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7Mar 2013

AP: What happens when your greenhouse gas scoop is ahead of the (published) facts?

AP: What happens when your greenhouse gas scoop is ahead of the (published) facts?

That's a familiar plot in the illus up top, the familiar Keeling graph from NOAA's Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii,of rising CO2 levels. And it keeps going up as long as one blurs one's eyes against the yearly cycle's ups and downs. A good story now on the wire has the latest - and also illustrates the rewards and sometimes complications of diligent  beat checks to see what is going on without waiting for a press release or other note to float in with no work on the reporter's part.

  • AP - Seth Borenstein: US Scientists Report Big Jump In Heat-Trapping CO2 ; The news isn't good for those still believing there is a chance that a suddenly and inexplicably enlightened collective human race can stop throwing its fossil fuel garbage into the air and not run the planet's thermostat past a possibly-catastrophic two degree C rise above pre-industrial levels. Those are my words, not S. Borenstein's. He reports that the 2.67 ppm increment in the last 12 months is the second largest on the record going back to the 1950s. This serves, as the US feels a bit plummy about its fracking-fueled drop in emissions recently, a reminder to not feel so smug. That's just us. Not the whole world.

   Borenstein shared with the tracker and now we share with you readers a bit of the back story to the news story. He started off, in an email, by telling us that he keeps a calendar for regular beat checks. That's pretty organized right there. One of his bits of toil is to call a NOAA scientist in Boulder, CO, each year to check the annual update on what the observatory's instruments have shown. He was in luck, the numbers had just been run (an average, made each year, of the concentration from Nov through Feb). -The rise was 2.67 ppm, taking the total to around 396  ppm. So the ever-busy Borenstein hustled out two stories. First was a shorty for broadcasters that doesn't have such detail as who made the measurements. The second, longer one was for other outlets more interested in stories with a smidge of depth (again, my phrasing, not his).

   Whereupon on Twitter a few tweets yelped, asking where did you get those figures? Turns out neither the observatory nor NOAA upper management types had seen them yet. Their websites had a lower, older figure of a rise of 2.45. Even NOAA public affairs didn't have it yet.

  I have a few observations. First, it is terrific that in America a government scientist can talk to a reporter without them each going through a bureaucratic vetting process and maybe with a minder listening in. It's harder than it used to be, but it still happens with some frequency. As I seem to recall, even our friends in Canada have tighter bindings and leashes. Outfits such as the National Association of Science Writers gotta keep hammering the feds not to be terrified of a free flow of unclassified informatiion and opinion. Anyway, this fellow in NOAA's science ranks could tell Seth what he himself had just learned and that's wonderful. Two, how satisfying if must be to be so ahead of the news that nobody can back you up other than your original source. That's satisfying naturally, only if one gets vindication in due time. And finally and again for reporters new to this game here's a lesson: If you have a beat, walk it. Check it. Make calls just to see what's what.  You will regularly have stories that arouse the envy, admiration, and perhaps some churlish resentment from colleagues. Not to mention that you will provide a public service and please your editors with the kind of thing that generates raises in pay.

  Eventually the process caught up with the Associated Press. Here is the NOAA site with the figures.

     Note that the February '12 to February '13 difference highlighted at the NOAA site is not the 2.67 figure Borenstein reports. That's because, I'd guess, his was the averaged difference in the four-month runs culminating with February for the two years. Don't ask me why NOAA has February as the annual marker. As far as I can tell, NOAA has not yet folded these figures into a press release. That may come soon.

       To the first go the rewards.





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