- 5.1: Postscript – NSW Bushfires, October 2013
- 5.2: The symbolic politics of climate change coverage in Australia.
5.1 Postscript - NSW Bushfires, October 2013
Few fields of reporting are more contested than that of climate change. Journalists, sources and source organisations compete over the visibility (and invisibility) of information and opinions on a daily basis. Indeed, the struggle over the reporting of climate science occupies a considerable share of space allocated to the climate change story.
As we conclude this report in October 2013, that struggle has flared up in a way it has not done previously. Bushfires have been burning on the fringes of Sydney for a week. One life, hundreds of homes and a massive amount of other property have been lost. Schools are closed and smoke pollution is leading to many hospital admissions. Thousands of volunteers and paid workers are tackling the crisis.
Meanwhile, a political and media conflict over whether those bushfires are linked to climate change is being played out in the national media and has even come to the attention of international broadcasters CNN and BBC.
Shortly before February 1, 2011, the day on which the sample period begins, Senator Christine Milne, now the Australian Greens leader, told ABC during an interview about Cyclone Yasi that extreme weather was linked to climate change. As we discuss in Section 4.9, her remark was interpreted by some as an assertion that global warming had caused the specific cyclone. Her remarks led to vehement attacks on her by News Corp publications. Although her remark was open to different interpretations, she was correct in her assertion that scientific evidence pointed to increasing severity and frequency of some types of extreme weather events.
A year later, the IPCC issued a significant report on climate change and extreme weather, named SREX, (IPCC, 2012). The majority of publications in this study made no reference to that report, although the Climate Commission (which has since been abolished by the new Federal Government) issued a press release explaining its significance for Australia. Instead, ABC radio and the rest of News Corp chased up a media intervention by the Institute of Public Affairs which focussed on the public relations strategy used by environmental NGOs to draw attention to the report, which was arguably was a variation on the theme of ‘shoot the messenger’.
Shortly before the publication of this report, after an October Sunday of blazing heat and raging bushfires in Sydney’s western suburbs, Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph published a ‘world exclusive’ front page story ‘Triple Heat’ (October 14, 2013) based on a leak of an IPCC report due to be published in March. The story warned:
“DEATHS from Sydney’s extreme heat are expected to triple by the end of the century as the city cops the brunt of global warming, a leaked climate change draft report warns. The threat of bushfires will increase, another 800,000 people will fall ill each year from contaminated food and water and more than 270,000 homes will be at risk of collapsing into the ocean from rising sea levels. The unreleased draft of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s second report …reveals Australia’s southeast is now a global climate change “hotspot” with the ocean warming faster than anywhere else on the entire planet — and set to increase by 10 per cent more than the global average.”
The story was by The Daily Telegraph’s political editor Simon Benson, who wrote the only other Daily Telegraph front page story in this study. Both stories clearly communicated the scientific consensus point of view. The shocking incineration of scores of cars at Homebush Olympic park where hundreds had gone to swim provided the news peg that shot Benson’s story to prominence. The same edition included an editorial stating that The Daily Telegraph accepts that there is “almost no doubt that climate change is occurring, and very little that human activity is a contributor. The debate is what to do about it.” The editors warned against allowing hysterical extremists on both sides of the argument..”. It is not clear which of the “almost no doubt” or the “very little” doubt about anthropogenic climate change referred to the 97.4% of climate scientists who accept that human beings are major contributors to climate change.
The Guardian published its own story based on the ‘leak’, which led with the “disproportionate harm” that could be suffered by Australian indigenous communities living in the Northern Australia. This angle had not been included in The Daily Telegraph report.
Both stories were taken from Chapter 25 of the IPCC Draft Working Paper Two that is sitting on a sceptic website. After further review, the report will be officially published in March 2014 in Japan.
The Daily Telegraph story followed a series of earlier News Corp reports that preceded the release of the 5th IPCC report in September. These which were picked up from similar reports in The Daily Mail in London that focussed on uncertainty and conflict within the IPCC and the likely revision downward of its earlier warning. These reports turned out to be wrong and led to corrections in both The Daily Telegraph and its fellow News Corp publication The Australian. Monash University Senior Lecturer David Holmes critiqued these reports in a piece in The Conversation called ‘Politicised media: false balance and the pseudo climate debate’, and commented:
“Newspapers have a responsibility to report all issues as accurately as possible, as they have much influence on public understanding – especially of science. That such a monumental blunder about something as serious as global warming could be pardoned by a tiny and feeble ‘correction’ is a breathtaking betrayal of journalistic standards themselves.”
Bolt responded with a familiar attack on Holmes in his column ‘Another media academic wanting sceptics silenced even though they are right’. Bolt continued to defend specious sceptic factual assertions as truthful (for example, that the planet has not got warmer each year) on the basis that ‘balance’ demands publication of views that reject the warnings of scientists who accept the consensus position.
This issue is not one of free speech or the right of a few individuals to push their ideas, but of the market power of a dominant company to build support for particular policies and ideas. Media companies prefer not to acknowledge their own power in framing public debate. They argue that readers are free to go elsewhere, although often the outlets they point to are not in the same market or covering the same topics.
