4.10 Case study: News Corp’s Northern Territory News: an example of low level climate science coverage
The Northern Territory News (The NT News) is the only daily publication in Darwin. It is owned by News Corp. The Northern Territory had a population of 236,900 in 2012 of whom 120,586 live in Darwin and its surroundings. The NT News claims a readership of 36,000 on weekdays and 56,000 on Saturdays.
One might expect that The NT News would report on key development in climate change science that were relevant to Territorians. So when Professor Lesley Hughes issued a report in November, 2011 warning Central Australia and Darwin were particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, one might have expected The NT News to pick up the story. But a Factiva search revealed no report on her research.
The ABC did however do a short report on November 10, 2011 headlined ‘NT to face worst of climate change’ which in its online version included these words:
“The basically what we’re looking at is an increasingly inhospitable environment in Central Australia in particular, for plants and animals but also for humans.
Dr Hughes says Darwin will also have an increase over the next 90 years.
“For Darwin the impacts are even greater with over 300 days projected for the future over 35 degrees a year. So basically what is already a hot climate will get even hotter,” she said.”
A closer examination of The NT News reveals that the failure to follow-up on this research was not out of character.
Across February to April 2011 and 2012, The NT News published a total of 19 articles totalling 7,175 words that touched on climate science- 8 in 2011 and 11 in 2012. The 8 articles in 2011 had a word count sum of 3,033 words and the 11 articles in 2012 had a word count sum of 4,142 words (See Figure 4.2.3).
The 19 articles consisted of 7 comment articles, with a sum of 5,155 words (72% of total words); 10 news articles with a sum of 1,413 words (20% of total words); and 2 feature articles totalling 607 words (8% of total words).
Of the 19 articles, 11 articles were coded as conveying an acceptance of the consensus position on climate science, 4 were coded as suggesting doubt about the consensus and 4 as clearly rejecting it.
When considered from the point of view of words however, it becomes clear that articles rejecting or suggesting doubt about the consensus position on climate science were allocated far more words. 44% of words were in articles that rejected the consensus, 18% in articles that suggested doubt about it and only 38% in articles that accepted the consensus position.
The NT News does not have an environmental or science reporter. Most of its news items about climate science were drawn from wire service stories. Over the two three month periods, The NT News published two stories bylined by The Courier Mail’s environmental reporter Brian Williams.
Five stories did communicate the findings of climate scientists. Only one these focused more than 100 words on climate science.
The most substantial was a 186 word story based on Professor Ross Garnaut’s third update of his 2008 report on climate change. (‘Garnaut warns on emissions rate’, February 12, 2011). This story was a cut down version of a 300 word AAP wire service story on Feb 11, 2011, headlined ‘Carbon pollution set to double: Garnaut’ (AAP, 2011). The NT News story reported Garnaut’s warning that global greenhouse gas emissions were likely to double by 2030 without an effective response to pollution. The story also mentioned the impact of rapid development in China on global emissions. It did not include the section of the AAP report that reported on a likely increase in Australian emissions unless a carbon policy was put in place. The NT News report can be compared to an article in The Age on the same subject that reported, “Australia was in a category of its own - a developed country with emissions expected to soar at an even faster rate than earlier predictions due to surging demand for fossil fuel exports. A climate change department analysis this week estimated Australia’s emissions would be 24 per cent higher than 2000 levels by 2020 under current policies”.
On March 19, 2012, The NT News published a 302 word story by The Courier Mail reporter Brian Williams about Barrier Reef protests. The article concluded with a quote from Labor Environment Minister Tony Burke who said: “We know there are complex management challenges facing the reef.. along with significant threats such as ocean acidification as a result of climate change.” The report concluded with the words: “It (the protest) comes as the CSIRO and weather bureau launch the latest State of the Climate 2012 report, showing Australia continues to warm in response to rising CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.”
The NT News did not provide any further material to its readers about the CSIRO report or acidification threats to reef environments.
