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How not to write a press release

Filed under: — gavin @ 21 April 2006

A recent BBC radio documentary on the possible over-selling of climate change, focussed on the link between high profile papers appearing in Nature or Science, the press releases and the subsequent press coverage. One of the examples chosen was the Stainforth et al climateprediction.net paper that reported the ranges of climate sensitivity within their super-ensemble of perturbed physics runs. While there was a lot of interesting science in this paper (the new methodology, the range of results etc.) which fully justified its appearance in Nature, we were quite critical of their basic conclusion – that climate sensitivities significantly higher than the standard range (1.5 – 4.5ºC) were plausible – because there is significant other data, predominantly from paleo-climate, that pretty much rule those high numbers out (as we discussed again recently). The press coverage of the paper mostly picked up on the very high end sensitivities (up to 11ºC) and often confused the notion of an equilibirum sensitivity with an actual prediction for 2100 and this lead to some pretty way-out headlines. I think all involved would agree that this was not a big step forward in the public understanding of science.

Why did this happen? Is it because the scientists were being ‘alarmist’, or was it more related to a certain naivety in how public relations and the media work? And more importantly, what can scientists do to help ensure that media coverage is a fair reflection of their work?

A point that shouldn’t need repeating is that the media like a dramatic statement, and stories that say something is going to be worse than previously thought get more coverage than those which say it’s not going to be as bad. It’s not quite a fair comparison, but witness the difference in coverage for the recent Hegerl et al paper, which presented evidence that really high sensitivies are unlikely (a half dozen stories), and the Stainforth et al paper (hundreds of stories). (As an aside, a comment in the documentary that the recent Annan and Hargreaves paper was deliberately ignored by the media is without foundation – GRL is not Nature, and no press release was issued (a press release was issued - apologies). Expecting mainstream press coverage in such circumstances would be extremely optimistic).

Secondly, the scientists also need to appreciate that most journalists will only read the press release, and possibly only the first couple of paragraphs of the press release. Very, very few will read the whole paper. This implies that the press release itself is the biggest determinant of quality of the press coverage, and of course, the press release is generally not written directly by the scientists.

Thirdly, though we are trying to do something about it here, most journalists are not experienced enough in scientific topics to be able to place new results in context without outside help. Often they have a small number of preconceived frames into which they will place the story – common ones involve forecasts of possible disasters, conflict within the community (the more personal the better), plucky Galileos fighting the establishment, and of course anything that interacts directly with politics, or political interference with science. This can be helpful if the scientific story fits neatly into one the boxes, but can cause big problems if the story is either more complex or orthogonal to the obvious frames. Scientists are aware of this, but often are not pro-active enough in preventing obvious mis-framing. This implies that even if a press release is 100% scientifically accurate refection of the original paper, the press coverage can still be terrible.

So what went wrong with Stainforth et al paper? The press release is available here. The only science result in the press release refered to the 11ºC outlier but the release itself is not incorrect. However, both the title ‘Bleak first results…’ and the first paragraphs do not provide any context that would correctly lead a (relatively ignorant) journalist to appreciate that there was even a distribution function of climate sensitivities. I’m pretty sure that the point that was trying to be made was that relatively small tweaks to climate models can change the sensitivity a lot, and that you can’t rule out high sensitivities based on model results alone, but that was not clear for people who didn’t already know the context.

Myles Allen, for whom I have the utmost respect, I think made a rather poor argument in the BBC program. He stated that “if journalists embroider the press release without reference to the original paper, [the scientists] are not responsible for that”. I disagree. Looking at the press release, one could have predicted with high confidence that much of the coverage would focus solely on the 11ºC number and that they would assume that this was a new prediction. As scientists, I would argue that we have to take responsibility for how our work is portrayed – and if that means we need to provide better context, then we need to insist that that is included in the release. Myles is on much stronger ground when he argued that the mean model response (~3ºC sensitivity) wasn’t terribly interesting because it is just a reflection of the basic model they started with before any perturbations, which is true. However, without some statement about the relative likelihood of any of the high-end numbers, I find it hard to see how the journalists could have got the message right. Having said that, implications aired in the program that the scientists deliberately misled the journalists or said things that knew would be mis-understood are completely without foundation. (Update: Please see the response of the journalists listed in this comment below to really underline that).

What can we learn from this? The first and most fundamental lesson is that scientists should not relinquish control of the press releases. Public relations professionals are talented and useful when it comes to writing releases for media consumption, but the scientists have to be fully involved in the process. If there are obvious frames that the scientists want to avoid, they need to be specific within the press release what their results do not imply as well as what they might. A clear statement in the Stainforth et al release that placed the 11 C result in context of how unlikely it was and specifically stated that it wasn’t a prediction would have gone a long way to allay some of the worst coverage.

