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Natural Resources Science


A majority of US adults are concerned about a rise in misinformation regarding current issues and events. The spread of inaccurate information via social media and other sources has coincided with a massive transition in the news industry. Smaller newsrooms now have fewer journalists, and their responsibilities have shifted toward producing more stories, more quickly, while contributing to their outlets’ blogs and social media feeds. Lean newsroom budgets also eliminated in-house professional development for journalists, making external training programs an essential vehicle for reporters and editors to gain new content knowledge, sources, and skills in a constantly evolving news landscape. The loss of specialized beat reporters in many newsrooms since the mid-2000s has made training especially critical for journalists covering complex, science-based topics such as climate change and public health. In the USA, relatively few organizations offer science training opportunities for journalists, but the need and demand for these programs are growing as newsrooms increasingly rely on generalist reporters to cover a wide range of scientific topics. This perspective summarizes the challenges that non-specialist reporters face in covering science-based stories and describes a successful training model for improving science and environmental news coverage to yield reporting that is not only accurate but also offers the nuance and context that characterizes meaningful journalism.

Americans have been bombarded with claims of “fake news” since November 2016, when Donald Trump began to reference the term following the US presidential election. The term had previously been used to refer to satirical television comedies such as “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” that used a faux-journalistic format (Borden and Tew, 2007). As of late 2016, however, “fake news” became part of the cultural zeitgeist in the USA, inspiring responses ranging from comedians’ punch lines to rumor-based vigilantism (Fisher et al., 2016).

The purposeful spread of inaccurate information is nothing new, but a wide range of people have become concerned about fake news. In a December 2016 poll by the Pew Research Center (2016c), 64% of US adults reported feeling that “fabricated news stories cause a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues and events.” In this same survey, 84% of respondents reported feeling somewhat to very confident in their ability to detect fake news.

Their confidence seems at odds with the continuous spread of misinformation (Chan et al., 2017). This has become a more pernicious problem in the era of social media, when anonymity and a much-accelerated version of the old-fashioned rumor mill (Zubiaga et al., 2016) allow misinformation to be spread easily, quickly, and without fear of repercussion. The freedom to spread false information on social media is exacerbated by broader communication challenges related to cognitive bias, motivated reasoning, and increasingly deep identity divides along socio-economic, political, and/or cultural lines (Kahan, 2015; Flynn et al., 2017). Selective exposure to specific information sources may be another culprit (Boxell et al., 2017; Schmidt et al., 2017). As a result, people experience a daily flood of information that may or may not be accurate. Often, individuals are left to determine the legitimacy of this information on their own, through the disparate lenses of their own biases.

Against this backdrop, public discourse about environmental issues, especially climate change, has become a political minefield (Painter, 2013; Kahan, 2015) in which science is often perceived as just another opinion, rather than a foundation for discussion about policy options and practical solutions.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.