Ask Dan Fagin what makes these dark days for science and environmental journalism, and he'll rhyme off a list of problems commonly outlined by those who worry about media: shrinking ad revenue, more money for platforms like Google or Facebook than for reporting, and, yes, fake news.
But the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist perks up a bit when asked whether the state of U.S. politics — or the election of President Donald Trump, who has rejected climate change action — also make these dark days.
Everything we have known to be true about science policy and how things work in the U.S., he says, is suddenly in flux, making it "an exciting, interesting, and most of all an important time to be a science or environmental journalist."
Fagin, director of New York University's science, health and environment reporting program, spoke to National Observer about the state of environmental and political news in North America while he was in Montreal for a science journalism boot camp at Concordia University in August.
Below is a transcript of the interview, edited for length. It covers his analysis about why some people deny climate science, what that means for those trying to explain it, and why American reporters seem particularly infatuated with Canada's prime minister at the moment.
Your lecture is called, Connecting Dots and Chasing Butterflies: Communicating Science in a Dark Time. How do you describe this dark time?
"The economic and technological landscape in which we do our work has been transformed utterly over the last 15, 20 years. Some of the technological transformations are very exciting. The economic ones are very challenging. The most important is the loss of advertising revenue for print, both magazines and newspapers... Those publications are obviously hurting with the fleeing of advertising revenue to other places. A lot of that advertising revenue has gone to digital, but the problem is the digital revenue is going to places like Google, and to lesser extent, Facebook, Yahoo, AOL — places that provide platforms for social media, and publish journalism that other people have created, but [which] don’t actually pay for that journalism themselves.
"Our original idea was, when the big technological change came, ‘Hey, no problem, we’ll just take these articles that we’ve been putting in print, and we’ll just cut and paste them and slap them down in digital form.' We discovered that doesn’t really work, it’s not consistent with the digital revenue model. It’s also not really consistent with the way people consume information online. So that’s one problem, a drastic financial shift.
"... Finally, we have a real trust and veracity problem, as we know from the U.S. election especially. There’s been this sort of explosion of fake news; stories that are cloaked in the guise of legitimate journalism but are completely bogus. And because of the change in viewer habits... it’s very difficult to suppress those fake stories. So the consequence of that is that viewer trust in what they read is plunging. Our readers are very skeptical, and for good reason in this environment. So these are all disturbing trends.
"I have to say that as science journalists, we have some advantages. People are interested in science, they feel like it’s something that they should know, that it’s important to their lives to have a sense of what’s happening in the world of science and environment and health, and that’s a good thing. The other thing is that people may be very skeptical about journalists, but they hold physicians and scientists in very high esteem. The polls in the U.S. consistently show the only group held in higher esteem than physicians and scientists are military leaders. Everybody else — politicians, business leaders, journalists, all kinds of other folks — all rank much lower in credibility.
"So what that means for those of us who are science storytellers, since our gift to journalism is that we build our narratives around science, around evidence, that means that our stories begin with enhanced credibility, because they are empirical, they are science based, they rely on the scientific method. So for all those reasons, while it’s a challenging environment for science journalists, it’s certainly not a hopeless one."
At the same time, a lot of people continue to express skepticism around climate change. What accounts for that, or what can journalists do about that?
"In the Trump era, it’s easy to feel like, 'Oh my God, how could so many people reject the science?' But in reality... it’s about 30 per cent. So that’s point Number One.
"Point Number Two is that what’s really interesting and disturbing about this climate denialism is that typically if you’re an educator or a journalist, the assumption is that all we have to do is give people the correct information, explain how science works, and explain why climatologists are so confident that a fairly large proportion of the warming we’ve seen over the last hundred years is anthropogenic. All we have to do is just sort of present them with the evidence and they’ll come around.
"That’s not what the evidence shows, actually [based on research by Dan Kahan]... If you give people more information about the climate system, they will cherry pick it and use it to reinforce their previously held views. In other words, if you gave climate deniers a quiz on atmospheric physics, they would do just as well or better on that quiz as people who accept the consensus on climate.
"So what that tells you is that for some issues, issues that have become sort of political signifiers, issues that we use to determine whether we’re on Team Red or Team Blue, it’s not about an information deficit, it’s much more about identity, it’s about how people see themselves. And for very good reasons, people pick a team, and they’re very reluctant to leave that team.
"[Changing people’s minds] is very difficult to do once an issue has reached that sort of identity salience. But one way to do it is to give people information and give them ways to take that information on board without forcing them to change who they are… Another way is to reach people early. Either early chronologically, when they’re relatively young and their minds are still open... [or] before an issue becomes a big political signifier, a big cultural signifier.
"You know, the great achievement of the fossil fuel industry and the right-wing thought leaders in the '90s and the 2000s was to somehow transform a question of atmospheric physics into... a question of cultural identity. So what should have been just sort of a simple matter of analyzing data becomes, if you 'accept the science,' you’re rejecting who you are. So that was an achievement, it was a horrible achievement, but it was an achievement."
Is it a good time to be an environment or science reporter in North America?
"A lot of things on science and environmental policy, a lot of aspects of science or environmental policy that we all just sort of took for granted — 'This is what we do in the United States, this is what we believe, this is how policy making works' — a lot of those assumptions have been completely blown up by the Trump administration.
"And that makes the work of science and environmental and health journalists way more important now than it ever has been. Our readership is way up, people are very concerned, people are very engaged, and for all those reasons, it’s an exciting and important time to be covering these topics."
[How familiar are you] with Canada or other markets? Looking outside of the United States, what’s your sense [of whether it's a good time to be an environment or science reporter]?
"I certainly wouldn’t consider myself an expert on what’s happening in Canada or elsewhere, but I do know that Canada has lots of resource conflicts, or certainly did under (the Conservative) government and I assume continues to have many of those same conflicts under Trudeau. Science funding has been a big issue in Canada.
"You don’t have an extreme extremist government right now the way that we do in the United States, but I think these sort of sharp disagreements about science policy and environmental policy seem to be ubiquitous around the world right now… I think that makes our work more important. It means that everything is up for discussion and that lots of things may change, and so that makes our work more important than ever."
I’m not sure that I have to ask this, but I’m curious what your sense is of what is so interesting to American journalists right now about the Canadian prime minister?
"Most journalists are centre-left I would say… most journalists, they have Trump fatigue, and they just sort of crave the normalcy that someone like Trudeau represents. I also think he has such a winning personality, he’s physically attractive, he has a lot of things going for him, he’s obviously very quick, and in the States we’re endlessly comparing him to Trump, and Trump tends to not come out that well in the comparisons.
"So I’m sure that there’s a lot of idealizing going on of Trudeau, and there’s sort of a romanticized view of him from south of the border. In reality I’m sure he doesn’t live up to the lofty expectations that American opinion leaders have of him. But I think many of us would gladly exchange him for Trump in a heartbeat."