Scientist fact-checkers join new push to call out climate errors in news media

Ilissa Ocko

You might never fall for one of those “mom discovers teeth whitening trick” scams, but some misinformation out there is a lot less apparent to anyone who is not an expert.

Climate change, for example, is a topic that some media and opinion makers expand on freely and sometimes unscientifically to further their political or economic agendas – and they do so at a critical moment in history when we must make important climate decisions about our long-term future on Earth.

So how do we give citizens the information they need?

That is what Climate Feedback is all about, a new initiative that gives qualified climate scientists an opportunity to bring accuracy back to reporting through the real-time evaluation of online articles.

100+ scientists can now fact-check articles

The brainchild of University of California climate scientist Emmanuel Vincent, Climate Feedback organizes scientists from all over the world and partners with web developers to provide cutting-edge evaluation tools.

Participating scientists, now counting more than 100 experts screened through an application process, insert detailed annotations in the right “margin” of online articles – much like a teacher does when commenting on a student essay.

We address the article’s scientific credibility by adding relevant information, supporting or refuting statements, and by providing sources line-by-line. We also give an overall evaluation of the article, assigning it a quantitative ranking and qualitative description.

The initiative, even in its infancy stage, has already generated interest among media whose readers are our key audience.

As it grows, we are hopeful that Climate Feedback will strengthen accuracy in science journalism and – ultimately – help change public perceptions of climate change so it’s increasingly based more on fact than on misunderstandings, emotions or right-out fiction.

Eventually, readers may know which outlets they can trust before they even read the article.

Pope Francis had most of his facts right

So far, we have evaluated articles in The New York Times, The Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Forbes, Rolling Stone, CNN, The (London) Telegraph and even Pope Francis’ Encyclical.

The scientific credibility rankings have ranged from “very low” to “very high.” The pope’s Encyclical, for example, scored a “high,” while a recent commentary in The Telegraph ranked “very low.”

Of course, this is not only about exposing distortions and lies. The opportunity to publicly support journalists who get the science right is just as satisfying, and they seem open to the idea.

“I reckon all journalists should welcome this kind of feedback,” wrote Graham Readfearn, an environmental journalist who reports for The Guardian, adding with some reticence, “although I’m now a little edgy that they might come after one of my stories.”

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