Expert Commentary

Research chat: Andrew Revkin on covering and using scholarship

Interview with longtime New York Times reporter and Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin

Andrew Revkin, author of the “Dot Earth” blog for the New York Times and long one of the world’s preeminent environmental reporters, spoke recently with Journalist’s Resource as part of our “Research chat” series about the intersection of journalism, scholarship and technology. He noted how new forms of Web-based storytelling and engagement can more fully capture the uncertainties and “murk” that often attend big research questions in science and public policy.

In September 2011, Revkin became the first two-time winner of a National Communication Award from the National Academy of Sciences. Also a senior fellow at Pace University, Revkin is leading a new graduate course in fall of 2011 called “Blogging a Better Planet,” in which he’s teaching students to “create a collaborative globe-spanning community, challenge traditional media, or spark the kinds of innovations and relationship that could make the world a better place.” (Photos courtesy of Andrew Revkin.)


Journalist’s Resource: What’s been your process in terms of finding interesting research to write about and to inform your articles?

Andrew Revkin: I’d like to say that it was rational and logical and well-planned out, but there was a bit of a haphazard aspect to it. In the early days, in the 80s, there were paper copies of journals and going to conferences. I was just trying to gauge what was interesting, and sometimes I’d start out on one story but migrate to another facet of it. Even at the beginning in 1983, with my first big real magazine feature — it was supposed to be on lung transplants, because that was a new kind of operation at the time. But while I was doing the reporting, it became clear that the story, the heart of the story, was more about pesticide poisoning because the two guys that had had these surgeries, their lungs had been destroyed by paraquat, the herbicide. So, if I’d just sort of stuck with my boss’ mandate — go out and do a story on lung transplants — I would have missed the really great story. I ended up getting an Investigative Reporters and Editors award for that piece. It was my first magazine feature.

So it’s really not just following the flow of news, and this is especially what’s important for young journalists. I try to encourage them to keep their peripheral visions in tune, so that even if they’re out doing one thing, they are constantly casting about for that thing — that thing that is disturbing, interesting, to the side maybe initially but that may be the more important detail. And then going forward in time, I started to focus more and more through the 80s, and climate change was just this ultimate puzzle. It’s just such a bad fit for human perception and problem-solving. It’s been for me such a fascinating thing to dig in on. The important thing with climate is to realize that it’s not one story; it’s many, many stories. The story of sea-level rise alone involves everything from glaciology to basic physics of ocean heating, oceanography, coastal impacts, and designing for changing environments. Then there’s the impact on ecosystems, the impact on water, the hydrological cycles, which are so much more complicated than the basic heating of the planet, which is sort of simple. But it’s the hydrology that matters. It’s where the heat goes in the ocean. It’s how much water falls as rain or stays in the atmosphere as water vapor — those are big questions. So what I try to do is if some big paper is coming out in one of the journals, I have my own little Greek chorus of scientists in various fields who I’ve developed over a long period of time, who I’ll send a paper to under the embargo agreement to get their feedback. I’ll ask, “Is this changing the game? Is this highly suspect?” I essentially try to get their feedback on the quality of the work and the outcome.

JR: What about for all those journalists out there without a well-developed “Greek chorus” of scholars to consult with?

Andrew Revkin: I’ll tell you one thing, and it’s one thing I always do, and which anyone can do. When a paper is coming out, look at the citations — the papers that it’s referring to. You can track those people down very easily using Google, and say, “Hey, I’m writing about this new paper … and the author cites your work and I’d love to get your impressions.” That does two things at once. These are people who are publishing in the field. You cut the chances of just Googling for some stray person who has an interest in, say, sea ice. You’re actually getting in touch with people who are working on the field of sea ice. So, it’s really valuable. In fact, that’s rule number one: go at the people whose work is underpinning the new work. There is another issue that can arise with that, and that’s groupthink. In the special arenas within a problem like climate change, you have pretty small groups of scientists working on problems like Greenland’s ice or Arctic sea ice or ocean acidification. In all those instances, you’re talking about probably about a few dozen people at most for whom it’s their full-time preoccupation. So you can end up with kind of a group-thinky process. And that gets challenging. That’s why you can also have people come in from the outside, and help with other aspects of assessing the work, which is the statistical rigor of it. They don’t necessarily have to be in the field. They’re just people who are good at gauging statistics. If someone says something is significant — in the rigorous use of that term — someone from outside can look at that question, even if they don’t know anything about, for example, sea ice. It should all be in the paper in terms of the calculations that were made.

