Media relations 101 for climate scientists

The IPCC has apparently told scientists who will contribute to its next assessment report (AR5) to be wary of media queries and to contact the secretariat’s media team if approached. One scientist who will be contributing to the next IPCC report, Edward Carr, was not impressed, saying: “This “bunker mentality” will do nothing for the public image of the IPCC.”

Andrew Revkin at the New York Times’ DotEarth blog emailed IPCC chairman Rajenda Pachauri about the letter; Pachauri’s reply appears to confirm that it is the prospect of contributing scientists speaking on behalf of the IPCC that he is concerned about. Other comments about their work, it seems, are less of an issue.

Carr and Revkin are both of the view that the letter was a somewhat misguided effort, rather than a nefarious attempt to hide from the media. Both make the point that openness is the only way to rebuke the criticisms of the IPCC’s processes.

One can appreciate the difficult line the IPCC is trying to walk, however. Hundreds of scientists contribute on what is basically a voluntary basis to each Assessment Report, over many months, with little administrative support. While the science and scientists involved in the IPCC reports have been largely exonerated, several inquiries have criticised the disclosure and transparency employed. In otherwords, the IPCC has been given a very clear message that it must be seen to be doing right.

When it comes to “openness”, publishing data and methodologies and diverting more resources into supporting FOI requests are relatively straightforward. By contrast, a fear that an off-the-cuff comment from a scientist will be misrepresented in the media is understandably the stuff of nightmares for the IPCC secretariat these days.

DotEarth also has a link to a media guide prepared for scientists on behalf of the IPCC. As Andrew Revkin writes, it’s fascinating reading (especially for us journalists).

The summary of journalists as a whole doesn’t seem overly unfair; bullet points are titled: “College-educated; Overworked; Underpaid; Inquisitive; Skeptical; Jaded; World-weary; Mostly generalists”.  Indeed most of the document appears to be fairly standard media-training advice about how to deal with initial requests from reporters, how to be clear and avoid criticising the media, saying something that can be misinterpreted, or being tricked into saying something unintended by the more wily hacks.

[As an online journalist, it was disappointing, however, to see the first bit of advice to scientists upon receiving a call from a journalist is to ask "When's your deadline?" Few things are quite as irksome.]

The guide also has a list of words that scientists may use differently to the media and the general public:

Aerosol
Uncertainty
Literature
Enhance
Risk
Disruptive
Ozone
Bias
Viral
Exotic
Error
Proposal
Positive
Trend
SST
Negative
Species
THC
Feedback
Organic
Regime
Radiation
Enrichment
Sign
Theory
Exploitation
Significant
Model
Commitment
Mean
Sensitivity
Fix
Discipline
Reservoir
Transient
Manipulation
Ecology
Scheme
PDF
Review

Most of it is pretty straightforward, though we’re surprised that ‘trick’ isn’t there — and we’re still trying to figure the alternate meanings of some of them (namely PDF and THC). Answers on the back of an envelope, please.

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