4.8 How The Australian builds doubt about climate scientists and their findings
The Australian is the only national general newspaper in Australia. According to Newspaper Works, it claimed a circulation of 122,428 and readership of 405,000 in 2013 of whom 60% are male. Its readership are 35% professional or managerial, 24% retired, 21% are white collar workers and 12% are skilled, semiskilled or unskilled. 58% of their readers are over 50. Like the Fairfax Media publications, The Australian is targeted at higher income readers who are also more likely to be better educated.
The Australian promotes itself as a serious national political agenda-setter. It favours neoliberal policies, market solutions to most economic and social problems and tends to oppose government regulation that would fetter its favoured business interests. In 2011 in his Quarterly Essay, Robert Manne described The Australian as a “remorselessly campaigning paper” and an “unusually ideological paper, committed to advance the causes of neoliberalism in economics.” When Labor formed government in 2010 with the backing of a Greens MP and several independents, The Australian declared that Labor must free itself of the Greens who were “bad for the nation” and should be “destroyed at the ballot box”. During the period of this study, its editorial stance was highly critical of the Gillard Labor government, the Greens and their carbon policy.
Previous research about The Australian and its coverage of climate change
Previous research has found that The Australian actively promotes climate scepticism. (McKewon, E., 2012; McKnight, D., 2010; Manne, R., 2011). The Australian has disputed these claims. That research provides a background against which the findings of this study can be interpreted, a brief summary is provided below.
The Australian’s coverage of climate change 1997 –2007
David McKnight reviewed the period from 1997 to 2007 and found that “newspapers and television stations owned by News Corporation, based on their editorials, columnists and commentators, largely denied the science of climate change.” and that its corporate view framed the issue as one of political correctness rather than science. He concluded: “Scientific knowledge was portrayed as an orthodoxy and its own stance, and that of ‘climate sceptics’ as one of courageous dissent.” McKnight was unable to identify “a substantial body of articles establishing the science and challenging the climate dissidents’ claims”. (McKnight, D., 2010, p.700).
In December 2010, The Australian’s environment editor Graeme Lloyd defended the paper’s editorial and opinion writers’ coverage of climate change against the charge of scepticism.
In a response published by The Australian on December 10, 2010, McKnight drew on his research to identify a number of editorials that had not been discussed by Lloyd and pointed to the ideological framing of the climate change debate: “For many years The Australian has been unable to see climate issues except through a distorted ideological lens.” For example, an editorial on January 14, 2006, argued that the environment movement was about “more theology than meteorology” and “[S]upport for Kyoto cloaks the green movement’s real desire: to see capitalism stop succeeding”.
McKnight quoted another editorial that accused ‘deep green Luddites’ of believing that “the only way to avert the coming apocalypse is to close down all the power plants, take all cars off the road and return to a pre-industrial Arcadia”…
“On climate issues The Australian still gives voice to a global PR campaign largely originated by the oil and coal companies of the US. On this score genuinely sceptical journalism is missing in action. Instead, an ideological sympathy with climate sceptics has been concealed behind a fig leaf of supposed balance.”
The Australian subsequently published another response to McKnight by climate sceptic Jo Nova who accused McKnight of wanting to censor views of sceptics whom she cast as whistleblowers: “Ponder the irony that McKnight, the journalism lecturer, is demanding The Australian adopt the policy espoused by the dominant paradigm, the establishment, and censor the views of independent whistleblowers.”
The sceptics’ claim that journalists who argue against the promotion of their views are censors is one that is continually repeated. (See Section 3.0, Background, for a further discussion of how journalists respond to the charge of censorship.)
Covering the launch of a sceptic’s book in 2009
In 2009, UTS researcher Elaine McKewon provided support for McKnight’s findings. She researched the coverage of the launch of a book by climate sceptic, University of Adelaide Professor of Mining Geology, Ian Plimer, Heaven and Earth: Global Warming: The Missing Science. and the controversy that accompanied it. Plimer argues that there is no connection between human activity and climate change (McKewon, 2009).
Heaven and Earth received sustained coverage during April - June 2009. Of 219 separate print and online articles, more than half (56%) were favorable to Plimer, which is far more than would be expected given its attack on the consensus position. More than half of all coverage was in News Corp, two-thirds of which (64%) was favorable to Plimer. More than two-thirds (67%) of The Australian’s coverage was favourable and less than one third was unfavourable.
During this period, The Australian did publish a piece about Plimer’s book by Professor Robert Manne who accused the paper of making a moral mistake in promoting a book that would create confusion about climate science and serve the interests of the fossil fuel lobby. This was followed up, however, by a piece by regular columnist Christopher Pearson headlined: ‘Chairman Manne’s no to dissent’. Pearson’s argument that Manne was closing down dissent is one that is repeatedly used by climate sceptics.
McKewon was critical of the media for not revealing Plimer’s connections to the mining industry, his lack of experience as a peer-reviewed author of climate science and his connection with conservative think-tanks associated with the the fossil fuel industries. (McKewon 2009: 2).
The Australian’s climate change coverage 2004 - 2011
Most recently Manne, in his 2011 Quarterly Essay entitled ‘Bad News’, returned to the subject of The Australian’s coverage of climate change. He included a content analysis of all articles about climate change (a broader category than ‘climate science’ reporting which is the subject of this report) published by The Australian between January 2004 and April 2011. Manne concluded: “no one who was objective could arrive at a ratio of less than three to one for news items and opinion columns unfavourable rather than favourable” towards climate action.
When opinion columns were analysed, Manne’s findings were starker. The contributions from those who were sceptical about or denied the consensus view of climate change outnumbered by ten to one columns by consensus scientists or others. Regular columnists included economics editor Alan Wood (22), Christopher Pearson (21) and Janet Albrechtson (14).
The only regular columnists who supported the consensus were Mike Steketee (8), who has since left The Australian and ABC broadcaster Phillip Adams (8). (For a detailed analysis of The Australian’s editorials and a discussion of the findings see Manne, 2011, pp.37–54).
