3. Background Issues: Science, Journalism and Truth Claims

The key findings of this project and their implications for public policy and the media need explanation and discussion. Before proceeding to a more detailed account of the findings, this section briefly explains some of the norms and practices underlying scientific research and journalism. It then discusses some of the arguments raised in favour of publishing the views of sceptics in the light of these practices. It concludes by suggesting some other factors that are relevant to explaining how particular media cover climate science.

Developing scientific knowledge through peer reviewing

Scientific method is about testing hypotheses against observed evidence.

Scientific research is a social and collective practice. Academic journals and some scientific organisations do not publish research papers until other people with similar expertise have critically examined them. This process is called ‘peer review’.

The process is usually anonymous so that critique is not influenced by fear of penalty or hope for favour. This does not mean that no false claims are published, but there is a process by which they can be tested and adjusted. As Dessler and Parson explain: “…as other scientists repeat an observation or examine a question using different approaches and get the same answer, the community increasingly comes to accept the claim as correct” (Dessler, A.E., & Parson E.A., 2010, p.39).

Even though scientific knowledge is always open to question, a reliable way to find out the state of ‘truth claims’ in science is to survey peer-reviewed literature. This is particularly so for those who do not have expertise in the relevant scientific field. This includes nearly all journalists.

Nearly a decade ago in 2004, Naomi Oreskes, in a well-known study of peer-reviewed literature on climate science, analysed 928 abstracts published in refereed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003 that were listed in the ISI (Institute for Scientific Information) database with the keywords ‘global climate change’. She found that 75% of abstracts either explicitly or implicitly accepted the scientific consensus on the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Another 25% did not explicitly take a position; none disagreed with the consensus position (Oreskes, N., 2004).

In 2009, Doran and Zimmerman published a survey of more than 3000 geoscientists mostly from US institutions. They found that 96.2% of climatologists who actively publish peer-reviewed research on climate change responded yes to the question: “When compared with pre–1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?” An even higher proportion, 97.4% responded yes to a second question: “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor?” (Doran, P.T., & Zimmerman, M.K., 2009).

As the level of active research and specialisation in climate science increased in the sample population, so did agreement that humans are significantly changing global temperatures.

Doran and Zimmerman noted the difference between the scientific consensus amongst climate change scientific experts and views of the US population, of whom only 58% had agreed that human activity is a significant contributing factor to climate change in a US Gallup Politics Poll (2010). They concluded that the challenge was how to bridge the gap between scientists and the public that mistakenly perceives debate among scientists on an issue where there is almost none.

Other researchers conducted a study in 2010 (Anderegg, W.R.L., et al, 2010) that showed that the expertise and prominence of climate researchers, convinced by the evidence of the anthropogenic climate change, vastly overshadows that of climate change sceptics and ‘contrarians’. This difference was even starker when top researchers in each group were considered. They recommended that strong weight be given to expert credibility in the relative weight and attention given to these groups.

Last year, US scientist and blogger James Lawrence Powell did his own survey of academic abstracts to assess the number of articles rejecting anthropogenic climate change that had been published in peer reviewed journals. He presented his findings in a accessible pie-chart and concluded:

“Scientists do not disagree about human-caused global warming. It is the ruling paradigm of climate science, in the same way that plate tectonics is the ruling paradigm of geology. We know that continents move. We know that the earth is warming and that human emissions of greenhouse gases are the primary cause. These are known facts about which virtually all publishing scientists agree.”

This year, John Cook and an international team of researchers expanded Orestes study by examining 11 944 climate abstracts from 1991–2011 matching the topics ‘global climate change’ or ‘global warming’. The study found only 0.7% rejected anthropogenic global warming and 0.3% were uncertain about the cause of global warming. Among abstracts expressing a position on AGW, 97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming. (Cook, J., et al, 2013).

Journalism and reporting of climate science

Journalists, like scientists, also make truth claims based on evidence. This is not to say that journalism is the same as science, but that journalists, like scientists, are also concerned with notions of evidence and truth.

All major Australian news organisations operate according to professional codes or sets of standards that commit organisations to reporting with fairness and accuracy. Respect for truth is a fundamental principle of Australian Journalists’ code of ethics. This reflects the Federation of International Journalists’ code which reads: Respect for truth and for the right of the public to truth is the first duty of the journalist. This means that both collectively and individually, journalists are supposed to strive to report the truth - or in other words, provide an accurate account based on evidence of what is happening at the time of publication. Journalists commit themselves to disclosing all essential facts and not distorting evidence.

Journalists develop truth claims by applying methods of verification including direct observation or testimony, documentary evidence and so on. A journalist might be aware of ‘truth claims’ for which there is no independent supporting evidence. Only if supporting evidence emerges will the story be publishable. If contrary evidence later emerges, a journalist would not be expected to ignore it. These are the standards against which Australian climate change reporting and our key findings can be judged.

