Science-Based Reporting and Countering Misinformation

Science-Based Reporting and Countering Misinformation

Tami Chappell/Reuters
from Local Journalists Conference Calls

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Andrew Revkin, director of the initiative on communication and sustainability at Columbia University's Earth Institute, discusses best practices for science-based reporting and countering misinformation on COVID-19, drawing upon his climate change reporting. Carla Anne Robbins, adjunct senior fellow at CFR and former deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times, hosts the webinar. 

Learn more about CFR's Local Journalists Initiative.

Speaker

Andrew Revkin

Director, Initiative on Communication and Sustainability, Columbia University Earth Institute

Host

Carla Anne Robbins

Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Presider

Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon, everyone. I am Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR, and we’re delighted to have you join our Local Journalist Webinar. As you may know, CFR is an independent and nonpartisan membership organization, and think tank, and publisher focusing on U.S. foreign policy.

This webinar is part of CFR’s Local Journalist Initiative, created to help you connect the local issues you cover in your communities to global dynamics. Our programming puts you in touch with CFR resources and expertise on international issues and provides a forum for sharing best practices. We know as journalists that you have an important responsibility to keep the public informed about COVID-19, its implications, and so many other issues in your communities, so we thank you for being with us today.

I want to remind everybody, as Maureen said, this webinar is on the record. The video and transcript will be posted on our website after the fact, at CFR.org/localjournalists.

I’ve shared our speaker and host bios, Andrew Revkin and Carla Anne Robbins, prior to this call, so I’m just going to highlight a few things from their distinguished backgrounds.

Andrew Revkin is director of the Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Prior to this, he was strategic advisor for environmental and science journalism at National Geographic Society. And as all of you know, he has over thirty years of experience reporting on climate change, including writing for the New York Times and ProPublica.

Carla Anne Robbins is an adjunct senior fellow at CFR. She’s faculty director of the Master of International Affairs Program and clinical professor of national security studies at Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs. Previously, she was the deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times—(audio break)—at the Wall Street Journal.

Welcome to you both. Thank you for being here. I’m going to turn it now to Carla to have a conversation with Andy, and then we will be going out to all of you for your questions and comments, so put on your reporting hats. So over to you, Carla.

ROBBINS: Thanks, Irina, so much. And, Andy, thanks so much for doing this today. And thanks to all of you—to all of our colleagues there. We know this is an incredibly tough time in the business, incredibly tough time to be doing the reporting that you’re doing, and we’re all so incredibly thankful to you for what you’re doing. And my local journalism survive. May all journalism survive.

So, Andy, let’s start. And just a reminder, Andy and I are going to have a conversation for about fifteen or twenty minutes and then we’re going to throw it over to you guys.

Andy, you have a long and incredibly distinguished history of writing about the intersection of politics and science, which is rarely pretty. I remember a story you broke in the mid-2000s, during the George W. Bush administration, about their efforts to silence a top scientist at NASA who was calling for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. So how different is the environment today between the suppression of science and active disinformation? And what do you think are the main drivers of the disinformation you’re seeing on COVID-19? Is it politicians, deep political polarization, wider science denialism than we’ve seen before?

REVKIN: (Laughs.)

ROBBINS: The way people get their news? Is it the Russians?

REVKIN: (Laughs.) Well, like so many things in the world today, this is not an either/or situation. We face multiple sources of stress and opportunity as communicators. And I think right now too often the sources of stress and confusion are—they appear to be dominating, although I do think some of the literature I’ve seen lately implies that people actually are more sensible than what some of this fantastical stuff that’s floating around is trying to lead to believe—that behavior largely around the United States, for example, is still mostly—well, I wouldn’t say enthusiastically, but most people are distancing. Most people are not storming their state capitols with machineguns on their backs.

And that actually reflects part of the media problem. We have an outsized appetite for the anomalous. You know, the things that end up in our news flow are things that are vivid and stark. And so you could argue that the state of the current media, we’re doing a pretty bad job of our—of really conveying the full landscape of how humanity is dealing with the COVID-19 epidemic—pandemic.

Getting back to that initial thought about what’s changed since the days of Jim Hansen being muzzled, yeah, I mean, there’s been disinformation, misinformation, propaganda for as long as there’s been media, as long as there’s been street corners where someone can stand on a box and yell, yellow journalism in the late nineteenth century, et cetera, et cetera. The thing—and there’s been political division as well. That has amplified a lot in the last twenty or thirty years from where those glory days on environmental issues in the ’70s that we recently talked about on Earth Day in our webcast at the Earth Institute, you know, it was—Richard Nixon gave the greenest speech of any American president ever in his 1970 State of the Union address. Among all of his challenges and problems, he recognized there was bipartisan agreement. We had a bunch of bills passed that we still rely on heavily to sustain a functional environment. So that, then, has been degraded—(audio break)—and that’s distinct from what social media I think have done. What’s happened with that is you have this amplification, and it’s the desperation of the media—news enterprises—to keep eyeballs can, again, with this online landscape—with Twitter and Facebook engaged with your news process, and video even more so—you end up with a caricatured view of the world that takes that polarization and paralysis and can worsen it. It all feels pretty dark and dreary.

But we’re also—I just was on this session this morning. I’m working on a U.N.—United Nations disaster risk reduction panel for this coming year, writing a chapter on communication and disaster, and it’s critical for us to figure out how to tamp down or facilitate audiences understanding disinformation, seeing it for what it is. It’s a dominant part of the landscape right now. The, you know, infodemic is not just a hashtag; it is a reality. We are surrounded by noise. And at the same time, though, there are some signs that we can find ways to foster a more reasoned signal-seeking landscape out there. It’s just not going to be easy.

There were other components to your question, but that was—that’s a start.

