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Polar Bear
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Critiquing climate coverage

A solitary bear peers into the ice melting under its feet. A short skim through the text below this classic climate change image is often all it takes for glaciologist Twila Moon to find the words that set her teeth on edge: polar ice caps. “I’m amazed how many people say ‘polar ice caps’—it’s totally unscientific and not, not something we ever talk about as researchers!” says Moon, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oregon in Eugene. She rarely encounters such errors in papers and presentations, but they’ve grown familiar through her participation in Climate Feedback, a project where scientists provide feedback about media coverage of climate science.

The goal, explains founder and University of California, Merced, project scientist Emmanuel Vincent, is to give scientists a voice and a means to impact the quality of the information that reaches the public. Both the scientists and journalists who work with the website believe that climate scientists can make a crucial impact on media coverage of this important topic. “Climate scientists have a form of information that is relevant to almost everyone on the planet,” says journalist Eric Holthaus, who requested that the group critique one of his pieces last summer. “Their discipline, whether they chose it for this reason or not, is a very political one. It makes sense for them to know that, and that their opinion matters beyond just academic circles.”

Furthermore, participating in such outreach projects can offer career benefits, website contributors say. Some suggest that providing feedback on the website might boost their visibility among scientific peers. Others say it helps early-career researchers gain valuable experience with outreach and communication. Collectively, participants achieve intangible perks—sometimes simply a sense of satisfaction—while also improving how climate science is communicated to the world.

Collaborative commentary

The project relies on volunteer researchers like Moon, from graduate students to those with decades of experience, who sign up to fact-check mainstream media stories that claim to be based on science. Contributors must have a Ph.D. and a recent paper in a top journal in its field, and they are vetted by Vincent; at present 79 scientists have enlisted. Guest contributors—27 so far—are also occasionally invited to comment on stories within their particular areas of expertise.

Emmanuel Vincent

Emmanuel Vincent

Credit: Veronica Adrover/University of California, Merced

The reviewing process is relatively simple: An article catches Vincent’s eye or a journalist requests feedback on a piece, and Vincent emails all the contributors. Researchers chime in with their thoughts and can see others’ feedback using an online annotation platform called Hypothesis that allows in-line comments on Web pages. Contributors annotate the story, provide overall comments, and rate the article for scientific credibility on a scale of -2 to 2, with 2 being the highest score. They can publish their in-line annotations whenever they like, but their ratings and overall comments remain private at first. Once all the scientists who signed up to review a story have submitted their evaluations, Vincent calculates the article’s mean score and either he or the website’s associate editor, Daniel Nethery, write a summary of the commentary about the piece. Then they are published along with individual researchers’ overall comments. These comments are credited to the individual researchers, but participants say that being part of the Climate Feedback community makes them feel less pressure and anxiety about being a lone voice doling out public critique. For now, the target audience is primarily journalists, editors, and other scientists.

Reviews range from simple comments such as “this is a good piece of science journalism” to detailed scientific explanations such as how “polar ice cap” fails to distinguish between land ice and sea ice. Other comments are brief technical notes with citations and graphs, while some reflect on quotes from scientists that are included in the piece. Contributors review as much or as little as they like, Moon says.

Climate Feedback reports sometimes trigger a response. Occasionally, a commenter on the original article will add a link to Climate Feedback’s review. Every so often, a journalist responds to the researchers on the website or via email. And in a few instances, publications have issued corrections to the original article based on Climate Feedback input. For example, when Holthaus published his August 2015 Rolling Stone article titled “The Point of No Return,” he approached the group for comments so that he could hear perspectives beyond those of the sources he had interviewed for the piece. Based on these additional comments, Holthaus and his editors decided to update the story with links to several key research papers, even though this deviated from the magazine’s standard style.

Media training

Contributing reviews via Climate Feedback is good training for scientists, says website participant Eric Guilyardi, a climate scientist at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom and director of research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research. Scientists are often pushed to communicate solo, whether in media interviews or presentations at scientific meetings, which can be scary. The shared platform that Climate Feedback provides, on the other hand, is likely to make engagement feel easier and less risky, Guilyardi says. “As scientists the media world is very alien to us, and vice versa—it can be intimidating for a journalist to talk to a scientist. This is a new way of sharing information both ways.”

Website contributors with less media exposure can also learn how to answer questions or convey scientific information in a general interest story by reading more experienced commenters’ input, Guilyardi points out. This type of training is important, he says, because public outreach “is valued in the science community, be it by peers, institutions—or as a specific activity in research projects. Maybe that wasn’t the case some years ago, but the mere scale of the problem and the attacks we have been under as climate scientists have pushed a number of us outside our labs.”

To Guilyardi, outreach through projects like this also provides a means to gain perspective as a scientist. “As soon as you present the science to the general public, you have to take a few steps back [and] have a broad understanding of science issues, which you don’t necessarily have when you’re exploring very tiny specialized corners of research,” he says. Outreach “has widened my knowledge of many issues, both as a person and as a scientist.”

Beginners’ boost?

Although Climate Feedback can function as a media training sandbox, whether it pays off for early-career scientists trying to make their mark in academia isn’t as obvious. “At this point, there’s not a lot of recognition for this sort of work—it’s just a line on my CV,” says Moon, who will begin a faculty position at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom in May.

Twila Moon

Twila Moon

Courtesy of Twila Moon

Her work with Climate Feedback didn’t come up during her interview, but she thinks it may have helped in minor ways. “Seeing other people’s names on comments, other scientists seeing yours, … it’s hard to ever know how those sorts of things add up, but I think they do tend to make a difference, even if no one ever says it to you directly,” she says. As the project scales up, Vincent hopes to find ways for this informal “peer review of the media” to receive more recognition, in ways similar to current efforts to recognize scientific peer-review activities.

Despite the possible benefits, junior researchers may feel that they shouldn’t be spending precious time on anything that takes them away from their science, says Britta Voss, a postdoc at the U.S. Geological Survey in Boulder, Colorado, who studies carbon in river systems. “On an individual level, it can be hard for early-career scientists to participate in these things because there’s still so much pressure to do straight research,” she says. For her part, though, Voss is a frequent contributor to Climate Feedback; like most participants, she’s interested in outreach and carves the time out to do it.

Voss also acknowledges that some might hesitate to get involved because of perceived risks, such as being attacked on a public forum. Although she hasn’t experienced any critiques related to her involvement with the project, she adds that “it can feel like it might be a risk at our career stage to some. You don’t know if it will help or hurt, so people have reservations about taking on such activities.”

Nonetheless, Voss and other Climate Feedback contributors agree that being able to voice their views—whether to praise, critique, or simply corroborate a fact—is rewarding in itself.  “I’ve looked for other ways to engage with science in the public sphere, and found either they don’t exist or will take more time and energy on my part,” Moon says. “But Climate Feedback has been a really positive experience.”

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