Crap environmental reporting

13 11 2009

EvilWe do a lot in our lab to get our research results out to a wider community than just scientists – this blog is just one example of how we do that. But of course, we rely on the regular media (television, newspaper, radio) heavily to pick up our media releases (see a list here). I firmly believe it goes well beyond shameless self promotion – it’s a duty of every scientist I think to tell the world (i.e., more than just our colleagues) about what we’re being paid to do. And the masses are hungry for it.

However, the demise of the true ‘journalist’ (one who investigates a story – i.e., does ‘research’) in favour of the automaton ‘reporter’ (one who merely regurgitates, and then sensationalises, what he/she is told or reads) worldwide (and oh, how we are plagued with reporters and deeply in need of journalists in Australia!) means that there is some horrendous stories out there, especially on scientific issues. This is mainly because most reporters have neither the training nor capacity to understand what they’re writing about.

This issue is also particular poignant for the state of the environment, climate change and biodiversity loss – I’ve blogged about this before (see Poor media coverage promotes environmental apathy and untruths).

But after a 30-minute telephone interview with a very friendly American food journalist yesterday, I expected a reasonable report on the issue of frog consumption because, well, I explained many things to her as best I could. What was eventually published was appalling.

Now, in all fairness, I think she was trying to do well, but it’s as though she didn’t even listen to me. The warning bells should have rung loudly when she admitted she hadn’t read my blog “in detail” (i.e., not at all?). You can read the full article here, but let me just point out some of the inconsistencies:

  • She wrote: “That’s a problem, Bradshaw adds, because nearly one half of frog species are facing extinction.”

Ah, no. I told her that between 30 and 50 % of frogs could be threatened with extinction (~30 % officially from the IUCN Red List). It could be as much as half given the paucity of information on so many species. A great example of reporter cherry-picking to add sensationalism.

  • She wrote: “Bradshaw attributes the drop-off to global warming and over-harvesting.”

Again, no, I didn’t. I clearly told her that the number one, way-out-in-front cause of frog declines worldwide is habitat loss. I mentioned chytrid fungus as another major contributor, and that climate change exacerbates the lot. Harvesting pressure is a big unknown in terms of relative impact, but I suspect it’s large.

  • She continued: “Bradshaw has embarked on a one-man campaign to educate eaters about the frog leg industry”

Hmmm. One man? I had a great team of colleagues co-write the original paper in Conservation Biology. I wasn’t even the lead author! Funny how suddenly I’m a lone wolf on a ‘campaign’. Bloody hell.

“Aghast”, was I? I don’t recall being particularly emotional when I told her that I found a photo of Barack Obama eating frog legs during his election campaign. I merely pointed this out to show that the product is readily available in the USA. I also mentioned absolutely nothing about whales or their loins.

So, enough of my little humorous whinge. My point is really that there are plenty of bad journalists out there with little interest in reporting the truth on environmental issues (tell us something we don’t know, Bradshaw). If you want to read a good story about the frog consumption issue, check out a real journalist’s perspective here.

CJA Bradshaw


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5 responses

4 11 2010
Appalling behaviour of even the most influential journalists « ConservationBytes.com

[...] journalists. I’ve talked about this on a few occasions on ConservationBytes.com (see ‘Crap environmental reporting‘, ‘Science turned bad by the media‘ and ‘Poor media coverage promotes [...]

4 06 2010
How many species are there? « ConservationBytes.com

[...] whinge about crap reporting aside, this is what Hamilton and colleagues [...]

21 11 2009
insectamonarca

Dear CJA, Your writing is a must for us lay people who want to help with biodiversity. Happy Tonics has a Monarch Butterfly Habitat in Shell Lake, Wisconsin. It amazes me that many people do not realize the butterfly is in crisis. I get asked, “Where are all the butterflies?” When it comes to climate change and drought and the poor monarch, the host plant milkweed didn’t even flower this past summer. The cold and rains held the migration back and climate change is now affecting the infestation of pine beetles in the Mexican Monarch Butterfly Habitat.

People need to know and you have the ability to turn science into language that some of us can grasp even if not in its totality.

Sorry that the journalist wasn’t up to the task. I find most of the public isn’t either. But we must try to get through for our four legged and winged relatives!

Best wishes.

19 11 2009
Geoff Russell

You are right to be angry with error 2, annoyed with errors 3 and 4 but
the first is a subtle semantic issue that non-experts can’t be expected
to handle. What is the difference between a) being extinct b) facing
extinction c) being threatened with extinction d) “could be threatened”
with extinction? a) is clear, the rest are tricky, in particular the last.
Does this mean “aren’t now” but might be in the future, or “may be” but
we haven’t the data to know.

14 11 2009
Barry Brook

Reminds me of the time a ‘journalist’ reported my description of the ozone hole increasing the speed of the Antarctic circumpolar winds, and this is one reason (along with increased precipitation) why the continent wasn’t warming as fast as we might otherwise expect.

It was reported as me saying that the ozone hold ‘let the hot air out’.

FFS.

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