 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, 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.[35]  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.”[36]  The Washington 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, 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.[37]  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.


Nisbet, M.C. & Fahy, D. (2017). Models of Knowledge-based Journalism. In Jamieson, K.H., Scheufele, D.A. & Kahan, D. (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication. New York: Oxford University Press, 273-282.


[1] Patterson, Thomas E. Informing the news. Vintage, 2013, p. 93.

[2] Donsbach, Wolfgang. “Journalism as the new knowledge profession and consequences for journalism education.” Journalism 15, no. 6 (2014): 661-677, 668.

[3] Nisbet, Matthew C., and Declan Fahy. “The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism in Politicized Science Debates.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 658, no. 1 (2015): 223-234

[4] Sharon Dunwoody. “Weight-of-evidence reporting: What is it? Why use it? Niemen Reports 59, no. 4 (2005): 89-91.

[5] Kohl, Patrice Ann, Soo Yun Kim, Yilang Peng, Heather Akin, Eun Jeong Koh, Allison Howell, and Sharon Dunwoody. “The influence of weight-of-evidence strategies on audience perceptions of (un)certainty when media cover contested science. Public Understanding of Science (2015) DOI: 10.1177/0963662515615087

[6] Fahy, Declan, and Matthew C. Nisbet. “The science journalist online: Shifting roles and emerging practices.” Journalism-Theory Practice and Criticism 12, no. 7 (2011): 778-93, 787.

[7] Horgan, John. The end of science: Facing the limits of knowledge in the twilight of the scientific age. Basic Books, 2015.

[8] Personal interview with second author, January 2014.

[9] Horgan, J. (2000). The Undiscovered Mind: How the Human Brain Defies Replication, Medication, and Explanation. Simon and Schuster, 13.

[10] Hansen, James, Makiko Sato, Paul Hearty, Reto Ruedy, Maxwell Kelley, Valerie Masson-Delmotte, Gary Russell et al. “Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2◦ C global warming is highly dangerous.” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions 15, no. 14 (2015): 20059-20179.

[11] Hertsgaard, Mark, “Climate Seer James Hansen Issues His Direst Forecast Yet,” The Daily Beast, July 20, 2015, accessed January 15, 2016,

[12] Holthaus, Eric, “Earth’s Most Famous Climate Scientist Issues Bombshell Sea Level Warning,”, July 20, 2015, accessed January 15, 2016,

[13] See Andrew C. Revkin, “Whiplash Warning When Climate Science is Publicized Before Peer Review and Publication,” The New York, July 23, 2015, accessed January 16, 2016 and Andrew C. Revkin, “A Rocky First Review for a Climate Paper Warning of a Stormy Coastal Crisis,” The New York, July 25, 2015, Accessed January 16, 2016

[14] Meyer, Morgan. “The rise of the knowledge broker.” Science Communication 32, no. 1 (2010): 118-127.

[15] Garrett, Laurie. The coming plague: newly emerging diseases in a world out of balance. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

[16] Garrett, Laurie. Betrayal of trust: the collapse of global public health. Oxford University Press, 2003.

[17] Adrienne Russell. (2011). Networked: A Contemporary History of News in Transition. London: Polity.

[18] Jay Rosen, “Covering Wicked Problems: Keynote address to the 2nd UK Conference of

Science Journalists,” PressThink Blog, June 25, 2012, Accessed January 15, 2016

[19] Matheson, Donald. “Weblogs and the epistemology of the news: Some trends in online journalism.” New media & society 6, no. 4 (2004): 443-468, 458.

[20] Steve Rayner, Wicked problems: clumsy solutions—diagnoses and prescriptions for environmental ills. Jack Beale Memorial Lecture on Global Environment, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, July, 2006. Accessed January 15, 2016

[21] Revkin, Andrew C. “My climate change.” Issues in Science and Technology, Winter (2016): 27-36, 32.

[22] Curtis Brainard, “Dot Earth Moves to Opinion Section,” Columbia Journalism Review Online. 2010, April 1, Accessed January 15, 2016

[23] Nathanael Johnson, “The GM safety dance: What’s rule and what’s real,” The, 2013, July 10, Accessed January 15, 2016

[24] Pielke Jr., Roger A, 2010. The climate fix: what scientists and politicians won’t tell you about global warming. Basic Books, 62.

[25] Nisbet, Matthew C. “Disruptive ideas: public intellectuals and their arguments for action on climate change.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 5, no. 6 (2014): 809-823.

[26] Pielke Jr., Roger A. The honest broker: making sense of science in policy and politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[27] Sarewitz, Daniel and Pielke Jr. Roger. “Learning to live with fossil fuels.” The Atlantic, April 24, 2013. Accessed January 15, 2016

[28] Kahan, Dan. “Fixing the communications failure.” Nature 463, no. 7279 (2010): 296-297, 297. For more specific to how Pielke and Kahan’s research can be applied to specific strategies in science policy debates, see Nisbet, Matthew C. “Engaging in science policy controversies.” Routledge Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology (2014): 173.