Journalists are sensitive to accusations of bias as they imply distortions of the truth. Fairness and truth are core ethical values. So it is perhaps not surprising that The Australian’s editors were stung by Manne’s critique.
Four senior staff responded to Manne. The responses portrayed his claims of bias as a symptom of a broader leftist mindset opposed to free debate. Environmental editor Graham Lloyd separately responded to the criticism of the climate change reporting. He argued that the editorial stance of The Australian was one of clear acceptance of anthropogenic climate change and quoted from an editorial published at the time of the 2007 IPCC report which stated that “global warming is unequivocally happening, and … humans are, in the panel’s view, highly likely to be causing most of it.” He accused Manne of ignoring material which supported the consensus and unfairly quoting an 2006 editorial:
“Manne quotes half a kicker headline from an editorial of January 12, 2006, which said ’climate change may be a mirage’. The second half of the headline, which Manne neglected to report, was ‘global poverty is not’.”
On the basis of these alleged distortions, Lloyd questioned whether Manne’s analysis of 800 articles is ‘trustworthy’.
It is difficult to imagine how the words, ‘climate change may be a mirage’, in whatever context they were written, could be read as consistent with the consensus position.
Manne was granted 1000 words to respond to The Australian’s 14,000 words of critique of his essay. He argued that he did not support censorship of sceptical views but wanted readers to understand the “intellectual irresponsibility and folly” of publishing denialist articles by “contrarian” scientists who in the real world are outnumbered 99 to one but who, in the opinion pages of The Australian, outnumber those representing the consensual core of the science 10 to one.”
How The Australian covered climate science between February and April in 2011 and 2012
This overview of previous research provides convincing evidence that The Australian has been promoting sceptical views since at least 2002. Nevertheless The Australian denies this charge. This report builds on the earlier research and investigates how journalists working in different genres deploy a range of reporting techniques to support or raise doubt about the consensus position. This approach helps explain how The Australian manages tensions between the professional journalism practices of its reporters and the pursuit of its political goals.
Rather than grouping all the articles as Manne did, the research has used a different methodology that investigates articles on carbon policy separately from those relevant to climate science. Many articles on carbon policy are located within the field of political reporting and have no reference to climate science. For this reason, we published one report on the coverage of carbon policy and this second one on climate science, although the categories do overlap and need to be considered in the context of each other.
Sceptical Climate Part One on the coverage of the carbon policy between February and July 2011 showed that The Australian carried twice as much coverage of the policy as any other publication A third of its headlines were neutral but of the rest, 80% were negative towards the policy. When the content of articles was considered, 44% were neutral towards the policy and of the rest 84% were negative. In other words, The Australian campaigned against the policy.and its coverage of climate science needs to be considered in that context.
The Australian is better resourced with reporters and has more space than any other daily publication in Australia. This is reflected in the number of articles it publishes on climate change. As Figure 4.8.1 shows, The Australian published 143 articles between February and April 2011 - 2012 that were relevant to climate science. This was 25% of all articles, and 36% more than the SMH which had the second highest number of articles.
As Figure 4.8.1 shows, 52% of the 143 articles were coded as accepting the consensus position. While this is a greater proportion than News Corp’s The Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun, it is still far less than one would expect given the overwhelming support for the consensus position among climate scientists. While only 5% of articles were coded as rejecting the consensus, the remarkable characteristic of The Australian’s coverage is the high proportion (42%) of articles coded as suggesting doubt about the consensus position.
Considered from the point of view of word count in climate science articles, the results tend slightly against the consensus position with 50% of words raising doubt or rejecting the consensus position and 49% accepting it. (1% were coded ‘unable to discern’).
These results could be described as more ‘balanced’ from an internal perspective but still strikingly at odds with the proportion of scientists accepting the consensus position.
As the examples below shows, a substantial number of The Australian articles which did acknowledge the consensus position were produced in ways that misrepresented aspects of climate science or furthered the paper’s political interest in discrediting advocates of the Labor government’s carbon policy.
The total number of articles dropped from 79 in 2011 to 64 in 2012. In terms of word count, the drop was 36%. The biggest proportional drop of 55% was in the ‘accepts’ category, while the proportion of words suggesting doubt or rejecting the consensus position grew. So while there was less coverage, it tended to be more sceptic.
Overall, this analysis shows that The Australian was more sceptical between February - April 2012 than during the same period the previous year. In 2012, 59% of words and 54% of articles questioned or rejected the consensus position.
The articles were coded to see whether there was a different approach to the consensus position within different genres.
|Suggests doubt (2011)
|Unable to discern (2011)
|Suggests doubt (2012)
|Unable to discern (2012)
|Suggests doubt (total)
|Unable to discern (total)
As Figure 4.8.1 shows, news articles tended to be more accepting of the consensus than other genres. This is not surprising as many climate science news stories are based on releases by research scientists or government organisations that accept the consensus position.
However in terms of average word count, news stories that questioned the consensus position tended to be longer (662 words) than those accepting the consensus (439 words).
Overall, The Australian’s comment pieces were almost equally divided between communicating acceptance of the consensus position (49%) and those that questioned (40%) or rejected (11%) the consensus. There was however a strong shift away from accepting the consensus in 2012. So while there was slightly more commentary in 2012, it was less likely to accept the consensus position.
As noted in Section 4.3 on the genre of climate science articles The Australian had more than twice as many features as any other publication. It published a total of 57 articles, of which 14 were less than 500 words, 22 were between 500–800 words and 21 were more than 800 words. Features were even less likely than comment pieces to accept the consensus position, reducing from 48% in 2011 to only 29% in 2012. Most of the shift was in the short and very short features category. While there were less short and very short features in 2012, they were less likely to accept the consensus. Please refer to Section 4.3 for the classification details of short features, very short features and long features.
