Science journalist Miles O’Brien speaks about science journalism and its role in covering climate change

As research over the past few decades has shown, climate change is a real and prevalent danger. But, the way it's covered by journalists needs to change.
Science correspondent for PBS NewsHour and producer-director for NOVA, Miles O’Brien, spoke to journalism students and faculty in Fischer Auditorium on Oct. 24, 2019 as a part of his AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award Lecture Series. Courtesy of Twitter via @milesobrien

Peering through his black, square glasses, Miles O’Brien, science correspondent for PBS NewsHour and producer-director for NOVA, looks out to a Fisher Auditorium full of journalism students and faculty alike before speaking on science journalism and its role in covering climate change.

Despite having studied history at Georgetown University, O’Brien began covering science journalism after hearing CNN wanted to hire a science correspondent. Though not having much knowledge on the subject at the time, he was able to snag the job by convincing his interviewers that while he may not know a lot about science, neither did the American public.

Therefore, O’Brien saw himself as the best candidate to try to explain scientific news and make it interesting. This is what he is continuing to do now with climate change and speaks as a part of the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award Lecture Series.

For decades, scientists have understood the severity of climate change. The Keeling Curve, published in 1960, has accurately predicted the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as it correlates with increases in global temperature.

Numerous scientific articles have been published confirming the reality of the crisis, like this one from 2004 that analyzed pre-existing scientific literature to demonstrate the scientific community’s consensus that climate change is happening. However, O’Brien said this is not enough.

“When it comes to climate change, it is this sense of false equivalency,” O’Brien said. “The problem is that journalists tend to think in terms of Democrats versus Republicans; get the left, get the right and at the end you get a balanced story.”

By attempting to represent both sides equally, journalists fail to demonstrate the overwhelming support climate change has within the scientific community. This has the power to misrepresent the arguments being made and their legitimacy as valid claims. Instead, O’Brien said journalists have a responsibility to get as close to the truth as possible.

“It’s not necessarily that 50-50 balance,” O’Brien said. “But I think that ultimately serves the public much better.”

Additionally, O’Brien said that journalists need to be able to give the public solutions instead of focusing solely on the grim consequences climate change could have.

“If we just tell the doom and gloom stories, it’s disempowering as anything could be,” O’Brien said.

Instead, by highlighting the ways in which people can improve the world using available resources, journalists can encourage people to be more engaged.

“Our role as journalists is to always recognize that, and not forget, the reality of what’s happening right now and the possibility that we can guide people to see some solutions,” O’Brien said. “And I’m hopeful that … slowly but surely we will move the needle.”

Edited by Ben Scott | bscott@themaneater.com

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