speak up: what to do when you can’t plug the leak

SEMrush

This is a guest post by Olivia Henry, Media Officer at the Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC). It was originally posted here.

This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

 

Another climate report, another leak.

When the latest unfinished report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) popped up in our newsfeeds, the AusSMC’s expert reaction was met with some criticism from climate experts. But I stand by our decision to respond to such a big story once the report had been leaked to the media. The horse had bolted and there are no brownie points for staying tight-lipped.

There’s no denying that the media love a good ‘leak’ story. There’s something extra spicy about knowing something we shouldn’t – even if we were going to find out in a few months anyway. We don’t encourage leaks here at the AusSMC, but we know how alluring they are for news outlets.

I was not at all surprised when my request for comments responding to the leaked report was met with dismay from climate researchers.

Some experts argued the report was not complete and subsequent changes could make it seem less accurate. These are valid concerns – people forget that science is an ongoing conversation and a journey to new discoveries. Any update on the science can only ever represent a consensus (as far as possible) on the situation at a point in time. Change is inevitable.

We’ve seen this time and time again – most recently in public responses to changing face covering recommendations throughout the COVID crisis. A quick scroll through your Facebook feed will show countless people questioning health authorities’ legitimacy as they respond to evolving knowledge and evidence. I completely understand the experts’ concerns about an unfinished report.

Others argued that providing a comment would give the story more traction and reward those involved in the leak. “Should we really be promoting this kind of behaviour?” is a question I was asked numerous times.

As frustrating and uncomfortable as the situation is, once the report is out, the horse has bolted. There is no closing the barn door – we can’t coax the story back into obscurity with disapproving looks and unanswered emails.

Climate science is an ongoing and controversial topic with facts often lost to opinion and political views. Asking experts to comment would never have ‘unleaked’ the report – but what it would do is ensure the right voices are heard in an ongoing discussion.

The IPCC seems particularly vulnerable to leaks, likely in part due to the sheer number of people across the globe involved in their reports. It’s hard to remember an IPCC report that wasn’t leaked before it was finalised, and unless this changes, we must roll with the punches.

Journalists are going to write about it and they will need someone to comment. If they are ignored by the experts, they’ll still need commentary from somewhere. Do we want a climate expert, or someone who doesn’t know the science but has a public platform and a lot of opinions?

My job is to ensure the voices of experts are heard in any science story. My colleagues and I spend our days trawling through the latest scientific journals and news reports, looking for anything that could be misconstrued, overhyped or simply overlooked. We are used to working with embargoes and touchy situations.

My advice to concerned experts is to tell the story you want to tell. If you’re not comfortable commenting on something that isn’t finalised, say why it’s so important to have the final details. Use it as an opportunity to talk about your own published findings on the topic, or use it to scold the leaker. Just don’t stay silent.

We had some fantastic off-the-record comments from experts who (understandably) were not comfortable commenting.

But Professor Rodney Keenan from the University of Melbourne was kind enough to give us an excellent summary that echoed the sentiments of many:

“It is disappointing that this document was leaked and that a journalist chose to produce a story on it.

“The IPCC provides a forum for assessing current knowledge on climate change and synthesising this for policy makers and for wider communication. Draft reports are provided to governments and reviewers as confidential working documents on the condition they are not publicly distributed, quoted or cited.

“These reports can change considerably during the review and synthesis process as the Panel reaches an agreed consensus. Disclosing reports makes this already difficult task more challenging. It undermines the robust and inclusive processes developed by the IPCC over more than 30 years.”

Experts, please don’t be afraid. Your expertise is compelling and needed, and your legitimate comments like this still give hungry journos something to work with.

Don’t listen to Ronan Keating’s lyrical advice when it comes to commenting on the science. You don’t “say it best when you say nothing at all.” If you don’t talk to the media, someone else will.

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