Climate Gate: Were journalists asleep at the wheel?

The plenary explored how the story surrounding the leaked e-mails at University of East Anglia played out, examining the relationship between scientists and science journalists, and between science journalists and their news desk/editors.

Speakers: Myles Allen (University of Oxford), Tom Clarke (C4 News), Oliver Morton (The Economist), James Randerson (The Guardian), Professor Robert Watson (Chief Scientific Advisor, DEFRA). Chair: Gabrielle Walker (writer, broadcaster).

Session Review

Carolyn Kelday, Student Representative, ABSW Committee

Described by the session chair, Gabrielle Walker, as "the most significant scandal of our generation, 'climategate' deserved the prime position of the opening plenary. The session addressed the role of scientists and the media in how the story unfolded.

Bob Watson was quick to praise the standard of science reporting in the UK, but he said the media 'rushed to judgement' and showed a lack of 'investigative journalism'. This resulted in the evidence for climate change being undermined. "Anyone who says Copenhagen is a failure is wrong" he remarked. He said the single error in a 3000 word report should have been referred to in context, with journalists also referring to the supporting evidence from NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and NOA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Although scientists at UEA (University of East Anglia) were too slow and reluctant to respond to media enquiries, he concluded that there is no evidence for any scientific 'wrongdoing' by UEA. "I have high respect for the media, but in this case, they got it wrong". In the future Bob suggests more trust and stronger relationships between the media and scientists is essential.

Myles Allen suggested he was "known in this whole affair as a pain in the arse!" and remarked that he never experienced difficulty in getting information from UEA. He referred to the revised global temperature figure, which was adjusted in accordance with software errors. The amended graph showed virtually no change in trends, but this was not reported by journalists. This whole affair, he believes, will result in more bureaucracy, less information being shared by scientists and an industry which is less appealing to young scientists. Myles highlighted the public's frustration in relation to climate change, caused mainly by oversold statements about the impact of climate change by activists and Governments. "If anyone, blame Al Gore" he said.

According to Oliver Morton, not everyone found it so easy to get information from Phil Jones at UEA. He also mentioned that it is unlikely that journalists read through every single email that was leaked. Although errors in scientific data do occur, he said they shouldn't drive shifts in policy. According to Oliver, the public does support the evidence for climate change, but their lack of action relates to politics - media coverage will not affect this.

Aside from the slow response from scientists, there was too much repetition in the media without context, said James Randerson. The huge volume of material, legal constraints and focus on the Copenhagen meeting was to blame, along with UEA being 'in a coma'. Although there was no evidence of a 'conspiracy' a serious problem with access and openness to data exists. The scandal also paints an uncomfortable picture of peer review and the comments about 'fallacy' should lead to a change for the better for science and journalism.

Tom Clarke defended Channel 4's coverage, saying that the journalists were waiting for information from UEA, but editors were pushing them for a story in reaction to The Guardian's coverage. Gavin Schmidt made an important point in a phone conversation with Tom, that regardless of the allegations, UEA's data is in agreement with NASA's. The 'real' story should have been the investigation of UEA by the commission and the pressure scientists at UEA are under from sceptics. There is no excuse for UEA's mishandling of data, someone should have been onboard who knows how to deal with these enquiries, considering UEA has one of three datasets on climate change. It is unfair to expect scientists to respond to every single email they get but the game has changed and data is now in the public domain, so this must be engaged with.

As Tom said, seeing more scientists on the television, explaining the science, will be one step forward. Whatever the outcome of this whole affair, the general consensus at the session was that more communication between scientists and the media is essential in the future.