Tens of thousands of new research papers about climate change are published every year globally. It is unreasonable to expect journalists to stay on top of this much information with fewer resources at their disposal (see the latest round of journalism lay-offs in Canada) while co-ordinated efforts to mislead the public abound.
To help, journalists can rely on research evidence – particularly evidence syntheses, which bring together what is known from the totality of existing research on a topic. Journalists can also develop relationships with researchers who synthesize evidence and can relay the quality of and gaps in that research, so they can do a better job of battling the bunk and provide audiences with news they can use to tackle the climate crisis.
The exponential growth in climate change research in recent years (what authors of a recent Nature Climate Change article dubbed a “literature explosion”) inherently increases the risk of selection bias, or privileging certain types of scientific evidence over others. Without systematic approaches that bring together what is known from the totality of existing research, we are prone to picking and choosing research that suits our interests or preconceived ideas.
A recent review of climate change research in the news shows that cherry-picking scientific evidence plays out in our news coverage. A 2023 review published in Global Environmental Change examining more than 50,000 papers published on climate change in a single year, found nine per cent of the papers received any media coverage, while only two per cent received extensive coverage (papers with more than 10 media mentions).
The focus of the news coverage showed a bias toward reporting results from natural sciences, especially the kind of mid-century and end-of-the-century projections and large-scale consequences of climate change which have become all too familiar – consider the repeated record-breaking “world’s hottest day” projections and headlines, for example.
What gets lost in this reporting is a wealth of research on the social, economic, and technological aspects of climate change and potential solutions for solving the climate crisis efficiently and fairly. It’s not to say we need more coverage, but coverage that’s centred on actionable findings from evidence syntheses.
It seems like journalists are starting to prioritize, at least in theory, stories that inspire action and hope over those that strike paralysis and fear. This year’s journalism trends report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford found most news publishers (72 per cent of the 303 publishers surveyed) worry about news avoidance, especially around depressing topics like climate change. To counter that avoidance, news publishers are upping their explainer content, Q&A formats, and inspirational stories – all of which will benefit from relying on synthesized research evidence.
In Canada, these developments are happening against a news media backdrop of declining profits, continued layoffs and dwindling audiences and diminishing public trust. Overall, trust in news in Canada has declined from 55 percent in 2016 to 40 per cent in 2023, according to the 2023 Digital News Report.
All of this translates into news outlets having fewer opportunities to reach Canadians and provide them with trustworthy information. Although it’s not a panacea, relying on evidence syntheses to inform news coverage is one way to address declining public trust, while also supporting reporters as they cover increasingly complex topics with fewer resources.
Our interest in putting rigorous evidence at the centre of everyday life comes from our work at the Global Commission on Evidence to Address Societal Challenges. The commission is a grassroots global effort born during the pandemic that seeks to offer recommendations about how anyone – from governments around the world to everyday citizens – can improve their use of evidence, both in routine times and in future global crises.
One of us (Thornhill Verma, also a freelance journalist covering fisheries, oceans and climate change) serves as the executive lead for the secretariat of the commission, while the other (Waddell) supports governments’ use of evidence in decision-making at the McMaster Health Forum, which houses the secretariat.
A key takeaway from our work is that relying on evidence syntheses of high-quality studies is much more reliable than depending on single studies, expert panels, expert opinions or traditional literature reviews without rigorous methodologies.
An evidence synthesis includes all scientific studies that have addressed the same question to arrive at an overall understanding of what is known, including how this may vary by groups, such as racialized communities, and contexts, such as low socio-economic neighbourhoods. Given the proliferation of climate change research, this area is particularly ripe for more evidence syntheses, and the research community has recently started to embrace this approach.
Becoming familiar with evidence syntheses brings the additional benefit of helping journalists to ask important questions of any new research they encounter, while also producing reporting that avoids spin. For example, journalists can ask researchers the same types of questions that researchers undertaking a systematic review ask of each study they review: How does this study fit in the broader body of existing evidence? How has what is known about a particular topic evolved over time? How much uncertainty exists in what the evidence tells us? And what conflicts of interest or bias might have gone unaddressed?
A recent example of an evidence synthesis innovation that journalists can consult is “living evidence” – an approach offering ready-to-go summaries of evidence on a range of topics, such as climate change adaptations or addressing misinformation in health, that are continuously updated as new syntheses emerge. Having access to updated evidence when it’s needed is particularly helpful for policymakers as noted in this primer on living evidence in Nature, which included members of the Global Evidence Commission, but can also help reporters.
The Evidence Commission report offers further insights on eight forms of research evidence, including data analytics, modeling, evaluation, behavioural/implementation research, qualitative insights, evidence synthesis, technology assessment/ cost-effectiveness analysis and guidelines, and ways to match forms of evidence to different types of questions.
Take, for example, reporting that aims to uncover the dimensions of a particular problem, if the problem is worsening, or if it is a bigger problem here than elsewhere. Data analytics and modeling are particularly helpful forms of evidence for addressing these sorts of questions. And, if the reporting aims to highlight proposed solutions for addressing a problem, then evaluations, such as evidence syntheses of effectiveness studies like randomized-controlled trials or process evaluations that examine how and why an option worked, are more useful.
So, what are best practices for journalists?
First, wherever possible use evidence syntheses (and preferably living evidence syntheses), such as those available via Social Systems Evidence, to inform reporting. Where this research evidence is not available – or when instead a journalist is presented with a single study, as is often the case – look for high-quality reviews on the topic and, if available, compare how that study sits in the wider landscape of evidence.
If not available, highlight this lack of evidence synthesis in your reporting and ask multiple researchers in the field for their opinions. The Evidence Commission report offers guidance for how to get the most out of other types of evidence, including expert panels or expert opinion, jurisdictional scans and white papers.
Second, create relationships with evidence intermediaries (those who can relay what evidence exists and what it means) and researchers producing that evidence. When timelines are tight, evidence intermediaries (such as the McMaster Health Forum) and producers, such as the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence and the Campbell Collaboration’s Climate Solutions Coordinating Group, can help to identify evidence syntheses when they are available and to fill in the gaps when they are not.
To help, the Global Evidence Commission maintains a list of credible global evidence producers, organized by topic and the forms of evidence they produce.
Using best evidence in news reporting – in climate change and beyond — can help journalists repair public trust and also help catalyze action. If you or your news outlet would like to learn more, you can reach the commission at email@example.com and www.evidencecommission.org.
Jenn Thornhill Verma is a freelance journalist and the executive lead of the Global Evidence Commission secretariat, which is housed at the McMaster Health Forum at McMaster University.