BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The finding published in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Nature was provocative. Climactic changes in Antarctica were resulting in cooling conditions on certain parts of that continent, but the press saw something more intriguing still -- what seemed to be juicy evidence against the prevailing theories on global warming. And so ignoring all the researchers who said otherwise, much of the media reported exactly that. Joining us now to discuss how they got it wrong is Peter DORAN, co-author of the Antarctica study. He says his finding does not in any way hurt the case for global warming.
PETER DORAN: If you look at the warming trends that have been published recently, just this past year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which is really the Bible of climate change, you can see that the majority of the globe is warming. There is really no doubt about that. What we did is we just went in and teased out what's going on spatially in Antarctica and showed that most of the continent is cooling.
BOB GARFIELD: So your study appeared in Nature magazine and then you got to sit back and watch journalism take place. What were the results?
PETER DORAN:There were some cases of glorification or sensationalization of the results, especially in the headlines, and if I could read you a few examples, I've got some in front of me. There's one here that says: Guess What? Antarctica's Getting Colder, Not Warmer. New Data May Affect Political Debate over Global Warming. Some other headlines: Scientific Findings Run Counter to Theory of Global Warming. Oh, Dear! What Will the Doomsayers Say Now?
BOB GARFIELD:CNN ran a story in which the lead anchor began the piece by saying quote "A new study is casting doubt on the widely accepted theory of global warming. Now the strange thing about that CNN piece is they quoted you and another scientist saying well, no this really doesn't in any way discredit the conventional wisdom on global warming, and yet all of the body copy, the reporters' copy in the piece sent out an opposite message. When you see something like that, what do you do? How do you react?
PETER DORAN: I get frustrated. You know it's all about sound bites. They get these little sound bites and then they talk over you and put together the sound bites in the way they want to, much as you will probably do with this today, but I trust you, Bob. [LAUGHTER]
BOB GARFIELD: Well, that's a - there's mistake number one. [LAUGHTER] What do you think the problem is with how your study in particular and how science in general is reported by the media.
PETER DORAN:I think it's time. Time and deadlines are the big thing. I've noticed that a lot of the biggest errors were in the print stories that came out the very next day from the press release, and there seems to be this rush to get the story out first which is common in the media, and it's understandable for most things, but it doesn't seem to work with science. As we write these peer-reviewed papers, we're very careful with every single word in that paper. We choose carefully whether we can use an adverb or not in a particular location, and then that paper gets submitted to an-- a journal like Nature of Science and those papers get sent out for peer review. And then once it's accepted by Science or Nature or some other journal, it goes to press. Then the press release comes. It gets written usually with the scientists' input, but there's no peer review there. Then the press release goes out, and the press grab it, and they start writing a story based on the press release, but they add their own little touch to the story -- and that's what reporters do -- that's understandable - but at each step of the way there's some of the accuracy lost; there's some of the control lost.
BOB GARFIELD:So you're describing Whisper Down the Lane or Telephone or the party game in which the information keeps getting degraded at each step along the way.
PETER DORAN: Exactly. And then the last step is when, for instance, talk show hosts will pick up the stories from the news items and treat it like it's absolute fact, and so you get this broken telephone that goes all the way down to the public, and then the public believes it.
BOB GARFIELD: What can reporters do to be more certain that they're getting it right or getting it at least close to right?
PETER DORAN:If there's enough time, send the, the story back to the scientist, not to suggest changes in phrasing or whatever but just to make sure that you got it right.
BOB GARFIELD:Well, we've decided on a title for this segment; I guess I, under the circumstances, ought to run it by you. Tell me what you think. Scientist Says the Media Are Pure Evil. That, that work for you?
PETER DORAN: [LAUGHS] The axis of evil. Maybe the Axis of Not So Evil. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Well, we'll, we'll see what we can do. We have - you know - we have deadline pressures. [LAUGHTER] Peter DORAN, thank you very much.
PETER DORAN: Thank you very much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Peter DORAN is a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the lead author of one Antarctica study that appeared last month in the journal Nature. [MUSIC TAG]