Mary Tobin

Columbia Scientists Offer Intensive Media Training to Help Journalists Cover the Complexities of Climate Prediction

By Abigail Beshkin

Climate specialists from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory will offer an intensive media training to reporters on how to communicate complex information about climate in East Africa. The workshop, Seasonal Climate Forecasts and the Media: Workshop on Improving Communications Channels in East Africa, will run from August 24-25 in Jinja, Uganda.

The workshop will be geared toward reporters working for news outlets in East Africa, where countries rely heavily on agriculture, and climate issues have important consequences for the day-to-day life of people in the region. The media, particularly radio, is a crucial communicator of climate information.

Dr. Jennifer Phillips, an agricultural systems researcher for Columbia's International Research Institute for Climate Prediction (IRI), will head the workshop. She says one of her main tasks is to communicate to reporters that climate forecasts are by nature probabilistic; they indicate only the odds of such natural disasters as drought or excessive rainfall, but do not at all tell with certainty whether they will occur.

"Probabilities are hard for the press to deal with because they don't glide off the tongue lightly," says Phillips. "The lay public wants to know exactly what's going to happen, and the press is faced with having to communicate uncertainties to an audience that wants absolutes."

For instance, Phillips says that in Zimbabwe, El Niño tends to be associated with drier than normal conditions. In September, 1997, a large El Niño event was brewing in the Pacific. At the same time, climate scientists predicted a 50 percent chance of below-normal rainfall for a large area over Zimbabwe. Because of this prediction and the El Niño event, the press published what Phillips calls "disastrous drought headlines." There was still a 20 percent chance of above-normal rainfall, and a 30 percent chance of normal rainfall. But the media's emphasis on the likelihood of severe drought led banks - in prime planting season - to hold up credit to farmers in anticipation that their crops would not receive the needed rainfall. In the end, most of the country received near normal rains and production opportunities were missed.

Over the two days, the trainers will focus on improving the media's understanding of climate variability, seasonal climate forecasting and El Niño. They'll work with reporters to hone their written and oral skills in communicating climate issues and seasonal forecasts to the lay public, while at the same time developing strategies by which the climate community can improve the way it delivers information to the press.

One major task will be to present journalists with accurate definitions of climate language. Phillips says one major challenge in environmental reporting is distinguishing between human-induced climate change and natural climate variability.

"When people think about climate, they usually think about climate change and increased greenhouse gases as a result of pollution," Phillips says. "But there are changes that occur in the climate naturally from year to year. They don't necessarily happen because humans are driving too many cars or using household products that are bad for the environment. The focus at the workshop will be on natural variability and our ability to forecast seasonal shifts."

Phillips will be running the workshop along with Patrick Luganda, a Kampala-based journalist who has been instrumental in inviting key media participants.

Phillips designed the workshop along with Columbia's David Krantz, a professor in the psychology and statistics departments, and co-director of the Center for Decision Sciences, who was instrumental in designing decision-making games that will help journalists understand how individuals and organizations make decisions based on the media's presentation of climate issues. Other activities will include writing articles using the new climate vocabulary, and reviewing already-written articles based on press releases that were issued by climate forecasters.

Other Columbia participants include Tahl Kestin, a post doctoral researcher at IRI who specializes in communication issues; Anji Seth, an associate research scientist at IRI in the Monitoring Division; and Galith Marcus, an IRI intern.

"One of the goals of IRI is to make climate prediction directly relevant to our communities," says Antonio Divino Moura, director general of IRI. "It is important that the media-the main communicators of information to the public - convey information about climate in ways that improve planning rather than hinder good decision making."

The media-training workshop will precede the biannual Climate Outlook Forum of the Greater Horn of Africa, during which international climate scientists gather and come to a consensus on a state of the art climate forecast for the region. This season's forum is being held in Uganda.

The IRI was established in 1996 as a collaborative, multidisciplinary initiative spearheaded by Columbia and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Global Programs (NOAA-OGP). The vision for the IRI is that of an innovative science institution working to accelerate the ability of societies worldwide to cope with climate fluctuations, especially those that cause devastating impacts on humans and the environment.

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