Wednesday at the American Meteorological Society convention in Phoenix, a distinguished panel convened by Bud Ward discussed how the press has handled — or muffed — coverage of climate change. Ward recently published a short book on a series of workshops he pulled together over the last couple of years for high-level journalists and scientists, in which they struggled with these very issues. (His book Communicating on Climate Change is available for free at the Metcalfe Institute, either on-line or in the "cellulosic version.")
As Ward mentions in the paper/book, it became apparent that coverage of the issue did improve in recent years, as journalists became aware of what panel member Tom Rosenstiel called the danger of "false balance," which apparently has become a term of art for reporters.
Yet even as coverage in that sense has improved, the press itself has been devastated by new technology and generational change, and coverage of the issue has dropped as papers have cut their pages and their staff.
Tom Rosenstiel, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times (who wrote what sounds like a must-read book for journos, called The Elements of Journalism, and who now heads up a non-profit Project for Excellence in Journalism for the Pew Center) in no way minimized the threat to serious reporting. Pete Spotts, a veteran reporter and editor for the Christian Science Monitor, highlighted the opportunities available in blogging (but didn't tout his new blog Discoveries, so I'll mention it for him).
Given the chance, I had to ask these once-ink-stained-wretches about the future for free-lance writers such as myself. Rosenstiel suggested that as papers cut reporters, opportunities could arise for free-lancers who developed a speciality and made a name for themselves as individual writers.
But perhaps most encouraging was the dry-witted Larry O'Hanlon, from the Discovery Channel's on-line side, who spoke of the time he was a free-lancer ten or so years ago, and the Discovery Channel cut back. He said he and his peers compared it to an extinction event, in which all the big, established creatures were "wiped out and there were only small furry critters running around." (More prosaically, he explained that staff members were laid off, but free-lancers were only "reduced.")
This combination of responses, along with some encouraging words from Ward in his summation, gave me an emotional lift. And I must report (since no one else will) that the panel smiled when I gave them my own hard-won definition of the difference between reporters and bloggers: