4.6 Scepticism and climate science coverage

Recent research has found that nearly all scientists agree that increased greenhouse emissions due to human activity are causing climate change (See background section).

A key issue in this study was to establish the extent to which reporting of climate science in ten Australian publications communicated an acceptance of the consensus position.


Given the high rate of scientific consensus that the activities of human beings are the main contributors to global warming, one might expect the reporting to mirror that conclusion. Journalists generally tend to rely on authoritative sources in their reporting. (Hall, S., et al, 1978; Ericson, R., et al., 1989; Roberts, J., & Nash, C.J., 2009). This pattern generally applies to science and environmental reporting (Conrad, P.,1999; Lester, L., 2010). In other words, science reporters tend to follow the general pattern of reporting what people of power, status or expertise tell them.

Previous research shows however that when there is an overt political controversy over the implications of scientific findings threatening powerful economic interests (For example, the debate about tobacco use being causally linked to cancer), journalists tend to amplify conflict and uncertainty about the evidence (Orestes, N., 2010).

Studies of international media coverage of climate science have shown that journalists have amplified uncertainty about climate science by over-reporting and emphasising the views of those who reject the consensus view (Boykoff, M.T., & Boykoff, J.M., 2004; Boykoff, M.T., & Boykoff, J.M., 2007; Chubb, P.A., & Nash, C.J., 2012).

Some attribute over-reporting of climate sceptic views to the application of the journalistic norm of balance or giving ‘both sides of the story’. However patterns are not consistent across journalistic cultures. There are different styles of reporting climate science in different national contexts (Brossard, D., et al., 2004) and between publications within national contexts (Bacon, W., & Nash, C.J., 2004; Bacon, W., & Nash, C.J., 2013). There is nothing ‘routine’ or ‘natural’ about the way in which the journalistic norm of ‘balance’ is applied in justifying the inclusion of sceptical voices and perspectives in climate science reporting.

Researchers who have further investigated these patterns have found that political values and economic interests underpin editorial stances about climate change and journalists’ selection of relevant ‘facts’ and ‘authorized agents of definition’ of scientific issues (Myers, A., 2013; McKnight, D., 2012; Nash, C.J., & Bacon, W., 2012). Seen in this light, arguments that favour the use of climate sceptic sources in order to achieve ‘balance’ can arguably be seen as demonstrating an ideologically motivated lack of professionalism in failing to ‘compare like with like’ in the supposed balance.

In 2011, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published a report comparing the coverage of climate skeptic voices in the print media in Brazil, China, France and India, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (Painter, J., 2011). The study found that there were more sceptic voices in selected UK and US press and these voices were more likely to be politicians than in the other countries. Skeptic voices, which were mostly found in the opinion pages compared to the news pages, were more prevalent in right-leaning than left-leaning media. For example in the UK, the left leaning Guardian-Observer had fewer articles with sceptical voices than the right-leaning Daily Mail and Sunday Telegraph (11% compared to 19%). A key conclusion of this research was:

“In general the data suggests a strong correspondence between the perspective of the newspaper and the prevalence of sceptical voices within it, particularly on the opinion pages. By most measures (but not all), the more right-leaning tend to have more such voices, the left leaning less.” (Painter, J., 2011, p.4)

It should be noted that this study differs from the ACIJ studies as it focuses only on skepticism rather than skepticism as an aspect of reporting the coverage of climate science.

Further discussion about the application of balance in journalism can be found in the Background Issues section.

Coding of Articles

Assessing levels of scepticism is not a straightforward issue. The author agrees with Boykoff’s recent article that argues that researchers need to be alert to different forms of scepticism (Boykoff, M.T., 2013). For instance,there is a difference between arguing the scientific consensus position is a hoax and arguing that there is insufficient or inadequate evidence to support it.

The researchers analysed every article to establish whether it communicated agreement or disagreement with the consensus position. The use of these two basic categories was found to be too simplistic. Four categories were developed for coding:

The level of scepticism was measured as a proportion of the proportion of articles that ‘rejected’ or ‘suggested doubt’ about the consensus position. Neither of these categories accept the consensus position.

This approach to measuring the level of scepticism may be regarded by some as overly conservative. Some articles may be written in a way that highlights scientific uncertainty although there is an acknowledgement of the consensus position towards the end of the story. There were more such articles in The Australian than any other publication. If an article either assumed the consensus position or included a quote that was a clear statement from an authoritative source accepting the consensus position, it was coded as ‘accepts’, even though it may have been interpreted as undermining the claims of climate scientists or those arguing for change. Some readers may be more susceptible than others to messages about the failings of climate scientists.

Other articles which were about the climate skeptic movement also needed careful coding. Climate scepticism is a movement that needs to be covered in the same way as any other political movement. Articles can quote climate sceptic sources in ways that make it clear that the reporter is not promoting the source’s perspective. These articles were coded as accepting the consensus. Other journalists may structure an article to communicate climate science as an open debate. These articles were coded as ‘suggesting doubt’. Coding was difficult in some cases. Where there was lack of agreement or uncertainty, coding was checked and further discussed before the article was finally assigned to a category.

Scepticism Findings

65%, or a little less than two-thirds, of articles across both periods were produced in a way which communicated to the reader an acceptance of the climate change consensus position. This underrepresents the agreement amongst more than 97% of scientists that human activity is a causal factor in climate change.

In 3% of cases, coders were not able to discern whether or not the author of the article was communicating acceptance or not.

65 or 11% of articles clearly rejected the notion of anthropogenic climate change and a further 21% were interpreted as suggesting doubt about it. In another words, 32% or nearly one-third of all articles either rejected or suggested doubt about the consensus position.

Figure 4.6.1: Breakdown of articles according to whether they communicated acceptance, suggested doubt or rejected the consensus position on climate science, across 10 Australian newspapers from Feb. - Apr. 2011 & 2012.
Newspaper Accepts (2011) Suggests doubt (2011) Rejects (2011) Unable to discern (2011) 2011 total Accepts (2012) Suggests doubt (2012) Rejects (2012) Unable to discern (2012) 2012 total Accepts (total) Suggests doubt (total) Rejects (total) Unable to discern (total) Grand total
The Advertiser 18 (72%) 6 (24%) 1 (4%) 0 (0%) 25 (100%) 14 (56%) 3 (12%) 4 (16%) 4 (16%) 25 (100%) 32 (64%) 9 (18%) 5 (10%) 4 (8%) 50 (100%)
The Age 31 (79%) 4 (10%) 0 (0%) 4 (10%) 39 (100%) 28 (88%) 2 (6%) 1 (3%) 1 (3%) 32 (100%) 59 (83%) 6 (8%) 1 (1%) 5 (7%) 71 (100%)
The Australian 46 (58%) 29 (37%) 3 (4%) 1 (1%) 79 (100%) 28 (44%) 31 (48%) 4 (6%) 1 (2%) 64 (100%) 74 (52%) 60 (42%) 7 (5%) 2 (1%) 143 (100%)
The Courier Mail 27 (96%) 1 (4%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 28 (100%) 21 (84%) 0 (0%) 1 (4%) 3 (12%) 25 (100%) 48 (91%) 1 (2%) 1 (2%) 3 (6%) 53 (100%)
The Daily Telegraph 18 (60%) 5 (17%) 7 (23%) 0 (0%) 30 (100%) 6 (17%) 15 (43%) 14 (40%) 0 (0%) 35 (100%) 24 (37%) 20 (31%) 21 (32%) 0 (0%) 65 (100%)
Herald Sun 10 (30%) 8 (24%) 14 (42%) 1 (3%) 33 (100%) 5 (31%) 2 (13%) 9 (56%) 0 (0%) 16 (100%) 15 (31%) 10 (20%) 23 (47%) 1 (2%) 49 (100%)
The Mercury 20 (87%) 2 (9%) 0 (0%) 1 (4%) 23 (100%) 12 (92%) 0 (0%) 1 (8%) 0 (0%) 13 (100%) 32 (89%) 2 (6%) 1 (3%) 1 (3%) 36 (100%)
The Northern Territory News 6 (75%) 1 (13%) 1 (13%) 0 (0%) 8 (100%) 5 (45%) 3 (27%) 3 (27%) 0 (0%) 11 (100%) 11 (58%) 4 (21%) 4 (21%) 0 (0%) 19 (100%)
The Sydney Morning Herald 44 (86%) 6 (12%) 0 (0%) 1 (2%) 51 (100%) 35 (85%) 3 (7%) 1 (2%) 2 (5%) 41 (100%) 79 (86%) 9 (10%) 1 (1%) 3 (3%) 92 (100%)
The West Australian 13 (81%) 2 (13%) 1 (6%) 0 (0%) 16 (100%) 7 (88%) 1 (13%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 8 (100%) 20 (83%) 3 (13%) 1 (4%) 0 (0%) 24 (100%)
Total 233 (70%) 64 (19%) 27 (8%) 8 (2%) 332 (100%) 161 (60%) 60 (22%) 38 (14%) 11 (4%) 270 (100%) 394 (65%) 124 (21%) 65 (11%) 19 (3%) 602 (100%)
2013-11-08: This table has been updated to correct an earlier copying error in The Age row. The error did not effect the key findings or analysis.

