Sceptical Climate Part 2: Climate Science in Australian Newspapers

The role of media in a democracy is to truthfully report contemporary events and issues to the public. This includes scientific evidence about the crucial issue of climate change. If people are confused or ignorant about potential threats, they cannot be expected to support action to confront them. This report looks at coverage of climate science in ten Australian newspapers between February and April in 2011 and 2012 and asks: What is the quality and nature of climate science reporting in Australia? What role are these publications playing in informing the public about climate science?

Table of Contents

1. Preface by report author Wendy Bacon

Australia is a medium sized wealthy country that emits more greenhouse gas emissions per capita than any other country in the OECD. Since 2007, climate change has been high on its political agenda. In 2009 no topic occupied more media attention (Media Monitors, 2009); political leaders of both major parties have risen and fallen over fairly modest proposals designed to reduce emissions. In 2011, the Gillard Labor government’s proposal for a carbon pricing policy led to a polarised debate that was often strident. The policy finally became law in October 2011. In September 2013, a new Abbott conservative Liberal National Party government was elected on a promise to abolish that policy.

The coverage of the carbon policy debate was the subject of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism’s first report on the media’s role in reporting on climate change, Sceptical Climate: Part One. That report included an investigation of coverage by ten major print publications of the carbon policy between February and July 2011. It found that overall, the coverage was very strongly opposed to the Gillard’s government’s carbon policy. Negative coverage outweighed positive coverage by 73% to 27%. The coverage by News Corp, which dominates Australia’s print media, was even more biased (Finkelstein, 2012, p. 58). It published 82% negative stories compared to 18% that were positive. By comparison, Fairfax Media was more evenly balanced with its Melbourne masthead The Age being the only newspaper which was more positive than negative.

In 2013 the political debate continues, while climate scientists warn that time is running out to act on global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just published its fifth report. Scientists have found with 95% confidence that human greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming. Evidence grows of the damaging impacts of climate change, including melting ice, sea level rise and extreme weather events. (IPCC, 2013). Australia itself is threatened by more extreme hot weather and bushfires, an accelerating loss of species and flooding of coastal communities. Small neighbouring countries in the Pacific such as Kiribati are threatened with inundation and lack of fresh water.

This second report focusses attention on the coverage of climate science and addresses these questions: What is the nature of Australia’s press coverage of climate science? Do patterns of coverage of climate science reflect political debate? Are Australian audiences receiving adequate and accurate information about climate science? If they are not, how is that likely to impact on public debate ?

The Australian Centre for Independent Journalism starts from the perspective that the media’s role in a democracy rests on the public’s right to know. There are few media stories of more obvious public interest than that of climate change, which scientists are warning threatens the lives, security and livelihoods millions of people and whole species.

While the media often criticise others for poor communication, journalists too carry responsibility for communicating both the science and policy of climate change to the public. The way in which the media represents issues and news sources influences and to some extent, produces public opinion. The media can also ignore issues, rendering them invisible for some audiences. if people do not know about scientific developments that point to threats or solutions to problems, they cannot be expected to support proposed actions.

Concern that the media is failing the Australian people in its coverage of climate science is not new but never as it been as high on the news agenda as now in late October, 2013. A

A limited amount of research has already been conducted about reporting of climate science and climate change in Australia. This research has already provided evidence that sections of the Australian media promote climate scepticism. This research confirms many of the findings of that research and builds on them. (McKewon, E., 2009; Chubb, P.A., & Bacon, W., 2010; McKnight, D., 2010; Manne, R., 2011; Bacon, W., & Nash, C.J., 2012 & 2013; Painter, 2013)

Before resigning as Australia’s Chief Scientist in March 2011, Penny Sackett told a Senate Committee that her greatest concern was that the conclusions of climate scientists were not being effectively communicated to the public. (‘Carbon tax is a first step in climate fight’, SMH, February 28, 2011). On September 26, 2011, Australia’s new Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb called for an end to attacks on the credibility of science and the scientific method. He called on the scientific community “to stand up to be counted on important issues of science. I don’t think it is helpful that it is left to very few”.(‘Climate scientists urged to make voices heard’, The World Today, September 26, 2011). When asked about the media coverage of climate science, Professor Chubb described it as “very ordinary”. “I think the proportions of arguments given, the weight given, the space given to arguments seems to me to be more in the nature of illustrating, demonstrating conflict rather than the contest of ideas,” he said. (‘Climate scientists urged to make voices heard’, The World Today, September 26, 2011).

In February 2011, the Gillard Labor government established the Climate Commission. Part of the role of the Commission was to provide an authoritative and expert source of information about climate science. It could and did intervene to point out distortions in media reporting of climate science. One of the first acts of the new Abbott Liberal National Party government was to abolish the Commission. A Climate Council, funded by citizens, has replaced it.

When massive bushfires broke out in the Blue Mountains in NSW in late October, conflict over the reporting of climate science shot to the top of the news agenda when the Prime Minister Tony Abbott rejected reports that climate change is increasing the probability of extreme fire weather days and is lengthening the fire season. On October 25, he described ABC reports about the link as ‘hogwash’.

The Climate Council continues to insist that the link between Australian bushfires and climate change does exist. This puts Australians in the unusual position of having their government reject the views of leading scientists in the field of climate research.

The Sceptical Climate Report is a contribution to public discussion about coverage of climate science. It is the largest research project of its kind on climate science reporting in Australia. It aims to show the patterns of reporting across ten publications during 2011 and 2012. It uses examples and case studies to further explore these patterns, including the way stories evolve and are constructed.

This report is a collaborative effort. I would like to thank and acknowledge the contribution of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism and its Director Associate Professor Tom Morton and Manager Jan McClelland and our team of researchers, editors and publishers. I would particularly like to thank Arunn Jegan for his crucial commitment to the management of the research and the web designers at Collagraph for their ideas and work to push this report to be as useful and accessible as possible.

October, 2013

Wendy Bacon is a Professorial Fellow with the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism and a freelance journalist. She is a contributing editor for New Matilda. In recent years, she has published with, The Conversation, The Guardian Australia and Fairfax Media.