[29] Nisbet, Matthew C. “Climate shift: Clear vision for the next decade of public debate.” American University School of Communication (2011). Accessed January 15, 2015

[30] Nisbet, “Disruptive Ideas”.

[31] Klein, Naomi. This changes everything: capitalism vs. the climate. Simon and Schuster, 2014.

[32] Eduardo Porter, “Climate Change Calls for Science Not Hope,” The New York Times, June 23, 2015, Accessed January 15, 2015

[33] Eduardo Porter, “Imagining a World Without Growth,” The New York Times, December 1, 2015, Accessed January 15, 2016

[34] Healy, Beth. “Globe’s owner unveils site focused on health, life-sciences,” The Boston Globe, November 4, 2015, Accessed January 15, 2016

[35] Klein, Ezra, Melissa Bell, and Matt Yglesias, “Welcome to Vox: A work in progress,”, April 6, 2014, Accessed January 15, 2016

[36] Leonhardt, David, “Navigate news with the upshot,” The New York Times, April 22, 2014, Available at

[37] Rosenstiel, Tom, “Why we need a better conversation about the future of journalism education,”, April 15 2013, Accessed Rosenstiel, Tom. 15 April 2013. Why we need a better conversation about the future of journalism education.

[38] Accessed January 15, 2016

Will the health dangers of climate change get people to care? The science says: maybe

April 7, 2016 —Climate change is a major public health threat, already making existing problems like asthma, exposure to extreme heat, food poisoning, and infectious disease more severe, and posing new risks from climate change-related disasters, including death or injury.

Those were the alarming conclusions of a new scientific assessment report released by the Obama administration this week, drawing on input from eight federal agencies and more than 100 relevant experts.

“As far as history is concerned this is a new kind of threat that we are facing,” said U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy at a White House event. Pregnant women, children, low-income people and communities of color are among the most at risk.

Despite ever more urgent warnings of scientists, Americans still tend to view climate change as a scientific or environmental issue, but not as a problem that currently affects them personally, or one that connects to issues that they already perceive as important.

Yet research suggests that as federal agencies, experts, and societal leaders increasingly focus on the public health risks of climate change, this reframing may be able to overcome longstanding public indifference on the issue. The new communication strategy, however, faces several hurdles and uncertainties.

Putting a public health focus to the test

In a series of studies that I conducted with several colleagues in 2010 and 2011, we examined how Americans respond to information about climate change when the issue is reframed as a public health problem.

In line with the findings of the recent Obama administration report, the messages we tested with Americans stressed scientific findings that link climate change to an increase in the incidence of infectious diseases, asthma, allergies, heat stroke and other health problems – risks that particularly impact children, the elderly and the poor.

We evaluated not only story lines that highlighted these risks, but also the presentations that focused on the benefits to public health if actions were taken to curb greenhouse emissions.

In an initial study, we conducted in-depth interviews with 70 respondents from 29 states, recruiting subjects from six previously defined audience segments. These segments ranged on a continuum from those individuals deeply alarmed by climate change to those who were deeply dismissive of the problem.

Across all six audience segments, when asked to read a short essay that framed climate change in terms of public health, individuals said that the information was both useful and compelling, particularly at the end of the essay when locally focused policy actions were presented with specific benefits to public health.

In a follow-up study, we conducted a nationally representative online survey. Respondents from each of the six audience segments were randomly assigned to three different experimental conditions in which they read brief essays about climate change discussed as either an environmental problem, a public health problem or a national security problem. This allowed us to evaluate their emotional reactions to strategically framed messages about the issue.

In comparison to messages that defined climate change in terms of either the environment or national security, talking about climate change as a public health problem generated greater feelings of hope among subjects. Research suggests that fostering a sense of hope, specifically a belief that actions to combat climate change will be successful, is likely to promote greater public involvement and participation on the issue.

Among subjects who tended to doubt or dismiss climate change as a problem, the public health focus also helped diffuse anger in reaction to information about the issue, creating the opportunity for opinion change.

A recent study by researchers at Cornell University built on our findings to examine how to effectively reframe the connections between climate change and ocean health.

In this study involving 500 subjects recruited from among passengers on a Seattle-area ferry boat, participants were randomly assigned to two frame conditions in which they read presentations that defined the impact of climate change on oceans.

For a first group of subjects, the consequences of climate change were framed in terms of their risks to marine species such as oysters. For the second group, climate change was framed in terms of risks to humans who may eat contaminated oysters.

The framing of ocean impacts in terms of risks to human health appeared to depoliticize perceptions. In this case, the human health framing condition had no discernible impact on the views of Democrats and independents, but it did influence the outlook of Republicans. Right-leaning people, when information emphasized the human health risks, were significantly more likely to support various proposed regulations of the fossil fuel industry.