All seven editorials during this period were constructed in ways that suggested doubt about the consensus position.
Overall the main sources of scepticism in The Australian come from editorial, features and comment pieces rather than in its news coverage. However further analysis of news stories suggests that in its news selection and reporting practices, The Australian preferences scientific findings that suggest less urgency or cast doubt on the reliability of climate scientists and advocates for action. New findings are highlighted in ways that could confuse readers who are not provided with ongoing results or broader trends in which to judge specific results.
Even when reporting stories that communicate an acceptance of that climate change is occurring, stories are structured in ways that undermine the credibility of climate scientists. News selection tends to favour angles that are negative towards climate science organisations and climate scientists.
These news production practices fed into The Australian’s overall editorial stance on carbon policy and opposition to the Labor government and the Greens.
What follows is a series of examples from different genres of how the Australia approached climate change reporting during the sample period:
News Example One: Ross Garnaut’s Climate Science Update
On March 10, Professor Ross Garnaut published his 90 page 5th Climate Science Update report. The following morning The Australian published a 500-word news report on page one headlined ‘Climate change may be worse than feared: Garnaut’. The article was about the Gillard Labor government’s climate change advisor’s ‘gloomy’ warning that:
“Sea-level rises caused by global warming may be worse than predicted and the world may have to find deeper cuts to greenhouse gas emissions than currently targeted to manage the risks of climate change.
I would now be tempted to say that views that temperatures and damage from a specified level of emissions over time will be larger than is suggested by the mainstream science are much more likely to be proven correct than those that embody the opposite expectations.”
The Australian quoted Garnaut as finding that “previous research may have underestimated the impact of increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere”.
This story was a straightforward report of an event, highlighting key points in Garnaut’s summary. Garnaut was the primary and only source so his view of climate change defined the story. However, The Australian report ignored Garnaut’s criticisms of media coverage of climate change that he expressed in a speech to mark the launch of the report. Garnaut claimed that the media were undermining support for action by giving equal weight to mainstream peer-reviewed science and sceptical views not backed by published evidence, even though evidence that humans are the primary cause of greenhouse gas emission had strengthened beyond high certainty.
The Age led with the criticism of the media in its report headlined ‘The science is good, the media bad, the situation worse: Garnaut’ quoted Garnaut in these terms: “If you take our mainstream media, it will often seek to provide some balance between people who base their views on the mainstream science and people who don’t. That’s a very strange sort of balance. It’s a balance of words, and not a balance of scientific authority." The Age also included the recent predictions about sea level rise in their report.
A day after Garnaut made these comments, The Australian published a sceptic piece by regular columnist Christopher Pearson, discussed below.
This story provides a good example of how journalists play a key role in producing visibility and invisibility for specific information and activity. Their selection of sources and angles contribute to the overall ‘maps of meaning’ created for their readers. (Bacon, W., & Nash, C.J., 2012).
News Example Two: Researching tropical cyclones and climate change
A second news story published on the front page of The Australian on April 5, 2011 provides an example of a story that was coded as accepting the consensus position which nevertheless could have led readers to doubt the credibility of research scientists and politicians’ statements about the need for action.
In the early hours of February 3, 2011, a powerful tropical cyclone Cyclone Yasi hit the coast of Queensland. In the aftermath of the cyclone, Greens Senator Christine Milne referred to the cyclone as a “tragedy of climate change”. This led to several vehement attacks on her in News Corp media.
Despite the attacks on Milne, the link between extreme weather and climate change has been established in a number of national and international reports. (Australian Climate Commission, 2013). This is further discussed in Section 4.9 on reports of extreme weather.
Two months later, The Australian took up the issue of the impact of climate change on tropical cyclones in a front page story headlined: ‘Fewer more intense cyclones on the way: CSIRO’ appeared on page one of The Australian on April 5, 2011 during the week in which the CSIRO conference on Greenhouse Effects was held.
The story covered a range of research about the frequency and intensity of cyclones. The headline fairly presented the findings. However the first paragraph read:
“The number of tropical cyclones in the Australian region could be halved and waves could become smaller on the nation’s east coast, according to CSIRO research commissioned by the federal government that appears to run counter to growing political warnings over extreme weather events.”
The article goes on:
”The surprise results are contained in scientific papers prepared for the Department of Climate Change and obtained under Freedom of Information laws.
The Australian published extracts of the findings online yesterday as Climate Change Minister Greg Combet painted a grim picture of the climate change risks at the CSIRO’s Greenhouse 2011 conference, held in cyclone-ravaged Cairns.
‘Clearly, one of the most worrying aspects of climate change is what this could mean for the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as droughts, heat waves, cyclones and floods,’ Mr Combet told the conference yesterday.
‘It is these events that impact the most on communities, ecosystems and industry. And, in many instances, the most vulnerable in society will bear the brunt of such impacts.’
In the wake of Cyclone Yasi, Greens deputy leader Christine Milne warned: ‘This is a tragedy, but it is a tragedy of climate change. The scientists have been saying we are going to experience more extreme weather events, that their intensity is going to increase, (and) their frequency.’”
The juxtaposition of the lead paragraph next to the quotes from Greens MP Milne and Minister Combet implied that their warnings were inconsistent with the existing research. While Milne had suggested Cyclone Yasi was linked to climate change, both she and Combet had referred not just to cyclones but to a cluster of extreme weather events.
Overall the story correctly reported that current research tends to show that while cyclones in Australia may be less frequent, they are predicted to be more destructive. There is also research which points to storm surges from cyclones becoming more severe.
When the reporters interviewed Dr Deborah Abbs, who completed the research that was the subject of the lead paragraph, she explained that she had made no findings on the likely increasing intensity of storms because that issue was not part of her research. The CSIRO’s Penny Whetton was quoting as pointing out that the organisation had been reporting the likelihood of tropical cyclones decreasing in frequency but increasing in intensity since 2007: “It’s not new science,….that is the collective wisdom and it has been for some time.” In other words, she pointed out that The Australian’s story was not a news breakthrough. She referred to a 2007 Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO Climate Change in Australia report which projected cyclones decreasing in frequency but increasing in intensity.
