Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Chilling news

Journalists should really go to CJR Daily if they want to improve in their reportage. Here's a recent report from the site, noting the lapses by the US media in the coverage of the melting Arctic ice. After reading the story, I wonder: How do Filipino journalists fare in science reporting? Or do even journalists know that there's such thing as science journalism?

A Reporting Error Frozen in Time?

Curtis Brainard

"Science writers often face the same technical difficulty as foreign correspondents -- their sources speak a different language. In the case of the former, this is a metaphorical challenge, and in the latter, a literal one, but the consequence is the same. Sometimes the finer points of a story get lost in translation. That was the case in recent coverage of melting Arctic ice, where one misinterpreted point made some already bad news look even worse."

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland announced last Wednesday the results of a new study shedding further light on the retreat of Arctic sea ice, a subject of serious concern for some years now. Every summer Arctic sea ice melts, and refreezes during the winter. The amount that melts every year has been increasing since scientists began collecting satellite data nearly three decades ago -- a worrisome phenomenon that many experts attribute to global warming. But once the hot months are past, ice coverage has seemed to return to normal.

Not so, according to NASA's new study, which paints a bleaker picture. According to a report by Goddard's Dr. Josefino Comiso, to be published soon in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the amount of sea water that refreezes each winter in also on the decline. Furthermore, he says, the period from when ice begins to thaw in the spring to when water begins to freeze in the fall, is growing longer. The overall effect is that the geographical extent of sea ice has failed to return to normal during the last two winters.

Unfortunately, this was not quite the information disseminated by the Associated Press and The San Francisco Chronicle on Thursday. As disquieting as Comiso's new data may be, these two news organizations sounded an even more horrific, though false, alarm. Rather than explaining that Arctic sea ice is not returning to normal levels, both claimed in their lead paragraphs that it is actually melting during the winter as well as during the summer.

"That's a fallacy," Dr. Comiso said when asked about the articles. With sub-zero temperatures during winter months, "there's no way that Arctic sea ice could be melting during this time period."

The bulk of the AP and Chronicle dispatches are true to the scientific research and accurately recount the risks associated with sea ice melt, including global warming feedback effects and threats to the polar bear population. But the errors committed by authors Seth Borenstein (AP) and Jane Kay (Chronicle) are conspicuous in the opening sentences. The Chronicle also printed the mistake in the story's headline.

Other media accounts were more accurate. Kudos go to Marc Kaufman at The Washington Post and Mike Toner at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for their spot-on reporting.

Read more here.

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