The media are sensitive about accusations of bias because their own claim to legitimacy rests on codes and ethics that urge them to seek the truth through fairness, accuracy and impartiality. Existing mechanisms for accountability such as the Australian Press Council and the Australian Communications and Media Authority (which deals with complaints about talk back radio) can only deal with complaints on a case-by-case basis. Even if a correction is published, future practice may not change.
The Australian Climate Commission, which had issued the report explaining the earlier IPCC report on extreme weather, has been abolished by the new conservative Abbott Coalition government. The ACC Chairperson Tim Flannery, a bête noire of News Corp publications, was removed from his post. His sacking led sceptic columnist Andrew Bolt to call for journalists who had promoted the ‘warming scare’ to be sacked. The ACC has been replaced by a voluntary organisation The Climate Council.
But there are signs of change. Six years ago, the link between bushfires and climate change was almost lost in the coverage of the Victorian bushfires. But when Greens MP Adam Bandt last week made a statement suggesting that the Federal government plans to abolish the Gillard’s government carbon policy were likely to lead to further fires, he got some support.
On October 23, 2013, the ABC’s 7.30 Report tackled the issue in a report ‘Scientists say climate change link to bushfires demands action’. Its reporter interviewed climate scientists and two leaders of climate change NGOs who stated that there was evidence of a link between climate change and extreme weather. The story also included two critics who did not agree. Bolt nevertheless vehemently debunked the report’s interviewees in his regular slot on 2 GB that evening as “extremists” and “activists”.
The UN spokesperson on climate change Christiana Figueres made national headlines when she told CNN that there was a ‘clear link between climate change and bushfires’.
The Daily Telegraph published a news report of Figueres statements but the same edition also carried three counter articles: a full page opinion piece that attacked the Greens “Why Greenies only make me see Red’, a second full-page Opinion piece by British climate sceptic journalist and politician Matt Ridley headlined ‘Let’s all give thanks to global warming’(September 16, 2013) that attacked the link between climate change and extreme weather. Ridley’s articles about climate science have been widely critiqued on blogs that analyse scepticism. The Ridley article was republished in The Courier Mail. A fourth piece was an editorial headlined ‘The UN fire goddess can go to blazes’.
Despite the statement in the earlier editorial that The Daily Telegraph editors accept climate change is happening, those who hoped that this might be a sign that the paper’s coverage of climate change would begin to reflect that were disappointed.
5.2 The symbolic politics of climate change coverage in Australia
These recents events provide a glimpse into the daily tussle over the symbolic politics of climate change in Australia. The value of quantitative studies such as this one is that they reveal patterns of coverage that can be missed in daily information flow and contest over interpretation of events.
The findings of this report should be of concern to all those who accept the findings of climate scientists. More research is needed to confirm patterns over a longer period but this study establishes that a large number of Australians received very little information through their mainstream print/online media of any kind about the findings of climate scientists over the sample period. There was an overall decline in coverage between 2011 and 2012. The West Australian and Northern Territory news carried particularly low levels of coverage. Levels of coverage were higher in Fairfax publications The Age and Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian which are all targeted at higher income audiences.
The most significant finding is that nearly a third of all articles referencing climate science published by ten Australian newspapers during three months in 2011 and 2012 did not accept the consensus scientific evidence that human beings are the main contributors to global warming. Given the extremely strong consensus about this evidence, this finding presents a major challenge for media accountability in Australia. This conclusion fits with recent research by the Reuters Institute for Journalism which showed that in a six country comparison Australia had both the most articles in absolute terms and the highest percentage of articles with sceptic sources in them, ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom, France. The other two countries Norway and India had almost no sceptic sources in their media coverage.
The high levels of scepticism in Australia in part reflects our status as the country with the most concentrated newspaper industry in the developed world. News Corp controls 65% of daily and national newspaper circulation. In the state capitals of Adelaide, Brisbane, Darwin and Hobart, it controls the only newspaper. While the influence of newspapers is waning, online versions of the same publications publish content similar to the print versions, although presented differently. This content continues to play a strong role is setting the news agenda for broadcast media.
Nearly all of the sceptic articles in this study were published by News Corp. So it seems safe to argue that News Corp’s dominance is a major reason why the Australian press is a world leader in the promotion of scepticism.
According to this study, Andrew Bolt, who recommends the sacking of journalists who consistently report the consensus position, is a major contributor to advancing climate scepticism in Australia. His individual role and that of other sceptic columnists should not distract from the decisions of corporate managers and editors who hire and heavily promote these columnists. While some of these editors claim to accept the consensus position they accord him the power to promote scathing critiques of climate scientists and other media that accept the consensus position. Scepticism is not only the product of opinion writers, however: as this study shows news selection, editing and reporting practices and the use of sources also embed sceptical positions.
While media ownership plays an important role, not all Newscorp publications are equal in their promotion of climate science scepticism. During the period of this study, Hobart’s The Mercury and Brisbane’s The Courier Mail did not promote scepticism. Since Brisbane editorial director David Fagan left News Corp in June 2013, The Courier Mail has begun to publish Andrew Bolt’s columns including a number of sceptic ones about climate change.
