Published on October 16, 2013
Digital and Social Media in the West- Andrew Revkin The prepared text of a talk given by Revkin, the Dot Earth blogger for The New York Times, at Climate Change Communication: Research and Practice. ThisBeijing conference (Oct 12-13) was co-organized by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the China Center for Climate Change Communication (a partnership of Oxfam Hong Kong and the Research Center for Journalism and Social Development at Renmin University).Links were added to provide context. It ishard to say which is changing more quickly – the global environment or the technologies and techniques that are used to convey the state of the environmentto the public. Way back in the 20th century, things seemed so simple. I’ve been writing about environmental science now for almost 30 years, from the days of nuclear winter onward. 1985 1988 Until a few years ago the pattern was the same. For a given issue, research was undertaken, papers were written, press releases were prepared, and a related story was composed by a reasonably trained science reporter. When news broke, whether it was the wreck of the Exxon Valdez or the release of a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there was a decent chance someone who knew about oil toxicity or the heat-trapping properties of CO2 would report the story. Newspapers had the resources to send reporters to the far ends of the Earth, as The Times did in 2003 when I got to camp on North Pole sea ice with a research team.
That still happens, but less and less. Specialized professional journalists now occupy a shrinking wedge of a fast-growing pie of light-speed media. This reality threatens to erode the already limited public appreciation of science and the state of the planet. I grew up in a world where the media told you “That’s the way it is.”Literally. (audio clip “That’s the way it is…”) We all grew up with a common sense of the world. That’s not the way it is now. If your concern is climate change, you can go onto the Internet and find whatever spin or substance feels like the best fit for your worldview.
And of course all of that climate change discussion, which feels so engrossing and important to those of us engaged in it, is buried in a vastly larger world of news. Newsmap.jp This is newsmap.jp, which gives a snapshot of what the world is tracking. I’ve placed that preceding slide in the middle for context. This reflects that society really still doesn’t care much for such issues, even though scientists have made a convincing case that they pose a steadily rising challenge to continued human welfare. There are still models that can succeed, but they are very different. My Dot Earth blog illustrates some possibilities. I started Dot Earth in 2007 while still doing conventional news reporting. It was a way to follow “wicked” issues that don’t fit easily into a news report. It now has several million unique visitors a year, mostly from North America but many from around the world. I’ve been trying various experiments to compensate for the reduced capacity for The Times, or any media, to be everywhere. In 2009, this climate scientist, Andy Bunn from Western Washington University, invited me to join him and students on a research trip to Siberia to study past climate conditions. I couldn’t go because of the cost, but I encouraged his team to send photos and audio recordings of their description of the work.
The result wasn’t journalism, and it wasn’t a press release. It was a partnership in which I curated content and presented the story of their work to the public. On a complicated, high-speed planet flooded with information, journalists who thrive will be those who offer news consumers the same sense of trust that a skilled mountain guide provides to climbers after an avalanche. A sure trail cannot be guaranteed, but an honest effort can. [Related Dot Earth post.] The authority of a news outlet will derive less from an established media brand and more through the scrutiny of the crowd. There is another reality in a shrinking media environment: Coverage is increasingly networked and collaborative, even among competitors.That’s a big change. Dot Earth doesn’t exist in a vacuum but benefits from, and offers benefits to, a network of other bloggers and analysts. This is what some call “collective intelligence.” (Examples at Grist.org, Time, The Guardian, Scientific American’s blogs, etc.) So far I’ve talked mainly about traditional journalism. Other models are emerging, including media outlets supported by foundations or donors. A case in point in America is Inside Climate News, a young Web site employing enterprising journalists that won a Pulitzer Prize, the top honor in American journalism, for its investigation of oil pipeline problems.
The shrinking role of conventional media also presents a great opportunity – and responsibility – for scientists, their universities, agencies or funders. More and more are realizing that the old model of putting out a press release and waiting for a reporter to call has less and less value when they can communicate directly with the public about science that matters. Here are some innovations. Climate change is only one of many planet-scale risks that societies face. You probably remember the meteor explosion over Russia last February. NASA has harnessed a network of amateur astronomers to help track and report on asteroids that might someday strike Earth – and debunk hype when it pops up on Twitter. @Asteroidwatch has more than 1 million followers. Many environmental fields have similar social networks – composed of bird watchers, hunters and fishermen, farmers, weather forecasters, students and teachers – who can help convey and clarify information. There’s great potential to expand this approach.
One of the main ways the U.S. Ambassador to Nepal, Scott DeLisi, reaches out to people there is on Facebook: The new media environment offers many ways to experiment with showing, rather than telling. Adam Nieman, a British illustrator with a doctorate in science communication, is adept at turning data into images that force the mind to consider familiar ideas in new ways – for instance, by viewing the volume of the atmosphere and the world's liquid water as spheres adjacent to the planet. The explosion of tools for creating graphics and video also allows anyone to select the ideal medium for a message. Have a look at this Facebook conversation. What’s different about it? I’ll read parts so you don’t have to squint.It was created by an art student in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Its mix
of humor and visuals helped the World Wildlife Fund build concern for endangered species. Finally, as I’m sure you understand, this new environment is flat. Online video and blogs have allowed students to directly contribute to fostering environmental understanding, instead of waiting to work in “real” media. My students at Pace University have created prize-winning and popular short documentaries on best practices in shrimp farming, efforts to conserve sea turtles in poor Mexican fishing villages and other important issues. Next year’s film will be on Brazil’s efforts to “green” the Olympics and World Cup. There’s a dark side to that flatness, of course. Communicators whose job is to confuse or distort can have outsize influence, as well. So this is no panacea. But it’s clear to me that, working from the classroom to the newsroom and beyond, we have an unparalleled opportunity to foster a culture of collaborative communication that can help sustain a thriving, human-populated planet for many, many generations to come.
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