ROBBINS: OK. There’s a lot that you said there, and so let’s try to sort of break it down a little bit. You seemed to start off in the beginning saying that there isn’t what the secretary-general of the U.N. called an information pandemic out there, that—and most people are behaving sensibly. That would be very reassuring. And are you sure, first of all? I mean, I saw—

REVKIN: Oh, no, no, no. Oh, there is an information pandemic. There is a misinformation—there’s an infodemic, as some call it. The thing that has not yet been—what you do see, though, is that people are heeding the main messages. People are mostly distancing. People are mostly—there are anomalies, obviously, and there are high-profile beach parties and the like, but most of us—and the polls are showing this, too; it’s like 70 percent, strong support for maintaining social distancing no matter what the president’s saying right now. Of course, there’s a complexity here where, just as with vaccination, you know, a small community of naysayers and outliers and people who want to just actively disregard these things, they can actually create and sustain and worsen the epidemic locally/regionally and sustain the economic harms, as well, as that goes forward. But the polls show that most people are actually doing the right thing.

There’s a—I remember years ago—more than a decade ago I was at a meeting on a very different kind of disaster risk—like, actually, the complete opposite disaster risk—an asteroid strike. You know, when the next big rock comes out of space and hits the Earth, what do you do? And it was—we did a scenario exercise, and it was—I was in Mexico with, like, Defense Department people, a former astronaut. And we’re sitting around there at the table, and this one person says, well, you know, when people start to panic, dot-dot-dot. And Dennis Mileti, who’s a sociologist of disaster, he raised his hand—like, shook his hand like he was a sixth grader. You know, he wanted to get the attention. He said, people don’t panic. He said, we know this. We have reams of literature on this. And that—there’s social science that kind of really does support this basic premise that most of us paint inside the lines, you know.

So that’s kind of reassuring. I’m not saying that there’s no reason to worry about anything right now. As a reporter, you know, if you’re in a town, you know, you’ll know the local landscape better than anyone here on this call. Are you in a community that is an outlier where people are or politicians are actively pushing to reopen before the science says it’s safe, and that’s something to dig in on and challenge. You know, put the science in the foreground. There’s no simple. That story will always be varied, depending on where you are in the country or where you are in the world.

ROBBINS: Let’s talk about that a little more, because the second thing that you were suggesting was you had a criticism of the way the coverage has been going, and we all know, since we’re all in the business, that there is a tendency to cover the outliers. I mean, it’s news. It’s new.

REVKIN: Right.

ROBBINS: You know, if it bleeds, it leads. Give us a critique of the coverage and talk about the challenge of dealing with people’s misperception. Most people may be sensible. But I was really struck by an Axios-Ipsos poll from last week that said—I think it was 42 percent of Republicans who were polled said they think that the COVID-19 numbers are—that are being reported are not that high as the official reports, which would suggest that people are behaving sensibly now but as, you know, the pressure there is pretty high to go back for economic reasons and all of that. If you don’t believe the official numbers that crowds out sensible policy. So talk about the challenges of reporting on this when there is a tendency in the public, more generally, to mistrust experts and to mistrust numbers, backed up by a White House that also says don’t believe the numbers.

REVKIN: Yeah, and this—these are really important questions that you raise. Let me see if I can get at them in sequence. It’s important, first of all, to report if a politician is saying something that’s completely divergent from science. That’s something to dig in on and report clearly and loudly. At the same time, as with climate—you know, in the climate world a lot of scientists who feel over the decades and even some climate journalists and communicators say, well, why don’t they get it. We’ve been saying this for decades. And sometimes they point too easily to disinformation as saying that’s the counterweight, it’s because companies are paying for ads to deceive. What that kind of framing misses is that there actually are other dimensions of society that can be really substantially affected by climate policy or, in this case, public health policy, and a politician, whether it’s Andrew Cuomo or Trump, is thinking about multiple landscapes of risk.

The economic disruption that’s been created is huge and it will have huge multiyear ramifications. So being too epidemiology centered or if you’re saying a politician isn’t heeding a model is really missing the full dimensions of decision-making in a democracy, that it is—you know, Trump is kind of a caricature of this but they’re even—you know, people were criticizing Cuomo.

The very famous author—best-selling author, Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan writer, was tweeting critically about Cuomo the other day when Cuomo finally admitted that—he acknowledged that he should have acted sooner to close down the state, and Taleb was kind of chiding him in a nyah-nyah kind of way, and I—you know, my presence on Twitter and Taleb are like a fly buzzing around some big—you know, a big elephant or something. But I was chiding him for that. I was saying it’s way too simplistic to say a politician needs to act with epidemiological perfection because you are dealing with these countervailing realities and it’s not a simple answer. On the international level, I was tweeting recently about how many hospital beds per thousand people is the right number for your country. In Japan, it’s thirteen. Here, it’s 2.8 (beds per thousand). Clearly, 2.8 (beds per thousand) doesn’t work in a surge, so—but what’s the right number is not just an answer of epidemiology.

ROBBINS: So you’re an assignment editor. We’ve given you a new job. You’re an assignment editor. What question, and even sitting here in New York what question do you want answered outside of New York? You know, what question to give you a sense of what’s going on in other parts of the country politically, epidemiologically, public policy? What stories do you want to be reading that aren’t in the New York Times?

REVKIN: Well, I guess it all depends on your audience. If you’re saying am I the assigning editor at a newspaper in rural Iowa or—then that’s a very different question than what should the New York Times be doing to convey that full landscape of what’s sort of the American scene right now.

If I’m in a rural or small town—if I’m in a part of America that the Walton Foundation has been digging in on a lot lately called micropolitan, these towns of ten thousand or so—I live in one. It’s a little—six thousand or so. You know, we’re just north of New York City, so this is not the heartland.

But there your stories really are more about are our nursing homes safe. You know, are our—how are we going to maintain our production on our farms. There are these great stories to tell about supply chains now. You know, this idea that there’s mountains of potatoes rotting in one state and mile-long lines of cars at food banks, you know, a couple states away, that’s a great story and you can tell that story from any part of that landscape, whether you’re in a rural part of the country that’s growing potatoes or if you’re in an urban center that’s lacking food.

So thinking systemically about this kind of challenge we’re in that’s on the economic side. And then, I guess, in terms of labor, how are you going to—where are the farm workers going to come from to pick the crops if you’re in that kind of production. That’s a really good story, and that relates to Trump’s immigration policy. So the global or national scale elements have always local ramifications that are—that are not that hard to identify if you dig in.

The one thing I would think is not useful, and there was a guy at Columbia at the Earth Institute’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, Jeff Schlegelmilch, who—he’s kind of—he wrote something on his Facebook page a month ago that I posted more widely and then I had him on our webcast, and he says—and I think this relates to how the media operate as well—he said to the reader, to the news consumer, you know, you’re in an infodemic, some of which is misinformation and some of which is just too much information.

That’s a big part of it, too. You’re being blasted. New study X, new study Y, new model, so and so says this. And he said a good practice—I could actually read it to you in a second—is to just, as a news consumer, to know what to turn off and have your own filter for what actually could tweak your life today as opposed to, you know, what’s new and interesting. Because that stuff can really overwhelm you.

I just tweeted a string of practices that journalists can consider when they’re dealing with that flood as well. You know, there’s a new study every hour right now on some aspect of COVID-19 or the virus. You know, now we think it’s—what’s it doing to kids. There’s some weird thing going on with kids, and a week ago it was that toes were turning blue. And, you know, much of that is anecdotal. Much of the science hasn’t even gone through peer review because the journals are a rapid review process, and the journalist then has to figure out a way to convey—you don’t just stop reporting, but what can you do in your presentation of your news that can flag it as tentative or the like? And I use warning signs. I’ve actually—if people who go on Twitter, I just posted this with CFR.org’s account and my own. I have a little label. It’s like a little warning label that says: “Warning: Single study syndrome.” Single study syndrome I came up with when I was at the New York Times on my blog as a way to note if something is an outlier. We all—the news process gloms on to the new, right, as you were saying. But the new is tentative.

In science, the new is always the frontier of knowledge. It’s always being eaten at and iterative. So you, as a journalism enterprise, if you’re not signaling that, and I mean in bright colors—like, what I have is literally a sign, you know, yellow with black letters—then you’re being—then you’re just harvesting clicks, and that’s not really useful to the reader.

So the reader has work to do, the media have work to do, to create a pathway through both the information flood and the misinformation flood that can give readers some sense of, oh, here’s a news outlet that I can trust not just to deliver the news but to help me—help me, you know, not go insane. I think that’s something that can be done—that can be done better.

ROBBINS: Well, we will look at your list and I’m sure people will ask you questions about it, and I want to turn this over. But I do have one quick follow-up on that. Given the general skepticism toward expertise that does exist out there, and, obviously, if you’re reporting on science you’re not going to go to someone who’s a science denier on one side and someone who’s a science supporter on the other. We don’t do balance that way in journalism.

But how do you convey, how do you deconstruct a complicated science story in a way that people will understand it and trust it, given the skepticism toward expertise?

REVKIN: Well, some of that responsibility lies in the realm of experts as well. The National Academies of Science, Medicine, and Engineering are convening around climate communication, how to—what could we do better. What I’m doing at Columbia partly is building a better interface between expertise and journalists. And it’s not just about journalists being trained. It’s about building a conversation among journalists and experts when you’re not on deadline.

Actually, the CFR did a good job, I think, with the first iterations of this local global journalism workshop you did a year and a half ago or so where, you know, just sitting with the scientists, sitting with the journalists on the other side, is a helpful process, an open house kind of approach when you’re not on deadline.

And then scientists and scientific organizations and institutions need to do more of that directly with the public, too. There’s ways to do that. Especially now with the online push there’s this enterprise I’ve written about a couple times called “Skype a Scientist,” and that’s great. It started as a hashtag on Twitter, “Skype a Scientist.” It’s a scientist raising her hand and saying, you know, I can be in your classroom tomorrow, or your city council meeting tomorrow.

In New York City, there’s an organization called Science For New York. I think it’s Sci4NY on Twitter, and they’re trying to get scientists to go to city council meetings just to hang out to get to know the gestalt of a community, to be public as a scientist. Not meaning saying, here’s my study, but being a part of the community, actually.

So there’s lots of responsibility there, too. And journalists, I think—you know, I’m not—I don’t think blogging is the end of—is, like, the solution to any of this. Great stories, traditional stories, matter. But a blog, as I did with the Dot Earth at the New York Times for nine years is implicitly a conversation with readers.

And it takes work. Part of the work is the engagement with readers. But I thought it built a community that was very solution oriented, and could deal with stray outliers, and get directionality toward progress. The one thing, I think, whether it’s a pandemic or climate, the journalists have to get away from is to write this as if it’s a solvable problem. These are phenomenon that are emergent.

It’s like the Cold War. It’s like—you know, they have multi-decadal drivers that got us into this fix and it’s going to be decades getting out, and that’s different than writing some big special report, here’s how to solve the climate problem. That doesn’t get there.

ROBBINS: Thanks.

Irina, should we turn it over to the group?

FASKIANOS: Yes. Let’s now go to all of you for questions and comments. You can just go down—if you click on the Participants tab and raise your hand. And we already have a question from Katherine Reed.

Katherine, we’ll go to you, and please tell us what—where you’re from, what news outlet.

Q: Hi. I’m Katherine Reed. I teach at the Missouri School of Journalism.

And I’ve taught a course that combines science students and journalism students, and one of the issues that we addressed in the course, and I’d like to hear what you think of this, Andrew, and what a strategy is, how do you deal with cognitive biases. How do you deal with the conspiracy theorists? Journalists have to be aware that sometimes information just falls on fallow ground. So, you know, how do we deal with that issue in trying to inform the public, especially at a time like this?

REVKIN: It’s one of the grand challenges. Because, you know, we always end up having to write about it. This came up the last few days with—I almost feel like I don’t want to mention her name—the antivax specialist who got—there was a very artful, strategic, successful effort to get her viral. And that story of that virality was told by the New York Times and some more specialized journalists. I think that’s one way to write about it. Don’t get stuck in the she’s wrong because, but just write about how she’s even in the conversation. And Bobby Kennedy, Jr., you know, who I’ve known for decades through his environmental activism here along the Hudson River is an absolute outlier and a fantastical thinker when it comes to vaccines. And he’s part of this landscape behind her.

And that’s just, like, I think there too—write about the systemic aspects of it. And the thing that is problematic is we get trapped in always a fact-checking kind of reporting. And I think that’s—this is the bigger story, which is why is that even in the story to begin with? This is the same thing with Trump. There’s been this—I’ve done three different webcasts on my Sustain What enterprise at Columbia here, with Jay Rosen of NYU, and Laurie Garrett, the Pulitzer winner on, you know, pandemic risk. And Jay is freaking out, justifiably, about our trap that journalism is in around the president tweet. You know, what do we do? And Jay correctly said, if you just think that fact checking him is success, you’re going to lose, because he’s just putting it out faster than anyone can check with. You see it on the chyrons on CNN: this is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong. But it’s actually a propaganda strategy, as Jay Rosen puts it. And I think he’s right. And I don’t think there’s an answer to that yet, actually.

Q: Thank you.

ROBBINS: Thank you, Katherine.

Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon. And if you can show us your video that would be great and tell us where you’re from.

Q: I’m not sure how to show the video. But—

ROBBINS: That’s OK. We can hear you, though. So that’s good.

Q: All right. So I’m a reporter for Florida Today, it’s a USA Today paper in Brevard County, on the Space Coast of Florida.

And just quickly jumping off of the last question, I mean, like, the county I’m in is very, very, very conservative. I think a lot of these conspiratorial ideas have a lot of traction here. A little bit of history as well with kind of antivax thought, anti-fluoridation thought, all sorts of things take root here. And I think that, unlike the rest of the country, I don’t see a majority of people necessarily social distancing. Maybe one in four at most people wear a mask at the supermarket when I’ve gone. So it’s—you know, maybe it’s an outlier, but it’s—there’s definitely not a lot of voices in favor of stricter social distancing locally. And with the manned space launch, the big return to U.S. manned space flight on May 27, we have the NASA administrator saying: Please don’t come to Brevard County to watch the launch at Cape Canaveral. Meanwhile, our sheriff said: No, please come. Please come. Brevard County is open for launch business.

So this is the kind of tension that is manifested locally. And it is tough. I’m not really sure what the best approach is to dealing with it, because I agree that fact checking is not enough. And I wonder—I wonder what—how to actually take a more active role in clapping back, so to speak, without kind of breaking that decorum that journalists are supposed to maintain. Because, I mean, I know that different news organizations will have different guidelines for how journalists need to conduct themselves in public, but certainly I feel like sometimes I feel stuck when I want to just tell folks, like, I’m not getting a paycheck from Bill Gates. Like, I wish I was in on the conspiracy. I want to be rolling in the dough. But I’m on furlough this week. So, I don’t know, it’s very frustrating. And I look forward to any advice on that.

REVKIN: Oh boy. Well, you’re in a target-rich environment, if you’re just thinking strictly story. That’s one thing. But of course, as you say, you’re fighting a losing battle if the goal is to see if journalism can help create a more rational landscape. But that gets to this other story, perhaps, which is if you can find a way to interview some of the folks who are—not like the outlier, you know, the ones that are sort of just attention-seeking parts of this—but people who are in the store, who just are just quietly shopping without a mask. And there is this phenomenon called cultural cognition that a guy at Yale, Dan Kahan, K-A-H-A-N, has been studying for fifteen or so years, which is—demonstrates empirically that it’s rational to be irrational.

In the sense that our tribal identity, or your cultural identities, your cultural cues, are more valuable to you almost evolutionarily as a human being, than reality. That’s why religion exists. That’s why, you know, it’s hard to kind of go out of your group. You know, that’s why you end up with these weird situations around climate where someone—you can almost have physical fights between people who are pro-nuclear and people who are pro-solar. And it’s—there are these cultural angles. So just getting inside the skin, not in a, like, shaming way, but just sort of, like, who are you? Where did you come from? Can I, you know, profile you in some way that’s not hoping to change the person, just describing the basis of their understanding of the world can be useful.

The other thing though, practically, is—and this is in those studies of the IHME model and the like—would be to actually, you know, objectively look at that local situation. What is the hospital capacity? If you have that behavior but you also have hospitals that are largely not overtaxed, you know, there are different contexts, and different restart dates, and different everything depending on where you are in the country. This could flame out and become from some misbehavior to be a bigger thing ultimately. But, you know, examining with what you understand from local experts, health experts, what is our capacity in this part of Florida to deal with this? If this becomes a worst-case, if these behaviors do get us forward?

The last thing I’ll say is you’re—I’m looking at you on social media, at @alemzs, and you’re doing a great job on social media.

Q: Thank you.

REVKIN: So I’ve found—you know, I’ve had more than a few young reporters ask me, well, you know, I really want to do something more creative at this local newspaper, but I’m stuck doing what I have to do. And I say, well, use your social media as a way to test the limits. And I don’t mean test the limits by being an activist, but, you know, like you said, if the local sheriff is saying something that’s completely divergent from what the NASA administration says, you know, tweet those two things in one tweet. You know, just put it on the record. And use their—use their Twitter IDs so they’re seeing the message. And that can, you know, build some sense of you as a trusting guide that’s more—you know, pursue reality. You can be an evangelist for reality without losing your journalistic integrity.

ROBBINS: And can I give a follow up, just to support that, because those are all great bits of advice. Do you think that if calling on local experts, you know, people who were more rooted in the community at local colleges, or community colleges, local public health organizations or whatever, have more credibility or more resonance for stories more likely to overcome the skepticism?

Q: I’m not sure. For one, we have a community college and we have the Florida Institute of Technology. But, you know, in terms of schools with, you know, more medical departments, public health departments, we have to go to either UCF or, you know, South Florida. So it’s not the most resource rich to just stay within the county. And in terms of the local health department, our health department administrator went on a cruise actually in March. So they don’t want to talk to us very much. So it’s very—it’s become adversarial because we wrote a story about the administrator going on a cruise. And ever since then, getting straight answers from the health department has been a challenge. So it’s—unfortunately, we can’t even rely on our local public health experts who are public servants.

REVKIN: Quick follow up, did you say you were furloughed?

Q: Yeah. Like all Gannett journalists, we’re furloughed one week per month. So this is kind of my furlough week, but.

REVKIN: Yeah, but that says so much about, again, these countervailing tensions we’re under.

Q: Yeah.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m looking for more raised hands. And I don’t see any. So I know Carla has a whole trove of questions.

ROBBINS: I do. (Laughter.) I’m relentless.

You do an enormous amount of thinking about communications for, and some science organizations and public health organizations, that are better at doing it—rapid response, speak common language. Can you recommend groups that you think are a better go-to for information, particularly on a deadline, for this group?

REVKIN: Could you repeat that question? I’m sorry. I was just sending a note to Alessandro. I was so struck by some of the things he was saying. I apologize.

ROBBINS: No problem. I was saying, you do a lot of coaching and a lot of thinking about how organizations and scientists can do a better job of communicating with journalists. Are there particular organizations and groups that you think are the best ones right now, that are go-to, that answer quickly, that speak in plain language, that are great go-to sources for reporters?

REVKIN: Well, thinking specifically about regional and local media, the one—there’s an interesting model that’s emerged from Climate Central, ClimateCentral.org, which has been around for a decade or more. They actually don’t just serve as a source, but they’ll help, in a way, facilitate stories that are data driven. So if you wanted to do a piece on sea level rise in your community, or chronic flooding if you’re in an inland area, or what’s the story of wildfire risk, they can actually help you navigate the data and documents and come up with better stories. They also—they have a model that—they have a partnership editor whose specific goal is to, when there’s a study coming out on wildfire in the west, he can help identify the region that’s most relevant and work with an editor or reporter there to build better journalism.

So that’s a model. It’s a little bit different than what you were asking, but I think it shows you another approach. And something we’re doing right now, my initiative with developing country journalists, we’re building an interface so that journalists who work for this organization called global press—and it’s a network of 100-plus female journalists around the world in tough places—to facilitate them being able to write about climate. And actually, we might do the same thing with COVID-19 with them, just to soften that—to give them more opportunities to use data, and the like. That’s one thing.

You know, in terms of others, the American Geophysical Union years and years ago had a—had a—like, an email account. If you’re a journalist on deadline, you can send an email, you know, to find a climatologist, or a hydrologist, or a soil scientist. SciLine, S-C-I-L-I-N-E, let me make sure it’s—I want to make sure I get their thing right. Yes, SciLine.org, S-C-I-L-I-N-E.org is part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And they’re also specifically designed to be a sort of a Match.com for journalist questions and scientific expertise. That’s happening more and more.

I think there are techniques I used to use to just if you’re on deadline, if you want to find an expert on tornadoes, don’t just do a Google search, do a Google Scholar search. You know, scholar.google.gov—I mean, yeah, scholar.google.com. And you can type in tornado frequency Ohio, you’ll get people who actually published papers about tornado frequency in Ohio, as opposed to, you know, if you do a general Google search you’re not digging in quite enough to get to know you’re at least in the right landscape. And then there too, if you look at the authors on a paper, you know, don’t just choose the author, but maybe send an email to two or three people who worked on that question. I used to do that all the time with the New York Times. It’s—you know, rather than picking up the phone and—if I can send an email to five people studying sea ice or studying the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 viral capsule, and two of them reply, and then I can get them engaged in a little bit of a conversation, that leads me more quickly to what the reality might be on that issue, rather than just kind of randomly hoping for people.

ROBBINS: Are you reading on this—on the pandemic itself—other than the typical sources of information? When you get up in the morning, what do you look at? Are there any cool—any cool sources? I mean, any—(inaudible)—

REVKIN: Well, yeah, I—

ROBBINS: —following that we’re not following on Twitter? Like, curate our—

REVKIN: I have—I do have a couple of Twitter lists of my own. So if people go to Twitter.com/Revkin I have one that’s #SustComm. It’s people who are really good journalists engaged in sustainability questions. Another one is #SustainWhat, which is more scholars and scientists digging in on tough questions, including pandemics. I think there are some great people, practitioners, journalists. If you follow them on Twitter for a couple of days, you’ll get a pretty good idea of the landscape of who they rely on as sources. And, you know, there’s too much piggyback journalism, meaning where someone writes a story, and then someone writes a story about the story. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about if you see who are the reliable guides for journalists, who you fee are reliable, then that’s at least a guide toward how to think regionally around the same questions.

ROBBINS: And one of the great joys of Twitter is that you can see who the people you respect follow. And, you know, you can just see who Laurie Garrett follows, which is a—which is a great thing. We had Vin Gupta on the other day, who was fabulous, from Washington Health Metrics. And you can go and see who he follows. And that’s one of the great joys of this. Which doesn’t mean you should only follow people you agree with. That’s rather important piece of the agenda.

REVKIN: No, I agree. And I’m a huge fan of Twitter specifically and distinct from the other social media platforms because—and I was an early adopter there. and you really can find expertise and engage with it much more effectively there than in many other ways, and then develop, you know, sustained relationships with people—learning relationships, including clusters of reporters trying to figure out something. There are climate modelers who hang out on Twitter sharing their views, really oblivious to the big, loud conversation around climate denial and the like. Just, you know, let me model. A new paper will come out, and they kind of dig in on it themselves and find a way to cut through the clutter. I think that is a very useful interface that way.

ROBBINS: So let’s ask a climate question here. Definitely in your wheelhouse. So there has been a reported drop in emissions—what it is, 5 percent global drop in emissions?

REVKIN: It might be eight. Yeah, somewhere in that range, yeah.

ROBBINS: Well, an anecdotally I can tell you the sky is incredibly blue in New York City. And, you know, if it weren’t like a horrifying science fiction movie in which the robots had killed all the human beings, and you couldn’t die, it would be pretty fabulous. So is this just—you know, is it going to just get worse when this is over with because everybody’s got to rebuild their economies? Or is there a small glimmer of possibility that in rebuilding the economies that people are going to have a serious conversation about how to do it a more green way? Is there any hope there at all?

REVKIN: There’s a lot of conversations underway. Path dependency is a big deal. I don’t even think I knew that phrase until about 10 years ago. And it’s how the structural nature of everything in our lives, from regulations and the way Congress works, or the way Congress doesn’t work, to the way we think, what are the norms, makes it really hard to get out of the mode of rebuilding, rebooting, meaning restarting the thing we already know. It’s much harder to envision, to progenerate, not regenerate. I’ve had one—you know, started this webcast in mid-March, stimulated by the coronavirus lockdown and pandemic, called Sustain What. And I think half of the episodes so far, I’ve done about thirty, have been on this question.

Tomorrow—actually, tomorrow morning I have some young scholars in environmental ecological economics who are leading a discussion about how do you build a care economy that actually—that puts an actual value on the people who provide the care, who produce the stuff we rely on? They’re not—you know, they’ve all be sort of in an outsized way threatened by this virus. They have insufficient protection. They have insufficient income. Can you build an economy that cares for caregivers? And that’s pretty cool. And there’s no easy answer to that question of can you—can we do a fresh start.

The same thing goes for energy. I had—one of the conversations we had a month ago with a guy named Nate Hagens, H-A-G-E-N-S, from the Post Carbon Institute, that’s at @PostCarbon. So he’s all about the next—the post-carbon economy. And he said—he acknowledged we have two emergencies right now. We have two situations. We have to restart—we do have to start people’s lives. We have to build—he said, Republicans have to give up that this is not just about saving businesses and Democrats have to give up that this is not just about saving workers. We have to save the economy as we know it, even as we consider how to move forward. So when Nate Hagens says to me, this isn’t easy, that we have to do the conventional thing and the big thing at the same time, that’s challenging.

And I do think, though, that that’s a great story. It doesn’t fit into a headline very easily. You know, that’s why, whether it’s a blog or a podcast, you know, something that’s iterative and a journey, where you’re—if a journalism enterprise, whether it’s local or global tries to take this on, take the readers on this journey to say: We’re here to guide you through this amazing extreme storm. This one happens to be a biological storm. We know we don’t know a lot of things about it. We know the directionality we want if we want to have an economy that has enough hospital beds, you know, next time, that is fostering—insulating us from biological flows from species interactions in Asia, that has a surveillance and sentinel aspect so we can have the tools to know when we’re getting into hot water again.

But there’s no single story that does that. And not even like—you know, the New York Times is doing it right now, in the sense that every front page is constantly being updated and refreshed. But I don’t think the New York Times frontpage yet reflects the things we don’t know. I mean, there’s some great reporters doing stuff that says, you know, we don’t really know everything. But there’s something about the news process to me that feels like the process itself. And we either engage with it, trust it, become more from more of a sense that we’re on a journey here, follow us and we promise you our best effort to guide you to good sources of information. Which might not always be generated by our reporters, but somewhere else. But trust us, and we’ll lead you through this. And not implying that there’s simple fix.

ROBBINS: Well, this is one of the great delights of editorial pages, is that you’re having a direct dialogue with people. And—

REVKIN: Yeah, but I had a problem with the New York Times op-ed page.

ROBBINS: We’ll take this offline.

Irina, is there another question?

REVKIN: (Laughs.) Yeah, let’s hear.

FASKIANOS: Well, I did see Marcheta Fornoff’s hand up, but it’s not up anymore. But I’m going to give you the opportunity—oh, it’s up again. Yay. Go ahead.

Marcheta.

Q: Hi. It’s Marcheta from public radio.

FASKIANOS: Oh, sorry!

Q: That’s OK. It’s not pronounced the way it’s spelled.