Download data as .csv or view on GitHub

Contrary to increasing certainty that human activity causes climate change, the acceptance level for that position dropped from 70% in 2011 to 60% in 2012 across the sample of articles.

The number of articles rejecting the consensus grew from 27 (8%) in 2011 to 38 (14%) in the 2012 sample. So although the overall number of articles fell, the number rejecting the consensus increased. In 2012, 36%, or more than one third of the articles either suggested doubt or rejected the consensus position compared to 22% in 2011.

Figure 4.6.2: Breakdown of articles, by word count, according to whether they communicated acceptance, suggested doubt or rejected the consensus position on climate science, across 10 Australian newspapers from Feb. - Apr. 2011 & 2012.
Newspaper Accepts (2011) Suggests doubt (2011) Rejects (2011) Unable to discern (2011) 2011 total Accepts (2012) Suggests doubt (2012) Rejects (2012) Unable to discern (2012) 2012 total Accepts (total) Suggests doubt (total) Rejects (total) Unable to discern (total) Grand total
The Advertiser 6657 (58%) 3218 (28%) 1566 (14%) 0 (0%) 11441 (100%) 3902 (41%) 1728 (18%) 2783 (29%) 1078 (11%) 9491 (100%) 10559 (50%) 4947 (24%) 4349 (21%) 1078 (5%) 20932 (100%)
The Age 21956 (81%) 3186 (12%) 0 (0%) 1962 (7%) 27104 (100%) 14975 (87%) 1293 (7%) 742 (4%) 288 (2%) 17298 (100%) 36931 (83%) 4479 (10%) 742 (2%) 2250 (5%) 44402 (100%)
The Australian 36056 (56%) 26898 (41%) 18453 (3%) 80 (<1%) 64879 (100%) 16366 (40%) 21218 (51%) 3403 (8%) 319 (1%) 41306 (100%) 52422 (49%) 48116 (45%) 5248 (5%) 399 (<1%) 106185 (100%)
The Courier Mail 14474 (96%) 529 (4%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 15003 (100%) 6295 (83%) 0 (0%) 726 (10%) 563 (7%) 7574 (100%) 20759 (92%) 529 (2%) 726 (3%) 563 (2%) 22577 (100%)
The Daily Telegraph 7099 (41%) 4511 (26%) 5775 (33%) 0 (0%) 17385 (100%) 1477 (11%) 4873 (35%) 7648 (55%) 0 (0%) 13998 (100%) 8576 (27%) 9384 (30%) 13423 (43%) 0 (0%) 31383 (100%)
Herald Sun 3029 (16%) 5114 (27%) 9754 (51%) 1208 (6%) 19105 (100%) 988 (12%) 863 (11%) 6234 (77%) 0 (0%) 8085 (100%) 4017 (15%) 5977 (22%) 15988 (59%) 1208 (4%) 27190 (100%)
The Mercury 10404 (94%) 408 (4%) 0 (0%) 277 (2%) 11089 (100%) 6554 (87%) 0 (0%) 966 (13%) 0 (0%) 7520 (100%) 16958 (91%) 408 (2%) 966 (5%) 277 (1%) 18609 (100%)
The Northern Territory News 1744 (58%) 307 (10%) 982 (32%) 0 (0%) 3033 (100%) 1006 (24%) 982 (24%) 2154 (52%) 0 (0%) 4142 (100%) 2750 (38%) 1289 (18%) 3136 (44%) 0 (0%) 7175 (100%)
Sydney Morning Herald 37627 (90%) 3640 (9%) 0 (0%) 354 (1%) 41621 (100%) 19291 (85%) 1409 (6%) 828 (4%) 1049 (5%) 22577 (100%) 56918 (89%) 5049 (8%) 828 (1%) 1403 (2%) 64198 (100%)
The West Australian 5881 (79%) 1148 (16%) 369 (5%) 0 (0%) 7398 (100%) 1799 (72%) 691 (28%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 2490 (100%) 7680 (78%) 1839 (19%) 369 (4%) 0 (0%) 9888 (100%)
Total 144927 (66%) 48959 (22%) 20291 (9%) 3881 (2%) 218058 (100%) 72643 (54%) 33057 (25%) 25484 (19%) 3297 (2%) 134481 (100%) 217570 (62%) 82016 (23%) 45775 (13%) 7178 (2%) 352539 (100%)

Download data as .csv or view on GitHub

The overall drop in words between 2011 and 2012 was 38%. However while the words allocated to articles which accepted the consensus position almost halved, the number of words allocated to articles which rejected the consensus position increased.

66% of the word count was in articles which communicated an acceptance of the consensus position in 2011 compared to 54% in 2012, whereas the percentage of words allocated to articles that rejected the consensus position rose from 9% to 19%.

The words count in articles which questioned the consensus also dropped but remained approximately the same proportion of the total sample.

To summarise, there was an overall drop in words on the issue, which was concentrated in the word count in articles which accepted the consensus position; the word count of articles promoting climate scepticism increased.

Further research is needed to see if decline in the communication of acceptance has continued or changed since April 2012. There is also a need for research to establish how failing media company business models are impacting on levels of reporting, including whether some rounds or specific topics are affected more than others.

When considered from the point of view of the level of the acceptance of the consensus position, there are very distinct differences between different publications and between News Corp and Fairfax Media as groups which will be further examined in section 4.7.

Only 10% of articles in the Fairfax media either rejected or suggested doubt on the consensus position which is far lower than the 41% of News Corp articles that either rejected or suggested doubt the consensus position. When measured according to word count, News Corp allocated 49% to material that rejected (19%) or suggested doubt (30%) compared to the percentage (50%) of articles that accepted the consensus position.

There are only two cities in Australia where there are competing Fairfax and News Corp publications - Sydney and Melbourne. More analysis of how these publications compared in their coverage of climate science is found in section 4.7.

Across the ten publications, more words (45, 775 or 13%) were allocated to articles that rejected the climate science consensus position compared to the number words in articles that referred to peer reviewed climate science research based on the consensus position (27,748 or 8%).

Articles Rejecting the Consensus Position

68% or more than two-thirds of the articles rejecting the consensus were published in News Corp’s Herald Sun (23) and The Daily Telegraph (21). A further 5 were published in The Advertiser, 4 in the NT News, 7 in The Australian. In other words, half of the ten publications, all owned by News Corp, published 92% of the articles rejecting the consensus position.

On the other hand, News Corp’s The Courier Mail and The Mercury both published only one article each that rejected the consensus position. The West Australian also only published one clearly sceptic article although its overall level of coverage of climate change was very low.

Unlike News Corp, Fairfax Media accepts the consensus position on climate science. It does not promote scepticism. The SMH and The Age published only one article each rejecting the consensus period across both periods. Both were comment pieces by the climate sceptic & ex-Coalition Senator Nick Minchin published on the occasion of a documentary ‘I Can Change Your Mind About Climate’ broadcast by the ABC that featured Minchin and climate change advocate Anna Rose.

An earlier study comparing The Daily Telegraph and the SMH in December 2009 identified only two articles by climate sceptics in Fairfax Media compared to far more in the News Corp publication. (Chubb, P.A., & Bacon, W., 2010).

Creating Doubt about the Scientific Consensus

The Australian was more likely than any other publication to suggest doubt on the consensus position. 52% of its articles were coded as accepting the consensus position and only 5% rejected it. However, 42% of articles were produced in a way that could raise questions or suggest doubt in the mind of the reader about the consensus position. So nearly half (47%) of articles in The Australian either suggested doubt or rejected the consensus position.

The Australian allocated substantially far fewer words to articles accepting the consensus position in 2011 than 2012: the number of words declined by more than 55% from 36, 056 to 16, 366. From the perspective of word count, The Australian was more sceptical in 2012 than 2011, with 59% of the words allocated to climate change coverage either suggesting doubt or rejecting the consensus in 2012. (For more on The Australian’s coverage of climate change see Section 4.8).

The SMH and The Age published only 9 and 6 articles respectively which might have suggested to the reader that the climate science consensus position was in doubt.

Example of comment pieces that could create doubt

An example of an article creating doubt: on March 27, 2011 the SMH published an opinion piece ‘Climate change can’t be stopped, but we can adapt’ written by Institute of Public Affairs research fellow Chris Berg who argued: “If the past is any guide to the present, that’s how we’ll deal with further changes in climate (whether caused by human activity or not): through adaptation.” While this piece opposed the Gillard government’s carbon emissions trading scheme, it mostly was written as if climate change was occurring but clearly left open the possibility that it might not be anthropogenic.

In another example, on April 19, 2012 The Age published a piece about a documentary about the debate around climate change called ‘I Can Change Your Mind About Climate’. The article highlighted the thesis of the film which was that positions on climate change are largely formed by personal values. While a legitimate story, a reader who was not already familiar with the evidence for anthropogenic climate change could conclude that its existence was in doubt. This article is a good example of how pro-climate sceptic campaigns achieve part of their success by simply by forcing climate scepticism onto the news agenda and turning it into a story for reporters who might otherwise be covering impacts of climate change on the environment or climate policy developments.

Example of a news report that could create doubt

The leader of the Catholic Church in Australia Cardinal George Pell made a submission to the Senate Estimates Committee claiming that increases in carbon dioxide tended to follow rises in temperature, not to cause of them. He also stated, on the basis of having read Heaven and Earth, a book by climate sceptic Professor Ian Plimer, that temperatures were higher in the Middle Ages.

On February 21, 2011, the head of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Dr. Greg Ayers, appeared before a Senate Committee. During his evidence, he spoke at length about how Cardinal Pell had been misled by Plimer.

A month later, on March 28, 2011 The Advertiser took up the story in an article headlined ‘Cardinal George Pell wrong on climate change, says Bureau of Meteorology director’. It began:

“Adelaide scientist Ian Plimer’s support for Cardinal George Pell’s climate-change view has sparked a dispute between the priest and the weatherman. Bureau of Meteorology director Dr Greg Ayers said the country’s most senior Catholic had been “misled” in his views, in which he questions the connection between carbon dioxide and rising temperatures, by Professor Plimer’s book ‘Heaven and Earth - Global Warming: The Missing Science’.”

Cardinal Pell is quoted in the article as saying that Dr Ayers was a “hot-air specialist”. He was supported by Professor Plimer, based at the University of Adelaide, who was quoted as saying it was entirely appropriate that Cardinal Pell should express his views on climate change:

““The Cardinal represents 30 per cent of the people in this country,” Professor Plimer told The Advertiser. "He is concerned about the potential economic effect of this issue and has every right to ask whether his flock is going to survive. ””

The majority of this news article recorded the views of Cardinal Pell and Professor Plimer. This article was coded as creating ‘doubt about the consensus position’ although the headline (Which would have been produced by a sub-editor rather than the reporter) could be read as suggesting that Pell was wrong.

This article also provides an example of the dilemma for reporters when climate sceptics are well known to the public. Articles about public figures tend to be newsworthy. The reporter could however have reported the story in a way that gave readers as much information about Dr Ayers’ statements about why he thought Cardinal Pell was mistaken as was given to Cardinal Pell and Professor Plimer, especially as readers could not be assumed to know Dr Ayer’s position as the paper had not previously covered the story.

Comparison of article genres according to stance on climate change consensus position

Figure 4.6.3 shows a breakdown of total sample by genre according to whether articles accepted, rejected or questioned the consensus position. This shows that the highest proportion of scepticism was in the ‘comment’ category (Further details of levels of comment or opinion pieces can be found in section 4.3).

More than half of all comment pieces produced across the ten publications rejected or questioned the consensus position. Nearly a third clearly rejected it. 20% of pieces explicitly rejected the consensus position in 2011 compared to 44% in 2012.

This compares with more than 80% of the news that was produced in a way that explicitly adopted or assumed the consensus position. (This finding needs to be considered in the light of the very low levels of climate science news in some publications. See section 4.3 on genre.)

Figure 4.6.3: Breakdown of articles by genre and whether they communicated acceptance, suggested doubt or rejected the consensus position on climate science, across 10 Australian newspapers from Feb. - Apr. 2011 & 2012.
Newspaper Accepts (2011) Suggests doubt (2011) Rejects (2011) Unable to discern (2011) 2011 total Accepts (2012) Suggests doubt (2012) Rejects (2012) Unable to discern (2012) 2012 total Accepts (total) Suggests doubt (total) Rejects (total) Unable to discern (total) Grand total
Comment 61 (59%) 22 (21%) 21 (20%) 0 (0%) 104 (100%) 26 (32%) 18 (22%) 36 (44%) 2 (2%) 82 (100%) 87 (47%) 40 (22%) 57 (31%) 2 (1%) 186 (100%)
Editorial 11 (65%) 5 (29%) 1 (6%) 0 (0%) 17 (100%) 5 (56%) 4 (44%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 9 (100%) 16 (62%) 9 (35%) 1 (4%) 0 (0%) 26 (100%)
Feature 69 (68%) 25 (25%) 4 (4%) 3 (3%) 101 (100%) 25 (56%) 19 (42%) 1 (2%) 0 (0%) 45 (100%) 94 (64%) 44 (30%) 5 (3%) 3 (2%) 146 (100%)
News 92 (84%) 12 (11%) 1 (1%) 5 (5%) 110 (100%) 105 (78%) 19 (14%) 1 (1%) 9 (7%) 134 (100%) 197 (81%) 31 (13%) 2 (1%) 14 (6%) 244 (100%)
Total 233 (70%) 64 (19%) 27 (8%) 8 (2%) 332 (100%) 161 (60%) 60 (22%) 38 (14%) 11 (4%) 270 (100%) 394 (65%) 124 (21%) 65 (11%) 19 (3%) 602 (100%)

Download data as .csv or view on GitHub

Nearly two thirds or 94 features accepted the consensus position. 50% of features over 500 words were published by Fairfax Media’s the SMH (36%) and The Age. 90% of these were based on an acceptance of the consensus position. 54% of features in The Australian were produced in a way that could create doubt in readers about the accepting the consensus position.

How comment pieces are used to build support for climate scepticism

Note: The words ‘comment’ and ‘opinion’ will be used interchangeably in this section.

Comment pieces in the media give writers and broadcasters an opportunity to persuade readers to adopt particular positions on issues.The aim of the comments pieces can be as much about building attitudes as delivering information; this is particularly the case when issues are hotly contested politically.

Climate change opinion pieces are frequently republished across other mastheads and discussed on talkback radio and blogs.

Figure 4.6.4: Breakdown of comment/opinion articles according to whether they communicated acceptance, suggested doubt or rejected the consensus position on climate science, across 10 Australian newspapers from Feb. - Apr. 2011 & 2012.
Newspaper Accepts (2011) Suggests doubt (2011) Rejects (2011) Unable to discern (2011) 2011 total Accepts (2012) Suggests doubt (2012) Rejects (2012) Unable to discern (2012) 2012 total Accepts (total) Suggests doubt (total) Rejects (total) Unable to discern (total) Grand total
The Advertiser 5 (63%) 2 (25%) 1 (13%) 0 (0%) 8 (100%) 2 (29%) 1 (14%) 4 (57%) 0 (0%) 7 (100%) 7 (47%) 3 (20%) 5 (33%) 0 (0%) 15 (100%)
The Age 10 (71%) 4 (29%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 14 (100%) 5 (71%) 1 (14%) 1 (14%) 0 (0%) 7 (100%) 15 (71%) 5 (24%) 1 (5%) 0 (0%) 21 (100%)
The Australian 11 (69%) 4 (25%) 1 (6%) 0 (0%) 16 (100%) 6 (32%) 10 (53%) 3 (16%) 0 (0%) 19 (100%) 17 (49%) 14 (40%) 4 (11%) 0 (0%) 35 (100%)
The Courier Mail 1 (50%) 1 (50%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 2 (100%) 3 (60%) 0 (0%) 1 (20%) 1 (20%) 5 (100%) 4 (57%) 1 (14%) 1 (14%) 1 (14%) 7 (100%)
The Daily Telegraph 3 (30%) 3 (30%) 4 (40%) 0 (0%) 10 (100%) 1 (6%) 2 (13%) 13 (81%) 0 (0%) 16 (100%) 4 (15%) 5 (19%) 17 (65%) 0 (0%) 26 (100%)
Herald Sun 1 (5%) 6 (29%) 14 (67%) 0 (0%) 21 (100%) 0 (0%) 2 (18%) 9 (82%) 0 (0%) 11 (100%) 1 (3%) 8 (25%) 23 (72%) 0 (0%) 32 (100%)
The Mercury 8 (100%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 8 (100%) 4 (80%) 0 (0%) 1 (20%) 0 (0%) 5 (100%) 12 (92%) 0 (0%) 1 (8%) 0 (0%) 13 (100%)
The Northern Territory News 1 (33%) 1 (33%) 1 (33%) 0 (0%) 3 (100%) 0 (0%) 1 (25%) 3 (75%) 0 (0%) 4 (100%) 1 (14%) 2 (29%) 4 (57%) 0 (0%) 7 (100%)
The Sydney Morning Herald 19 (100%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 19 (100%) 5 (71%) 0 (0%) 1 (14%) 1 (14%) 7 (100%) 24 (92%) 0 (0%) 1 (4%) 1 (4%) 26 (100%)
The West Australian 2 (67%) 1 (33%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 3 (100%) 0 (0%) 1 (100%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 1 (100%) 2 (50%) 2 (50%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 4 (100%)
Total 61 (59%) 22 (21%) 21 (20%) 0 (0%) 104 (100%) 26 (32%) 18 (22%) 36 (44%) 2 (2%) 82 (100%) 87 (47%) 40 (22%) 57 (31%) 2 (1%) 186 (100%)

Download data as .csv or view on GitHub

As Figure 4.6.4 shows the Herald Sun was extremely biased in its commentary on climate change. Only 1 (3%) opinion piece relevant to climate science in the Herald Sun was positive. 23 (72%) opinion pieces clearly rejected the consensus and 8 opinion pieces raised doubts about it. The results of this report show that Herald Sun readers received on average, close to one article per week over the six month period that made reference to what it describes as ‘alarmist’ climate science. Some of these pieces dealt specifically with climate science, others discussed climate change in the context of more general political commentary.

