Tribalism, Bias and Climategate

The current battle between climate change believers and deniers provides great reminders about the realities of media and tribalism.

The climate change skeptics have gained considerable momentum as illustrated by the heated debate concerning emails hacked from servers at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit. I wonder what motivated the hackers.

The hundreds of pages of hacked emails apparently contain some very persuasive content. More persuasive than the radio campaign launched by the Friends of Science that I commented on here. As I said, the climate skeptics needed to collaborate and use social media instead of attack ads. Well, they certainly have developed some good partnerships and Climategate has ignited a lot of social and traditional media discussion.

Much of the discussion concerns the alleged scientific biases in the hacked emails; apparently some of the climatologists may have manipulated some of their research.

Curtis Brainard of the Columbia Journalism Review wrote a compelling article about the Climategate coverage. His conclusion:

“Now is a good time for journalists to reassess their coverage of climate change, weed out any bias from their reporting strategies, do what they can to disentangle politics from science, and be more aggressive about covering what many scientists, business figures, policymakers, and activists think is the most important climate story of this still-new millennium.”

This isn’t an indictment of journalists but instead refers to the complexity of the issue and, no surprise here, the dwindling resources that traditional media must now cope with. According to Brainard:

“As with business and political reporting, there is a tendency for science journalists to become too reliant on and close to a limited number of sources, which can lead to ideological bias in terms of accepting the sources’ statements uncritically… In addition, the mainstream media tends to abhor complicated stories on areas of scientific uncertainty about the causes and consequences of climate change. This tendency is not exclusive to science reporting—most editors tend to prefer distilled and simple news bites.”

As a member of a tribe or community it’s hard to imagine not becoming too close to and reliant on friends, colleagues, sources, etc. The close connections are valuable, the give-and-take is rewarding and biases hard to avoid. Shared biases might actually be part of the glue that holds communities together. Given this reality, it’s important for citizen journalists and traditional media alike to not be unfavourably influenced by their prejudices.

As online communities and social media continue to flourish, it will be interesting to see how opinion and biases continue to shape journalism and conversations.


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