ExxonMobil has funded a campaign designed to highlight points of controversy in the science. How do you think this has affected media coverage?
AR: The documented efforts by various industry-funded groups to dust the discourse with just enough uncertainty and confusion to make the public go "never mind" and the press snooze have been extraordinarily effective. They simultaneously exploit innate characteristics of science, where uncertainty is actually normal, and the media, which crave clarity and loathe the incremental. This is a recipe for stasis.
Scientists consistently complain that the journalistic practice of "balance" allows skeptics to gain an unfair toehold in media coverage, which ignores consensus in favor of controversy. Do you agree, and do journalists need to rethink their approach to covering complex scientific issues?
AR: Balance is a necessary evil, a crutch, particularly in daily journalism, but only works with coverage of the science-policy interface if the journalist works hard to label the voices in a story to reflect what they represent (a consensus or knowledgeable minority) and certainly to reflect their motivation or potential conflict (paid by industry? on staff at an environmental group?).
What would be the key points you'd stress with other journalists about climate change? What subjects should they hit?
AR: Not just for climate change, but just in general. When you can step back, whether it's sprawl or nonpoint source pollution or climate change, there are things going on around you that are profound, that are transforming landscapes. And we ignore them because they are happening in this incremental fashion that journalism just does not recognize.