The Daily Telegraph published 17 comment pieces (65%) which made overt statements rejecting the climate science consensus position with another 5 (19%) as questioning the consensus position. By contrast, The Mercury published only one sceptical column, which was by News Corp columnist Piers Akerman. In contrast to all other News Corp publications, The Mercury has a regular environmental columnist Peter Boyer who frequently publishes pieces which strongly advocate an acceptance of the climate science consensus position and action on climate change.

As previously stated in this report, Fairfax Media rarely publish stories promoting the climate sceptic position.

The SMH carried 26 opinion pieces altogether, only one of which rejected the consensus position. There were authored by 19 separate opinion writers. At least 15 pieces were written by in house journalists or regular columnists, a number of whom are no longer with Fairfax Media.

The Age published 21 comment pieces. At least 12 of these were produced by senior Fairfax reporters or regular opinion writers, all of whom accepted the consensus position. The newspaper also published pieces by well known advocates of the consensus position including Clive Hamilton and Guardian columnist George Monbiot.

The Age published one piece, written by well known sceptic Nick Minchin, that rejected the consensus position.

Several of The Age pieces were coded as raising doubts about the consensus position. For example, on March 29, 2011, The Age published an article by industry analyst Martin Fell about the merits of an emission trading scheme, included these words in the first paragraph:

“This is not an article that promotes climate change scepticism. I am not a denier. Like 99 per cent of the population, I am a don’t knower.”

While this article was coding as ‘suggesting doubt’ rather than as ‘rejecting the consensus’, Martin Fell co-authored a book in 2013 titled, Taxing Air:Facts and Fallacies about Climate Change, with fellow sceptics Bob Carter, Bill Kininmonth, The Age cartoonist Bill Spooner, Steven Franks and Bill Leyland.

On April 19, 2012 The Age published a piece about a documentary on the debate around climate change called ‘I Can Change Your Mind About Climate’. This article was coded as ‘questioning the consensus’ for reasons discussed above. However, a week later The Age published a strong piece by West Australian cognitive scientist Stephen Lewandowsky specifically urging readers not to “get bogged down by deniers. Focus instead on the integrity of the science.” (Read article here)

This piece directly tackled the question of ‘false balance’ in the Australian media and criticised the documentary makers for perpetuating the idea that there were two sides in the climate science debate:

“This mistaken quest for balance represents a core failure of parts of the Australian media and it permeates tonight’s documentary in multiple ways.

The ads for the show refer to “believers” and “sceptics”, which ignores the fact that science is the most sceptical endeavour known to humankind and which confuses scientific knowledge with matters of belief.

Balancing science with “scepticism” is akin to designing a moon mission by balancing the expert judgment of astronomers with the opinions of the tabloid horoscope.

To recognise this false balance one needs to look no further than tonight’s documentary and cast a sceptical eye over the “experts” in Minchin’s corner: They include a couple with no relevant training or peer-reviewed publications, whose idea of scientific debate is to post picture books of thermometers on the internet “to undermine the credibility of the establishment climate scientists”.”

35 opinion pieces were published in The Australian during the period covered by this report. 17 (6 in 2012), or a little less than half of these were coded as communicating acceptance of the consensus position, 14 (10 in 2012) as communicating doubt about it and 4 (3 in 2012) as rejecting it.

As with its overall reporting, The Australian’s opinion pieces tended to be more sceptical in 2012 than 2011. During this period, The Australian published pieces by Bob Carter, Bill Kininmonth and David Evans who are all members of the climate sceptic organisation Climate Action Coalition. Regular columnist Chris Pearson also produced climate sceptic pieces until he died in 2013. Unlike at Fairfax Media, very few reporters at The Australian produced opinion pieces about climate change. (This may suggest that few reporters at The Australian share its sceptic editorial stance.). Two journalists Mike Steketee (who has since left News Corp) and Graham Lloyd each produced a piece that communicated clear acceptance of the consensus position.

Section 4.8 contains a more detailed case study of The Australian’s reporting of climate change for three months in 2011.

Climate Scepticism in Newscorp Tabloids - the role of the Herald Sun

The newspaper that most actively promotes climate scepticism is also the biggest selling newspaper in Australia, the Herald Sun. Only 15 articles over three months in 2011 and 2012 published by the Herald Sun accepted the proposition that human beings are contributing to climate change; 47% or 23 articles rejected the proposition. In all, 67% of articles either rejected or questioned the consensus position.

Considered from the point of view of words, the position is even more extreme. Only 15% (4017 words) of the words published by the Herald Sun were in articles which communicated an acceptance of the consensus position and 3029 of those words were in 2011. In 2012, 77% of words published by the Herald Sun which referred to climate science rejected the consensus position.

The Herald Sun commentary was even more biased. Of 32 opinion pieces published by the Herald Sun, only one accepted the consensus position. 23 pieces (72%) rejected it and 25% communicated doubts about the consensus position.

The next most sceptical publication is The Daily Telegraph, that published 65 pieces, 21 or nearly a third of which clearly rejected the consensus position and another 20 (31%) that communicated doubts about it. Therefore, nearly two thirds rejected or questioned the consensus position.

The Daily Telegraph moved to a more sceptical position over the period with 83% of articles either questioning or rejecting the consensus position in 2012, which was an even higher level of scepticism than the Herald Sun in 2012.

17 or nearly two-thirds of The Daily Telegraph comment articles rejected the consensus position and 5 (19%) of which questioned it.

28% of articles in The Advertiser either rejected or questioned the consensus position, with nearly two thirds accepting it. More than half of the opinion pieces in The Advertiser either rejected or questioned the consensus position. While these findings reveal lower levels of scepticism, they are still high when one considers that 97.2% of scientists accept the consensus position.

By contrast, The Courier Mail published 53 articles, 48 ( 91%) of which accepted the consensus position.

Andrew Bolt

A relatively small number of reporters, opinion writers and editorial writers contribute to the production of climate scepticism through News Corp. Some of the most active sceptic opinion writers include Andrew Bolt, Piers Akerman, Miranda Devine and Terry McCrann, all of whom are right-wing columnists who cover a range of contemporary events. Of these, the most prolific is Andrew Bolt. He plays a significant and strategic role in the production of climate scepticism in Australia. He is employed by News Corp and Channel Ten and featured on John Singleton’s right wing radio station 2GB .

News Corp heavily promotes Bolt as Australia’s “most read columnist”. His Herald Sun page links to the latest Channel Ten’s Bolt Report and his blog, which is advertised as the “most read political blog”. It also provides information about his daily media schedule on 2GB.

Bolt wrote 38 comment pieces between February - April 2011 and 2012 that were either focussed on climate science or made reference to it in the the context of broader discussion. This was three times as many comment pieces as any other contributor and more than a third (36%) of all articles in News Corp tabloids that questioned or rejected the consensus position.

When considered from the viewpoint of word count, Andrew Bolt wrote a total of 13,281 words, which is 49% or nearly half of all words in articles that included material about climate science in the Herald Sun.

Bolt’s dominance of the Herald Sun’s news agenda can be seen by comparing his output to the 15 Herald Sun articles in the sample which accepted the consensus position. Bolt produced 20 articles, with an average length of 664 words. By contrast, the 15 articles accepting the consensus position included 12 news articles averaging 268 words each, a small promotional item of 71 words about a documentary about climate change in the European Alps screening at a German film festival, a comment piece by Jill Singer who has since left the Herald Sun and a ‘Learn’ informational piece (The article was for schools about climate change with links to government climate science resources that appeared on page 59 during the 2011 flood period. It stated that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal.”).

Bolt’s influence extends far beyond his home state of Victoria. Apart from the 20 articles in the Herald Sun, Bolt wrote all five sceptical articles in The Advertiser, all four sceptical articles in NT News and 5 of 21 in The Daily Telegraph that rejected the consensus position. Eight other Bolt articles were coded as suggesting doubt about the consensus position. (As coding was done on the basis of each individual article, this was probably overly generous as only Bolt’s newest readers would not know that he is a vehement sceptic.)

