4.7 Case study: Comparing News Corp and Fairfax Media newspapers in Melbourne and Sydney

Sydney and Melbourne are the only state capitals in Australia that have two metropolitan daily newspapers. These are Fairfax Media’s The Age and the SMH and News Corp’s Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph. A comparison between these provides some information about the quantity and quality of coverage of climate science being received by different audiences in those cities.

Figure 4.1.1 provides the claimed weekday circulation and readership figures for these publications in 2012.

The Age and SMH had a combined weekday circulation of 315,411 and readership of 1,178,000 In 2012.

The Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph had a combined circulation of 883,514 and readership of 1,897,000.

These figures do not take into account tablet, laptop and mobile audiences. They may also may not be completely accurate as they are based on claims made by the companies themselves. They show however that the two News Corp tabloids claim circulation of 2.8 times that of the two Fairfax Media publications as well as about half a million more readers.

Newspaper Works provides information about newspaper audiences which is the basis of the analysis below. Fairfax Media provide some information about their audience to attract advertisers. The information we have analysed is from the Newspaper Works weekday figures.

Who are the readers of News Corp and Fairfax Media in Sydney and Melbourne?

Overall, readers of the four newspapers are more likely to be male. The great majority of readers are over 35 and more than a quarter of all readers are over 65. More than 25% of readers are retired.

The biggest difference between Fairfax Media and News Corp audiences is in occupation. Readers of Fairfax Media are more likely to be professional and managerial while the readers of News Corp tabloids are far more likely to be skilled, semiskilled or unskilled. Both have similar proportions of white collar readers. Fairfax readers are likely to be wealthier and more highly educated than News Corp readers.

According to Newspaper Works:

On its website, Fairfax Media provides additional information about the income of its readers. According to its advertising overview, 92% of SMH readers have an income of more than $60,000 per year. (The median salary in Australia is approximately $30,004). One third have a university degree compared to 25% of the general population. Most of their readers are in NSW and nearly all on the Eastern seaboard.

Within Sydney, their readers tend to be in the wealthier North Shore and Eastern and to lesser extent Inner West suburbs.

The Age claims that 83% of its readers have an income of more than $60,000 and 15% more than $100,000. 37% have a university degree. Most of their readers are in Victoria and the great majority of them in Melbourne. The rest are also nearly found on the Eastern seaboard.

Previous Comparison of SMH and The Daily Telegraph during COP15, 2009

Chubb and Bacon (Chubb, P.A., & Bacon, W., 2010) reviewed climate change coverage in The Daily Telegraph and the SMH during December 2009. This study was part of a 20 country comparative study of news coverage of the COP15 conference in Copenhagen. In each country, a broadsheet and a ‘life world’ (term used in Europe) or tabloid newspaper was chosen. Overall the coverage of the major international event of COP15 was covered in a highly domestic political frame.

This study found that the SMH’s coverage had both more stories and a greater diversity of perspectives and sources than The Daily Telegraph. The latter also published more stories actively supportive of climate scepticism. Only a minority of stories focussed on the scientific dimension of climate change. Those that did mostly focused on conflict between scientists and sceptics.

Overall during December 2009, the weight of coverage, particularly in the SMH, was based on the assumption that the climate science was correct. However both papers ran stories by climate sceptics; for example well known sceptic Ian Plimer published a piece in The Daily Telegraph under the heading, ‘Carbon Dioxide is in No Way the Villain’ and one four days later in the SMH ‘Self-Appointed Moralists Cloud Meetings Agenda’. The Daily Telegraph columnist Piers Akerman wrote eight columns on climate change during December 2009. He argued that the ‘green movement’ was seeking “massive wealth redistribution and a re-organisation of nation states”. In another column, he accused climate scientiists of “steadfast refusal to acknowledge widely-accepted scientific knowledge about climate science and the subsequent distortion of material to influence debate debases the entire scientific process and philosophy”.

Akerman continued:

“In effect, the global warming claims of the so-called science has been ripped apart. The crowd who gathered in Copenhagen were there pushing a fraud.

There we have it. As yet, the global warming crowd have failed to produce any observation-based evidence that carbon dioxide levels have led to rising temperatures, but have shown that they are willing to distort data, manipulate facts and censor those who disagree with their ideology. May all those who have peddled this dangerous and unscientific nonsense wake to a lump of coal in their stocking on Christmas Day”.

Akerman’s columns were written in the aftermath of ‘Climategate’ in which 1,000 private emails between climate change scientists were stolen and published online. The uproar that followed challenged public faith in global warming science, and prompted investigations that debunked sceptics’ allegations that the mails showed the planet wasn’t warming.

