AN INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL LEMONICK Michael Lemonick i s a science journalist who has spent the last several years focusing on climate change, writing over fifty cover stories for Time magazine as well as six books, the most recent of which is Mirror Earth: The Search for Our Planet’s Twin (2012). He is currently a writer-at-large for Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists and journalists that researches and reports on climate change and its consequences. A few weeks before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the second part of its landmark Fifth Assessment report, The Point had a chance to ask Lemonick how journalists can tell compelling but accurate stories about climate change in an era when Google thinks people are more likely to search “climate change hoax” than “climate change effects.”
The Point: So tell us about Climate Central.
Michael Lemonick: The ambition of Climate Central is to make climate change something that people think about and take seriously. We do climate journalism but we also do some basic climate research—not quite science, more like data mining and processing to put climate information into a context that people understand, with the hope that other news organizations will pick up and discuss the reports we issue. We also try to convince TV meteorologists to use our graphics and to talk about climate change in their weather reports.
The Point: Do you think that Climate Central’s structure could be incorporated into a normal news organization, such that on their science stories they have both a journalist and a scientist?
ML: I think it would be very difficult. It would be very difficult because, whereas a public television station or a nonprofit company like Climate Central doesn’t have to earn money and is not really competing in a financial sense with other media outlets, if you go to a real newspaper or TV station, while they would like to have accurate stories, what they must have are stories that beat the competition and raise their profile. And they need to be able to do things fast. The idea of writing a story for a magazine and saying, “OK, well, now we’ll go to the scientists and negotiate back and forth for several hours”… If I said that to an editor, he or she would look at me as though I’d lost my mind. The Point: But let’s say you had unlimited time to do a story, would there still be a problem? Would the accuracy—the total accuracy—demanded by a scientist be a problem? ML: Yes, it could be a problem because the only way that a story in a newspaper or a magazine could legitimately be considered completely accurate would be for you to reprint the relevant scientific paper in its entirety. Anything that you do that changes the paper in any way, that leaves anything out, already starts to make it false at some level. But since no ordinary person would ever want to read a scientific paper, you