Bolt was also republished during the sample periods in News Corp regional publications such as the Townsville Bulletin and Cairns Post, although these articles are not included in this sample. There are also hundreds of references to climate sceptic views on Andrew Bolt’s blog.

During this period, he was promoted by climate sceptic radio hosts on Macquarie Radio’s 2GB and MTR (Which has since closed) during 2011, and on Fairfax Radio’s 4BC and 2UE. He continues to have several spots each week on 2GB. In terms of Australian audiences, Bolt’s is a very big one.

Given his influence, a consideration of how Australian media covers climate science needs to include an analysis of the strategies used by Bolt to persuade his readers they should reject the findings of the vast majority of climate scientists. These strategies include personal abuse, cherry picking specific findings to refute the entire body of findings of climate scientists, portrayal of advocates of climate action as ideologically motivated with totalitarian tendencies and criticism of journalists who report on climate science. He presents himself as someone who is fighting a battle to reveal ‘truth’ and ‘secrets’ which ‘warmists’ want hidden to protect their vested interests. Once the ‘facts’ are established a triumphal, mocking tone is adopted.

The Australian Centre for Independent Journalism provided examples of Andrew Bolt’s tactics of abuse in Sceptical Climate Part One.

Bolt’s approach needs to be considered in the context of a broader international game played out with other media, politicians, climate sceptics and audiences. The following two examples provide an insight into his relationships both with fellow sceptical individuals and organisations and also those he casts as his opponents.

Example One: ‘Secrets Out: No gain from carbon tax pain’

On April 4, 2011, Bolt published a 982 word article called ‘Secrets Out: No gain from carbon tax pain’. The article begins:

“Climate Commissioner Tim Flannery choked recently when I confronted him with the global warming industry’s dirty secret. But he wouldn’t – or couldn’t – deny it. The secret is this: Nothing that we in Australia do about global warming will actually lower the world’s temperature.”

The column was mostly based on excerpts from a question and answer session that Bolt and radio host Steve Price conducted on Macquarie Radio’s Melbourne station MTR on March 25 (listen here), a day when Flannery was visiting Victorian city Geelong on behalf of the Climate Commission which was established by the Australian government to be a source of information about climate change.

Bolt began by asking Flannery whether his activities were funded by the government. Flannery acknowledged that they were, but said he and the Australian Climate Commission were “independent” and were “trying to engage people on the climate issue.” Shortly afterwards, Bolt asked Flannery a question that he has often asked people he calls ‘warmists’: “On our own, cutting our emissions by 5 percent by 2020, what will that lower the world’s temperatures by?” During the interview Flannery’s protested that the questions were ‘bogus’ and the answers, complex, Bolt insisted he was just trying to get ‘basic facts’. Having got an answer from Flannery that even if all emissions were cut, average temperatures would not drop for “hundreds, perhaps even a thousand years right, because the system is overloaded with CO2 and that has to be absorbed and that only happens slowly”, the interview was brought to a close. Bolt followed up with an interview with the CEO of the Grattan Institute John Daley. He ends his recount of his interview with: “Now, if you wouldn’t even buy a $29 kitchen wipe with answers like these, why buy a global warming scheme that would cost us billions of dollars - and possibly cost you your job?”

Bolt promoted his interview on his blog as a major news breakthrough and was rewarded when it was taken up as a news article by The Weekend Australian. Under the heading, ‘No Fast Result in cuts- Flannery’ the news article led with: “The Gillard government’s chief promoter of the climate change debate has admitted even a global effort to cut carbon emissions would not lower temperatures for up to 1000 years.”

Flannery wrote to The Weekend Australian objecting to the way his answers had been represented. The article was criticised by the ABC’s Media Watch on April 4, 2011 but remains at the time of publication of this report on the NT News, Herald Sun and several sceptic websites websites today. (Transcripts and Flannery’s letter to The Australian can be found on the ABC’s Media Watch website).

The development of this story shows how News Corp editors promote stories across different outlets to build support for scepticism. In this case Andrew Bolt used a radio appearance to create ‘news’ that could then be picked up by other outlets and bloggers. The aim is to build public support against action on climate change rather than to report on climate science. A reader of the transcript of the interview would have noted that Flannery tried to explain why the line of questioning was likely to lead to possible misunderstandings and prevent him from explaining that whatever policies to reduce emissions are put in place, global warming will not reverse for a very long time. His argument was that this does not negate the need for action. Bolt interview strategy was to force Flannery into a statement that could be used against him and other climate scientists.

But it was not just News Corp, 2GB and bloggers who took up the Bolt ‘scoop’. In the heat of the domestic debate about the Gillard government’s proposal for a carbon policy or ‘tax’ as it became known, the then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott “leapt” on Flannery’s “declaration” that “emissions abatement is a 1000 year proposition”. Abbot’s intervention transformed the the story into a political one. The Australian reported Abbott’s comments and sought a response from the Gillard government. The then Minister for Climate Change Greg Combet was described as having “distanced” himself because he described the Climate Change Commissioner as ‘independent’ which is what he is supposed to be. (For more on the coverage of carbon policy see Sceptical Climate Part One.) Both the government and Flannery were placed on the defensive.

Even within The Australian itself there was some uneasiness about the treatment of Flannery. In a short opinion piece on the same day, Graham Lloyd attempted to come to his defence: “The scientific view is that if CO2 emissions are left unchecked, the world will warm by 4C by the end of the century. Flannery’s point is we must act to stop the forecast additional 4C temperature rise before we even consider returning to pre-industrial age temperatures.”

But other talk back radio hosts and many blogs had taken up the story. By now, the news breakthrough was being hailed as evidence that anthropogenic climate change was a “manufactured bogeyman”.

The blogosphere is however contested and Crikey blogger Jeremy Sear who is known as Pure Poison, chastised the Bolt Blog for stupidity. After Abbott’s intervention, Crikey went further accusing him of “outright misrepresenting” Flannery in parliament:

“Further to the shameless and idiotic noisemaking of the trollumnists on which we commented yesterday, it now seems that the unpopular Liberal leader Tony Abbott is now outright misrepresenting Flannery’s remarks in Parliament:

But yesterday, as the role of the carbon tax in Labor’s massive loss in the NSW election dominated federal political exchanges, Mr Abbott quoted Professor Flannery as he ridiculed the tax as “the ultimate millenium bug”.

“It will not make a difference for 1000 years,” the Opposition Leader told parliament. “So this is a government which is proposing to put at risk our manufacturing industry, to penalise struggling families, to make a tough situation worse for millions of households right around Australia. And for what? To make not a scrap of difference to the environment any time in the next 1000 years.”

What Flannery actually said:

If the world as a whole cut all emissions tomorrow the average temperature of the planet is not going to drop in several hundred years, perhaps as much as a thousand years.

“Not going to drop” is clearly not the same as “make not a scrap of difference”. Nor is “several hundred years, perhaps as much as a thousand years” the same as “not… any time in the next 1000 years”.

We’re talking about a system in which the temperature is increasing. The best we can hope for in the shorter term is to slow that increase down, maybe if we’re lucky stop it completely.

Even if it’ll take a long time to return the system to the earlier levels (and I’m glad to hear that that’s even possible), the immediate challenge is to reduce the increase. That’s what the proposed action is supposed to achieve, and that’s what we’re debating.

So Abbott’s misrepresentation of Flannery’s remark is not only dishonest, it also indicates that he hasn’t the faintest idea what his opponents are actually talking about.”

Pure Poison then challenged:

“Labor and climate scientists and the Greens and anyone with an interest in rational public debate all need to be out there right now squashing this stupid meme before it takes any more hold on the gullible. Because once this one sinks in, they’ll find something even more outrageously stupid and build up the ignorance even further.”

The Crikey piece ended with a challenge to the media: “Let’s see who in the media actually call Abbott on his shameless misrepresentation of Flannery, and the ignorance about the actual proposal that his remarks reveal. Anyone?”

Jeremy Sear’s notion that Bolt’s ‘scoop’ generated a “meme” is a useful one as it suggests a message that reverberates far beyond its original sources. The posts and reposts of Bolt’s article received thousands of comments.

A Factiva database search did not reveal any further follow up of Abbott’s misrepresentation of Flannery. North Coast Voices blog and the Opinion Dominion blog both republished the Crikey piece.

Example Two: Has global warming stopped?

This example needs to be put in the context of Bolt’s columns on climate change over a longer period.

According to a Factiva search, Andrew Bolt has been producing climate sceptic columns for the Herald Sun since April 1999 when as part of an attack on ex Labor MP Peter Garrett who was then the Chairperson of the Australian Conservation Foundation, he wrote:

“Of course, the greenhouse effect seems to be just that: hot air. The best measure of global warming - NASA satellite data - shows the globe is as cool now as it was in 1978, when readings began.” (‘Don’t let Peter Garrett’s talk scare you’, Herald Sun, April 19, 1999).

