Software tool allows scientists to correct climate ‘misinformation’ from major media outlets (ClimateWire)

ClimateWire, April 13, 2015.

Manon Verchot, E&E reporter
Published: Monday, April 13, 2015
After years of misinformation about climate change and climate science in the media, more than two dozen climate scientists are developing a Web browser plugin to right the wrongs in climate reporting.

The plugin, called Climate Feedback and developed by Hypothes.is, a nonprofit software developer, allows researchers to annotate articles in major media publications and correct errors made by journalists.

“People’s views about climate science depend far too much on their politics and what their favorite politicians are saying,” said Aaron Huertas, science communications officer at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Misinformation hurts our ability to make rational decisions. It’s up to journalists to tell the public what we really know, though it can be difficult to make time to do that, especially when covering breaking news.”

An analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that levels of inaccuracy surrounding climate change vary dramatically depending on the news outlet. In 2013, 72 percent of climate-related coverage on Fox News contained misleading statements, compared to 30 percent on CNN and 8 percent on MSNBC.

Through Climate Feedback, researchers can comment on inaccurate statements and rate the credibility of articles. The group focuses on annotating articles from news outlets it considers influential — like The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times — rather than blogs.

“When you read an article it’s not just about it being wrong or right — it’s much more complicated than that,” said Emmanuel Vincent, a climate scientist at the University of California, Merced’s Center for Climate Communication, who developed the idea behind Climate Feedback. “People still get confused about the basics of climate change.”

‘It’s crucial in a democracy’

According to Vincent, one of the things journalists struggle with most is articulating the effect of climate change on extreme weather events. Though hurricanes or other major storms cannot be directly attributed to climate change, scientists expect warmer ocean temperatures and higher levels of water vapor in the atmosphere to make storms more intense. Factors like sea-level rise are expected to make hurricanes more devastating as higher sea levels allow storm surges to pass over existing infrastructure.

“Trying to connect a weather event with climate change is not the best approach,” Vincent said.

Climate Feedback hopes to clarify issues like these. The group’s first task was annotating an article published inThe Wall Street Journal in September 2014.

In the piece, the newspaper reported that sea-level rise experienced today is the same as sea-level rise experienced 70 years ago. But in the annotated version of the story, Vincent pointed to research from Columbia University that directly contradicted that idea.

“The rate of sea level rise has actually quadrupled since preindustrial times,” wrote Vincent in the margins.

Vincent hopes that tools like Climate Feedback can help journalists learn to better communicate climate research and can make members of the public confident that the information they are receiving is credible.

Researchers who want to contribute to Climate Feedback are required to have published at least one climate-related article that passed a peer review. Many say these tools are particularly important in the Internet era, when masses of information make it difficult for the public to wade through the vast quantities of articles and reports.

“There are big decisions that need to be made about climate change,” Vincent said. “It’s crucial in a democracy for people to know about these issues.”

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