In practice, news reporters often do not have the time or resources to independently check the validity of all truth claims. For this reason, journalists routinely assess the credibility of sources. In daily reporting when journalists approach the publication of truth claims by scientific sources, they use markers of expertise to assess their credibility, such as publication in leading peer reviewed journals and institutional recognition by established bodies that foster and rely on peer reviewed research. Journalists are expected to be transparent revealing conflicts of interest that could affect the credibility of sources. For example, journalists should check if a drug company has sponsored medical research. If so, it should be explicitly acknowledged.

These practices of science journalists reflect a well established tendency for reporters to preference authoritative sources with status (Hall, S., 1978; Ericson, R., et.al.,1989).

If these conventional practices were being applied, you would expect media coverage of climate science to reflect a very strong preference for the consensus position. Indeed, given the extremely high level of consensus, one would expect that reporting to have entered what media researcher Daniel Hallin called the “sphere of consensus”. (Lester, L., 2010, p.93).

This is not to say that journalists should not be prepared to look at the truth claims of dissident scientists or those who are less well established but these claims need to be assessed against established evidence. (See below for more on this point).

This study confirms that the Australian media is generating substantial amounts of material that rejects the consensus position. Some Australian publications are even reporting more scepticism than the views of established climate scientists. In other words, these more sceptic publications are communicating material that nearly all scientists consider to be false and misleading.

Although this study is the first in Australia to measure levels of scepticism across a substantial slice of Australian media, other researchers have identified similar tendencies. In 2004, Max Boykoff and Jules Boykoff found that the quality US press amplified or over represented the minority of researchers who reject the consensus position in reporting climate change. (Boykoff, M.T., & Boykoff, J.M., 2004 & 2007).

Previous Australian research has also shown that some sections of the Australian media have also given far more prominence to ‘climate scepticism than one would expect from a review of peer-reviewed science. (McKewon,E., 2009; Chubb,P.A., & Bacon, W., 2010; McKnight, D., 2010; Manne, R., 2011; Bacon, W., & Nash,C.J., 2012 & 2013). (Some of this literature is further reviewed in Section 4.6 Scepticism and climate science coverage.)

Most recently, James Painter (2013) of the Reuters Institute for the study of journalism told the ABC science show that his recent comparative study of climate coverage had found:

“Australia had the most articles, and the highest percentage of articles with sceptics in them, ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Norway and India. This finding tallied with a previous report we had published which strongly suggested that climate scepticism was common in the English-speaking media in countries like the UK, USA and Australia. It is nothing like as common in the media in developing countries, such as Brazil, India and China, and in France”

The book 'Climate Change in the Media - Reporting Risk and Uncertainty' includes a framing analysis of 61 articles from the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, and the Herald Sun published at the time of two 2007 IPCC reports, a 2012 IPPC report on extreme weather and articles about Arctic Sea ice melt since January 2010. The analysis by Lyn McGauer and Libby Lester found a high level of an 'uncertainty' frame in the Australian publications that was less likely to be tempered by an increasing certainty frame than in other countries. There were more sceptic voices than in other countries (Painter, 2013, p.85).

How can such a marked dissonance between accepted science and reporting of science be explained ? Why aren’t sections of the Australian media communicating the conclusions of climate scientists to the public? Why do patterns of coverage across the media differ markedly?

These are questions for which the Australian public can expect answers from journalists.

Here are some arguments put forward by those who argue in favour of granting media access to sceptics.

Being Open to all sides of the debate

A common argument is that journalists need to be open to all sides of a debate. According to this view, the promotion of sceptic views is seen as a form of free speech. Their marginalisation alone justifies their inclusion.

But as experimental psychologist Stephen Lewandowsky et al (2012) has argued, empirical differences between scientific findings cannot be dismissed as merely a matter of opinion. Scientific ‘debate’ focuses on evidence.

Policy and ethical debates may flow from such scientific debate. The task of journalists is to distinguish between the debate and the evidence on which it is based. Journalists need to engage with the politicisation of science but can not resile from coming to grips with empirical evidentiary differences.

Reporters do need to keep an open mind but this does not mean that they should publish views that nearly all other informed people have found to be false simply for the sake of doing so. It might be that a dissident view is based on a misunderstanding. Take for example, the sceptic view that the phenomenon of global warming had stopped because the last fifteen years have not been hotter than the year before. Any journalist who checked this assertion with a climate scientist would immediately be told that the issue of time scales (Eg. decades compared with decades) is relevant in climate change. To report the initial claim without explaining it clearly in this context is to deliberately foster misunderstanding.

One of the successes of scepticism has been to create a pseudoscientific debate. The phenomenon of scepticism then gets covered as an issue in its own right, which further feeds into a general impression that there is a real scientific debate.


Those who grant media access to sceptics often argue that they are providing what journalists call ‘balance’.