A persistent Bolt theme has been revelations of data that purpose to show that the earth is cooling or no longer warming.

In 2008, Bolt published five graphs which he argued in his blog and then on the ABC’s Insiders with two follow up stories in the Herald Sun that he claimed showed that the earth was cooling not warming. Michael James, a director of the Genome Variation Laboratory at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research analysed the graphs in a piece,‘Andrew Bolt: Master of Climate Representation’ for Crikey which was an early and persistent media critic. He demonstrated how Bolt’s highlighting of very short term ‘blips’ in data obscured trends over time. As of October 8, 2013, the graphs remain on Bolt’s blog under the heading, ‘Column - Seven Graphs to end the Warming hype’.

This sort of critique does not impress Bolt who continues to produce columns in a similar vein.

On January 29 2012, journalist David Rose published an article in the Mail on Sunday suggesting that “the supposed consensus on man-made global warming” was in doubt because the British Meteorological Office (MET) had released new temperature data showing the planet had not warmed for 15 years. In an obvious allusion to Al Gore’s well known film An Inconvenient Truth, Rose argued that this data presented “an inconvenient challenge” to climate scientists. He went as far as suggesting that we could even be “heading for a mini ice age to rival the 70-year temperature drop that saw frost fairs held on the Thames in the 17th Century”.

The MET Office almost immediately put out a statement refuting Rose’s article. It claimed that it had explained its position to Rose before he published the article but that he had not incorporated it in the article. According to the MET Office, Rose’s article contained “numerous inaccuracies” and was “seriously misleading”. To put climate change predictions into context, it stated:

“The projections are probabilistic in nature, and no individual forecast should be taken in isolation. Instead, several decades of data will be needed to assess the robustness of the projections.

However, what is absolutely clear is that we have continued to see a trend of warming, with the decade of 2000–2009 being clearly the warmest in the instrumental record going back to 1850. Depending on which temperature records you use, 2010 was the warmest year on record for NOAA NCDC and NASA GISS, and the second warmest on record in HadCRUT3.”

The MET Office statement was also published on the popular Think Progress blog which had already refuted the argument that there was pause in warming.

A journalist seeking to follow up Rose’s story would normally be expected to check whether there had been any further developments or if any of his assertions had been seriously contested. If they had checked, they would have easily found the MET Office statement.

In any case, Andrew Bolt should have been aware of the MET Office statement because he had already posted a blog on January 29, 2012 quoting Rose’s assertion about the lack of warming. A reader has responded with a comment referring him to the MET Office’s response. Bolt later claimed that he was not aware of this.

Figure 4.6.5: Cartoon from The Daily Telegraph’s piece ‘Global Warming Nonsense gets a true cold shoulder’.
Cartoon by Tiedemann showing person with their head in the clouds, holding a sign reading 'The end of the WORLD'

Illustration: Tiedemann, Source: The Daily Telegraph. Image permalink.

Three days later, Bolt adapted The Daily Mail article to the Australian context and published it on three News Corp publications each under a different headline. The Daily Telegraph used ‘Global Warming Nonsense gets a true cold shoulder’. The Advertiser chose ‘Man’s gases do indeed affect the climate in some small way, but not necessarily for the worst’ while the Herald Sun chose ‘Time that climate alarmists fessed up’ as its headline. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation and Roy Morgan Research readership figures that can be found in Figure 4.1.1, these publications had a combined claimed circulation of 949,692 circulation and 2,346,000 readership. The Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun also published the article online where it remains today. The piece was also published on Bolt’s Herald Sun blog under the heading, ‘Open your eyes. Where’s the warming’. Five days later on February 6, the same column appeared in the NT News under the heading, ‘Scare tactics swamped’ extending the audience reach of the article even further.

Each publication conveyed a different meaning through its headline. The Daily Telegraph’s message was that the notion that anthropogenic global warming is occurring is “nonsense” and should be rejected. The Advertiser, on the other hand, conceded that human activities might have a small role in climate change but rather than being a problem, their impact might actually improve conditions. The Herald Sun headline suggested that climate science and climate change action advocates were guilty and should ‘confess’ while the NT News heading suggested that the ‘scare tactics’ of those warning of man-made climate change had been overwhelmed.

What follows is an analysis of The Daily Telegraph version of the story. Bolt begins:

“Let’s take stock of the great global warming scare and see how it’s panning out, shall we?

First, the planet hasn’t actually warmed for a decade or even 15 years, according to new temperature data released by Britain’s Met Office.

Hmm. That’s not what global warming scientists predicted.

Or why not look out of your window?”

He then drew attention to a number of earlier predictions which readers could observe to be false. One of these was “massive coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef that warmist Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg predicted would occur every second year from 2010 has not been seen in years.”

Some readers might have wondered whether February 2012 was sufficient enough time to judge whether this prediction Professor Hoegh-Guldberg made was correct. Others who were regular readers might recognise Professor Hoegh-Guldberg as a previous Bolt target.

Hoegh-Guldberg is a highly regarded biologist whose work focuses on coral reefs. He has a substantial record of peer reviewed publications. In February 2010, Bolt referred to him as an “alarmist with a record of dud predictions”. In 2006, he accused him of making predictions about possible damage to the reef from global warming in return for “perks”.

In August 2011 in an article that was part of The Conversation’s Media and Democracy series, Hoeg responded to Bolt’s criticisms. He added:

“Despite my having responded to these issues, Andrew Bolt has not removed the misinformation and continues to this day to chant its content on a regular basis. I find it hard to believe that Andrew cannot understand this critical issue. Perhaps he doesn’t.

It is hard to practice as a humble scientist when powerful columnists like Bolt run amok. Drawing attention to their fundamental scientific errors and distortions only brings more insult and abuse.

Hardly what I signed up for when I began training in science over 30 years ago.

Is this simply bad journalism or an attempt to deliberately mislead the Australian public on this issue?”

In the initial publication of Hoegh-Guldberg wrongly stated that Bolt is paid by Gina Rinehart. As soon as Bolt pointed out this error, the publication was corrected. In contrast, Bolt did not engage with Hoegh-Guldberg’s piece.

In October 2012, the Australian Institute of Marine Science released research which found that the Great Barrier Reef had lost half its coral in 27 years, 10% of which was due to coral bleaching. It found that a major cause of bleaching was ocean warming and that the recovery period was 10 –20 years. According to a Factiva search, The Daily Telegraph and The Advertiser reported on this study but the Herald Sun did not.

Continuing the February 1 column, Bolt makes a series of factual statements:

“Wherever you look it’s the same wake-up-to-yourself story. Sea levels have recently dipped, the oceans have lately cooled, Arctic ice has not retreated since 2007, polar bears are increasing in numbers, global crop yields keep rising and now some solar scientists warn not of global warming, but cooling – a far deadlier threat”.

“Wake up” suggests an audience should stop dreaming and awaken to the truth although no further evidence is included to support the first four of these statements, all of which are contested by recent peer reviewed science. How, Bolt asks, do ‘warmists’ respond to this news? He accuses them for being in denial by suggesting the matter is settled.

Bolt then moves on to a recurrent theme - the media. He refers to The Age and the ABC as “obsessed” because they “resist reporting the growing evidence that the late 20th century warming that’s blamed on man’s emissions has halted, and that few of the catastrophic consequences predicted have happened”. An uninformed reader would understand that global warming has halted which is not what the great majority of scientists have found. If journalists do not think that there is any credible evidence supporting the proposition that it has halted, they should not report assertions by sources they consider to be unreliable.

Having dealt with the media, Bolt quotes Danish scientist Henrik Svensmark, Director of the Center for Sun-Climate Research who investigates the effects of the sun and cosmic rays on climate as claiming: “World temperatures may end up a lot cooler than now for 50 years or more.”

Bolt leaves his readers with the an image of an impending ice age and ends with:

“Who knows if he’s right? Best keep an open mind, on this – and on man-made warming. How will the history of this colossal mistake be written?"

By ‘open mind’, Bolt does not mean the view that all matters are open to critique and questioning. He means an open mind about whether or not man-made warming is occurring.

He does not inform his audience that scientists and science journalists have subjected Svensmark’s theories to substantial review and critique. A recent journal article, which appeared after Bolt’s piece, reviews previous this discussion. This researcher concluded that the “best estimates of solar influence on the global mean air surface temperature show relatively small effects, compared with the response to anthropogenic changes” and noted that the use by sceptics of the solar research was making scientific investigation more difficult. More discussion about Svenmark can be found on the Desmogblog.com, a site which critiques climate scepticism.

Press Council complaint about ‘Time that climate alarmists fessed up’.

Those concerned by stories appeared in print media have two avenues available for complaint. They can write a letter to the newspaper or they can complain to the Australian Press Council. Three separate people complained about the Herald Sun version of the article, which was similar and slightly shorter than The Daily Telegraph’s.