The other very brief articles were:
- “Queenslanders should brace for more ferocious storms in the wake of Cyclone Yasi, climate researchers say”. (‘More to Come’, February 5, 2011; 75 words).
- Warning that Arctic coastlines are crumbling away and retreating at the rate of 2m or more year due to climate change. Article was filed in London. (‘Vanishing act’, April 4, 2011; 45 words).
- Climate change is altering the Himalayas, devastating farming communities and marking – Apa Sherpa is disturbed by the lack of snow on the world’s highest peak, caused by rising temperature. (‘Danger to Climbers’, February 27, 2012; 66 words).
- Announcement that the Federal government had extended the life of its Coasts and Climate Change Council. (‘Council will go on’, March 6, 2011; 99 words).
- Charles Darwin University’s Professor Andrew Campbell is invited to conference on climate change in Washington - quote from him saying “climate variability and extreme events will place increasing pressure on resources”. (‘US Lecture Invitation’, February 6, 2012; 119 words).
In all, 890 words were allocated to these items that included material about climate science findings.
One additional story reported on development of strain of wheat that could survive saline environments created by a range of factors including climate change. (‘Wheat grown in salt soil’, March 13, 2012; 195 words)
The only other story was about what caused the extinction of Australian megafauna, a field that has created a lot of interest and different hypotheses. In March, 2012, a study was published of evidence found in a crater in Northern Australia. This report supported the hypothesis that humans not climate change were responsible for the extinction.
This story is of interest because it demonstrates how reports which tend to negate concerns about climate change are cherry picked for publication. The NT News article was headlined ‘People ended Mega Beasts’ and lead with: “Northern Australian megafauna was eaten out of existence by humans and not destroyed by climate change”. (‘People ended Mega Beasts’, March 26, 2012; 246 words). Stories based on the same study were also published by The Australian, The Courier Mail, The Advertiser and the SMH. Deborah Smith, a science reporter who has since left Fairfax Media, was the only reporter to interview additional sources who did not support the thesis that climate change was not responsible. Scientists continue to publish studies which attempt to solve the puzzle of megafauna extinction, including ones that support the hypothesis that climate change was involved. They are usually not reported in the mainstream corporate media.
There was one other news article which had minor references to climate science, which quoted NT Deputy Chief Minister Don Tollner telling the NT parliament that “Green Nazis were ruining the NT way”. (‘Hitler was green’, February 16, 2012; 80 Words).
While readers only receive the most superficial news coverage of climate science, they are fed regular sceptic columns. Over February to April 2011 and 2012, seven opinion pieces were published. Six were written by Andrew Bolt who is the dominant voice in The NT News climate change coverage. He wrote 57% of all The NT News words in the sample. Some of these were promoted near the front of the publication.
Miranda Kerr and Earth Watch
In 2011, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) decided to use a celebrity to promote its Earth Hour event. This is a common public relations strategy used by NGOs and charities to promote causes to the public (Brockington, D., 2013). The organisation chose model Miranda Kerr who was quoted in The Independent as saying, “Each of us has a responsibility for the sustainability of our planet and each of us can make a difference if we choose to do so.” The strategy was presumably a way of appealing to younger people.
This led to a piece by Andrew Bolt headlined, ‘Hypocrites Rule in Global Light Show’. Andrew Bolt accused her of a lot of jet travel and entertaining former Libyan President Col. Muammar Gaddafi. This article poses a question to the WWF: “If we all emitted as Kerr emits, and not as she preaches, would our total emissions soar or fall? In light of that answer, were you fools or frauds to make her your Earth Hour Ambassador?” (‘Hypocrites rule in Global Light Show’, March 6, 2011; 300 words). If the celebrity strategy was intended to impact on News Corp media consumers, the strategy had clearly backfired.
