MLA and climate change scientist Andrew Weaver’s libel victory highlights the important role and challenges for subject-area specialists within journalism.

[[{“fid”:”4008″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“height”:”478″,”width”:”640″,”style”:”width: 300px; height: 224px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: right;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]By Laura Stewart

As a journalism student with a background in environmental consulting, I have often been told that experience like mine is in strong demand to help the public make sense of complex scientific information. 

Yet, as I have been exploring journalism ethics, I have begun to wonder whether my science training, experience and enthusiasm could actually be a disadvantage. How does a specialist set aside strong views in order to cover all angles of a topic? When does background become baggage? 

Strong views about climate change science were close to the centre of a recent B.C. Supreme Court ruling. When I heard about the case, I was quick to feel support for climate scientist Andrew Weaver and indignation against the National Post columnists who were found liable for defaming him. 

In late 2009 and early 2010, the National Post published four articles that Weaver said were damaging to his reputation. The first two columns said that Weaver had blamed two break-ins at his office on the fossil fuel industry. The latter two columns said that Weaver was calling for the leader of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to resign. Weaver denied making either of these statements.

In her ruling last month, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Emily Burke said the columnists were not malicious when they neglected facts and chose to portray Weaver as a dishonest and self-interested climate scientist; instead, they were driven by a “skeptical view of climate change.” 

As I read the ruling, in spite of my indignation, I kept noticing a similarity between two of the columnists and myself. Like Terence Corcoran and Peter Foster, I have followed the debate about climate change science for decades. Our views are different, but they are firmly held and built on our deep backgrounds with the issue. 

If a biased opinion on Weaver’s science was behind the faulty portrayal, then the solution might seem simple: polarized issues should be covered only by disinterested journalists.

That would exclude Corcoran, Foster and me from covering climate change. It might also exclude me from covering my own field of grassland conservation and many climate specialists from covering climate, simply because prolonged involvement with a field can build allegiance to ideas that are generally accepted within it.

But a closer reading of the ruling reveals a weakness in this approach. Some of the most problematic statements in the columns at issue were drawn from the work of other journalists: reporters who were not known for covering climate science.

Climate change and the science and policy questions surrounding it are complex topics. Generalist reporters cannot be expected to gather the necessary background, adapt to the specialized communication style of scientific sources and anticipate the ways their stories may be used, all in the few hours available for preparing a story.

To fill the need for specialist reporters, a new mentorship program at Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs is helping established subject-area specialists make the shift to being global correspondents. The Munk School’s Robert Steiner, director of The Fellowships in Global Journalism, told me the biggest challenge for specialists is not managing conflicts of interest but learning a new “way of looking at the world”—that of a journalist—while preserving their own disciplinary view and ultimately being able to use both ways of looking to find and develop stories.

When conflicts do arise for specialists, Steiner stressed, it’s important to work with an editor. Even excellent journalists may overlook parts of their stories that haven’t been fully explored because of some sort of reluctance or discomfort. An editor can help figure out what is in the way and whether the journalist can get beyond it in order to give the story the treatment it requires.

A very different view of editors comes from G. Michael Bowen, who used several case studies to examine media representations of climate change science. In a 2011 paper in the Journal for Activism in Science and Technology Education, Bowen described a case where an editor removed wording that a writer knew was important for accuracy and another where an editor decided which of two potential stories would run without drawing on the subject-area knowledge of the reporter. These cases show that a strong two-way working relationship between journalist and editor is not always realized in practice.

In this highly charged environment, specialists’ voices are sorely needed to help both journalists and the public sort out what is clear, what is uncertain, what is false and what is important. Journalists and editors need to consider carefully how to make room for subject expertise.

For complex issues such as climate change, journalism cannot rely on shortcuts to an appearance of independence. Responsible communication requires hard work to engage fully with the topic, always checking and rechecking personal assumptions through dedication to truth and to the public interest.

“The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification,” write Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in their book The Elements of Journalism. To put this discipline into practice in my own work, I am thinking about our scientific practice of falsification: always trying to disprove our own theories. As a science journalist seeking truth, I could do well to keep returning to a few basic questions: Could what I just wrote be false? If so, who might say so? And what do they have to say?

Calgary Journal reporter Laura Stewart has worked in oilfield environmental consulting, specializing in native grassland plant identification, and served on the board of the Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan and on the steering committee of Public Pastures—Public Interest, a citizens’ group dedicated to conserving Crown-owned grazing lands. She is now a first-year journalism student at Mount Royal University in Calgary and can be reached at @arcolaura.

Illustration photo by Dave Morris, via Flickr.