Published on October 3, 2013
1 Notes for Andrew Revkin’s lecture at the 2013 Asahi World Environmental Forum, Tokyo, Japan. "The Daily Planet" - An exploration of issues and opportunities arising in conveying environmental news as both the media and the environment enter a period of unprecedented and unpredictable change. In his 30th year as a science writer, Andrew Revkin of The New York Times and Pace University discusses how journalists and journalism can remain a vital and valued guide in a world in which information is free and overabundant. The Daily Planet I’m speaking about today is not the newspaper where Superman worked. (DC Comics) It’s the world as we perceive it through media. And it’s hard to say which is changing more quickly – the global environment or the technologies and techniques that are used to convey the state of the world to the public. Way back in the 20th century, things seemed so simple. News happened, reporters reported, and the front page of the New York Times or a trusted television anchorman said, “That’s the way it is.” That’s not the way it is now. I’ll focus on science and related policy issues because that’s been my arena for 30 years now. For nearly all of that time, I’ve focused on the human relationship to the climate system. It was a one-way relationship through nearly all of our history. Now it’s a two-way relationship. I started in the 1980’s with nuclear winter, the theory that fires after a nuclear war would chill the Earth -- then quickly began focusing on global warming.
2 Just a decade ago, for a given issue, research was undertaken, papers written, press releases prepared, and a related story 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 drifting, cracking North Pole sea ice with a research team. 1985 1988
3 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. There are still models that can succeed, but they are very different. My Dot Earth blog illustrates some possibilities. 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 warming permafrost. 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, fast-forward planet enveloped in 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. Walter Cronkite’s signoff, “That’s the way it is,” no longer applies. The relevance and authority of a news outlet will be based less on an established media brand and more on the reputation it develops through the scrutiny of the crowd.
4 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 site is supported by grants and donations. As in this case, journalistic effectiveness and impact can still come through hard digging and a “scoop,” but also through collaborative networks in which insights flow in many directions. Dot Earth doesn’t exist in a vacuum but benefits from, and offers benefits to, a network of other bloggers. This is what some call “collective intelligence.” debategraph.org The Harvard Internet analyst and writer David Weinberger distilled this in the subtitle of his fascinating new book “Too Big to Know”: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren't the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room
5 The ultimate expression of this networking comes on the terribly named tool called Twitter. Sure, much of what’s there is noise about Justin Bieber or Kim Kardashian. But there are ways to cut through the clutter and build communities and clarity. One key is the hashtag: The simple norm of putting a # (pound sign) in front of a phrase or abbreviation creates a beacon in the darkness for people focused on a particular question. The hashtag was invented by Chris Messina, then working for the software company Mozilla.
6 Now hashtags are building global discussions on a wide array of important issues, from the frontiers of online journalism to next steps for agriculture. And they’re becoming a tool in education, with a good example being #birdclass, the tag used by students in a bird biology course taught by University of Connecticut biology professor Margaret Rubega to mark their “homework” – the tweets they post when they witness interesting bird behavior. My students use #PaceBlog and #pacedoc for our courses on blogging and documentary film. Our class that created a documentary on innovations in shrimp farming could be followed through #paceshrimp. It’s also important to note that online video and blogs have allowed students to directly contribute to fostering environmental understanding, as we did with this
7 film and others. Next year’s will be on Brazil’s efforts to “green” the World Cup and Olympics. None of this is easy, of course. The Web is a fire hose of information. Readers have to learn to discriminate between reliable sources of information and those offering more spin than substance. Here’s what that mix looks like when the issue is global warming. There’s something for everybody. Also, everything that I and others write on climate change is just a tiny subset of the overall flow of news, most of which has nothing to do with improving the planet.
8 That previous slide – all that debate about global warming – is almost invisible amid the other news that dominates our field of view. The Newsmap.jp Web site is an excellent, if depressing, tool for tracking what’s in the headlines. But the shifting, 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. One of the main ways the U.S. Ambassador to Nepal, Scott DeLisi, reaches out to people there is on Facebook: 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.
9 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. 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? 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. 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.
10 The most powerful capacity of the Web comes from a networked approach to communication. I write a lot about earthquake risks and how to limit losses if the worst happens. In my reporting I learned of the innovative building designs developed by Santiago Pujol, an engineer at Purdue University. He’s demonstrated that just rearranging common building materials and layouts can make a structure far safer than traditional approaches using the same materials. I enlisted my older son, Daniel, when he was a sophomore at Pace University to create an animation to show how this works. So an engineer, a student using special effects software and a blogger did something together that none of us could do alone. Because he demonstrated his abilities early on, Daniel is now working on the next “Planet of the Apes” movie. One of the freshest approaches I’ve seen to conveying a vital scientific and statistical idea came from Norwegian TV, in a simple animation showing, through an overhead view of a man walking a dog, the difference between trend and variation. Quake risk + Purdue engineer + Pace University sophomore =
11 I’d like to close with one more example of how government agencies and media can team up help us all recall that, amid the rush of daily life, we are on a living planet that is very small and truly awesome when seen from afar. Here’s a video clip taking you from one such view, the famous Earthrise photograph taken by NASA astronauts orbiting the moon in 1968, to an astonishing video version of the same scene shot from the Kaguya Lunar Explorer satellite in 2007. 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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