You’ll find no heart-wrenching photo of a fluffy white baby harp seal with big, pathetic brown eyes here. That’s not out of any journalistic integrity policy, but because I want to talk about words.
Compare these three statements regarding North Atlantic harp seals:
- “According to Canada’s Fisheries and Oceans department, as many as 80 percent of seal pups born in 2011 may have died because of a lack of sea ice.”
- “Climate change may have killed 4 out of 5 seal pups in 2011.”
- “Entire year classes may be disappearing from the population in low ice years. Essentially all of the pups die.”
All three describe the same study, recently published in the journal PLoS ONE. And, in fact, they all say approximately the same thing. What’s interesting to me is the different reactions elicited by the phrases “80 percent” (impressive, but dry), “4 out of 5″ (yikes!), and “essentially all” (!!!).
Actually, what’s really interesting is where I found these. The first came from a brief summary of the study published on Yale’s Environment 360 website – a highly reputable, straight-up-the-middle kind of outlet. The second came from Chris Mim’s post on Grist – a site where you might expect to find a bit more hype. But – and here’s the kicker – the last came directly from the scientist who did the study.
Lessons learned? Wording is important (duh). And it’s not always scientists who pull out the dry technical language.