The Uncertain Choice of Words

 MAY 14, 2014    by ADRIENNE WOOTTEN

IPCC Cartoon

A few days ago, I got notice about a special issue in Environmental Communication on “Media Research on Climate Change: Where have we been and where are we heading?”  One article in particular caught my attention: “How Grammatical Choice Shapes Media Representations of Climate (Un)certainty” by Bailey et al.  The article offers a comparison of U.S. and Spanish newspapers and the grammatical choices used to construct uncertainty in media.  It fit well with a book I had been reading about the communication of uncertainty in controversial topics in the media (Communicating Uncertainty: Media Coverage of New and Controversial Sciences, edited by Friedman, Dunwoody, and Rogers 1999).  There are a couple points in the article which I wanted to highlight and comment on in more depth.

An interesting point in the article is that description of change in the findings of IPCC could construct uncertainty by suggesting inadequate levels of consensus or agreement on how climate has changed or will continue to change.  The example in particular caught my attention, as it highlighted a potential challenge.  An idea in this example is that while the media communicates the improvement in the scientific knowledge, there is potential to simultaneously suggest that there is not a necessary level of consensus for decision making.  While this article discussed this conclusion in the context of media communication surrounding climate change, this extends also to all of us who actively speak with the public about climate change.  How then do we tell people that the science is improving and should be used for decision making without unintentionally communicating that there isn’t enough consensus, that the science isn’t useful for decision making?  An interesting paradox it would seem, and a tricky challenge for any speaker, not only for major news media.

Another result of this study is that while the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal included more words to indicate improvement between IPCC AR3 and IPCC AR4, they also included more to highlight changes and surprises for the scientific community.  That is, there is more to highlight the improvement in the science, but also the construction of more uncertainty by highlighting contrasting findings and observations.  This is no surprise.  It’s not a scientific norm to gin up drama and controversy, but this is a norm in journalism because it sells papers and gets viewers.  Bailey et al. makes this point clear in the article, and this presents all of us an interesting challenge.  How then do we speak to the media to clarify that we reduce or quantify uncertainty, when projecting uncertainty and controversy is what brings in money?

We see that the US newspapers in the article are actively using more of the language promoted by IPCC between 2001 and 2007 when discussing uncertainty.  Yet this article makes me wonder, does it matter?  We see a tendency that even though there is an increased use of the IPCC recommended language, there is also still a tendency to use more descriptive language (nouns and adjectives) over conditionals (if… then) and numerical ranges.  The descriptive language tends to cast uncertainty negatively or be open to mis-interpretation as Bailey et al. notes.  IPCC and other scientists don’t necessarily view uncertainty as a bad thing, and the “Guidance Note” from IPCC is meant to guide communication of uncertainty.  I ask, “Does it matter?” because if language which casts uncertainty negatively (intentionally or otherwise) is included with the language suggested by IPCC, how will uncertainty be viewed?

There are many interesting questions Bailey et al raises for me in communicating uncertainty.  All of my thoughts and commentary today brings me back to one lesson in this article that this is relevant to all of us who talk with the public and other disciplines about IPCC projections and climate change.  Remember, there is no particular choice of words to use to talk climate change and uncertainty, but it is ‘virtually certain’ (> 99% probability) that whatever words we choose will have an impact on how your message is perceived. What words will you choose?

Bailey et al. 2014: How Grammatical Choice Shapes Media Representations of Climate (Un)certainty. Environmental Communication. 8, 197-215. DOI: 10.1080/17524032.2014.906481

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