While the story did report on a range of cyclone research, it is hard not to conclude that its main purpose was to discredit Milne and Combet and highlight findings that would lessen a sense of urgency about the need for government intervention.
The Australian did publish more material about the conference, including a short news items predicting that sea level rise would be on the upper levels of 2007 predictions and a very brief reference to the health of the Great Barrier Reef being at risk “unless carbon emissions were not dramatically curtailed”. There was also a long feature article on the importance of uncertainty in climate science by environmental reporter Graham Lloyd that was written in a way which assumed that human beings are causing global warming.
News Example Three: Climate refugees
On April 21, 2011, The Australian’s reporter Amos Aikman published another front-page story ‘World still waiting for ‘50 million climate refugees by 2010’.
The first paragraph of the story read:
“A UN climate body has been forced to back away from damaging claims that the world could be flooded with up to 50 million ‘climate refugees’ - by last year.”
The article reports that a map, which recorded a 2005 prediction of 50 million climate refugees by 2010, had been withdrawn by a UN climate body. In fact, the map had been withdrawn by a Norwegian NGO working in collaboration with the United Nations Environmental Program. This organisation had not claimed the world would be “flooded” by refugees.
The issue of climate change and migration is an important one. Informing the public about a UN prediction that has not eventuated is a legitimate story. This story however was not a major news breakthrough or even a new story.
The prediction that there would be 50 million refugees by 2010 was originally made by British environmentalist Norman Meyers in 2005. He has since admitted that his prediction was based on faulty methodology and was an attempt to provide an assessment in the absence of adequate data. The prediction was always contested in academic circles because the definition of an environmental refugee is not clear and is yet to be recognised within international refugee law (Castles, S., 2002). It is also true that the prediction was picked up and repeated by many organisations promoting action on climate change. For example it was repeated in a press release posted to the United Nations University website in 2005. It was also used by French media organisation Le Monde in a map on climate migration. This in turn was used by GRID-Arendal, the Norway based organisation that collaborates with the United Nations Environmental Program.
The story ‘What happened to the climate refugees’ was originally published by a Sydney blogger Gavin Atkins on the Asian Correspondent site on April 11, 2011. Atkins is an admirer of News Corp bloggers, Andrew Bolt and Tim Blair, who he thanked when he took a break from making contributions to the Asian Correspondent site.
Atkins noticed that some countries that were predicted to be a source of climate refugees on a UNEP map had actually grown in population. He contacted GRID-Arendal who removed the map. Atkins initially posted an explanation that there were technical difficulties with the data and it might not be correct and he later explained that it had originally been sourced from Le Monde’s Environmental Atlas.
On April 18, 2011 a piece in Spiegel Online provided an overview of the issue which included an explanation of the difficulty of estimating potential numbers climate refugees.
A day later, on April 19, 2011 Andrew Bolt posted the story on his blog under the heading, ‘What Climate refugees, What map? What dud predictions?’. He accused the UNEP of erasing evidence of its false prediction rather removing information that might mislead the public.
Two days later the story was front page news in The Australian.
In the third paragraph, the journalist localises the story in the Pacific with a reference to Tuvalu which reads:
“Low-lying Pacific islands, such as the tiny nation of Tuvalu, have been considered potential sources of climate refugees as they are submerged by rising sea levels.”
Nowhere else in the article does the author point out that Tuvalu is still considered to be at risk of being submerged by rising water levels and storm surges and damaged by a complex range of climate impacts.
UNSW Professor Jane McAdam is an international expert in the field of climate migration. She was quoted extensively in the article, explaining that attempts to quantify migration because of climate change are challenging because causes are complex and that over-estimations can cause damage. “If we can’t count up 50 million people displaced by climate change today then it looks like a non-issue,” she said. Only in the third last paragraph did the story state that McAdam and another academic source accept that climate change is occurring and could trigger migration.
The story reported McAdam’s view that “alarmist” predictions that can easily be disproved can run the risk “delegitimising” an issue. However, it did not report her concern that existing legal frameworks do not offer adequate protection to people whose communities may be threatened by climate change or that human rights law is relevant to the rights of displaced people.
McAdam is urging governments to develop a framework for people who are displaced by climate change. She considers that countries with high emissions could be cast as persecutors of citizens of small island nations whose existence is threatened by climate change. Since April 2011, she has been the subject of a SMH profile ‘Immersed in a fight for lost ground’ and was also interviewed by the ABC and Voice of America. She has appeared at a major conference on climate change and migration and published several books on this issue. (McAdam, J., 2010, 2012, 2012). According to a Factiva search however, she has never again been used as a source by The Australian.
The analysis of this article shows that news is constructed in ways that explicitly acknowledge that human-induced climate change is real while creating uncertainty about climate researchers and the validity of claims from those who are affected by climate change, such as the people on Tuvalu. This story was coded as ‘accepting’ the consensus view but nevertheless was produced in a way that may well have created doubt about the validity of climate science or urgency of climate change in the minds of some readers.
When considered in the context of overall coverage, it becomes clear that journalists make strategic choices to make some issues and sources visible and others invisible. Their framing of issues also influences their meaning. (Bacon, W., & Nash, C.J., 2012).
This example also demonstrates the danger of republishing earlier claims, such as those of Norman Myers, without verification. Claims should be checked with other experts in the field. The hostile communications atmosphere in which NGOS and journalists work only highlights a need for verification. In the case of journalists, this is supposed to be part of their standard professional practice.