The sample periods of Part One and Two of this research overlap but are not the same. This means that a synchronised comparative analysis of the coverage of carbon policy and of climate science cannot be made. It is clear, however, that News Corp coverage of climate science is consistent with the dominant editorial stance of its publications towards political policy and action on climate change.
A Sceptical Climate Part One showed that Fairfax Media publications The Age and SMH were fairly evenhanded or ‘balanced’ in their coverage of the Gillard government’s carbon policy with 57% positive articles outweighing 43% negative articles. As this study shows the Fairfax media reports climate science from the perspective of the consensus position. Their journalistic approach reflects the weight of scientific opinion as it would normally apply to scientific subjects.
News Corp on the other hand was very negative towards the policy. Negative articles (82%) across News Ltd publications far outweighed positive (18%) articles, see link. This indicated a very strong stance against the carbon policy adopted by the company. The News Corp publications that were the most negative towards the policy also reflect the highest levels of scepticism. Their approach to climate science appears to reflect their political position in relation to calls for government intervention to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Notions of journalistic balance may play a role in climate change reportage but they are not the cause of sceptic coverage. If this were the case, journalists from all professional media organisations would behave like News Corp’s The Herald Sun, The Daily Telegraph and The Australian. Explanations lie more in competition for audience, corporate and political goals and competing ideologies than they do in the norms of journalism.
A lack of research of the impact of media on Australian audiences means that care needs to be taken in assertion to the effect of media scepticism on the attitudes of Australians towards climate change. Media impacts are complex. Messages reverberate around the media sphere and are amplified and changed as they flow across publications, between journalists and small and large audiences. Attacks on climate scientists may flow through to attitudes to scientists generally, just as repeated attacks on ABC and Fairfax Media journalists who report on climate science from the consensus position may lead some to reject those media outlets as trustworthy sources of news. The link between News Corp and conservative talk back is a significant one that needs more exploration in this context.
A review of 22 studies by the 2011 Gaunaut Climate Change Review found that while most Australians believe the climate is changing, fewer believe that it is attributable to human activity; and that belief in climate change and its anthropogenic drivers had waned in recent years, matching trends in other Western countries. The Review found that more research was needed. It did not comment on the media or discuss the role of media in its conclusions.
A recent study carried out in Perth, Western Australia found that people are more likely to believe that humans cause global warming if they are told that 97% of publishing climate scientists agree that it does and that this could override political world views that might predispose them to a sceptical position. ( Lewandowsky, Gignac & Vaughan, 2013).
Another recent study published in the journal Public Understanding of Science (PDF available here) earlier this year surveyed over 1,000 Americans in 2008 and 2011 about their media consumption and beliefs about climate change. The researchers found that conservative media consumption (specifically for News Corp’s Fox News) decreased viewer trust in scientists, which in turn decreased belief that global warming is happening. In contrast, consumption of non-conservative media increased consumer trust in scientists, and in turn belief that global warming is happening.
Some blame scientists for their failures to communicate their findings in accessible ways. But this can, at best, be only part of the reason why climate science is covered so poorly. Journalism is about finding the story, not expecting it always to be packaged in advance.
This is not to suggest that a serious lack of resources is not interfering in the capacity of journalists to report adequately on climate change. The failure of old paper-based models of print journalism, the concentration of the print media in the hands of two main companies which share resources and reporters across mastheads, and the economic and political goals of the owners of corporate media are all relevant. These factors contribute to a situation in which science news-breaking stories are used to fill gaps as they arise, but in which longer term follow-up of issues is less likely. In this under-resourced situation, journalists are also more likely to edit a press release or a wire story generated elsewhere than to generate the news story themselves.
Others blame ‘alarmism’ for turning audiences off climate change reporting. While ‘alarmism’ is a theme in climate scepticism, no reports that could be called exaggerated or alarmist were found in this sample. It is possible that journalists have become more cautious in their reporting and scientists more cautious in dealing with the media.
There were plenty of examples in our study of strong, high quality climate science journalism in 2011 and 2012. Jo Chandler, who has since left The Age published a series of features and a book ‘Feeling the Heat’ about the work of climate scientists in the field. The Age also undertook a major project in which readers were invited to send in their questions about Climate Change. News Corp’s Bolt intervened in this process to encourage his readers to send in climate sceptic questions which The Age answered in a series of features.
Journalists also play an important role in investigating climate skepticism. Media Watch, Crikey media, readfearn.com and The Conversation have all played a valuable role in critiquing and holding News Corp accountable. The new online outlet The Global Mail and the arrival of The Guardian and Al Jazeera in Australia have strengthened the reporting of climate change in Australia.
But none of these worthwhile approaches solve one of the most worrying conclusions of this research, which is that an information gulf between different audiences and regions is widening in Australia. The resolution of that problem will have to address the concentration of media ownership in this country, a concentration that is largely responsible for the active production of ignorance and confusion on one of the most important issues confronting Australia.