Climate change as portrayed in ten major Australian newspapers. John Menadue

Nov 6, 2013

Last week the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney released a report on the above subject. It highlighted, amongst other things the unprofessional performance and influence of News Ltd publications in shaping the public debate in favour of the sceptics of climate change.

This is despite the overwhelming consensus by eminent world scientists as expressed particularly in the UN’s 5th  Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change report just released, The panel said that it was increasingly confident that climate change was occurring and that it was now 95% confident that this was due to human activity.

The campaign by News Ltd publications stands oddly with what Rupert Murdoch boasted to the Lowy Institute last week “that you can’t have free democracy if you don’t have a free media that can provide vital and independent information to the people and that we believe in providing the public with access to quality content”

Some would say that he is “talking through his hat”. But see the following extracts from the ACIJ report and make up your own mind about “quality content” The full report can be found on the website of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, University of Technology, Sydney.

The findings of this report should be of concern to all those who accept the findings of climate scientists. …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 newspapers carried particularly low levels of coverage. Levels of coverage were higher in Fairfax publications The Age and Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian …

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 reflect 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 Corps’ 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 News Corp 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 crop coverage of climate science is consistent with the dominant editorial stance of its publications towards political policy and action on climate change.

Fairfax media publications The Age and SMH were fairly even-handed 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%) article. This indicated a very strong stance against the carbon policy adopted by the government. 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.

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.

There were plenty of examples in our study of strong, high quality climate science journalism in 2011 and 2012.

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.

With  Rupert Murdoch  abusing the power that goes with the concentration of newspaper ownership in Australia it is not surprising ,according to Essential Research that 36% of Australians and 51% of Liberal/National voters do not believe that global warming is occurring and that it is due to human activity.

We are witnessing an abuse of media power on an issue vital to Australia’s and the world’s future. It could hardly be more serious.


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