29 October 2013 –Los Angeles Times has banned letters from climate sceptics because the information they present is inaccurate. And The Sydney Morning Herald might do the same.
Nothing has encapsulated the debate about climate change more than the media coverage of the phenomenon, ranging from vitriolic scepticism to “en end is nigh” ethos. Different outlets have taken their own line and the result has been fascinating. Important too because this more than anything else shapes the public’s response. The media are important players in communication about climate change because, frankly, most people don’t read scientific reports, specialist websites and blogs, or for that matter, reports from the International Panel on Climate Change.
Now theoretically, the media should just be reporting the facts but the differences in editorial lines will slant the information. And those differences are quite marked.
A report by James Painter, the head of the Journalism Fellowship Programme at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, which examined coverage in newspapers from around the world that had a combined circulation of 15 million, found that the media were more likely to report climate change as an imminent disaster.
That’s hardly surprising given the frequency of weather related events has tripled over the past 30 years. But the problem, Painter says, is that the media gives little coverage of the science of climate change which prevents the issue from getting any context. And he says they report on it in a narrow framework, one that does not connect with all the readers.
It’s a health issue, it’s a social issue, it’s an economic issue,
it’s a business issue, it’s a technology issue
“Often the environment and climate change is ghettoised – it’s a green issue and it’s the environment correspondents that cover it but of course, it’s a health issue, it’s a social issue, it’s an economic issue, it’s a business issue, it’s a technology issue and what we are trying to say is that journalists should try to get out of that green ghetto. People might relate to it more,” he says.
A report for the BBC Trust authored by Professor Steve Jones found that climate change “deniers” were continuing to find an often prominent place in BBC reporting. That’s despite them occupying a marginal position in scientific debates. The report suggested this might be shaped by the dynamics of the news gathering business.
“This barrage of criticism by one side of the argument (matched, to a lesser degree, by complaints from those who believe that man-made global warming is real) shows that the BBC is at least annoying both parties to the debate and is achieving a measure of impartiality by so doing,” it says.
And so the media organisations are lining up. On one side of the fence, the Los Angeles Times has banned letters from climate sceptics. LA Times letters editor Paul Thornton says it’s a matter of being absolutely accurate in the coverage.
“Just last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a body made up of the world’s top climate scientists – said it was 95 per cent certain that we fossil-fuel-burning humans are driving global warming. The debate right now isn’t whether this evidence exists (clearly, it does) but what this evidence means for us. Simply put, I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page; when one does run, a correction is published. Saying ‘there’s no sign humans have caused climate change’ is not stating an opinion, it’s asserting a factual inaccuracy.”
Vincent Carroll, the Denver Post’s editorial page editor raises some questions about the strategy. “It so happens that we do not get many letters saying climate change is a hoax or a liberal scheme — and when we do, the prospects for publication are indeed slim. But not always. What if the letter is from someone whose views are of public interest?”
The Guardian’s green blogger Graham Readfearn says it’s a tough issue for the letters sections of newspapers which after all are a reflection of what the community of readers believe. Some will argue climate change is an undeniable fact, others will dismiss it as a fabrication of ideologues, regardless of the scientific evidence. Letters pages usually sit side-by-side in modern newspapers with opinion columns, and both these spaces have been targeted by both climate sceptics and environmentalists over the years.
What’s clear is that newspapers need policies to address this issue. Readfearn quotes Julie Lewis, the co-editor of the Sydney Morning Herald’s letters page, telling him by email the Herald letters team is planning to make a statement to readers outlining the paper’s approach to climate change and letters. That might suggest we might see other papers coming out with similar policies although you wouldn’t hold your breath.
That said, the website of the left-leaning UK newspaper The Guardian, is known internationally as one of the most prominent hubs of climate change and environmental reporting and opinion. The reality is that sceptical opinions are rarely to be found in its pages.
Other parts of the media attack the environmentalists and hose down the impact of climate change. The Murdoch media is one of the main protagonists but it’s not Robinson Crusoe.
One of the most striking examples came when Green MP Adam Bandt knocked out his now famous tweet linking the NSW fires to climate change. “Global warming is biggest ever threat to the Australian way of life. Tony Abbott’s failing PM’s first duty to protect the country’s people.”
Everyone got stuck into him, led by the environment minister Greg Hunt (who managed to read it at a time when he wasn’t immersed in Wikipedia). And sections of the media, led by Murdoch’s News Limited, did not hold back, calling it “ill-timed”. “He ignores the unfolding human tragedy and pushes his political barrow on Twitter… You’d imagine that even the strongest believer in climate change caused by human activity would concede there is a more appropriate time to argue the issue of carbon pricing than when people are fleeing their homes and brave fireys do their best to protect them.”
