Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Media communication: no margin for error

Yesterday, the website Live Science - a "trusted and provocative source for highly accessible science... news" - re-published scrambled elements of a NASA Earth Observatory article about Kilimanjaro glaciers. The result is anything but trustworthy, and provocative only in the sense that the information is confusing and only partially accurate. How did this happen?

The story begins innocently enough. Kimberly Casey from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center collaborated on recent Kilimanjaro fieldwork. We all enjoyed having her along, she adapted well to the altitude and proved physically strong, and at the summit she independently undertook a number of different measurements. Once back at Goddard, she took the initiative to request a new NASA EO-1 image of the mountain, which was acquired with perfect timing (see previous blog entry). With such a cool image, the Earth Observatory office reached out to her about featuring it as an Image of the Day. Great!

The EO article took shape over a couple days last week. Kimberly was provided with considerable information regarding what I, as project PI, felt was most important and valuable about the new satellite image, and this material was passed along to EO editors. Following one opportunity to review a draft, the article then went live:  Kilimanjaro's Shrinking Ice Fields.

To the credit of EO, the image provides a timely update on Kilimanjaro ice retreat. The text is interesting, and more-or-less consistent with published understandings. However, the article missed an opportunity to present evidence for recent and important changes in the pattern of ice extent, which we provided. Instead, the piece closes with an observation that the Northern Ice Field has (finally) divided into 2 parts -- a process underway since sometime between 1976 and 1989, and of no physical significance.

In summary, the concluding emphasis of the EO article is not what us as scientists felt was most noteworthy, but is instead an easy-to-grasp bit of trivia.

In the first 5 days, the article has had over 20,000 views. As a NASA product, the EO website has considerable credibility and deservedly so; EO images provide fascinating, timely glimpses of our dynamic planet.

Enter Live Science, a brand of the TechMediaNetwork. With a monthly visitation of 5.3 million and 250,000 FaceBook likes, one might expect the company to insure that their content is accurate and helpful. Apparently not though, for this new story is chock-full of mistakes and confusion. Indeed, the article mentions glaciers that do not even exist!

Most distressing about such over-simplified blurbs by Popular Media is that they confuse the public, while undermining the credibility of hard-working scientists eager to get their results disseminated accurately. In this case, with their large readership and the iconic status of Kilimanjaro, statements such as "The major cause of the ice loss is a matter of debate" are sure to fan the flames of climate-change denialism and obscure what we've learned about Kilimanjaro's glaciers in the past decade of observations, measurements and modeling. No, the proximal causes of ice loss on Kilimanjaro are not still in dispute; lack of snowfall is the problem!

For scientists, the message here is to insist that journalists get the details and the emphasis of your original story exactly correct. Thereafter, expect any errors, omissions, or ambiguities to propagate.

Anyone wishing to read an overview on Kilimanjaro glaciers can start here, and for a synopsis of a decade's worth of research this document will be essential; within it are all the references needed to better understand the processes and uncertainties.

- Doug Hardy

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