Anyway, I produce a live weekday call-in talk show. So we hear directly from our audience. And we are lucky that we do have a lot of engagement with our audience. But I have a question about how we can maybe reach people who aren’t consuming our work normally. I think we all know that the media that people consume tends to, you know, follow on some ideological bubbles. And one of the ways in the past where what we would try to do to reach people we might not normally reach is to go out in the community. And we would do remote broadcasts in other parts of the state, outside of our metro area. And I’m curious, now that that’s not an option for us in this moment, what are other good ways to sort of burst that bubble, and reach people who aren’t gravitating toward our content naturally?

REVKIN: That’s a great question. I didn’t quite catch where you are. You said you’re in public radio, but where?

Q: Minnesota.

REVKIN: Yeah. So many things about what we do are constrained by this not—you know, this having to be virtual and being locked away. This is where I do think Facebook can be useful—Facebook groups or Twitter, to some extent. It requires, again, a more active use of the outreach part of social media. So you’re kind of—you can track a conversation. You can find out, you know, if you’re an urban part of Minnesota, you want to kind of get the feel for the heartland, looking at farming websites and the like. And then you say sort of say, hey, we’re looking for the voices. We want to hear from you, blah, blah, blah.

When I was at ProPublica 2017, they hired the first engagement reporters there. And they weren’t—they weren’t—you know, the old-fashioned media definition of engagement is getting more eyeballs. And the new-fashioned version is really more engagement. Like, we need your story. We need to tell—we’re not here to tell stories. We’re here to share or to facilitate you sharing your story. And you might be already doing that kind of thing. And I just think it just requires flipping your own process to think, well, who’s not in—if I want to break out of my bubble, like, where is the other bubble? Or how do I find that? And that’s doable online too. Does that make sense?

ROBBINS: Can’t you—sorry. Marcheta, I was just wondering if you could leverage your listeners to basically find family members, friends, neighbors who aren’t listening and turn them into reporters, and into lead sources as well. What I’m finding right now when I am writing is that people are remarkably underemployed right now, and remarkably open to helping when you reach out to them. And so one of the ways to do this is that while you may have your devoted followers, which I’m sure you do, you know, it a Venn diagram. I mean, people tend to—they may live in their own bubbles, but they’ve got relatives who live in different bubbles. And you might be able to leverage that as well.

Q: Yeah, that’s a great idea. We do use tools like Hearken to have to have, you know, people share their stories with us. But a lot of times those people are already hyper-loyal listeners and really engaged with us. But I think that’s a great idea, to ask them to help connect us with people who are in their friend group or in their family group who might—who might not already be listening to what we do. So thank you.

ROBBINS: You can actually make them masks with your logo on them, as well, as send them out if they get you ten new listeners. (Laughter.)

Q: I’ll have to work on my sewing skills. But we’ll consider it. (Laughter.) Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. We have Kala West next from WURD AM in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Q: Good afternoon. My question is kind of similar to Marcheta, which is why I jumped in right here. WURD has a very older listenership. So we’re looking at fifties and above. However, I produce our Millennial show. We have the only Millennial show on this station. And a lot of times the older generation either turn us off, because we’re trying to reach that listener base, or the Millennials don’t tune in because they say that’s grandma and grandpa’s station. So my question is, how can we have this intergenerational conversation on our Millennial-focused show?

REVKIN: (Laughs.) That’s great. I’ve been—there’s a sociologist at Columbia named Shamus Khan who started a youth remote learning website right away—this will be relevant, and you’ll see why. He does a lot about ethnography, which is sort of chronicling—how do you chronicle the world, like an anthropologist would do? And he did a course in ethnography for high school students. Like, you’re locked down, but you’re locked down at your home, in your apartment building, or in your neighborhood. What can you do to chronicle life around you right now? You’re living in history. I mean, we’re always living in history, right, but you’re living in big history right now. So what can you do as a kid to be a meaningful part of contributing to that?

And then there’s another—one of my—an intern here from Zambia, who was a radio journalist when he was fourteen in Zambia, he ran a radio podcasting workshop, a webinar. It was going to be an in-person thing in New Jersey, and then all hell broke loose, so. And that—so he was connecting students with—kids with the idea of using audio. And you’ve got elders, right, all around. If you could reach them, and maybe your audience already is there, then if you do—like, WNYC in New York also has what’s called radio rookies, which has been up and running for a while. So if you could get a way to do a webinar where you have kids talking to elders, and then the elders can talk about the polio epidemic. And it was this disease that was spreading, and no one knew what was going on, and every swimming pool was closed. And Herman Daly, this great economist, who was on my webcast recently was talking about living through, and he was a survivor of polio. So then you can start to generate this sort of crosstalk. It would be awesome. And maybe that’s one way to do it, sort of find the radio rookies around you.

ROBBINS: Or the radio grannies.

REVKIN: And—well, right. But maybe there’s already in—it sounds like they might already be in your network, to some extent.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Any last questions? Or else I’m going to give the last couple of questions to Carla.

ROBBINS: So, while we wait, any—you started us off with some criticism of our business. Do you want to talk a little bit more about what’s on your list of ways to become a better journalist in the midst of a pandemic?

REVKIN: (Laughs.) Yeah. I guess it’s—ai-yi-yi. This morning in this U.N. three-hour talk on preparing a report on disaster risk reduction and communication, several people in the scholarly community talk about the work of Dan Kahneman, who wrote the book Thinking Fast and Slow. And it’s about—essentially about the difference between intuitive and deliberative work. And it’s when you get into these big scale events like this we tend to lead with our intuition, just like we do—I mean, Trump is like this on—he’s like a caricature of this, right? You lead with your intuition. But we all do. We all tend to kind of glom onto the thing. Oh, could we reopen next week? Or do I really have to wear this mask? Then you have to figure out a way in your own practice, I think journalist practice as well, to be more deliberative. To step back.

