SEJ Workshop: Combating Climate and Science Disinformation

Originally published by Lindsay Bowen for SEJ on April 14, 2024.

Michael Mann, author of “The New Climate War” and one of the climate scientists at the center of the trumped-up “ClimateGate” scandal, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, author of “Cyberwar,” “Creating Conspiracy Beliefs,” “Democracy Amid Crisis” and numerous other books, at a disinformation workshop lunchtime discussion. Photo: © Dale Willman.

More than 100 journalists, students and others gathered for a day-long workshop on “Combating Climate and Science and Disinformation,” on April 3, at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference.

Amy Westervelt, founder and executive editor of Drilled Media, an investigative reporting project on climate, moderated the initial panel, during which four media professionals from various organizations discussed the origins of climate disinformation. Speakers agreed that much of modern climate denial is rooted in disinformation spread by the fossil fuel industry.

In addition, Melissa Aronczyk, public relations professional and professor of media studies at Rutgers University, described the revolving door of personnel between public relations, government and environmental groups, and said that as a result, much of the same messaging can be found in each, ultimately influencing the way Americans think about environmental politics.

“That set of connections that the individual or group of individuals is creating is also really key to understanding how the PR infrastructure is so embedded into our way of thinking,” she added.

Big oil companies like ExxonMobil, for instance,  achieved this impact through “advertorials,” or ads disguised as editorials. Geoffrey Supran, professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Miami, also explained how Exxon contributed quietly to the science of climate change, while at the same time promoting doubt about that same science.

A second panel of media experts also discussed philosophical approaches to reporting on climate change. Phil Newell, associate director of science defense at the nonprofit climate news service, Climate Nexus, explained how to use the “truth sandwich” story structure to debunk climate deniers: fact, myth, fallacy, fact.

Newell added that a reporter does not have to be a scientist to rebut climate change disinformation. “You don’t accidentally cherry-pick three years out of a 20- or 30-year trend, it’s always intentional,” Newell said. “I’m not a math guy. I spent 10 years debunking people, it was never about the numbers. It’s always about the logic, it’s always about, is that a real expert or is that somebody who is paid to lie to you.”

Influential climate experts Michael Mann and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professors and directors of science-related centers at the University of Pennsylvania, discussed climate research, the state of science communication and its effects on climate progress, during a lunchtime session on the intersection between disinformation research and climate science.

The workshop closed with a lightning round of journalists sharing their high-impact investigative pieces.

Lindsay Bowen is a student at Temple University and a member of the inaugural SEJ student newsroom.