News Example Four: Good news story about coral research
On February 3, 2012 The Australian published ‘Study finds coral reef growth thrives in warmer waters’. The story leads with:
“A government-run research body has found in an extensive study of corals spanning more than 1000k of Australia’s coast-line that the past 110 years of ocean warming has been good for their growth. The findings undermine blanket predictions that global warming will devastate coral reefs, and add to the growing body of evidence that coral reefs are more resilient than previously, thought up to a certain point.”
The peer-reviewed study was by the Australian Institute of Marine Science. It quoted several scientists supporting the results. Towards the end it stated: ”The key question is: how warm can the water get before the positive effects are reversed”. The report also acknowledged that it was much hard to measure the longer terms effects of global warming which seemed to sit at odds with the leading paragraph.
The Australian had already published a report headlined ‘Coral offers climate hope’ on January 21, 2012 about the resilience of coral reefs to warmer environments.
A Factiva search did not reveal any report by The Australian of a major symposia of reef researchers held in Queensland on October 12, 2012 at which 2500 scientists called for a action on pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The statement was summaries in an article in Fairfax Media’s The Canberra Times:
“A statement, said to represent the participants, called for action on pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, which are making the world’s oceans more acidic as they absorb extra carbon dioxide from the air.
‘This combined change in temperature and ocean chemistry has not occurred since the last reef crisis 55 million years ago,’ it said. ‘A concerted effort to preserve reefs for the future demands action at global levels, but also will benefit hugely from continued local protection.’”
Reefs are caught in a pincer movement between local pollution and overfishing on the one hand, and rising temperatures and ocean acidification on the other.
“Dealing with the local threats would put corals in a stronger position to stave off the global problems of heat and acidification, which are expected to intensify later this century, said Jeremy Jackson, a senior scientist emeritus at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.”
The symposia which included many research papers as well as this public statement would appear to have been at least as newsworthy as the resilient coral reports. This example of news reporting of coral research shows how The Australian selects and structures its science news to fit within its overall political agenda on climate change. Unless readers receive information from other sources as well as The Australian, they could be left with the impression that climate change is not a major threat to Australian reefs. While other factors are a serious threat to reefs, climate change interacts with other factors to threaten marine environments.
(More reports on reef research can be found on The Conversation website.)
News Example Five: Himalayan Glacier Melt
An article on February 10, headlined ‘Highest peaks have cut no ice in past 10 years’ focused on a peer reviewed research article in the journal Nature.The Nature article, which attracted international media attention, is a useful example of how media publications can create different meanings in their approaches to a climate science story. Environmental reporter Graham Lloyd began his report by framing it in the context of an episode that occurred in early 2010 which became known as ‘Glaciergate’:
“HIMALAYAN glaciers are back on the frontline of climate change controversy, with new research showing the world’s greatest snowcapped peaks lost no ice at all over the past 10 years.
Claims the Himalayan ice peaks would disappear by 2035 instead of 2350 cast doubt over the credibility of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2009 report. Now even the 2350 estimate of disappearing ice is open to question.”
Glaciergate had been extensively covered by The Australian. A Factiva search reveals that of 23 references to Himalayan glacier melt since 2000, 15 of them made significant mention of the IPPC error and its consequences, including ten that were reports specifically about the incident. Five were reprints from the News Corp owned The Times.
There is no doubt that a serious error had been made in an IPCC working paper report. It was eventually tracked back to a comment made to a journalist who later quoted it in an article for the New Scientist. The statement which was that Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035 was included in an NGO report and later inappropriately repeated in an IPCC report. The scientist who exposed it described it as a “bad error” but “not a conspiracy”. He continued the involved in IPCC activities. The reporter Fred Pearce who published the original interview described the incident as an ‘appalling cock-up’. The incident was damaging to the head of the IPPC Rajendra K. Pajendra who initially defended the statement. Later he acknowledged the error and withdrew the claim. The IPCC subsequently reviewed its procedures. The error and its aftermath were extensively covered by News Corp publications and sceptics as an example of why there needed to be an overhaul of the entire IPCC
Measuring glacier melt is a difficult task because of the limited amount of resources available to track many glacier ranges and because of variations across different regions. Since its intensive coverage of the IPPC error, The Australian has published only two reports referring to Himalayan glacier. One of these was the February 5, 2012 report that is the subject of this example.
After reminding his readers of Glaciergate, Lloyd went on to report that this latest study had found that while lower Himalayan glaciers were melting, snow was being added. He then quoted one glaciologist who said the results were “unexpected” and another, the author of the study, who had told The Guardian that newspaper the melting of icecaps and glaciers remained a serious concern. “People should be just as worried about the melting of the world’s ice as they were before.” The story ended by repeating the now notorious error that led to ‘Glaciergate’.
This article is a good example of how the choice a journalist makes about how to frame a story embeds different meanings for its audience. The key finding of the Nature paper was that the world’s glaciers and ice caps contributed around 1.5 mm per year to global sea level rise between 2003 and 2010. This estimate is smaller than calculated in previous studies. The secondary finding was about the Himalayan glaciers were melting but adding snow. The different findings led to several alternative story frames of which Lloyd’s was one. The Independent , for example, headlined its report ‘Billions of tons of water from world’s glaciers, satellite reveals’. Lloyd’s framing reminded readers of the IPCC mistake and highlighted the lack of certainty about the rate of Himalayan ice melt. More on the Nature paper and the different ways in which it was reported can be found in Carbon Brief.
Two days later, The Australian did publish a wire service report which quoted one of the authors of the Nature article repeating that the ‘bad news’ was that the Himalayas are still losing a lot of water. A Factiva search revealed no further reports of Himalayan glacier melt since then. It did not for example publish anything about research which led Time to report in May 2013 that, “Fears grow of a Himalayan tsunami as Glaciers melt”. This research was also the subject of reports by The Guardian and a number of Asian media outlets.
In January 2013, The Australian was forced to issue a correction after it published an ‘exclusive’ report headlined ‘Sea rise not linked to warming’ and reported that there had been ‘no increase in the rate of glacier melt over the past 100 years’. The correction followed detailed critiques of the piece by environmental journalist Graham Readfearn and Crikey.