In two other recent studies, the Cornell team of researchers have found that communications about climate change are more persuasive among political conservatives when framed in terms of localized, near-term impacts and if they feature compassion appeals for the victims of climate change disasters, such as drought.

Challenges to reframing climate change

To date, a common weakness in studies testing different framing approaches to climate change is that they do not evaluate the effects of the tested messages in the context of competing arguments.

In real life, most people hear about climate change by way of national news outlets, local TV news, conversations, social media and political advertisements. In these contexts, people are likely to also encounter arguments by those opposed to policy action who misleadingly emphasize scientific uncertainty or who exaggerate the economic costs of action.

Thus our studies and others may overestimate framing effects on attitude change, since they do not correspond to how most members of the public encounter information about climate change in the real world.

The two studies that have examined the effects of novel frames in the presence of competing messages have found mixed results. A third recent study finds no influence on attitudes when reframing action on climate change in terms of benefits to health or the economy, even in the absence of competing frames. In light of their findings, the authors recommend that communication efforts remain focused on emphasizing the environmental risks of inaction.

Communicating about climate change as a public health problem also faces barriers from how messages are shared and spread online, suggests another recent study.

In past research on Facebook sharing, messages that are perceived to be conventional are more likely to be passed on than those that are considered unconventional. Scholars theorize that this property of Facebook sharing relates closely to how cultures typically tend to reinforce status quo understandings of social problems and to marginalize unconventional perspectives.

In an experiment designed like a game of three-way telephone in which subjects were asked to select and pass on Facebook messages about climate change, the authors found that a conventional framing of climate change in terms of environmental risks was more likely to be shared, compared to less conventional messages emphasizing the public health and economic benefits to action.

In all, these results suggest that efforts to employ novel framing strategies on climate change that involve an emphasis on public health will require sustained, well-resourced, and highly coordinated activities in which such messages are repeated and emphasized by a diversity of trusted messengers and opinion leaders.

That’s why the new federal scientific assessment, which was promoted via the White House media and engagement offices, is so important. As these efforts continue, they will also need to be localized and tailored to specific regions, cities, or states and periodically evaluated to gauge success and refine strategy.

–This article originally appeared at The Conversation US.


Nisbet, M.C. (2016, April 7). Will the health dangers of climate change get people to care? The science says: maybe. The Conversation US.


Myers, T., Nisbet, M.C., Maibach, E.W., & Leiserowitz, A. (2012). A Public Health Frame Arouses Hopeful Emotions about Climate Change.  Climatic Change Research Letters, 1105-1121.

Maibach, E., Nisbet, M.C. et al. (2010). Reframing Climate Change as a Public Health Issue: An Exploratory Study of Public Reactions. BMC Public Health 10: 299

Fox News seeds climate doubts, but liberal media also distort

October 30, 2014 —Recent Pew Research Center studies offer valuable insight on the ideological makeup of those Americans most likely to voice their opinion in politics generally and the climate debate specifically, including the news sources they rely on to articulate their arguments.

What’s clear from the Pew findings and related research is that the highly selective media habits of strongly conservative and liberal Americans are likely to be a major barrier to charting a path to progress on our tough, new planet.

In a June 2014 study, Pew found that the approximately 1 in 5 Americans who score as either consistently conservative (9%) or consistently liberal (12%) in their answers to a variety of questions, are far more likely to vote than other Americans and are at least twice as likely to volunteer for a campaign, contact an elected official, or donate money.

Consistent liberals and conservatives are also more likely than those with moderate opinions to view the opposing party negatively. Half of all consistent liberals and 2/3 of consistent conservatives believe that the policies of their partisan opponents are “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” These feelings of extreme antipathy towards the other side are a major factor motivating their higher levels of political participation.

The ‘U-Shape’ of Political Activism; Higher at Ideological Extremes, Lower in Center

More subtle liberal distortions

Yet the tendency of politically active liberals to rely on left-leaning outlets like MSNBC as news sources is likely to have other under-examined distorting effects on their climate change-related opinions and beliefs. These include at least four important impacts:

1. Misplaced hope in renewables. Many liberal commentators tend to focus on just a handful of policy actions and technologies to address climate change, advocating for example a carbon tax and renewable energy sources while dismissing nuclear energy or carbon capture and storage. Liberal audiences may therefore have a skewed outlook on what it will take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while meeting the global demand for economic growth. (See for example these recent headlines.)

2. Extreme weather fears. To the extent that left-leaning news sources play up the catastrophic consequences of climate change, as a recent study of international outlets suggests, or present “Franken-storms” like Hurricane Sandy as the new normal in a warming world, their audiences are likely to have a faulty perception of the causes and incidence of these events. Such portrayals may also promote feelings of hopelessness, fatalism, and avoidance.

3. No compromise with conservatives. As Duke University’s Frederick Mayer describes in a 2012 paper, among common narratives offered about climate change, MSNBC tends to emphasize what Mayer calls the “Denialist Conspiracy,” accounting for 23 percent of the story lines at the network, far more than any other cable news outlet.

