This study provides a snapshot of how ten Australian newspapers covered the issues of climate change policy over a six-month period from February to July 2011. The key issue during this period was the introduction of the Gillard Labor government carbon emissions pricing scheme. The struggle over the introduction of this policy overshadowed all other climate change issues.
On February 24, the Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that there would be a price imposed on carbon emissions in Australia from July 1, 2012. On July 10, she announced details of the ‘Clean Energy Future package’ including information about the price of carbon, tax cuts, compensation and industry assistance. Over the period, there were rallies, community meetings and intense lobbying efforts for and against the policy. The Australian Parliament enacted the package of Clean Energy Future bills on November 8, 2011.
Media coverage still continues as the government works towards implementing its policy and the Federal Opposition vows to repeal it if elected. Climate change activists and The Australian Greens will argue that the policy is only a ‘first step’. This means climate change policy will undoubtedly be a key issue in the next Federal election, and that the media reporting issues raised by this study will remain relevant.
3.1 Why newspapers?
The study focuses on ten Australian newspapers. Ideally one would study all media but this is a difficult and resource-intensive task. Newspapers are convenient to study as they have fixed content that can be retrieved.
Newspapers still have a substantial although slowly dropping readership. However, although readers are shifting to online media, newspapers still provide most of the substantial journalism content of company news web sites which in the case of News Ltd and Fairfax (owners of all but two of these newspapers) are among the most used sites in Australia.
Radio and television news agendas are also still influenced by newspaper agendas and many examples were found during this study of newspaper journalists being interviewed on talk back radio and television. Newspapers journalists frequently appear on ABC, Sky News, the Macquarie radio network, including 2GB, and Fairfax radio stations in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.
The aggregation of newspaper sites into company websites such as www.news.com.au also means newspaper content remains available for much longer than it used to and that articles from sister publications support each other in ‘related coverage’ links. While the business-advertising model that supported newspaper journalism is fading, readership of newspaper content may even be increasing.
3.2 Negative or critical?
Some may suggest the negative quality of the reporting demonstrated in this study is an expected reflection of the nature of news values and the critical, watchdog function of journalism. There is a difference however between negativity and critical scrutiny. It is possible to be supportive of the carbon policy and adopt a critical and questioning approach, remaining alert to flaws in the claims of government and vested interests. It is also possible to promote claims by supporters of the tax uncritically.
Negative coverage can also be critical, pointing out shortcomings in policy, but it can also lapse into one-sided promotion of particular interest groups, abusive commentary and exclusion of articles and sources that do not fit the negative narrative.
The underpinning of journalism is the pursuit of the truth. In pursuing truth, journalists aim to be ‘fair and accurate’. This does not mean that in every article a reporter needs to canvas a range of opinions in every article but it does mean that editors have a responsibility to ensure readers get a good range of views and accurate information from which to make up their minds on critical issues. Promoting sources with vested interests without testing them against credible sources provides opportunities for misinformation and scare campaigns.
Our methodology and findings are presented in the following section.