Climategate was a major media event and provided a massive distraction in the lead up to the much anticipated COP15 UN conference. It took many months before investigations into allegations against climate scientists were complete. This wikipedia entry provided a useful summary of Climategate. Eight committees investigated the allegations and published reports, finding no evidence of fraud or scientific misconduct. However, reports suggested scientists avoid future allegations by rebuilding public confidence in their work, for example by opening up access to their supporting data. This account from a site which monitors scepticism explains the events up until March 2012. Despite the investigation findings, climate sceptics continue to actively promote the allegations. The Daily Telegraph also continued to publish sceptic columns which referred to Climategate. But according to a Factiva search, it did not report the fact that the investigations cleared the scientists.

By not reporting relevant facts, it could be argued that the Daily Telegraph misrepresented the overall truth about the Climategate allegations.

Coverage of small island states and climate change

In 2013, Nash and Bacon published an analysis of the coverage of small island states and climate change in Australian news publications during selected periods during in the lead-up to and after COP15 in Copenhagen (Bacon, W., & Nash, C.J., 2013). This research found that The Age and the SMH had about twice as many reports as the Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph, although coverage of the issue of climate change and the Pacific was low overall and The Daily Telegraph carried now reports at all over 20 months from Cop 15 onwards. The Age and the SMH also carried more features which are more likely to have some depth of perspective and sources than the Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph which ran none. The Herald Sun ran 5 comment pieces, all by Andrew Bolt and The Daily Telegraph ran 4 including one by Andrew Bolt and one by sceptic Cardinal Pell. This demonstrates how News Corp’s coverage of climate change, whatever this issue, is coloured by its scepticism that is mobilised in the interests of its political and economic agenda. Of the Fairfax Media reporters, the most active on this issue was environmental reporter Adam Morton who wrote 18 stories for The Age. During this period, The Age strongly supported global action on climate change during this period.

Comparing News Corp and Fairfax coverage of the 2011 carbon policy debate

In Part One of this report on Climate change reporting in Australia, the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism analysed 6 months of coverage of the Gillard government’s carbon policy across the same ten publications that are the subject of this report. We did not specifically compare the Sydney and Melbourne News Corp publications with the Fairfax publications in that report. A further analysis of the data shows that News Corp’s Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph had 26% less stories on that topic than the two Fairfax Media publications.

Part One analysed headlines to asses whether they were positive, negative or neutral towards the Labor government’s carbon policy. The Daily Telegraph (65%) and Herald Sun (59%) had the most negative proportion of headlines while The Age (39%) and the SMH (42%) had the least negative. The Age and the SMH had the most positive headlines while the Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph had the least.

When the content of the articles was assessed and neutral articles were removed from the sample, as Figure 4.5.2 from Sceptical Climate Part One shows, The Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun were extremely negative towards the policy while the SMH and The Age were more even handed with The Age being the only publication to publish more positive than negative articles.

Climate science reporting in The Age & SMH compared to The Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun, February - April, 2011 & 2012

The output of the two News Corp publications, The Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun, was compared to the output of Fairfax Media's The Age and SMH across the two years.

Figure 4.7.1: Number of articles in ‘Climate Science Focus’ and ‘Climate Science in Policy Context’ categories comparing News Corp and Fairfax Media in Melbourne and Sydney from Feb. - Apr. 2011 & 2012.

Download data as .csv or view on GitHub

More information about how the sample was divided into these two categories can be found in Section 4.2.

This study found that the two Fairfax papers had about 43% more articles (163) compared to the News Corp papers (114).

There were fairly similar proportions of stories that referenced science and policy and stories about climate science across the two companies. 37% (61) of Fairfax articles were articles that referenced climate science in a policy context and 63% (102) had a climate science focus. This compared to News Corp, which had 41% (47) articles that referenced climate science in a policy context and 59% (67) had a climate science focus.

Comparing coverage by genre

From the point of view of the genre however, the results markedly diverged. Features traditionally allow reporters to provide more perspectives, factual context and to quote a range of voices, although as we have pointed out a new form of small feature has emerged (See Features section in 4.3 Genre of climate science articles). Fairfax published twice as many feature articles that referred to climate science than News Corp. When considered from the point of view of words allocated, the difference was even greater. Fairfax media carried nearly four times as many words in feature articles than News Corp. In all, The Age and the SMH combined carried 33,189 words of features compared to 8,935 in News Corp publications. Most of the latter was in The Daily Telegraph. The proportion a features declined in Fairfax from 33% to 18% suggesting that the higher levels of features may not be maintained as resources within Fairfax are stretched due to editorial constraints.

Figure 4.7.2: Number of articles in different reportings genre, comparing News Corp's The Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun with Fairfax Media's The Age and SMH between Feb. and Apr., 2011 and 2012.

Download data as .csv or view on GitHub

On the other hand, the News Corp publications had much higher levels of comment articles than Fairfax (51% compared to 29%). We have analysed this commentary in Section 4.6. Much of the tabloid factual content about climate change is included in comment pieces.