JR: What are some of the typical pitfalls journalists should watch out for as they review research? You’ve read thousands of papers through your career. Are there rules journalists should keep in mind as they evaluate studies?

Andrew Revkin: Quite often the paper’s abstract doesn’t match the findings. The abstract is there to attract attention. That’s a real issue. I’ve blogged on this issue. The institution may have an interest in playing up the finding. The journals — they are very competitive, Science, Nature, PNAS — have an interest in pumping up the volume. The agency that provided the funding, like the National Science Foundation, has an interest in pumping up the finding, if the work says something significant. And the reporter at the end of the chain is searching for the front page thought … So everyone is torque-ing things in the same direction. Then, there are advocates, too. So if they are an advocate against global warming science, and a paper comes out that suits that agenda but may be tentative, they’ll hype the hell out of it — and the same on the other side. So given all of that, you have to be extra careful not to hype a finding …

The other thing we’re attracted to is the new thing — the new, new thought. And new science is always on the edge of understanding, and so it’s implicitly more tentative. [Also see Revkin’s thoughts on what he calls the “single study syndrome.”]

JR: You’ve reported on tremendously complex subjects, with complex research behind them. Do you have communication principles that you could articulate about how you go from the complex to the relatively straightforward? How does a journalist solve that puzzle without being reductionist?

Andrew Revkin: One is to try to spend enough time with the researcher, or researchers in the field, and get them to articulate that complexity and uncertainty matter, as much as what’s been found out. That mix can be very illuminating, still. In other words, if there’s an issue that is really complex but is laden with uncertainty, you have to say all of those things and trying to be too reductionist can work against reality. There’s always going to be this tension between those goals. And I don’t think there is an easy answer. Some of this is really impossible to answer in a particular story, and you’ll never get it right.

JR: What are your thoughts on how the future of news and technology will fit into these questions around research and uncertainty?

Andrew Revkin: One thing that led me on these issues to blogging more and more is that I think it better reflects the nature of these questions — that is, that the “ah-ha!” moments are mostly fictional. And a blog treatment of an issue like climate change or biodiversity in a crowding world is a better fit for that line of inquiry. There are issues that are important but attended by durable murk. So you say, “On this blog, on this issue, you can rely on me as a guide more than a translator. In other words, we’re on a journey.” You say right from the outset that you’ll hear a lot about definitive this, that or the other, and usually that doesn’t hold up in the end. But if you care about climate or you care about energy innovation, you have to make that part of your daily exploration, not expect some story in the New York Times to wrap it up all neatly for you. That’s why I think that the move toward the Web in the end will be beneficial. It comes with all kinds of sacrifices and all kinds of problems.

The other issue is that you get ghetto-ization of science. The miracle of the front page of a newspaper is that everything is mashed up and find something that you didn’t expect to find interesting and follow that line of inquiry, and you get engaged on something that you didn’t think about before. And on the Web — you’ve heard of the Filter Bubble book — we’re all building our own filters, even as we’re exploring. So it’s hard to find mechanisms that can keep away from having that relationship with information … There are traps out there. And you can end up in the “bubble,” and you can end up with people just sort of bloviating back and forth and not really changing things. Or you can make new connections; you can use the Web as a two-way street, and not just sort of as a way to put out your thoughts. So learning how to do that, how to build relationships, how to build collaborative efforts with other people — those are some of the things I’m trying to teach now.

(Further reading: Find Revkin’s extended thoughts on the issues he addressed in this interview in a posting at “Dot Earth.”)

Keywords: science, research chat, training

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