This examples shows how The Australian structures its news reporting and selection in ways which amplify uncertainties and findings that tend to reduce concern about climate change while ignoring developments that might build the community perception that urgent action is needed.
Examples of Sceptical Commentary
The Australian’s news item on the Garnaut report appeared on March 11, 2011. One day later on March 12, columnist Christopher Pearson wrote a 1200 comment piece. Pearson, who has since died, was not deterred by Garnaut’s warnings. He wrote:
“I’m expecting the debate over anthropogenic global warming will collapse within the course of the next decade under the weight of its own internal contradictions, to borrow a phrase that so-called scientific Marxism once used in reference to capitalism. It’s probable that quite soon the recent mild warming trend will come to be seen as par for the course and in no way a threat to the planet or mankind….The development of the global warming debate will (in the future) be analysed primarily in terms of what the sociology of knowledge calls plausibility structures.
What part did the Blair government and its friends at the Royal Society player in turning suspect computer modelling into the state religious throughout so much of the Anglosphere? How did Rajendra Pachauri and the Intergovernmental Panel on climate change get away with so many flawed and incoherent reports? Who were the first reputable scientists to express reservations? Who were the later comers and who can best be described as ‘still in denial.’”
“Although there were several turning points in the debate, Climategate revealed in detail how small, powerful and manipulative a clique the anthropogenic global warming theory’s advocates were.”
Pearson concludes by referring to a poll, conducted by a right- wing sceptic think-tank, Institute of Public Affairs, that found that only one-third of Australians believe anthropogenic global warming poses a serious threat. (‘Carbon tax wonder tonic proves a tough sell’, The Australian, March 12, 2011).
This column draws on several recurring themes of climate scepticism including that climate science is the tool of left-wing totalitarian political movements, that those who promote it have vested interests, and that climate scientists are deluded or are lacking in courage. Pearson failed to point out that the scientists associated with the ‘Climategate affair’ have been cleared of manipulating scientific data.
The effect of Pearson’s column, on any readers taking his comments seriously, would have been to cause them to seriously doubt the validity of Professor Ross Garnaut’s report covered in the item on the previous day.
Just two weeks later on March 22, 2011 The Australian ran another sceptical opinion piece by Niki Savva headlined: ‘A spiritual guide to climate change’ which drew on a common sceptic theme that climate science is akin to a religion being forced on people, rather than evidence based intellectual activity.
“If Tony Abbott could only embrace the new global religion where belief in climate change is obligatory and in God optional, then he would spare himself the punishment of its spawn, the New Inquisition and be better off politically, if not spiritually.” — (‘A Spiritual guide to climate change’, The Australian, March 22, 2011).
On February 7, 2011, Paul Monk, of Austhink Consulting, exploring the topic of scientific consensus in an opinion piece argued: “Big questions that need to be asked (and answered) regarding the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis.” He concluded:
“as we work towards consensus we should be ‘wary of foreclosing major debates’, proceed through testing variables scrupulously and not through the ‘polemic or denial’ towards a ‘rational consensus’.”
This was precisely the approach that had concerned Garnaut. (‘History of science shows consensus can be mistaken’, The Australian, February 7, 2011)
The Australian also ran pieces that accepted the scientific consensus position and action on climate change, including one by the ex-premier of Queensland Peter Beattie on disasters headlined ‘When catastrophes happens readiness is all’. (The Australian, February 2, 2011.)
Examples of Features in The Australian
While scientific consensus about human induced climate change exists, climate science is a developing and dynamic field that has many areas of uncertainty. An explanation and exploration of these is an important and legitimate focus of reporting. An example of a feature in The Australian that explored the issue of scientific uncertainty in climate change using a diverse range of sources was an article by Cheryl Jones in which she explored research on the impact of El Nina weather pattern and climate change (‘And Science suggests this may not be the end – Cyclone Yasi’, The Australian, February 2, 2011). This was a strong feature which suited editors’ editorial priorities that amplify uncertainties in climate science but nevertheless was a solid contribution to explaining different types of uncertainty.
Other features raised doubts about the consensus position. On April 9, 2011, The Australian ran an extract of more than 3000 words from ‘The Intelligent Voter’s Guide to Global Warming’, published in the March and April, 2011 issues of the conservative magazine Quadrant. The feature ‘The Intelligent Voter’s Guide to Global Warming (Part I)’ focused on carbon policy but also cast doubt on the scientific consensus around global warming, (The Australian, April 9, 2011). The authors concluded: “As proposed by Danish author Bjorn Lomborg, there are many worthwhile causes to fund with our taxes and philanthropic dollars that rank ahead of possible global warming. Adaption to adverse climate change, if and when it does occur, may be the best and only viable strategy.” (Bjorn Lomberg is a well known critic of the consensus position whose opinion pieces have often been published in The Australian. He has many critics, some of whom have intensively critiqued his work).
Cut and Paste
The Australian has also developed another technique to discredit those who supported policies, media groups or institutions it opposes. It is called the Cut and Paste column, which Factiva codes as a feature. It juxtaposes quotes from different sources to critique or supposed weaknesses in the statements of others, including ABC and Fairfax journalists.
For example, on February 11, 2011, The Australian ran a column, ‘How to insure maximum panic at the least cost is generated from natural disasters.’
“Ross Gittins in The Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday:
‘SCIENTISTS have long predicted one effect of global warming would be for extreme events to become more extreme, which is just what seems to be happening. And, certainly, the insurance industry, which keeps careful records of these events, is in no doubt that climate change is making things worse.’
ABC1’s Lateline on Wednesday:
‘Reporter Margot O’Neill: Australia’s climate seemed to flip into overdrive this summer. So, are these extremes the new normal? It’s what climate change models have been predicting, after all. Big international insurers are mopping up after more than 850 global weather catastrophes in 2010, and they say there’s no doubt: global warming is destabilising the climate.’”