For an example of how this can work, the Solanki et al paper on solar sunspot reconstructions had a specific statement that their results did not contradict ideas of strong greenhouse warming in recent decades, neatly heading off simplistic (and erroneous) interpretations of their paper. On the other hand, much of the poor reporting related to the ‘methane from plants’ story could have been avoided if the authors had been more upfront in their release that their work was not related to greenhouse gas changes and had no significant implications for reforestation credits under Kyoto!

In summary, I would emphasise that the scientists and the actual papers discussed here and in the BBC documentary were not ‘alarmist’, however there is a clear danger that when these results get translated into media reports (and headlines) that scientifically unsupportable claims can be made. Scientists and the press professionals they work with, need to be very clear that, for the field as a whole, the widest possible coverage for any one paper should not be the only aim of a press release.

All publicity is not good publicity.


258 Responses to “How not to write a press release”

  1. 251
    Lawrence McLean says:

    The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney (Australia) has made a comment regarding global warming in a speech to US Catholic business leaders, Dr Pell said:

    “Western democracy was also suffering a crisis of confidence as evidenced by the decline in fertility rates. Pagan emptiness and Western fears of the uncontrollable forces of nature had contributed to hysteric and extreme claims about global warming.

    In the past, pagans sacrificed animals and even humans in vain attempts to placate capricious and cruel gods. Today they demand a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.”

    Seems that he is at one with the editors of “First Things”

  2. 252
    Don Baccus says:

    Re: #150 … look, we’ve been asked to spike this issue, but statements like this can’t go unanswered…

    “There are three reasons for phrasing the question this way – ignorance, sloppy phrasing or deliberate dishonesty…If someone brings up birds in general, rather than raptors that is a reasonable way of to rebut them.”

    Your statement ignores the reality that the wind power industry first came up with the “cat kill more birds” line in response to concerns about raptor kills. Not windfarm kills of starlings or house sparrows (two species – both invasive pests – among those most frequently killed by cats). The line was come up with to belittle concerns about raptor kills, and to make those concerned about raptor kills look foolish in the eyes of the public and (more importantly) political and regulatory bodies.

    That line was used on conservation groups who were insisting on more comprehensive raptor surveys before approval of the Columbia Gorge windfarm I mentioned earlier. We were “anti-environment” for insisting on comprehensive surveys for
    windfarms which, even at their worst, don’t kill nearly as many birds as cats.

    Nevermind the fact that our concerns were focused on one species of concern (golden eagle) and one threatened species (peregrine).

    Wind power advocates can rationalize their efforts to alienate conservation biologists all they want. Apparently it is a technique that works well for the industry.

    I suggest we do as Ray asked – spike this conversation. After all, the only effect your posts have are to strengthen my somewhat negative opinion of the wind power industry and advocacy groups here in the US (as opposed to my attitude about wind power itself, which is positive).

  3. 253
    pat neuman says:

    Llewelly,

    Thanks for your comment in 249 on if the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) press release (link below) is an example about how to, or how not to, write a press release dealing with climate change.

    I take your comment as meaning you believe the press release is fine in not mentioning greenhouse gas emissions as the primary cause of global warming.

    My 30 Oct 2003 press release on climate and hydrologic change in the Upper Midwest cost me $500 and my career job of 29 years as a flood forecaster for NOAA NWS (I know that because my supervisor later told me that John Mahoney, NOAA Administrator and then director of the U.S. CSSP that he wanted me fired for doing the press release. Thus, that press release was a one time deal for me. Other scientists have more opportunities, possibly.

    Also, in 2003, AGW wasn’t as certain to many people like it is to many people now. I believed it was important then to make a connection between climate change in the Upper Midwest and AGW, and that rapid GW would have severe consequences. My position was and still is that this threat to the planet is unprecedented, and is from our actions in our burning fuels. As such, everything, including the way press releases are written, should be done not in any business as usual manner but in ways to help humans reduce their GHG emissions ASAP.

    U.S. CCSP press release, at:
    http://www.climatescience.gov/Library/pressreleases/pressrelease2may2006.htm

  4. 254
    llewelly says:

    Pat, you wrote:

    I take your comment as meaning you believe the press release is fine in not mentioning greenhouse gas emissions as the primary cause of global warming.

    That’s because I screwed up my comment and didn’t quote this part:

    The evidence continues to support a substantial human impact on global temperature increases. This should constitute a valuable source of information to policymakers.

    I apologize for the confusion.

  5. 255
    pat neuman says:

    Llewelly, your comments are appreciated. My comment is I would like to see fuel emissions pointed to as driving global warming … in all U.S. press releases dealing with global warming.

  6. 256
    Barry Wells says:

    Help,
    I think that I am correct in thinking that the temperature rise from 1910 to 1938 is generally thought to be from natural forcing. Whereas the later rise 1976 to 2005 is thought to be because of human influence (ie C02 etc) .