Just because something is a great headline, does it mean it’s serving the purpose of journalism? And that, you know, in the middle of a pandemic—(laughs)—where it’s all about just going, you know, 100 miles an hour, and keeping things going, and feeding the page, and being on top of things, it’s really hard to be deliberative. There are people in the newsroom. A good newsroom is set up to have someone deliberating. You know, at the Times it’s Matt Purdy. And that—finding a way to see that the journalist process is actually not inflaming things more than it might otherwise.

What I said earlier about the infodemic, you know, mostly when I’ve been writing about it, tweeting about it, recently, it’s been about misinformation. But the other aspect of it is real. It’s the too much information. TMI, you know? And when is it right for journalism to stop the chyron scrolling endlessly, to stop—to have—Brian Stelter has gotten at this a little bit on CNN—to see what there is to do in our rhythm, the way we cover things, that is not feeding the instinct aspect of life is essential now. And Laurie Garrett said something so important on the first conversation with her I had, the Pulitzer Prize winner who’s been covering pandemics since before AIDS—epidemics. She had a big warning for journalists coming new to this beat, which was: You know, this is actually—to her feeling, war reporting—this is worse than war reporting. She had done a little of war reporting in the first Persian Gulf War in the early ’90s.

And she said, the problem in this case is you, as a journalist, you have to self-care here. You are—every story, you’re on the precipice of actually actively worsening public behavior, or some policy decision, or making it a little better. So there’s a monumental quality to this that isn’t even there covering a war. And of course, this is a long war. You know, I was—we were all—I assume you—were you at the Times for 9/11?

ROBBINS: No. I was at the Journal.

REVKIN: Yeah, well, I was—yeah, but you know—well, the Journal was worse, because you were right downtown. You know, that—we thought that was a long journey. The Times, I was—I contributed to the nation challenge thing. And the anthrax came, and this came, and that came. And there’s a quality there of self-preservation that has to be part of this too. But I think it’s more—it’s not just self-preservation. It’s, like, what does the world actually need from journalism? What does my community need today? What can I inform them about today that isn’t just about clicking on the latest thinking on hydrochloroquine (sic; hydroxychloroquine)? And I don’t think it’s an easy answer. It’s like this debate about turning off Trump’s press conferences. But it’s something that has to be deeply considered.

ROBBINS: I think what you were saying about giving context rather than—you know, how did this become viral, rather than just saying it is viral. And I’m also impressed—I’m a huge fan of Vox, and have been for a long time, because—and I’m finding—I’m married to a journalist. (Laughs.) And we are finding for the first time in our lives that we are information overload. And I have taken a vow to not read the paper from end-to-end before I go to bed, which is for the first time in my life. And but what I’m really appreciative of are the newsletters, and the things you need to know summaries in the morning and in the evening. And when we think about our role, part of our role is really curating people whose lives are overwhelmed as well, who are home doing jobs, with kids, tending with ill parents or ill relatives.

I mean, part of what we’re doing really is curating a role for people, not overwhelming them, and giving them a guide to what they need to pay attention to for their own lives, and what they can actually maybe put aside for a while. Doesn’t mean we’re not covering the story, but we’re flagging people for what really matters. And I think that’s part of it. And part of that is also using lots of different platforms, and whether they’re emails, listservs, or things of that sort. So lots of different challenges out there. And I’m very jealous of all you guys who are still full-time in the business. I’d get back in a minute. It’s an incredible time. But that’s easy for me to say, because I’m not exhausted the way you guys must be.

REVKIN: Yeah, I have to say, I’m the same. You know, I still do this webcast and stuff, but I do miss aspects of the newsroom. And I’m just trying to do my part from where I am to see if we can facilitate to making information matter. That’s my mantra, is how do you make information matter. That’s my tattoo. When the tattoo parlors open up. I won’t do it, but how do you make information matter?

ROBBINS: You can go to Georgia. They’ll do it for you right now.

REVKIN: Yeah, right? Oh god. (Laughter.) Yeah. So there you go.

ROBBINS: Irina, (are we cool ?). Thank you so much, everybody.

FASKIANOS: We are at the end of our time. Yes. Andy, thank you for coming on—

REVKIN: But we’re at the beginning—I want to make sure those—

FASKIANOS: I know, we are at the beginning—

REVKIN: I want to make sure the participants know that they can follow up. We can actually do a public session if they want on Sustain What to build this conversation out from where we’re at. Someone—you know, with someone from CFR and some journalists, to make this broader and even better, and keep it going.

FASKIANOS: Fantastic. We are doing this on a regular basis. Right now our pace is every other week. But we might increase that. And as you said, yes, we did convene an in-person workshop for journalists, local journalist last January, a year ago this January. And we were planning to do it in May, May 18—or, May 21. And obviously, we have cancelled it because of where we are. So we look forward to the time where we can get back to convening in person. But in the meantime, we’re going to continue this forum. Thank you all for being part of it. We’re going to send a follow-up email. Andy has a few resources that he wants to share with you that we couldn’t do during this—during this session. But we will send a follow-up email.

And, again, Twitter. You can follow Carla Anne Robbins at @RobbinsCarla and Andy Revkin at @Revkin. And also just be sure to visit CFR.org, ThinkGlobalHealth.org, and ForeignAffairs.com for the latest developments and analysis on the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a whole wealth of resources on other regions and issues. We look forward to your feedback on future webinars that we can put together for you. You can email us at LocalJournalists@CFR.org. And, again, thank you for the important work that you all are doing. And stay well, stay safe, and we look forward to seeing you again. Thank you both.

REVKIN: Thank you too.

ROBBINS: Thank you so much, Irina. Thanks, Andy. Thanks, everyone.

(END)

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