In a much discussed study, Boykoff & Boykoff identified the application of the journalistic norm of ‘balance’ as a factor in understanding why journalists over-represent dissident views. (Boykoff, M.T., & Boykoff, J.M., 2004 & 2007, Boykoff, 2013). Through this discussion, the notion of ‘bias as balance’ was developed for a situation in which “competing points of views on a scientific question” are presented “as though they had equal scientific weight, when actually they do not.” (‘Balance-bias battle of climate science coverage’, September 3, 2010, The Drum)

Balance is applied in a range of ways when discussing journalism. It can mean adding a source from a different perspective, the choice of two or more people of opposing views in a broadcast debate, the selection of a range of sources with differing views across news media over time or using columnists with different political perspective to demonstrate fairness.

‘Balance’ can be used to rationalise decisions made for other reasons. For example, an advertiser might choose to withdraw advertising unless a story is run. An editor in this situation could use the notion of ‘balance’ to justify the otherwise unethical decision to publish the story.

Balance is an important principle in journalism, but it has long been acknowledged that it can become a strategic ritual (Tuchman, G., 1972) or used in what is referred to as ‘he said, she said’ journalism. When reporting of this kind becomes a device for amplifying views without evidentiary basis, the overriding journalistic principle of pursuing the truth is betrayed.

When there are significant conflicting interpretations of evidence between scientists, reporters should explain this. For example, in the early days of research work on the link between lung cancer and smoking, journalists might have quoted sources who did not agree. However once the the link was accepted by the overwhelming body of medical opinion, sources in the tobacco industry denying the link soon lost credibility.

Investigative journalists then turned their attention to identifying how economic interests were influencing those denying the link.

There are many areas of uncertainty in climate science - for example, the impact of global warming on the frequency of cyclones is a matter for further research. Reporters tackling these issues will provide ‘balance’ by drawing on a range of scientific sources to clarify differences and uncertainties. This can be done without casting doubt on the consensus position.

Opinion versus News

This study shows that much of the sceptical material published by the Australian media is ‘comment’ or in other words, ‘opinion’. Some argue that providing an article is marked as ‘comment’ or ‘opinion’, the author does not need to adhere to the same standards of evidence as news reporting even if the commentary contains assertions of fact. There are several problems with this argument. Firstly, audiences do not necessarily distinguish between opinion and news. Commentary containing strong factual assertions is often published prominently, overwhelming news items which are often shorter. Secondly, the line between opinion as news has become blurred as the news genre has become more openly opinionated and subjective. Thirdly, as with the argument about ‘open debate’, this argument that opinion should not adhere to journalistic standards of truth and accuracy is often linked to the notion of the media as a forum for free speech. There is a difference however between the broad notion of free speech and the narrower notion of free press that exercises privileges on behalf of the public and is accountable to it.

How can journalists approach dissident claims?

Some have argued that journalists should leave climate science to the scientists and simply report evidence that has been peer reviewed or independently assessed. Critical and independent journalists will not agree. While daily reporters develop techniques and conventions for assessing the credibility of sources, in-depth and specialist reporters have a responsibility to interrogate experts on behalf of the public. Journalism’s central preoccupation is with the truth or discovering which claims are valid or which claims are not.

If a reporter is contacted by a source holding views contrary to mainstream scientific opinion, a range of actions are possible. A reporter can first establish the basis for the difference and then canvas views from a range of experts. Has the dissident view been critiqued? Has the dissident responded to that critique? What is the nature of the evidence or proof of alternative scientific claims? Is there evidence that dissidents are being marginalised to protect powerful interests? Or are dissidents being funded by interests with a stake in particular policies? What interests or motivations underlie the difference between parties with differing views? Occasionally, stories of scientific fraud or suppression are exposed by following such methods.

There are examples of Australian journalists engaging with the views of sceptics. Graham Readfearn is professional journalist who worked as an environmental reporter with News Corp before resigning to start his own climate science blog. He continues to be published by other media outlets including The Guardian.

There are also examples of scientists who have engaged with climate change sceptics and become bloggers producing a form of journalism. One of these is John Cook who is not a climate scientist. He was trained as a scientist and now produces Skeptical Science which critiques scepticism.

These and other critics of scepticism tend to produce material which shows that climate sceptics have a flawed approach to scientific method.

Other factors

Like science, journalism is also a social practice. Journalists, editors, managers and owners of media are all part of the production process. They make decisions about who to hire, what to broadcast, what informal editorial policies and reporting resources to deploy in particular rounds, what sources are selected, what ethical and professional practices will be tolerated and what language and images will be used and genres developed.

These factors interact with each other to produce media. Media researchers have shown that these production processes can result in systematic distortions, the marginalisation or preferencing of particular social groups, amplification of some issues and strategic silences around others. (A well known example of the latter is the widespread reporting of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the lead-up to the US invasion in 2003). The ‘maps of meaning’ produced by media are interpreted and refashioned by audiences.

In an overview of environmental journalism, Lester, drawing on Cottle, suggests that while journalistic norms and values do shape journalistic work,there are other “complexities and confluence of factors at work”( Lester, L., 2010, p. 41; Cottle, S., 2006).

Factors that could be considered in explaining the patterns that emerge from the findings in this report include:

Although the influence of these cannot be explored in detail in this report, some of these factors are mentioned in the conclusion to this report.