The article which remains in similar form under the heading ‘An Earth Hour with Miranda Kerr would be hot, hot, hot…’ on the Herald Sun website today along with images of Kerr. The posting attracted 86 comments thus far. These responses provide an indication of how readers susceptible or already in agreement with Bolt’s message reacted to the post. Nearly all comments were hostile to the notion of anthropogenic climate change and those advocating action to prevent its damaging impact. Many were extremely sexist. Other picked up Bolt’s general refrain of ‘warmists’ as being opposed to open inquiry and accountability. Here are two examples:
“She’s a bloody clothes horse, for God’s sake and even the dumbest of the dumbed down know that. Which just goes to show how out of touch are those who bestow these “ambassador” positions on barely-there celebrities. They’re not fooling anyone and in fact turn possible converts against their cause.”
“Andrew surely you’re not that unworldly. Victoria’s Secret, Virgin Airlines, the Australian Labor Party et al are warmists because and only because there’s a buck or vote in it. Science, conviction, logic, accountability and reason don’t spring to mind when “supermodel” is in the conversation or for that matter Julia Gillard or Richard Branson.
Without a good dose of hypocrisy and a gullible following they would all be out of business.”
On several occasions, Bolt has meted out the same treatment to Director of the Sydney Theatre Company, Cate Blanchett, who also spoke out about climate change in 2011. From a sceptical point of view such castigation not only mocks the target but it has the additional advantage of discouraging others from stepping forward.
Three weeks after Bolt’s attack on Kerr was published, The NT News published a very short feature article (286 words) touching on climate science during this period. This piece promoted Earth Hour and quoted the WWF. This provided some balance to Bolt’s piece. (‘Turn off power for Earth Hour’, March 24, 2011; 286 words). There was one other feature article in our sample that had a brief mention of Gina Rinehart and her funding of Australians for Northern Development and Economic Vision (ANDEV- a climate sceptic lobby group) and how she “reportedly paid for climate change deniers to travel to Australia”. (‘It’s mine, all mine’, February 4, 2012; 324 words).
A second column of 982 words by Bolt appeared 4 weeks later on April 4, 2011 under the headline, ‘Secrets Out: No gain from carbon tax pain’ which has already been analysed in Section 4.6. (‘Secrets Out: No gain from carbon tax pain’, April 4, 2011; 982 words).
A third opinion article of 663 words appeared on February 6, 2012 under the headline: ‘Let’s take stock of great global warming scare’. This article was the subject of further examination in Section 4.6.
On 12 March, Andrew Bolt blogged as he was watching the ABC’s Q & A. During the show, Michael O’Brien, a farmer and panellist on the show made comments that indicated he did not evidence for anthropogenic warming. Both Labor Minister Tanya Plibersek and then Shadow Minister Malcolm Turnbull disputed his view. Bolt was disgusted and ended his post with “I give up. I’m going to bed. A parade of the stupid, vain and vicious….Ah, the inner-city dinner-party crowd on display”.
This incident led to the fourth column of 656 words, which was an attack on what he perceives to be the mocking dismissive attitude of “city types”. The piece on the blog attracted 183 comments, nearly all of them supportive of Bolt and hostile towards city people, the ABC, climate scientists, Malcolm Turnbull and Tanya Plibersek. Here is one example:
“Man made global warming is traditionally a city con. Those who live in the country and have grown up understanding climate are not so easily fooled.”
On April 3, 2012, Bolt wrote a further attack of 770 words on Climate Change Commissioner Tim Flannery who had been made a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. He referred to “exaggerations, errors and false predictions made by Tim Flannery in ‘advancing public awareness and understanding of science” and asked: “Is this really what the Australian Academy of Science believes deserves one of its highest honours? Or has it decided that in the cause of global warming anything goes - including the integrity of science?”(‘Wheres the Integrity’, April 3, 2012; 770 words).
Three weeks later on April 24, 2012 Bolt wrote another column of 721 words bringing better news to his audience about a Melbourne Theatre Company performance of a play which was interpreted by many as critiquing the climate change consensus position as a form of political correctness. Bolt saw this production as proof that the tide was turning against ‘warmists’. He inviting his readers to join with him by asking, “Haven’t you had it being treated by warmists like a moron with a memory of a goldfish told to panic about permanent drought one year and floods the next?” (‘New play shows climate of change for warming cynics’, April 24, 2012; 721 words).