Then again, Bandt had his defenders at Fairfax like Peter FitzSimons (“It is quite legitimate for the likes of Adam Bandt to draw attention to it, and advocate a change in policy. In the words of Barack Obama, denying the reality of climate change is the equivalent of belonging to the Flat Earth Society”) and Wendy Harmer (“Whether or not it’s unseemly for Greens politicians to raise the spectre of future cataclysmic climate change when bushfires are still raging out of control, there’s no doubt that many of us who looked up to bruised and belligerent skies swirling with ash and a drift of incinerated gum leaves had to wonder, ”is this what the future will be like”?)
And so the divisions continue. While Al Jazeera has increased its environmental coverage in the US, pointing out that the deniers have been spreading their discrediting message to a media around the world receptive to controversy, news rooms are shrinking and sections of the media are only too happy to parrot the deniers’ lines.
In the US, Investors’ Business Daily came out with the editorial that “global warming is a fraud”. Why? Because we haven’t had a Sandy-like storm since 2012, tornadoes and hurricanes are down and a rowing team’s attempt to cross the Arctic was thwarted by an ice pack.
And Murdoch’s Fox News got stuck into Obama, saying he “makes flat earthers look like Charles Darwin”. “Obama kills pipelines, he delays fracking while bowing before creeps who hate us. The results? We’ve got a dying economy, we’ve got no jobs, less safety, all so Obama is shovelling billions of green energy which is the mob without the meatballs. All this so the President can feel cool around Matt Damon.”
Some of the extraordinary invective has continued in Australia. News Limited warrior Piers Ackerman has attacked the “anthropogenic global warming madness” inspired by Al Gore who “makes it up as he goes along” while his Melbourne counterpart Andrew Bolt recently got stuck into eminent academic, science writer and environmental activist David Suzuki, saying he is ignorant about global warming and calling him a “phony” and “imposter”.
Not to be outdone, Alan Jones got into trouble with the Australian Communications and Media Authority when he made unsubstantiated comments about power station closures and the salaries of climate change bureaucrats.
Professor Wendy Bacon from the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at the University of Technology in Sydney put out a report on the media response to climate change. While the report came out in 2011, its findings would still be pertinent today. It’s a scene that’s divided but on balance is sceptical.
The coverage of the then Gillard government’s carbon policy was mostly negative (73 per cent to 27 per cent). Negative coverage (82 per cent) across News Ltd newspapers far outweighed positive (18 per cent) articles, pointing to a campaign against the carbon policy adopted by the company that controls most Australian metropolitan newspapers, and the only general national daily. Fairfax was more balanced – (57 per cent positive versus 42 per cent negative).
The Age was the most positive (67 per cent) towards the policy than any other newspaper. The Daily Telegraph was the most negative (89 per cent). The Daily Telegraph has since continued in its campaign against Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore and bike riders.
In an extensive analysis of Rupert Murdoch‘s News empire and its powerful influence on the politics of the UK, the US and Australia, Robert Manne writing in The Monthly says,
“The Bacon team counted the climate policy words of different journalists and opinion columnists during these months. Bolt contributed an astonishing 33,906, though he was surpassed by Terry McCrann, who contributed 36,887. Even though overall coverage of climate policy in the Australian was several times greater than in any of the tabloids, their most prolific climate policy journalist, Dennis Shanahan, contributed only half as many words as his two across-the-tabloid Murdoch colleagues. Nor was the hostility to the Gillard government climate-change policy of the Murdoch tabloids insignificant. During these months, the question of the carbon price became the central issue in Australian politics. And it was during these months that the popularity of the Gillard government collapsed, with first preferences for the government – for the first time in federal politics since opinion polls were conducted – commonly falling below 30%.
This is all quite critical. While the mainstream media is losing readers, it still shapes views.
John Keane, a professor of politics at Sydney University says the political dynamics have changed with the rise of a “mediacracy” in all democracies. “We could say that all popularly elected governments are today proactively engaged in clever, cunning struggles to kidnap their clients and citizens mentally through the manipulation of appearances, with the help of accredited journalists and other public relations curators. The age of organised political contrivance is upon us.”
Well may we ask what future generations will say about the media’s treatment of climate change. This is why continuous public scrutiny of all the issues is imperative. This can be done partly through the media, but also by reading widely and consulting many sources, from magazines to blogs to newsletters to various groups. In the final analysis, that will be just as important as the media in shaping our response.