These quotes were then compared to the statement below:
“Peer-reviewed paper by Eric Neumayer and Fabian Barthe of London School of Economics and funded by re-insurers Munich Re in Global Environmental Change, November 18, 2010:
‘Applying, therefore, both methods to the most comprehensive existing global dataset of natural disaster loss, in general we find no significant upward trends in normalized disaster damage over the period 1980–2009 globally, regionally, for specific disasters or for specific disasters in specific regions.’”
The ‘Cut and Paste’ piece aimed to discredit Gittens, who is respected Fairfax media economics editor, and O’Neill, who is a senior ABC reporter who produced a report about climate change journalism for the Reuters Institute. (O’Neill, M., 2010). By juxtaposing the journalists’ references to insurance industry sources who accepted evidence of a link between climate change and extreme weather with a peer reviewed study which appeared find no link, The Australian was encouraging its readers to regard these well known professional reporters as inaccurate and alarmist.
Andrew Bolt took up the attack Gittens and O’Neill on his blog on the same day under the heading: ‘Nailing another warmist scare endlessly repeated by journalists’(Herald Sun, February 11, 2011).
He then repeated the text from the ‘Cut and Paste’ column in the article.
The story might have been left there is it had not been for a reader of Crikey’s Pure Poison who followed up the story by checking the original peer-reviewed paper. He discovered that critical parts had been left out by The Australian and Bolt’s blog. In a short critique ‘The Oz, Bolt and a climate of denial’ Pure Poison published the complete quote from the complete quote from the peer-reviewed paper, which continued:
“Due to our inability to control for defensive mitigation measures, one cannot infer from our analysis that there have definitely not been more frequent and/or more intensive weather-related natural hazards over the study period already. Moreover, it may still be far too early to detect a trend if human-induced climate change has only just started and will gain momentum over time.”
Indeed, the authors had emphasised that the research should not be misused because despite a different research design their conclusions did not contradict earlier studies. They had written, “It is premature to interpret these findings as evidence that climatic factors have not led to an increase in normalized disaster damage”.
One can only assume that The Australian’s editors of Cut and Paste had not read the full paper or deliberately decided not to use these parts. As Crikey concluded: “It must be so infuriating when you think you’ve hit a climate change denial home run, only to find that you’ve struck out”.
On March 19, 2011, The Australian used a similar technique to discredit Professor Garnaut, by quoting out of context comments he made about uncertainty in climate science on separate occasions. In the first quote, Professor Garnaut is quoted as referring to statements by the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, that the science of climate change is “not settled”. This is compared to statements Garnaut himself has made about science never being settled in an “absolute sense”. It is clear that each statement was made in a different context but nevertheless the impact is designed to undermine the credibility of Professor Garnaut. The effect of this technique is to signal to scientists and policy makers that if they acknowledge areas of uncertainty existing in climate science, they will be mocked for supporting the consensus position. The headline ‘The Fatal Unsure– or how a shadow of climate doubt constitutes the mental dark ages’ reinforced the impression that those who support the climate change action are rigid and dogmatic.
Editorials by The Australian
On February 11, 2011, The Australian commented on the appointment of Tim Flannery as Climate Commissioner:
“he would not have been our choice for climate commissioner, a three-day a week job in which he will get paid $180,000 a year. Professor Flannery, a mammalogist and paleontologist is no expert on global warming and has made a hash of the subject in the past.”
The piece ended with:
“But do we really need Professor Flannery to explain climate change? If he wants to be useful, he should urge the government to start selling uranium to India, pronto.”
While very harsh and defamatory, this editorial falls with the field of opinion and journalistic criticism. In the overall context of The Australian’s coverage, it reinforces its overall negative attitude to action on climate change.
This was followed by an editorial on February 12, 2011, about droughts and flooding not being unexpected in Australia, (‘Seeing fire and rain and sunny days that never end’, The Australian, February 12, 2011).
The editorial argues that Australia needs to focus on planning for disasters including “the danger of allowing bushland to carry high fuel loads near built-up areas needs to be addressed across the nation.” Having raised this issue, the editorial criticises those who would “stand back helplessly and blame the summer’s tragedies on climate change is to surrender responsibility for the things that we can control.” The overall impact is to undermine Professor Garnaut’s report ‘Weighing the costs and benefits of climate change’ (2011) which had been widely reported a week earlier as finding that while no specific disaster can attributed to climate change, scientific research does indicate an increase in extreme weather events and the need for action on climate change.
On March 16, 2011, The Australian ran another editorial portraying its own position as one of defending science and rationality:
“At The Australian, we leave matters of spiritual belief for the conscience of the individual but we do unashamedly promote the liberating power of rational thought. It is the triumph of reason that sets humankind apart, that has freed us from superstition, enabled us to prosper, to develop wondrous cultures, to travel and explore from the depths of the oceans to the fringes of the universe. Without the knowledge we have amassed over countless generations, we would live in fear of darkness… yet some of us seem intent on abandoning that legacy in favour of New Age fatalism or Gaia and Mother Earth spiritualism.”
It compared its own approach with that of those who promote:
“Fear mongering over climate change has created such anguish that some people fail to distinguish between climate and geology. The climate hysteria has been propagated by scientists, educators and politicians who should know better…” (‘Earth’s daily woes prompt “off the planet” theories’, The Australian, March 16, 2011).
This led into another attack on then Australian Climate Commisioner Tim Flannery who had mentioned the Gaia principle in an interview when discussing climate change. (An account of how The Australian turned stories about sea level rises into a prosecution of Flannery was produced by UNSW’s Tim Lambert: ‘Bad Tidings. Reporting of sea level rise in Australia is all washed up.’)
