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Fact checking, environmental journalism and summing up on 'mini' ice ages

  • 12 Oct 2011, 18:00
  • Christian Hunt

express-ice-age-oct-2011The journalist Jonathan Leake posted a comment on our piece about the 'mini' ice age story, essentially claiming that the story got mangled in the editing process. He has also got the Global Warming Policy Foundation to append an explanatory statement to their full repost of the article.

Unfortunately the Express story still stands. The Express has opted out of the Press Complaints Commission process, so isn't even any theoretical way to take them to task for it.

We've done a bit of asking around about this story, and the general opinion seems to be that the Sunday Times made a bit of a mess of it. But there's clearly a problem here when a scientific paper can - through a process which sounds like more cock-up than conspiracy, to be honest - be misrepresented in one newspaper, enthusiastically promoted by lobbyists and copied (and amplified to the main front page story) by another paper, ending up with an article which has basic and formidable factual inaccuracies.

If the general public are confused about climate science, and if interest in it as an issue has melted away amongst policymakers and journalists, this kind of episode has probably played it's part.

As one commenter on our blog post put it in reponse to Leake:

"you're saying that journalists who don't have any understanding of the subject matter dick around with your articles after you've finished them."

A discussion has been sparked online by an article suggesting that scientists should be able to fact check articles about their work before they are published.

It's easy to see what is problematic about that suggestion - it could cut across journalistic integrity, and there is a reasonable argument that those who are used to communicating to other scientists might not be best placed to judge what's appropriate in a journalistic setting.

But on the other hand, episodes like this do suggest that the current fact-checking processes of some environmental journalism, in a time of budget cuts and increased pressure to produce 'content', are inadequate.

What do you think? What would need to change to prevent these basic mistakes getting out of hand?

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