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Driving scientific research into journalistic reporting on forests, environment & climate change - Handbook for scientists

Uploaded by RRI Tools on 16 July 2018

Driving scientific research into journalistic reporting on forests, environment & climate change - Handbook for scientists. 2018. Elisabetta Tola. The Lookout Station, powered by the European Forest Institute.

Purpose of this handbook

We can’t do it without you. Scientists are the key to make regulators, policymakers, civil society – people – understand what is at stake when we talk of any complex scientific issue, be it environmental risks, forest management, bioeconomy or climate change. You are the key in helping us understand the challenges and opportunities that lie in front of us as well as which are the steps we have to take, as a society.

Reporting on issues such as those mentioned above puts journalists and storytellers in a very
difficult position. For instance, climate change, probably the master environmental and socioeconomic topic of our times, entangles so many disciplines and levels of discussion that it is very difficult to convey its complexity and uncertainty in an accessible language without oversimplifying. Yet the stories must be interesting and compelling for a wider audience. We need a wide range of scientific expertise, from chemistry to physics, from agriculture to forestry, to inform people, local communities, entrepreneurs and policymakers on the most likely future scenarios and on the best adaptation and mitigation practices and measures that might support a more sustainable development for our future. But sometimes scientists find it hard to relate to journalists, to explain their data, methods, processes and results. Journalists and media have a tendency to use striking headlines, to reduce complexity to the point of false interpretation, to search for the so-called wow-effect without following up or going deeper into facts. Combined, these two challenges might ultimately affect the quality of the media coverage.

This handbook will focus on fostering a better communication and media outreach of science issues, highlighting climate change, from the basic science to the innovative solutions and opportunities to act against it. The main focus of this handbook is to discuss the motivations, the possible approaches, the framework and the ingredients needed to find new narratives, to develop a different approach to media, to understand the information needs and expectations of the publics. We will also include practical tools and tips to boost your communication work.

Forestry and forest scientists are on the forefront of the challenge climate change poses on us. Forests are a major carbon storage and they can provide sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels. Thus forest scientists are in the position to play a pivotal role in providing facts, data and stories not merely on the risks and impacts of climate change but also on the strategies and foreseeable solutions to combat them. As the original knowledge producers, scientists are the best sources to explain how these facts should be read, interpreted and used.

Media can be a collaborative counterpart, using the data in an appropriate way to convey the information and promote an open attitude toward change. Media, the traditional as well as the more innovative digital native ones, are a fundamental pillar of our society and represent a key weapon in our hands to nurture democracy.

Media are the main channel of providing information to wider audiences, via the more traditional channels like legacy TV and print media but also via the growing digital presence, through web and social channels which have become the most popular information hubs. For instance, Al Jazeera English has over 4.7 million followers on Twitter, and their videos have millions of viewers on YouTube and almost 2 million subscribers, including a share of their traditional TV audience. The New York Times has over 41 million followers on Twitter and over 1.5 million subscribers on YouTube. In Europe, the BBC has over 4.3 million subscribers and millions of video views on YouTube, 45 million followers on Facebook and over 22 million followers just on their BBC News Twitter account which all complement the already huge number of TV viewers and radio listeners. 

Media are thus a landmark in the information landscape for millions of people, as well as
for those representing them: politicians, policymakers, entrepreneurs. Media are shaping
the agenda and influencing both political and socio-economic development in most countries. They can contribute and enhance the impact of any important information, be it the discussion over a new legislation or a very crucial piece of new data describing or assessing an important complex matter, such as global warming, water crisis or food production. Bolstering popularity and people engagement over a certain topic, media can ultimately trigger public and private support to research.

Journalism has evolved tremendously with the advent of digital technologies. Data journalism and visualisations as well as multimedia storytelling techniques are much closer to scientific reporting than the old formats, based on written texts or interviews. There are developers, professional graphic designers, data scientists and other high tech professionals in the newsrooms nowadays who can deal with complex issues. By experimenting, much like scientists when formulating new hypotheses and designing methods to test them, journalists can today try and use data, images, immersive formats like 360 video, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality to tell science stories and make the audience understand the efforts and results of research. If scientists and journalists learn to communicate with each other, if they can agree on a common language overpassing the difficulties of technical terms, data can be brought into stories and interactive visualisations of high impact for communities and decision makers alike.

Graphics and visualisations produced by scientists are often aimed to their peers. To become
popular on the media, a chart needs to be easy to understand and have the added value of telling a story without the need of an expert background. Data and facts come to life when strong and thoughtful designs are applied to enhance the users’ experience and their interaction with data itself.

Today, we have handbooks and guidelines for journalists on how to deal with climate change
reporting. What we lack is the active involvement of more scientists in the effort. The best way to enhance the impact and value of the information on climate change is likely to come from an improved communication between scientists and journalists aimed at crafting highly informative and accurate stories based on data as well as real life examples and practices applied worldwide.

This handbook aims at filling a void, trying to bring scientists into the game as co-leading
players, giving them reasons and suggestions on how to improve their connection with journalists to bring the much needed data out and together report on the changes we, as humanity, are already facing.

Index of chapters

  1. Scientists in the public sphere 
  2. Why scientists should communicate
  3. Visualization and multimedia that make the difference
  4. Scientists who communicate climate change
  5. Know your travel mates, journalists and communicators

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