Playing to the intense antipathy that liberals feel for conservatives, this conflict-focused narrative emphasizes that “a shadowy network of oil-funded front groups and the politicians they control (the villains) mislead the gullible and the religious to subvert progress on climate change. Those who expose the conspiracy are the heroes. The moral of the story: opponents of acting on climate change are either corrupt or deluded,” writes Mayer (Watch example).

Even in covering the release of major scientific reports, at MSNBC such moments were “less a hook for telling the environmental story than an opportunity to bash the right,” writes Mayer.

“The closest thing I know of as a way to goose my own ratings is to showcase some villainous behavior from a media figure on the right,” admitted MSNBC host Rachel Maddow in a 2010 speech. “The numbers rise then because there is an appetite for hearing that media figures on the right are terrible people doing terrible things.”

Fed a steady stream of arguments at MSNBC and other liberal outlets asserting the cynical and deceitful strategies of conservatives and their industry allies, politically active liberals are likely to believe that any efforts at negotiation or compromise with conservatives in the climate debate are either hopelessly misguided or motivated by the hidden influence of the fossil fuel industry.

When asked generally about policy disagreements with Republicans, according to Pew, consistent liberals believe that President Obama should give little to no ground, a disdain for compromise equivalent to that of their conservative counterparts.

4. Amplification via social media. As liberal groups and like-minded peers flood social media with links to MSNBC segments and other liberal media accounts, exposure among liberals to arguments exaggerating the potential of renewable energy, emphasizing extreme weather events, and stoking anger over conservative “denialists” are only likely to be amplified.

On this possibility, the Pew analysis finds that consistent liberals rely in greater proportion than other audience segments on Twitter and Facebook as news sources, pay closer attention to political posts at Facebook, and are more likely to follow via Facebook issue-based groups. Consistent liberals are also more likely than others to block or defriend someone because they disagree with their views.

To be sure, the strong reliance by conservatives on Fox News will continue to be a major obstacle to progress on climate change and should be a subject of extreme concern.

Yet the more subtle, less examined impact of left-leaning media on politically active liberals – including activists and donors among their ranks – deserves serious attention, even if for many of us such possibilities are inconvenient to consider.

–This article originally appeared at The Conversation US.


Nisbet, M.C. (2014, Oct. 30). Fox News seeds climate doubts, but liberal media also distort. The Conversation US.


The science journalist online: Shifting roles and emerging practices

October 1, 2011 — Science journalists in the US and UK face unique pressures adapting to the social and participatory nature of online news, to economic conditions that force them to fill a diversity of roles in the newsroom, and to the many hats they must wear if they are to survive as freelancers.

This article summarizes a peer-reviewed study published at Journalism on Sept. 8, 2011.

As a consequence, science journalists in writing for online media have shifted away from their traditional role as privileged conveyors of scientific findings to a diversity of roles as curators, conveners, public intellectuals and civic educators, roles that are underwritten by the essential skills of criticism, synthesis and analysis.

These online science journalists have a more collaborative relationship with their audiences and sources and are generally adopting a more critical and interpretative stance towards the scientific community, industry, and policy-oriented organizations. Those are just a few of the key conclusions from a new peer-reviewed study that we published this month at Journalism: Theory, Criticism and Practice.  We based our analysis on a systematic review of recent studies and reports and on interviews that we conducted with nationally prominent science journalists and writers in the US and UK.

A Typology of Roles for Journalists

We began our analysis by systematically reviewing studies that describe the changing nature of science journalism and public affairs journalism more generally.  We also reviewed related recent discussions at news outlets and public forums.

Our goal was to identify the emerging practices for science reporters in this new digital era and the multiple roles that journalists are adopting.  Based on this process, to guide our investigation, we developed a typology of journalistic roles.  Typologies are valuable tools, enabling researchers to validly categorize many observations based on multiple attributes.  A chief goal of this paper was to be able to classify the roles adopted by science journalists so that these roles can be further examined, refined and tracked across future studies. We identified the following roles for online science journalists:

  • The conduit explains or translates scientific information in their reporting from experts to non-specialist publics.
  • The public intellectual synthesizes a range of complex information about science and its social implications – in which the writer has a degree of specialization – presenting that information from a distinct, identifiable perspective.
  • The agenda-setter identifies and calls attention to important areas of research, trends and issues, coverage of which is then picked up and reflected in other science news outlets.
  • The watchdog holds scientists, scientific institutions, industry and policy-orientated organizations to scrutiny.
  • The investigative reporter carries out in-depth journalistic investigations into scientific topics, especially where science meets public affairs.
  • The civic educator informs non-specialist audiences about the methods, aims, limits and risks of scientific work.
  • The curator gathers science-related news, opinion and commentary, presenting it in a structured format, with some evaluation, for audiences.
  • The convener connects and brings together scientists and various non-specialist publics to discuss science-related issues in public, either online or physically.
  • The advocate reports and writes driven by a specific worldview or on behalf of an issue or idea, such as sustainability or environmentalism.