    I cannot help but wonder how it is that the two rises in temperature have the same amplitude of signal as shown in the CRU Global Hemisphere Temperature “Annual Global graph”

    This graph is base-lined 1960 – 1991 , from this graph it can be seen from 1910 to 1938 the temperature rose by 0.45ºC over 28 years and from 1976 to 2005 the temperature rose 0.48ºC over 29 years. Therefore if you divide the rise in temperature by the number of years you then have the amplitude of the signal, this would be 1910-1938 0.45 / 28 = 0.0161ºC per annum and 1976-2005 0.48 / 29 = 0.0165ºC per annum.

    It is very rare in my experience that two entirely different inputs result in the same amplitude of output signal, especially when the two inputs are so totally different. Also the two inputs are quite arbitrary in the way they operate, the natural input relying on factors such as the solar output the inclination of the planet etc. Whilst the human input relies on 4 to 5 Billion people doing what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it. You then throw in the odd economic down turn / upturn the odd war or two etc. There must surely be a pretty unrealistic chance that they would achieve exactly the same input into the system over the two 28/29 year periods.

    If you remove from the graph the years between 1938 and 1976 and put the graph back together you can see that the two parts of the temperature rise fit together perfectly (cut the graph where the 0 line breaks the two temperature lines)

    Is it not more likely that the two inputs are one and the same (whatever that is) and in fact we influenced the climate during the period between 1930 – 1976 by depressing the temperature rise that started in 1910 to 1938 and continued again in 1976?

    [Response: No. One clue you can see directly that these two events are not the same is the spatial pattern of temperature changes - they are significantly more uniform in the later period. Plus, we are all aware that there are many factors that influence the global mean temperature - not just CO2, but solar, volcanoes, aerosols, other GHGs, ozone etc... In the earlier period many of the them trended the same way (GHGs rising, solar increasing, volcanoes less common etc), in the later period, only GHGs are increasing. But more fundamentally, looking for single and exclusive factor explanations for any recent climate trends or changes is just too simple. - gavin]

  7. 257
    Grant says:

    This graph is base-lined 1960 – 1991 , from this graph it can be seen from 1910 to 1938 the temperature rose by 0.45ºC over 28 years and from 1976 to 2005 the temperature rose 0.48ºC over 29 years. Therefore if you divide the rise in temperature by the number of years you then have the amplitude of the signal, this would be 1910-1938 0.45 / 28 = 0.0161ºC per annum and 1976-2005 0.48 / 29 = 0.0165ºC per annum.

    My numbers don’t agree with yours. I downloaded the CRU data, and for the global average, from 1910 to 1938 I get 0.0127 ºC/yr, while for the period 1976-2005 I get 0.0184 ºC/yr. Using just the northern hemisphere, I get 0.0160 ºC/yr from 1910-1938 and 0.0184ºC/yr from 1976-2005. This is from a trend analysis of the actual data.

    ???

  8. 258
    Hank Roberts says:

    I’m looking at the press report, but the press release must have been well done for this story. It’s specific and clear.

    Full story here:
    http://news.independent.co.uk/environment/article362549.ece

    Beginning, excerpted:
    ” Ice-capped roof of world turns to desert
    “Scientists warn of ecological catastrophe across Asia as glaciers melt and continent’s great rivers dry up

    By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor
    Published: 07 May 2006

    “Global warming is rapidly melting the ice-bound roof of the world, and turning it into desert, leading scientists have revealed.

    “The Chinese Academy of Sciences – the country’s top scientific body – has announced that the glaciers of the Tibetan plateau are vanishing so fast that they will be reduced by 50 per cent every decade. Each year enough water permanently melts from them to fill the entire Yellow River.

    “They added that the vast environmental changes brought about by the process will increase droughts and sandstorms over the rest of the country, and devastate many of the world’s greatest rivers, in what experts warn will be an “ecological catastrophe”.

    “The plateau, says the academy, has a staggering 46,298 glaciers, covering almost 60,000 square miles. At an average height of 13,000 feet above sea level, they make up the largest area of ice outside the polar regions, nearly a sixth of the world’s total.

    “The glaciers have been receding over the past four decades, as the world has gradually warmed up, but the process has now accelerated alarmingly. Average temperatures in Tibet have risen by 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 20 years, causing the glaciers to shrink by 7 per cent a year, which means that they will halve every 10 years.

    “Prof Dong Guangrong, speaking for the academy – after a study analysing data from 680 weather stations scattered across the country – said that the rising temperatures would thaw out the tundra of the plateau, turning it into desert…..”

    Points to Dr. Lonnie Thompson for having gotten a core out of there. I wonder if there’s time for any more.


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