Ten months later in mid December, the Australian Press Council responded to complaints that the Feburary 2012 articles had misled readers and misrepresented the evidence by issuing an adjudication.

The adjudication is posted on the Herald Sun website. It is not however on The Daily Telegraph website.

The Australian Press Council found that Bolt should have mentioned the MET Office description even if he then rebutted it as unconvincing. It upheld that part of the complaint finding it “was not sufficient in these circumstances to assert ignorance of the response or to rely on the reader’s previous posting to inform other readers about it”.

The Australian Press Council also considered whether Bolt was fair to report that global warming had halted on the basis of a 15 year period of average global temperatures. Climate scientists measure patterns over many years. Decades are compared to previous decades. Pauses and changes in direction do not necessarily indicate the end of long-term trends. Like the MET Office, the complainants argued that it was misleading not to put the short term data in the context of longer trends which showed global warming.

The Council found that Bolt should have acknowledged explicitly that the data on which he based his statements were short-term and “statistically compatible with continuance of the long-term trends in the opposite direction”. However because he had used the word “paused” in his article and emphasised the need for an “open mind”, the Council did not uphold this section of the complaint.

On December 13, the Institute of Public Affairs issued a press release criticising the Press Council for its cautious criticism of Bolt for thinking it “appropriate for it to dictate to newspaper columnists what they are allowed to write”.

The Press Release quotes the Director of the IPA, Mr Roskam as saying:

““The free exchange of ideas and opinions is an essential foundation of democracy. Impeding this process by dictating to the media what they are allowed to share with their readers is not just a threat to freedom of speech, it undermines democracy.

Despite what some people in the community may think, debate on major issues of importance is never over and should never cease. Andrew Bolt and everyone else should be free to question, debate and discuss climate change science and climate policy in any way they choose”…”.

Like Bolt, John Roskam is a very active climate sceptic. Two months later he sent a copy of fellow sceptic Ian Plimer’s book Heaven and Earth to hundreds of schools. The press release suggested that the IPA sees no role for accountability mechanism that attempts to hold the media accountable for inaccuracies or misrepresentations, even self-regulatory ones.

Two days later, Bolt followed up with his own response to the Press Council. In this response, Bolt accuses the APC of making false accusations against him in a draft adjudication that revealed a bias towards “warmism”. Bolt argues that even if he had been aware of the MET Office’s refutation of Rose’s article, he should not have had to print its “mendacious lies” in his opinion piece. He completely rejected the APC findings:

“The Press Council has - in my opinion - abused its power to find against one of my reports on global warming.

Here is one more sign of a new war against free speech. I’ve long suspected the Press Council, grown more aggressive with the Gillard Government’s encouragement, is pushing a political agenda on to journalists.

It is funded by newspaper publishers to promote “good standards of media practice” and “freedom of expression”. But many of the complaints it now entertains are lodged by activists and others of the Left trying to limit the free speech of others.

The Press Council has not just let itself be used this way to punish conservatives, not least by wasting their time responding to sometimes absurd and often impertinent complaints.”

Bolt’s tactic is one of aggression towards both critics and adjudicator. His response suggests that he sees no role for the Press Council to entertain complaints against opinion writers, even when they make factual assertions.

The Australian Press Council deals with complaints on the basis of individual stories. Even before the complaint was adjudicated, Bolt continued to pursue his theme of the global warming ‘pause’ across his network.

Later in the year, The Daily Mail published another article claiming that the world had stopped getting warmer. The MET Office again put out a statement that included a graph which put the claim into perspective by looking at global temperatures over a longer period. (This post discusses Rose’s article and links to the MET’s response.)

Figure 4.6.6: Graph from the MET Office showing years ranked in order of global temperature
Graph from the MET Office: years ranked in order of global temperature, shows temperaters increasing over time

Published by Met Office, 14th October 2012. Image permalink.

Five days later, Bolt published ‘Theory grows colder’. He asks:

“HOW many more years of no warming before global warmists admit their theory is broken?

Data released two weeks ago shows the pause in global warming has now lasted 16 years. This is despite man’s carbon dioxide emissions – blamed by warmists for causing the world to overheat – soaring almost 50 per cent over the past two decades.

More emissions, but no warming. This was not meant to happen.”

Bolt failed to respond to the MET Office’s argument about the importance of time scale in climate measurement. He does not appear to understand that increases in global emissions will not result in an immediate temperature rise in the complex global climate system just as he did not appear to understand in Example One that changes in climate will not immediately respond to cuts in emissions.

A further critique by George Mombiot of Rose’s earlier articles can be found here.

A broader view of climate change reporting around the time of Bolt column shows that Bolt himself was part of a broader international push by sceptics promoted by News Corp (See Section 4.10).

Bolt and other sceptic commentators continue to produce material asserting that global temperatures are not warming. As a result the Australian Government’s Climate Commission, which was established to “provide all Australians with an independent and reliable source of information about climate science” produced a report in February 2013, which aimed to clarify that the earth was warming. It was stated clearly that this was necessary because of misrepresentations by sceptics of the data.

“For whatever reason some commentators choose to cherry-pick data, presenting it in a highly selective way to make their case. That has seriously misrepresented what is actually happening, and such behaviour just isn’t good science.”

The full report can be found here.

The Climate Commission is soon to be abolished by the Coalition Tony Abbott Government, which replaced the Labor government in September, 2013.

Bolt continues however to promote his own view. In a column on September 12, 2013 that was published in the Herald Sun, The Advertiser, The Daily Telegraph, The Cairns Post and The Courier Mail, he wrote:

“It is pathetic, when the evidence mounts that man’s effect on global temperatures has been wildly exaggerated, and cutting our emissions will make zero difference.

Remember five years ago when Tim Flannery, now our Chief Climate Commissioner, warned “that maybe in five years there’ll be no Arctic ice cap”, thanks to man-made warming?”

In conclusion, News Corp has selected Bolt to play a powerful strategic role in the communication of climate change to Australian audiences. He plays this role in coalition with other climate sceptics, journalists, key climate sceptic personalities and right wing think-tanks such as the Institute of Public Affairs. The aim is to build support for his anti climate action political agenda. He demonises climate scientists, pro climate change action advocates and environmental reporters, successfully turning climate science reporting into a battleground and putting his opponents on the defensive. Rather than accepting scientific bodies and scientists as authoritative sources on climate change, he uses mockery and derision to delegitimise them. He replaces them with favoured sceptic sources that he fails to subject to critique of any sort. His style is accessible and produces a large number of comments from his readers who mostly support him. He builds a sense of solidarity amongst his audience against publicly funded science and media which he portrays as elitists and dangerously left-wing. Critics are dismissed as ‘warmists’ who by definition are self-interested and unreliable. His strategy depends on repetition of basic messages over time. News Corp tabloids of which the Herald Sun is the largest fail to balance his commentary with climate science reports. This is consistent with Bolt’s view that they have no credibility. Bolt reinforces his views through regular talk-back radio and television appearances. Through all these strategies, the findings of climate scientists are rendered almost invisible in the media sphere inhabited by large sections of the Australian community.

Other News Corp Tabloid Sceptics

Bolt is not alone however. On March 24, 2011, News Corp economics columnist Terry McCrann published ‘When ignorance battles knowledge’. McCrann attacked Professor Ross Garnaut who had been commissioned by the Australian government to update his earlier Cimate Change Review. He described Garnaut as “delusional” who by portraying the argument over anthropogenic climate change as an “awful battled between ignorance and knowledge” had “positioned himself well and truly with the nutters and the deniers.” He furthers to say that: “Those that deny the so-called supposedly settled science is a total croc. Those that deny that far more scientists and by far the better – and the honest – scientists, don’t accept the supposedly settled science.”

The rest of the column was a vehement rejection of the Gillard Government’s carbon policy. McCrann’s column is a very strong expression of opinion. It would certainly unsettle any reader who was either ignorant and uncertain about the very strong support for the recognition of anthropogenic science amongst climate scientists.

News Corp Miranda Devine also promotes climate scepticism. On March 15, 2011, Professors Will Steffen, David Karoly and Matthew England produced a paper for the Climate Commission. On the same day, Devine responded with a The Sunday Telegraph column ‘The reality of a wet, cold summer has failed to dampen activists’ enthusiasm for alarmism.’. This column was also published in News Corp’s Perth weekend newspaper The Sunday Times and in the Herald Sun under the heading, ‘Scientific worship a matter for change’.

It was also published online.

She began by comparing the authors of the paper and three leading climate scientists with the ‘three wise monkeys’ who close their eyes to what they do not want to see - an approach that is the antithesis to a scientific approach:

“THE three wise monkeys of Australian climate science, Professors Will Steffen, Matthew England and David Karoly, posted a self-justifying report on the Climate Commission website last week linking recent floods, heavy rain and low temperatures to global warming.”