As Figure 4.7.2 shows, the difference in genres patterns was more stark in 2012 than 2011. In 2012, more than half the coverage in the News Corp publications was ‘comment’ compared to only 19% in the Fairfax publications. Fairfax had 59% of news coverage in 2012 compared to 29% in News Corp.

Figure 4.7.3: Number of articles divided by whether they communicated acceptance, suggested doubt or rejected the consensus position on climate science, comparing News Corp's The Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun with Fairfax Media's The Age and SMH between Feb. and Apr., 2011 and 2012.

Download data as .csv or view on GitHub

When it came to acceptance of the climate science consensus, there was a marked difference with 85% of Fairfax articles either explicitly or implicitly accepting the consensus position. By comparison, only 34% of stories in News Corp papers were based on an acceptance of the consensus. Fairfax Media’s publications produced only two stories between them that rejected the consensus compared to 39% of articles in the News Corp papers.

In 2012, these differences became greater with the levels of acceptance in The Age and the SMH increasing from 83% to 86% while the levels of acceptance in the Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph dropped from 44% to 22%. 45% of the articles in the two News Corp tabloids rejected the consensus position while another 33% questioned it.

There was also a difference when it came to reliance on peer-reviewed research, although in both cases the level was low. In the Fairfax newspapers there were 24 (15%) stories and News Corp had only 1 article (1%) that relied on peer reviewed research.

When the two News Corp publications were grouped, there was an overall drop in the number of articles (19%) and the allocated word space (40%) between 2011 and 2012. Despite this overall drop, there was a 10% increase in the number of articles (but a decrease of words by 11%) that rejected the consensus position; this compares to a drop of 61% of articles that accepted the consensus position and 76% drop in word count – a stark contrast indeed.

When grouped, the Fairfax publications had the number of words dropped by 42% while the number of articles dropped by only 19%; that is to say, there were fewer and shorter articles reporting on climate science. There was a drop of 42% in the word count compared to a 16% drop in the number of articles that accepted climate change.

This means that the overall drop in both News Corp and Fairfax Media was comparable. In both News Corp and Fairfax Media, articles about climate change are getting shorter.

But Fairfax remained consistent in its acceptance of the climate science consensus position although it allocated less space to the topic. The Herald Sun decreased its coverage but also carried an even smaller proportion of material that accepted the scientific consensus than before.

Sydney Compared to Melbourne

When Sydney output was compared to Melbourne output, the two Sydney publications produced 157 articles compared to 120 published by the Melbourne publications. The biggest proportional drop was in the Herald Sun. When considered from the point of view of words, Sydney publications produced 95,581 words compared to 71,592 from Melbourne.

In order to gain a better understanding of variations in reporting and their consequences for audiences, it would be important to compare these results with similar studies in other fields of reporting. It would also be important to study the effect of Fairfax Media’s move to tabloid style in March 2013 on the content of the newspaper and the impact of the move to digital formats on the prominence given to climate change stories.


During the periods February to April 2011 and 2012, News Corp tabloids served their audiences in Melbourne and Sydney with a very different fare of information about climate science. The higher income and more highly educated audiences of The Age and the SMH are more likely to read news about climate science and reports of peer reviewed research and features quoting a range of sources with competing perspectives. They rarely receive climate sceptic material and are more likely to have read investigations of the economic interests underpinning climate scepticism. There is some evidence however that the depth and quality of the SMH coverage is diminishing. This requires further investigation across a range of reporting rounds.

Climate science reporting in the News Corp tabloids publications on the other hand is dominated by commentary and heavy doses of climate scepticism along with scathing commentary on journalists and scientists who research and publish material that accepts the climate consensus position. The readers of the Herald Sun, Australia’s largest circulation newspaper, is the most sceptical. Apart from occasional news stories based on press releases from climate research organisations, readers receive almost no information that would enable them to understand the complexities or likely impacts of the impact of climate change domestically or internationally. The research findings of climate scientists are largely rendered invisible for News Corp audiences. It’s tabloid publications produce no critique of the sceptic position.

Sydney audiences are receiving more journalism about climate science than Melbourne audiences. This differences may be relevant to the geographical information divide that exists between states as a consequence of News Corp monopoly in several states.

Both Fairfax Media publications have an editorial stance which accepts the consensus position. They are of course available outside Victoria and NSW but company information suggests that other readers are highly concentrated on the Eastern seaboard.

These patterns are not new however and confirm that the stark differences in climate science reporting is not a new phenomenon but has been occurring at least since 2009. Differences need to seen in context of the intensely contested arena of domestic carbon policy. News Corp’s treatment of climate science is especially politicised but, as was explained in Section 4.6 that politicisation demands the attention of those against whom its commentary is directed.

This research suggests that daily media are producing a climate science information divide in Australia. This divide benefits readers on higher incomes who tend to be more highly educated. Independent daily online media such as Crikey and The Conversation provide additional journalistic information about climate science and the controversies which surround it but these also tend to be read by audiences who already tend to access more information rich media. This further exacerbates the divide.