Wednesday, October 29, 2014

How journalism works (or doesn't)

One reason we started this blog was the frustration of being misrepresented in media coverage of topics we work on. It can be hard for people to grasp just how frustrating it can be. You spend time talking to a journalist until they seem to get what you're saying, they go off and write the story, and then only about half the time do they check back to see if the quotes they attribute to you are right.  Having words put in your mouth is often compounded by other issues, like a "he said, she said" tone that can make issues appear much more contentious than they should be (see Sol's last post)

Another case in point - the other day I took a call from a reporter for the Guardian who said she was working on a story about which crops are threatened by climate change. I thought I was pretty clear that when we talk about impacts we are never talking about complete eradication of the crop. But today I see their story is "8 foods you're about to lose due to climate change"!

When she asks about CO2 I say it's absolutely clear that it has a benefit, it's just a question of whether it's enough to counteract the bad stuff that happens with climate change. That turned into:
One major issue is carbon dioxide, or CO2. Plants use the gas to fuel photosynthesis, a fact that has led some analysts to argue that an increase CO2 is a good thing for farming. Lobell disagrees, noting that CO2 is only one of many factors in agriculture. “There’s a point at which adding more and more CO2 doesn’t help,” he says. Other factors – like the availability of water, the increasing occurrence of high and low temperature swings and the impact of stress on plant health – may outweigh the benefits of a CO2 boost.
What happens over time is you learn to be a little more aggressive with reporters, but that only helps so much. And also you learn to stop answering your phone so much, and to stick with the handful of reporters you think do a really good job. It's sad but true.

What's especially annoying, though, is when people see these stories and start attributing everything it says to you, as if you wrote it, picked the headline, etc. (I see some tweets today saying I'm trying to spread fear about climate change.) The irony is when I give talks or speak on panels I'm more often than not accused of being a techno-optimistic, both about climate change and food security in general. I actually am quite optimistic. About food. Just not about journalism.

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