According to Devine the purpose of the report was to excuse earlier predictions of drought by Tim Flannery that had not eventuated. She says the “real culprits are opportunistic politicians and mad greenies, whose apocalyptic warnings overcame prudence and common sense.” She suggests science has become an “alternative religion”.

Her preferred expert for this column was Richard Lindzen whose “clear summary of the sceptic case is worth reading for anyone sitting on the fence”.

Devine states that Lindzen does not deny that the earth is warming but quotes him as saying that:

“The evidence is that the increase in CO2 will lead to very little warming, and that the connection of this minimal warming (or even significant warming) to the purported catastrophes is also minimal. The arguments on which the catastrophic claims are made are extremely weak and commonly acknowledged as such. They are sometimes overtly dishonest.”

Devine concludes by saying “Alarmists want science to act as the servant of politicians pushing for ‘carbon control‘. That is not its role.”

This column shows how sceptic columnists not only de-legitimise climate scientists while at the same time boosting the credibility of their choice sceptic sources in the eyes of their readers. Anyone who supports the notion of anthropogenic climate change is by definition biased, blind or obsessed. Climate sceptics are portrayed as victims.

Journalists should report critically on climate science in the same way as any other field. However to do so they need to be well informed. The role of journalists should be to explain and where justified critique prediction but not in a way that distorts overall scientific findings. Scientific predictions are probabilistic in their nature. Inevitably some may turn out not to eventuate. Seizing on a prediction that has not eventuated to defeat a whole body of work is not productive. A journalistic investigation into why the prediction has not eventuated would be appropriate.

Climate Scepticism Becomes a Story

While the development of the internet has greatly expanded the space and scope of communication, journalism and mainstream media space is still a scarce resource (Lester, L., 2010, p.46). This is even more a consideration as old business models that sustained corporate journalism fail and media shed reporters, including science reporters. For this and other reasons, climate scepticism partly works by occupying space that might otherwise be allocated to other stories.

The 2012 articles in the sample were coded according to whether there was a mention of climate scepticism. This established that even the SMH and The Age, which were the most accepting of the consensus position in their editorial practices, devoted a substantial amount of allocated space to stories about sceptics or scepticism. For example 28% or 13 articles published by the SMH in 2012 were either about scepticism or issues revolving around the sceptic lobby and prominent sceptics. This is not surprising or unwarranted because the production and promotion of climate scepticism is an issue in Australian politics. Nevertheless when reporting resources are scarce, such reports may replace other potential stories about climate change thus rendering them invisible.

Journalists concerned about climate change devote time to exposing the economic interests that support climate sceptics. This has been done extensively by Naomi Oreskes in Merchants of Doubt (2010) and Guy Pearse in High & Dry: John Howard, Climate Change and the Selling of Australia’s Future (2007).

On July 3, 2011 (outside the sample period for this report), the SMH and The Age published a piece by leading climate sceptic Professor Robert Carter under the title ‘The Science is not settled’. While the inclusion of sceptic opinion is justified by some journalists on the basis of ‘balance’, other reporters argue that newspapers should not publish opinion that editors believe will mislead the public on factual matters. The publication of the Carter piece followed a piece by Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb explaining how scientific inquiry informs risk assessment. (‘Don’t wait until it is too late’, SMH, June 26, 2011). The follow up piece by Carter could have promoted the idea among readers that Chubb’s statements about climate science should not be relied upon..

On Feburary 18, 2012, Environmental reporter Ben Cubby produced a short investigative article on Professor Carter’s funding sources.

”THE paper trail connecting the climate change sceptic movement in Australia and the conservative US expert panel the Heartland Institute goes back at least to 2009, documents obtained by the Herald show.

The Heartland Institute, a leading group that funds activities designed to sow doubt about climate change science, was embarrassed this week when its strategy and budget documents found their way to a US blog.

The institute described the leak as a theft and said a police investigation was underway, while apologising to the 1800 companies and individuals whose identities were revealed as donors.”

The story provided evidence that the Heartland Institute provided funds to the Australian Climate Change Coalition, a group which lobbies against policies designed to reduce emissions in Australia. Carter is a senior scientific advisor to the Coalition.

”When the Sydney Morning Herald asked Professor Carter if people should be concerned about his impartiality given that he is on the Heartland Institute’s payroll, he said: ‘‘No more so than you should be concerned that a CSIRO employee is paid by the government.’’

Professor Carter would not discuss the details of the ‘‘monthly payment’’ of $US 1667 ($1547) to him in the Heartland Institute’s budget.

”It’s not something I would comment on in public - that’s grossly insulting,’’ he said. ’’At time to time, I have worked as a scientific adviser for them. I have acted as a consultant from time to time. From time to time, I take payments when people seek my professional opinion on something.”

But that was a different thing to being paid to change his opinion on climate science, he said.

”The idea that a professional scientist - and a particularly distinguished scientist, if I may say - gives an opinion which has been paid for, is offensive.”

The function of the International Climate Science Coalition has less to do with science than with public relations, a strategy and budget document released by the group last year said.”

The Climate Science Coalition objected to the article which led to this note being added:

Editor’s note:

The International Climate Science Coalition has disputed the statement in this article that its function has “less to do with science than with public relations”. A response from its executive director, Tom Harris, is published below. The Herald stands by its story in all respects.

Mr Harris writes: As explained on our website: “The ICSC is a non-partisan group of independent scientists, economists and energy and policy experts who are working to promote better understanding of climate science and policy worldwide. We aim to help create an environment in which a more rational, open discussion about climate issues emerges, thereby moving the debate away from implementation of costly and ineffectual ‘climate control’ measures. Instead, ICSC encourages assisting vulnerable peoples to adapt to climate variability and continuing scientific research into the causes and impacts of climate change.”

In other words, we focus on public education.”

Readers of the SMH would have assessed for themselves the impartiality of the ICSC. If they looked further on the internet, they would have discovered many further sources of information.

Journalists cannot ignore the phenomenon of climate scepticism. If they do, they acquiesce in the promotion of widespread misrepresentation. But when they do engage, they become the subject to attack. For example, Ben Cubby who wrote the stories about Bob Carter was subsequently attacked in the NSW Parliament by MP Peter Phelps. Phelps also described Cubby’s source, Climate Commissioner ANU Will Steffen in the following terms:

”Steffen is just another anthropogenic global warming parasite offering people advice about cutting down the use of fossil fuels, none of which seems to involve academics avoiding air travel to international anthropogenic global warming conferences. Indeed, in this ever-changing world in which we live there is only one certainty: More conferences and more chances to save the world. The anthropogenic global warming scam continues.”

Commercial Radio and Climate Scepticism

This report is focused on print publications and to a lesser extent their online versions. The link between the most sceptic of outlets has already been mentioned in the section on Andrew Bolt. In considering the promotion of climate scepticism the link between columnists and talkback hosts is most significant.

More research needs to be done to establish the audience reach of climate scepticism produced by talkback radio.

In March 21, 2011, ABC1’s Media Watch analysed produced a report on climate sceptic hosts at the highest rating commercial talk stations in each of Australian mainland capital cities, including Sydney’s 2UE radio station.

According to its analysis, all but Melbourne’s 3AW and Adelaide’s 5AA had climate change sceptics amongst their weekday presenters. The Media Watch report also pointed out that “Sydney’s 2GB has two out of four: breakfast host Alan Jones and afternoon host Chris Smith”.

A full transcript of the report and responses from climate scientists and the huge discussion that followed the program can be found here.

In September 2013, 2GB weekday presenters include Ray Hadley, Alan Jones, Brian Wilshire, Chris Smith Steve Price who has a regular spot with Andrew Bolt. All these broadcasters have been involved in attacks on climate scientists. Climate sceptics regularly get extended interviews on 2GB which claims to “broadcast across Australia”.

In 2013 rating surveys, 2GB is the most listened to Sydney radio station across both AM and FM, claiming an overall 13.5 per cent share of the Sydney radio market, 2.4 per cent ahead of its nearest rival and 5.8 per cent ahead of the leading FM station.


Rather than ‘balancing’ the coverage of climate science, promotion of climate scepticism has dominated coverage in News Corp’s largest newspapers. Much of this material remains online. This consistent promotion is part of an ongoing campaign against government policies aimed at addressing climate change and is intermeshed with other campaigns against publicly funded media and environmental protection bodies and liberal corporate media.

Scientific and media sceptics decline to grant climate scientists who support the consensus position the professional legitimacy or status that they would normally be granted.

ABC’s Media Watch and some other sections of the ABC, independent outlets and bloggers play a valuable role in attempting to hold media based climate sceptics accountable but are unlikely to reach audience whose media consumption is largely confined to tabloid demagogues and talkback shock jocks. A number of Australian and international blogs provided well documented commentary on climate scepticism including Readfearn, Climate Code Red, and Skeptical Science.