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Extinction-risk coverage is worth inaccuracies

The media raised awareness of an important issue, even if they got some details wrong.


Millions of people worldwide learned that climate change poses serious extinction risks to species as a direct result of the news coverage surrounding the Letter to Nature by Chris D. Thomas et al. (Nature 427, 145–148; 2004). Should Nature have blocked publicity on this story to prevent possible reporting inaccuracies, as Richard J. Ladle and colleagues (Nature 428, 799; 200410.1038/428799b) suggest? We don't believe so.

Ladle and his colleagues correctly point out that the time-frame of extinctions was widely misreported. We knew this aspect of the story would be technically difficult, so our press releases in both the United Kingdom and the United States emphasized the correct interpretation in stand-alone paragraphs and italicized key words. The Letter to Nature itself emphasized this point, and we stressed the correct time-frame interpretation to every reporter who contacted us. The majority of reporters to whom we spoke in the United States got the time-frame issue right, although several still misreported it, or fell victim to headline- writers at their news organizations who exaggerated the findings.

Still, the critical issue of connecting species extinctions to climate change was thrust before a broad American public. The story was covered by the most-watched news programme in the United States, the most-listened to radio network, one of the three major news magazines, and five of the top ten newspapers. More than 13 million people saw news programmes on the subject, and total readership of the newspapers covering the story was greater than 21 million. Including radio and magazines, we conservatively estimate that more than 40 million Americans read, heard or saw a story on this topic. The raised profile of the issue led to testimony being given before the US Senate by one of the study's co-authors.

Breaking through a US media climate often dominated by news of war, terror or the latest celebrity escapades is a victory. We have every obligation to help reporters understand and fact-check their stories before publication, and will continue to commit resources to that effort. But although the reporting wasn't perfect, we believe the benefits of the wide release greatly outweighed the negative effects of errors in reporting.

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Hannah, L., Phillips, B. Extinction-risk coverage is worth inaccuracies. Nature 430, 141 (2004).

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