According to the results of a Factiva search, Andrew Bolt wrote 10 more columns for The NT News between April 30, 2011 and February 1, 2012 that either focused on climate change or referred to it in the context of threats to free speech or Labor government policy.
Editors of The NT News would not be running these columns unless they believed that Bolt’s attack on those he perceives as elites with totalitarian tendencies appeal to readers who feel marginalised. A text from one reader that summed up these feelings was published in the paper on August 1, 2011:
“ANDREW BOLT IS THE VOICE OF REASON THE VOICE OF THE MAJORITY OF SANE RATIONAL PEOPLE IN AUS. I ENJOY HIS OPINION AND HOPE TO HEAR MORE RATIONAL COMMENT. TO STAY THE HYSTERICAL MYTH OF CLIMATE CHANGE. HAS EVERYONE FORGOTTEN ABOUT SOLAR FLARES AND THEIR EFFECT ON OUR EARTH”.
Not every reader is a fan however. In an arguably rare critical comment in May 2013, one reader wrote in response to Bolt’s complaint that he had been rejected by the ABC:
“..the logical outcome for anyone audacious enough to imagine himself a terrific journalist, notwithstanding a competence limited to insult and vituperation”.
The only The NT News comment piece not by Andrew Bolt was written by climate sceptic NT Deputy Chief Minister Dave Tollner who was previously a Country Liberal Party MLA. On April 16, 2011, he argued in 1056 words (very long for The NT News) that the Northern Territory should be exempted from the Gillard government’s carbon policy and that carbon emission reductions were unrealistic. Tollner’s views were also covered in a news item in The NT News which was not included in this study because it did not refer to carbon emissions or any other scientific aspect of climate change.
Like other News Corp tabloids, The NT News and its columnist Bolt approached climate science from the perspective of a larger campaign against the Labor government and its carbon policies. Bolt’s columns, which provide readers with the paper’s dominant message, either misrepresent the arguments of climate scientists or personally attack the characters and intentions those who support action to redress climate change. This aggressive sceptic discourse overwhelms news coverage of climate science developments, which is brief, very occasional, lacking follow up or local angles. Material that could be considered newsworthy remains invisible, (Bacon, W., & Nash, C.J., 2013).
Meanwhile the scientific evidence that Northern Australia is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change continues to build and strengthen. In April this year, the Australian Climate Commission published The Critical Decade. Professor Lesley Hughes was a co-author of this report. The report is clearly laid out and begins with a page of key messages which begins with the statement:
“Over many decades thousands of scientists have painted an unambiguous picture: the global climate is changing and humanity is almost surely the dominant cause. The risks have never been clearer and the case for action has never been more urgent’
Page 73 of The Critical Decade report was dedicated to the NT. It pointed to research that showed that Kakadu and Uluru National Parks, tourism, cattle production, rock art, coastal regions and inland remote communities are all vulnerable in different ways to impacts of climate change.
On April 6, 2013, The NT News published a 212 word story about the report which was headlined, ‘Emissions have us hotter under collar Stuart Blanch’. The story included the information that ‘The Critical Decade: Extreme Weather report’ had found Darwin suffered double the number of hot days above 35ºC in the decade from 2000 to 2009 and that sea level rise could cause yearly major storm surge events in the future. However rather than providing more information on aspects relevant to the Northern Territory, the story was set up as a contest between a ‘weather expert’ who said the report did not prove a link between climate change and carbon dioxide and Environment Centre NT Co-ordinator Stuart Blanch who called on the Government to cut carbon dioxide levels by developing solar energy.
The last word went to ‘weather expert’ and ‘consultant meteorologist’ William Kininmonth who said the report did not prove a link with carbon dioxide, saying: “They’re trying to scare us.’’ Kininmonth is a well known member of the sceptical organisation the Australian Climate Science Coalition. Readers of The NT News could hardly be blamed if they did not grasp the urgency of the Climate Commission message.