Journalists and Commentators Interviewed for the Study

Once establishing this typology, we then conducted interviews with a sample of journalists to determine whether these categories appeared to be valid descriptions of their activities and professional roles.  While recognizing some of the method’s limitations, we judged this to be the best means for gaining rich data about how journalists interpret the changes in their professional roles and routines over the past decade.

We chose for our sample journalists who based on their organizational affiliation and status we considered to be paradigmatic cases, professionals who highlight general characteristics of online science journalists and commentators.  These journalists serve as major reference points for others in the US and UK.

Four interviewees were chosen because they occupy prominent roles in elite, legacy media outlets.  Andrew Revkin, former environment correspondent for the New York Times, writes the Dot Earth blog for the newspaper and was recognized this year by the National Academies for his “pioneering social media” about climate and sustainability with “worldwide readership and impact.” James Randerson is environment and science news editor with the Guardian, and Alok Jha is science correspondent at the same paper. Curtis Brainard is editor of The Observatory column at Columbia Journalism Review.

Two interviewees were chosen because they write for the traditional popular science magazines Scientific American and Discover.   John Horgan is the author of several popular science books, including The End of Science (1996), and writes the Cross-check blog for Scientific American.   Ed Yong writes the Not Exactly Rocket Science blog at Discover and is past winner of the National Academies Online Science Journalism Award for “engaging and jargon-free multimedia storytelling about science in the digital age.”

Eli Kintisch was chosen because he works as a journalist for the journal Science, writes for the magazine’s Science Insider blog, and is author of Hack the Planet, an examination of geo-engineering.  Three others were chosen because they write for innovative online science media endeavors. Mike Lemonick is senior writer at ClimateCentral and previously with Time magazine where he contributed more than 50 cover stories over 20 years.  Charles Petit is lead writer at MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Tracker and covered science for the San Francisco Chronicle for more than 25 years before moving on to US News & World Report.  David Roberts is staff writer and blogger at Grist, a left-leaning news and commentary site about the environment.

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Deborah Blum was chosen as she combines the prominent roles of freelance science journalist, popular science book author, professor at the University of Wisconsin, and blogger with the non-profit organization PLoS, which aims to make the world’s scientific literature freely available.

Each of these interviewees were asked a common set of open-ended questions on how they defined their own roles, their relationship with readers and sources, how these relationships may have changed in the digital age, and their view on the state of contemporary science reporting. They were also asked if they regarded their work as fitting into each of the proposed categories of science reporters and, if so, how.  Interviews were recorded with permission and lasted between 45 minutes to an hour.

Science Journalism that Is Participatory, Social, and Pluralistic

As science and society scholar Brian Trench notes, for several decades, science reporters have held a privileged status as “the principal arbiters of what scientific information enters the public domain and how it does it,” a gate-keeping role that simultaneously enhanced the status of reporters, the authority of scientists, and the prestige of their institutions. Moreover, science reporting has tended to conform to a transmission communication model in which information was relayed faithfully “from privileged sources to diverse publics.”

The current “digital age” of science reporting, however, is uniquely characterized by self-publishing online via blogs, social media and personal websites while also simultaneously filing traditional edited and vetted stories.

At the same time, individual scientists are using blogs and other social media to communicate their work and agendas directly with various publics, creating a challenge for science reporters to not only cover the publication of new scientific knowledge in journals, but also to analyze and interpret scientific findings as they are being discussed online.

As a partial consequence, there has been a dramatic expansion online in the availability of science-related information and a perceived diminished role for science reporters as chief disseminators of scientific content. As Eli Kintisch of Science magazine and Science Insider told us:

Today there are much lower barriers between my audience and information, especially information reporters used to have sort of privileged access to, that includes today digital copies of scientific papers and main sources of information such as podcasts of news conferences, transcripts of speeches, or hearings. In the past, reporters were the only ones, now there is much more broad access, including the fact that scientists themselves have blogged about the paper or event. So information goes straight to the Internet audience, versus before there was more of a privileged role of reporters as an intermediary.

In addition, scientific publishers and societies, universities, science centers and museums, and interest groups are communicating directly with wider audiences, unmediated by journalists, often using narrative and presentation formats that were once the exclusive domain of news organizations, many even employing veteran science journalists as communication staffers. Scholars of science policy and communication, as well as critics and writers, are also producing science-related content directly online.

According to science journalism scholar Trench, these trends have created an “overlapping information and communication space” in which scientists, journalists, advocates, and the people formerly known as audiences are all content contributors, each with varying knowledge, background and perspectives.

This shift in the science journalism field parallels broader trends towards employing new digital formats and practices in public affairs media that enable non-journalists to be active co-producers of news content, engaging in ‘pro-am’ [professional-amateur] reporting on issues and events and adding their lay expertise and knowledge.

