Dot Earth, Vox and The Upshot?

Why We Need Knowledge-Based Journalism

Over the past several decades, a growing body of research has informed our understanding of why political leaders, activists, and the expert community disagree so strongly about climate change and other environmental controversies, providing insight on strategies that might broker greater political cooperation.

As I detailed in a recent series of essays, this research on what the U.S. National Academies calls the “science of science communication,” has focused on topics including the communication strategies of the expert community; the impact of worldviews on acceptance of expert advice; and the relevance of the media to public opinion.

Yet largely overlooked by this growing body of research are the specific journalistic practices and media structures that might enable more constructive public debate relative to climate change and other issues.

In a co-authored paper that will appear in a forthcoming special issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, my colleague Declan Fahy and I detail the role that journalists and their news organization can play as influential knowledge professionals in the climate change debate and other environmental controversies.

Among our chief arguments is that despite their accolades, popularity, and best intentions, advocacy-oriented media outlets like, Mother Jones, or are not well-suited to promoting a broad-based conversation about the nature of climate change as a problem or how progress might be achieved.

The aggressive branding by these media organizations as “liberal” or “progressive” voices doing battle against conservative “deniers,” all the while seeking truth and justice in American politics intentionally plays to a self-selected audience and to the advocacy goals of their funders.

As a consequence, most commentary and analysis at these outlets too often reflects the type of antagonistic cultural meanings that researchers like Dan Kahan and others warn distort rather than contextualize complex debates.

To achieve progress on climate change and other environmental issues, we will need big budget, commercial news ventures that prioritize in depth coverage. Indeed, given the complexity of these issues, our society requires ongoing, dedicated sources of context-focused journalistic coverage, produced by news outlets and professionals who do not cater to nor depend on meeting the expectations of a particular ideological audience or network of philanthropic donors.

With these goals in mind, in our paper, we outline three complementary approaches to what Harvard University’s Thomas Patterson in a recent book calls “knowledge-based journalism.” We spotlight specific journalists like The New York Times' "Dot Earth" writer Andrew Revkin who are leading examples of these models, and also discuss the relevance of new journalistic initiatives like the Times' "The Upshot" blog,, and FiveThirtyEight.

By way of these approaches, journalists and their news organizations can contextualize and critically evaluate expert knowledge, facilitate discussion that bridges entrenched ideological divisions, and promote consideration of a broader menu of policy options and technologies.

Read a pre-publication version of the paper.


Nisbet, M.C. & Fahy, D. (in press). Why We Need Knowledge-based Journalism in Politicized Science Debates. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.