4.5 Reporting of peer reviewed research

Journalists and editors select their stories and sources of information according to news criteria, editorial policy, space and time constraints. In choosing expert sources, journalists draw on markers of status and experience.

One example of this is the use in news articles of research published in peer-reviewed journals. Journalists assume that because research that has been peer-reviewed is subject to review, it is likely to be reliable. This is not to suggest that journalists should not report other scientific findings or that peer reviewed findings should not be critiqued and discussed.

In Section 3 Background, the nature and importance of peer reviewed scientific research was briefly discussed.

In practice, much science news reporting is heavily reliant on press releases from peer-reviewed science journals. Previous research has shown that newspapers regularly publish these with little or no follow-up by reporters. (ACIJ/Crickey, 2009). For those reporters who do have the time or desire to follow up peer-reviewed science reports further, it is now possible to search journal websites for previous work by authors and comments by other scientists on the research.

Articles were examined to see whether the reporter explicitly referenced a peer-reviewed journal or other peer reviewed research. 61 or almost 10% of articles referring to peer reviewed scientific journals or other sources of peer reviewed research were identified. (It may be that some other research referred to by reporters was peer-reviewed.)

48 or 79% of these were published in four of the ten publications - The Australian, The Age, the SMH and The Advertiser. The Australian published 14 articles referencing peer-reviewed research, more than any other publication.

No article referencing peer-reviewed research was identified in The Daily Telegraph.The Herald Sun made only one reference across the two periods. The West Australian and The Mercury did so once in each period.

Figure 4.5.1: Number of articles that relied on peer reviewed climate science publications, across 10 Australian newspapers from Feb. - Apr. 2011 & 2012.
Newspaper No (2011) Yes (2011) 2011 total No (2012) Yes (2012) 2012 total No (total) Yes (total) Grand total
The Advertiser 23 2 25 17 8 25 40 10 50
The Age 33 6 39 26 6 32 59 12 71
The Australian 74 5 79 55 9 64 129 14 143
The Courier Mail 25 3 28 20 5 25 45 8 53
The Daily Telegraph 30 0 30 35 0 35 65 0 65
Herald Sun 32 1 33 16 0 16 48 1 49
The Mercury 22 1 23 12 1 13 34 2 36
The Northern Territory News 8 0 8 11 0 11 19 0 19
Sydney Morning Herald 47 4 51 33 8 41 80 12 92
The West Australian 15 1 16 7 1 8 22 2 24
Total 309 23 332 232 38 270 541 61 602

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More than half of the 61 mentions were from Science Journal (17) and Nature Journal (15). In all, 15 different peer reviewed journals were mentioned in the 602 articles.

The low levels of peer-reviewed science reporting may reflect a tendency found by other researchers for reporters to focus on major events such as conferences rather the release of scientific research. (Boykoff, M.T., 2010).

Given that 97% of climate scientists support the consensus position that human activity has contributed to climate change, it is not surprising that most reports relying on peer reviewed journals assume the consensus position. It should not be assumed however, that simply because a story references a peer-reviewed journal, it will necessarily be supportive of the consensus position, as the examples below illustrate. Five of 61 articles relying on peer-reviewed research that supported the scientific consensus either questioned or rejected the consensus position on human induced climate change. All of these were in News Corp publications.

Examples of Articles Referring to Peer Reviewed Research Journals

Herald Sun and Cyclone Yasi

Only one mention of a peer-reviewed science journal was identified in the Herald Sun. This single mention occurred in a comment piece by Andrew Bolt in the context of an attack on the Greens Senator Christine Milne, economist Professor Ross Garnaut and others who had been quoted linking Cyclone Yasi, which hit the Queensland coast in February 2011, with climate change. Bolt supported his attack with a positive reference to the work of climate sceptic physicists Robert Knox and David Douglass of the University of Rochester, New York who had published a paper entitled ‘Recent energy balance of Earth’ in the International Journal of Geosciences in November 2010 claiming that there was no statistically significant warming of the oceans since 2003. Bolt did not inform his readers that this research was very controversial in the scientific community and had already been described by leading climate scientist Kevin Trenberth as ‘rubbish’. This may have been because he regards no climate scientist who accepts human induced climate change as having any credibility. The research paper of Knox and Douglas was discussed positively on many climate sceptic websites.

SMH, Extreme Weather and Climate Change

On April 27 2012, Deborah Smith, then a senior science reporter for the SMH, produced a news story ‘Extremes in weather more likely - scientists’ about a study reported by Science magazine that found wet areas of the globe have “become wetter and dry areas drier during the past 50 years due to global warming”. The researchers measured the saltiness of the world’s oceans and found that “the intensification of rainfall and evaporation patterns, which is occurring at twice the rate predicted by climate change models, could increase the incidence and severity of extreme weather events in future”. Smith interviewed four of the research team, including two from Australian research organisation CSIRO. This story stood out from others because of the number of sources quoted.

An edited shortened version of the Smith article with only one source was also published in The Age. No other publication published this story.

Warm Water Shrinking Antarctica’s Ice Shelves

Also on April 27, 2012, The Advertiser published a story ‘Warm water shrinking Antarctica’s ice shelves’ based on a research report in the journal Nature.

This article, which was well reported in international and specialist science media, began: “Antarctica's massive ice shelves are shrinking because they are being eaten away from below by warm water, a new study has found. “ The rest of the report explained that the researchers, who had previously been sure about why the “western chunk of Antarctica is losing 7m of its floating ice sheet each year”, had found by using new measuring tools that climate change was playing an “indirect role - but one that has larger repercussions than if Antarctic ice merely were melting from warmer air”.

No other publication in the sample reported on this study. A Factiva search identified that a very short version of the same report did appear in two editions of News Corp’s free publication MX. An AP wire service story about this research was also published online, but did not appear in the print version of SMH or The Age.

A shortage of space can explain why significant information remains unreported, especially when editors are selecting from a wide range of wire service news. However further Factiva research revealed almost no further reports on Antarctic climate change research.

In September 2013, only the SMH reported that the IPCC had found that Antarctic melt had increased its contribution to sea level rise. The Conversation provided more detail in its report ‘IPCC: where to for Antarctica and the Southern Ocean?’.


This analysis shows that during this period, some Australian audiences and some regions received far more information from peer-reviewed research sources about climate science from their local mainstream print media than others. Most audiences receive little information at all.

The use of wire service copy to fill editorial gaps means that there is little chance of audiences receiving updates on further research developments.

Reporters are given few opportunities to follow up on peer reviewed research by interviewing further sources who can add perspectives to journal press releases.