As a result, online science news and content has the potential to be highly participatory, social, and collaborative. In the United States, according to the Pew Research Center, more than one third of internet users report that they have contributed to the creation of news generally, commented about it, or disseminated it via postings on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter.

However, even as the media system rapidly evolves, the traditional agenda-setting function of news media continues online, with national legacy media in the USA, such as the New York Times or the Washington Post, influencing the agenda of major public affairs-related blogs.  As other Pew studies show, more than 99 percent of links at blog posts reference original reporting or commentary appearing first at the traditional legacy media.  Just four outlets – the BBCCNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post – accounted for fully 80% of all links.

Deep Diving “Science Publics”

In this new media landscape, highly motivated users – who usually hold personal, professional, or strong political affinities for a field of science, an area of research, or a policy debate such as climate change, evolution, or stem cell research – can “deep dive” into specific science-related subjects.

These “science publics” consume, contribute, recommend, share, and comment on news and discussion of their preferred topics across media and platforms.  They expect high standards and quality for content, and they expect that content be interactive and responsive to their feedback, reposting, forwarding, or commenting. As Curtis Brainard, who covers the science beat for the Columbia Journalism Review, told us:

Rather than having a readership that remains dedicated to your publication or any single publication, you’ve got readers who will find you when you’ve got something good. There’s that ability for stories from even the smallest publications, whether that be the Columbia Journalism Review or any other small newspaper, to really go viral and get a lot of national and even international attention.

A diversity of deep content choices, however, also makes it very easy for these “science publics” to only follow and participate at an aligned network of sites or blogs that reflect their worldviews, whether their preferred viewpoint be liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism, environmentalism, scientism, atheism, or fundamentalism.

As a result, science-related bloggers on the left and right who target these highly motivated yet selective publics can attract communities of users that rival legacy media in size and depth of participation.  This ideological selectivity is magnified by the increasing reliance by audiences on recommendations from  like-minded others at Facebook and Twitter.

For legacy media journalists, navigating and synthesizing the “echo chamber” nature of online science media can prove challenging.   As Andrew Revkin, who writes the Dot Earth blog at the New York Times, described his community of users:

They are sort of all over the map ideologically. The blog is very different than most in that most blogs are built to provide a comfort zone for a particular ideological camp, for liberals or conservatives or libertarians … what I do at Dot Earth is try to maintain an open forum where everyone can speak. I try – and sometimes fail – to maintain constructive discourse in the comments … And as a result it’s different. It’s a discomfort zone … I’m not here to provide you with a soft couch and free drinks if you’re an enviro or if you are a conservative. It’s a place to challenge yourself.

Mapping the New Science Media Ecosystem

With these trends in mind, we argue that a more suitable metaphor than the traditional transmission model of science journalism for describing this digital space is that of a “science media ecosystem,” drawing on respected technology journalist John Naughton’s description of a new media environment online. He wrote:

The new ecosystem will be richer, more diverse and immeasurably more complex because of the number of content producers, the density of the interactions between them and their products, the speed with which actors in this space can communicate with one another and the pace of development made possible by ubiquitous networking.

Applying this idea, the evolving science media ecosystem consists of legacy media in their print and online formats, including the Guardian and the New York Times; science blogging and aggregation sites, most notably; the news and blogging communities formed by journals such as ScienceNature and PLoS; the news and blogging communities formed by legacy science magazines including Discover and Scientific American; ideologically-driven advocacy blogs and sites such as PharyngulaClimate Progress and Climate Depot; and reflexive and meta-discussions of science journalism at MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Tracker and the Colombia Journalism Review.

Characteristic of this new science media ecosystem are innovative business models for producing science-related content which include “quasi-journalistic ventures set up by the scientific community” such as the communities at PLoS and Science; new ventures emanating from inside journalism such as the blogs and content features at the New York Times and the Guardian; and ‘developments in social networking and on the web which are both changing the way journalism is done and the way the public get their information’ such as In addition, there is a fourth model consisting of foundation funded, not-for-profit ventures such as the environment-focused sites Grist and Climate Central.

This rise in the numbers of actors and types of business models for producing science-related content has mirrored a decline in the numbers of science writers employed by legacy media in the US, with the workloads of the science reporters who remain increasing, with time-pressed reporters increasingly reliant on subsidies from scientific institutions, universities and public relations agencies to find material.

The US-based National Association of Science Writers (NASW) noted that its membership in 2010 fell by approximately 200, or almost 10 percent, in a year.  A report on science journalism in the UK found science reporting had been largely “spared the ravages of the US,” although “numbers employed had stagnated.” The report highlighted in particular concerns about a lack of investigative science reporting.

Changing Roles in the New Media Ecosystem

Changing journalist roles within the science media ecosystem reflect economic trends in the international news industry.  As Indiana University’s Mark Deuze describes “[news] workers compete for (projectized, one-off, per-story) jobs rather than employers compete for (the best, brightest, most talented) employees.” Since freelancing relies on maintaining multiple streams of income-related activity, the trend has driven an increase in the diversity of roles that a science journalist might pursue.

