Bragging Rights: ESP Graduate Student Wins Research Prize

Posted: September 10, 2010 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: September 9, 2010 at 3:18 pm

This information was provided by Karen Akerlof and Katherine Rowan

Karen Akerlof. Photo courtesy of Karen Akerlof

Karen Akerlof, a doctoral student in Environmental Science and Public Policy, won the 2010 Eason Award for research by a graduate student for her work on “Models: The Missing Piece in Climate Change Coverage.”

The prize is given by ComSHER, a division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, whose members study the mass media.

“When you look at the media frequented by high political knowledge audiences in the United States in 2007 — the year that Al Gore and the IPCC received the Nobel Peace Prize — some of the biggest sources of information about climate models were political commentary outlets: ‘The Rush Limbaugh Show,’ The Nation and National Review,” says Akerlof.  “Only NPR ran more stories about models.”

Her study showed that while, from 1998 to 2007, coverage of climate models remained mostly in the news pages of The New York Times, USA Today and the Washington Post, more than half of the articles in The Wall Street Journal that mentioned climate models occurred within its conservative editorial pages, as letters to the editor, op-eds and editorials.

“Our understanding of what the world will be like in coming decades as we continue to change the chemical composition of our atmosphere is in large part based on scientists’ ability to simulate Earth’s oceanic, atmospheric and land processes under these future conditions with complex computer programs,” Akerlof says.

Akerlof analyzed 111 articles and program segments that appeared in print, television and radio outlets preferred by readers with high political knowledge, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

She said one challenge was to determine what counted as a “climate model,” separating those that represent processes central to climate dynamics from those that primarily simulate other systems, such as agriculture or economics, that will be affected by a changing climate.

Another challenge involved distinguishing weather and climate.

“Media reports frequently conflate the two terms, and the definition can particularly become blurry as recurring climate patterns such as El Niño can make enormous impacts on weather events,” she says.  “For the purposes of this study, I defined weather models as those predicting short-term — 14 days or less — phenomena, and climate models as anything beyond that, including seasonal or inter-annual variations.”

“Karen’s research is important because it shows us how little information we get from mass media about climate models,” says Katherine Rowan, communication professor and Akerlof’s thesis advisor.

“The rate at which heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide are released into our atmosphere is dangerous,” Rowan says.  “We need accessible information about how and why this is happening.”

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