Examples of journalists performing the roles typologized at the opening to our study have always existed, but the distribution of journalists across categories has grown more diverse in recent years. This trend is pronounced in US science journalism, with Deborah Blum of the University of Wisconsin noting to us that the industry-wide move to freelancing has:

… driven our changing perception of what a science journalist is. A science journalist wears a lot of hats, the way I do … I write books, I do magazine articles, I teach – [this] is much more the twenty-first century version of a journalist.

In this section, we describe how the journalists we interviewed reflected on the different role categories outlined in our typology.

Conduits and explainers. Despite the imperatives for role diversity driven by the increased number of freelancers and the new online content features such as blogs featured at legacy media, a consistent theme among the journalists we interviewed was that the traditional role of reporting new scientific developments remained a cornerstone for their work.

Alok Jha of the Guardian noted that the main goal was reporting “what’s happening and what’s interesting. That’s the primary thing,” and he noted that other roles and functions flow from this primary reporting role. Charles Petit, a veteran science reporter and lead writer for MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Tracker, said science reporters “explain current events by asking scholars about them, and these tend to be scientists’.

Jha was careful to distinguish this reporting function from roles as “conduits” and “explainers.” Petit said the reporting role was previously “much more dominant among science writers” and “it remains important.”

Blum and Ed Yong, who writes the award-winning Not Exactly Rocket Science blog for Discover magazine, were among reporters who said a core feature of their writing was explaining science understandably to non-specialists. Yong said:

I think that area of science reporting often gets forgotten about in the mainstream. I’m not sure it’s as valued as strongly as – I don’t know – uncovering acts of fraud or misconduct or finding juicy human stories. I think the very simple act of making complex things simple is tremendously valuable. It’s essential for science journalism.

Curators of information. Interviewees generally agreed that sifting through and evaluating the vast amount of science-related content has become an increasingly prominent function for science reporters. The Guardian, for example, created Story Trackers, which trace the coverage and commentary on major science stories as they develop, with readers actively pointing out interesting coverage.  James Randerson of the Guardian said that, with so much science content available, curation is “about what it means to be a journalist in the digital age.” He said:

We made a very conscious decision to add value to stories by doing this kind of curation role, and basically admitting that we are not the fount of all knowledge, that we do have the ability to present information in a useful way and to hopefully decide which information is useful and which isn’t, and to try and bring in the information that’s good and present it in a way that’s meaningful, and to use our readers, our readership, and the people who are part of our community to help us in that task.

His colleague Jha said curation of stories where there are multiple angles and perspectives on the issue also allows for a more realistic portrayal of scientific work because “scientific papers when they are published are not the be all and end all. They are the start of a massive conversation.”

Curation is also an important function for producers of meta-discussions of science journalism carried out by, for example, The Observatory column at the Columbia Journalism Review. Its editor, Curtis Brainard, noted that curation was more than aggregation of content and adding value to stories is essential. He said:

It means informed or value-added aggregation. If you go to a museum, the curators don’t just put up a painting; they also put up a little sign next to it, explaining something about that work. That’s more what we do, that informed aggregation … We’re collecting headlines, but at the same time, we’re telling you why we’re recommending this story, or why we’re recommending you don’t read this other story.

David Roberts, a staff blogger with Grist, added that the volume of information has meant that “just about everyone online is being forced to play that role sometimes these days,” but for him, the curatorial role has moved to Twitter, which is “just a much handier tool for the job.”

Civic educators. While science journalists have traditionally been resistant to viewing their work as education, some interviewees noted that the limitless availability of space online allowed reporters to fulfill more an educational role. As Brainard told us:

Before digital media, the news was the news, and yesterday was ancient history. There was no efficient way to archive information for the public at your traditional news outlet. But now, the web has changed all that and so journalists need to be not only presenting the news, but they need to make pertinent background information readily accessible … the web allows us to do that. News outlets should almost develop these encyclopedias at their back end. The New York Times has done a great job on this.

Contextualized science reporting has an education function, according to Yong, not only promoting scientific achievements, but also showing “where scientists disagree, areas where controversies are going on, because that’s part of science, that’s an inescapable part of the scientific process … it shows people scientists are human and that science is a human process.”

Several journalists interviewed, however, were resistant or ambiguous about this role. Jha noted that it’s “a role that if it happens, then great … but it’s not the primary intention.” Mike Lemonick, formerly of Time magazine, now with Climate Central, and who teaches at Princeton University, said that most journalists have a strong resistance to the educator role:

Educators identify areas where knowledge is necessary, and provide it. An educator provides a discrete body of knowledge; they try and tell you everything about a certain subject, within limits of time. [Journalists] put educational content in a story in order to make news understandable. Another thing we do not do is assess what was learned.

Public intellectuals. Reporters in this role are similar to traditional newspaper commentators or columnists, moving frequently between specialized topics that they present from their distinctive worldview.  Several interviewees were resistant to being classified in this role, but John Horgan, who writes the Cross-check blog for Scientific American, contributes to science magazines and writes popular science books, is the interviewee who illustrates this role most clearly.

While working as a staff reporter for Scientific American in the 1990s, he said he ‘became dissatisfied’ with the constraints of traditional reporting and he wanted to undertake more opinion-based, interpretative reporting. He classified himself as a “critical debunker” and said he looks for “exaggerated or erroneous scientific claims” that he tries to question and debunk. Horgan said:

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 … I just enjoy that form of journalism myself. It’s a paradox: it’s using subjectivity to ultimately get a more clear, objective picture of things.

Agenda-setters. Randerson said a distinct role for science reporters remained “being able to project the story … The readership and the influence of the Guardian are very important in terms of making a story acquire legs and really start moving and change what governments think.’

A form of agenda-setting is happening also through social media, with Revkin, for example, sending out his blog posts through Twitter to “sort of to test the idea and get it propagating.”

Brainard noted: “One thing that hasn’t been lost in the media is that desire to be first … We love it when we can get out with an analysis before anybody else and become the foundation on which all the following coverage is built.”

Watchdogs. Interviewees agreed they generally fulfilled the watchdog role, over scientific institutions and the scientific community, but also over individuals or groups making false scientific claims, and over social actors intervening in science policy discussions. A quote from Jha is representative: “We are playing watchdog, but on all sides, really.”

Conveners. Science reporters connect scientists with various publics to discuss science. Revkin said this was a major part of his current work, either online or in person. He said:

A big subset of posts that I do are along those lines. When I go places to speak, quite often I’ll be in the role of moderator or kind of convener … where I am on stage with four or five scientists or technologies or engineers or academics and challenging them in the same way as I do on the blog.


We approached this article as laying the groundwork for additional research examining the rapidly evolving science media ecosystem and, as a result, we recognize the limitations to our analysis.   We focused on elite media in the US and UK and future research might explore the extent to which a similar ecosystem exists in other countries and cultures. We chose to base this first part of our longer term study on elite media, rather than regional, local or community media, which may not have the resources or organizational capacity for its reporters to undertake the variety of roles outlined here.

The new science media ecosystem in the US and UK that we have mapped in this article – a mostly online environment that is deeply pluralistic, participatory and social – has presented challenges to the traditional professional role and working practices of the science reporter.  In this environment, journalists have moved from their dominant historical role as privileged conveyors of scientific findings to an increasing plurality of roles that involve diverse, pluralistic and interactive ways of telling science news.

The increasing plurality of roles has been driven also by the shifting economic and career conditions for science journalists, who are, with increasing number in the United States, working as freelancers.  The increase in role diversity is also a function of news organizations requiring their staff journalists to not only master various multimedia storytelling and newsgathering formats, but also report, write, create, and communicate across multiple mediums and in different formats.

The roles that are becoming increasingly prevalent are curator, convener, public intellectual and civic educator, roles that are underwritten by the essential skills of criticism, synthesis and analysis.

There remains, however, as described by our interviewees, a strong continuation of the traditional journalistic role conceptions of conduit and agenda-setter.  The traditional reporter role emerged in interviews as being more fundamental to online science journalists than we had anticipated at the outset of our research.

Journalists also strongly identified with the watchdog role, stressing that this meant they covered critically the scientific community itself, new scientific findings, challenges to scientific knowledge, science policy claims and, indeed, science journalism itself.

Yet, as several interviewees stressed, critical, interpretative, analytical reporting cut across several roles, suggesting to us that the structural, organizational and professional changes in the digital age have enabled science reporters to more generally fulfill the historically much hoped for roles of science critics and civic interpreters.

Despite the rise in advocacy journalism, none of the interviewees self-identified in the advocate role, though this likely reflects the absence of a professional advocate from the sample we were able to interview.   In addition, apart from some examples from established legacy media, the interviewed journalists did not self-identify strongly as investigative reporters.

Interviewees noted that legacy media had the resources and expertise to conduct investigative reporting, but, in the US at least, investigative work is now being carried out by, or in partnership with, non-profits, universities or philanthropically supported organizations, such as ProPublica or American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop.

The trend toward non-profit models that have flowered among a collaborative network of investigative reporters has been comparatively slow to develop in similar fashion among science journalists.

Still, there are existing non-profit models in science journalism that future research should examine, including Climate CentralYale Environment 360, and the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media.   Yet these models stand as just six among what investigative reporter Charles Lewis has identified as more than 60 non-profit public affairs journalism initiatives at the national and local level in the US.

Given this growing population of ventures, future research should attempt to systematically account for the features and principles that can usefully inform the growth of non-profit science journalism.


Fahy, D., & Nisbet, M. (2011). The science journalist online: Shifting roles and emerging practices Journalism, 12(7), 778-793