Climate scepticism as a collaborative effort
The analysis in this report of News Corp coverage has revealed several instances of where the paper picked up and promoted attacks by the Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt on climate scientists and policy makers. When Bolt scored his so-called news scoop, which is the subject of Example One in Section 4.6, The Australian not only followed up with a prominent news story but also promoted Bolt’s interview with Climate Commissioner Tim Flannery favourably in The Australian diary column.(‘Bolt of climate truth’, The Australian, March 28, 2011). This is just one example of how networking occurs across News Corp through its newspapers, blogs, regional papers and into sympathetic talkback radio and commercial television programs.
In late January 2012, climate science sceptics made several moves across the UK, US and Australia.
On January 27, 2012 (two days before The Daily Mail in London published its story that is the subject of Example Two in the analysis of Bolt’s coverage in Section 4.6), the News Corp owned Wall Street Journal published an open letter by 16 scientists. On January 29, 2011 The Australian published the same letter and a news story “Scientists from around the world, including the former head of Australia’s National Climate Centre, are calling for calm on global warming, saying alarmist rhetoric is not backed by evidence and is being used to increase taxes.” (‘Carbon tax alarmism doesn’t fit facts scientist warn’, The Australian, January 27, 2012)
The Australian’s story was taken up by the ABC’s World Today who interviewed the former head of the National Climate Centre at the Bureau of Meteorology William Kininmonth who signed the letter. Kininmonth is a well known member of the climate sceptic organisation The Australian Climate Science Coalition. In response at the end of the ABC interview, Climate Commissioner Flannery pointed out that the 16 signatories were not all scientists and that the interview needed to be seen in the context of Republican presidential race.
Several bloggers investigate The Wall Street Journal letter more deeply. One of these is environmental journalist Graham Readfearn who had left News Corp and established a blog dedicated to critiquing climate scepticism. His critique of the scientists’ intervention was published on his blog, and on Crikey. The Daily Climate also published an investigation which found that half of the 16 ‘scientists’ had ties to the oil and gas industry. Other blogs posted similar information.
The Wall Street Journal had refused to publish a similar letter from 255 scientists from the National Academy of Sciences supporting the mainstream view on climate change. The signatories made a number of claims that the number of dissenters from the consensus position in the climate science field was growing and about the uncertain state of evidence about the core findings of climate science. They were also described as “distinguished”.
They focussed on the short term warming ‘pause’ that was also being heralded by tabloid press reporters including The Daily Mail’s David Rose and the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt. Professional journalists would normally be expected to subject these claims to scrutiny before publishing and at least provide some alternative perspectives. This did not happen at either The Wall Street Journal or The Australian.
The Wall Street Journal and The NY Times both published strong statements by mainstream scientists responding to the letter.
Mike Steketee is a senior and respected reporter who for several years had a column with The Australian. On February 4, 2012 he published what would be his second last column, headlined—‘Scientists who trade in doubt’. It was a strong critique of the sceptics’ letter. He began by referring back to a time when US Republicans and Democrat politicians had shared a bi-partisan position on global warming and continued:
“Since then, sceptics have won conservative hearts and minds, turning scientific findings into left-wing conspiracy and ideology. Eternal Republican damnation would be the fate of any candidate who dared to advocate the original Gingrich position.
This is another way of saying politics often has little to do with reality. The evidence for global warming and its connection with increased carbon dioxide emissions was overwhelming four years ago and it has only become stronger since. Not that you would realise it from the way data is used selectively.
This week, 16 scientists from around the world put their name to an article, published in The Australian and elsewhere, saying there now had been a lack of global warming for well over 10 years. This led them to argue that ‘there is no compelling evidence for drastic action to “decarbonise” the world’s economy. It is likely that more CO2 and the modest warming that may come with it will be an overall benefit to the planet.’ ”
By contrast with the position adopted by the 16 ‘scientists’, Steketee then referred to data collected by leading world agencies which shows that “the 10 hottest years in the past 131 have all occurred since 1998. By the way, the maximum difference in measurements of global temperature by the three agencies in any of these years is 0.05C. In this context, the fact that 1998 was hotter than 2011 does not matter much.”
On February 7, 2012 The Australian also republished a 1500 word Sunday Times piece that provided an overview of the debate about global warming (‘Warming data show shades of grey’, The Australian, February 7, 2012). On the same day it also published a column by Bob Carter ‘Scientific Research Sinking in a sea of alarmism’.
Bob Carter is associated with the sceptic organisation The Australian Climate Science Coalition and the rightwing thinktank the Institute of Public Affairs.
A month later, Steketee followed up with another column about climate change. The column was headlined, ‘Scientists who trade in doubt’ and was focused on Steketee critique of Bob Carter’s sceptic views and then dealt with the funding he received from the US based Heartland Institute. In response to questions, Carter told Steketee:
“I have no salary and I sometimes do consulting work.’’
The article continues:
“However, Carter’s biography on his website says: *“He receives no research funding from special interest organisations such as environmental groups, energy companies or government departments.’’ Isn’t the Heartland Institute a special interest organisation? “Of course not,’’ says Carter. “They are a think tank.””
Whatever it is, it devotes a great deal of its time to lobbying and public advocacy. The Heartland documents show it spending $US4.2 million of its planned $US6.6m budget for this year on editorial, government relations, communications, fundraising and publication. Heartland describes the project on which Carter is working as ``the most comprehensive and authoritative rebuttal of the United Nations IPCC reports’’.
Steketee examined the sceptic claims and found them wanting in evidence and logic. He then investigated the issue of what interests might be behind them. This is exactly what a independent and professional journalist might be expected to do.
Some time later, Steketee was told the paper no longer wished to publish his column. Not long after that he left News Corp.
Steketee’s departure was not the first. Other journalists who had written strong reports on climate science had also left. One of these was rural reporter Asa Wahquist who left the paper in 2010. Crikey later reported that she had told a journalism education conference that it was “torture” trying to report climate change at The Australian. In addition to these departures, Leigh Dayton a well respected science reporter who had written many reports on climate science left the paper in 2012.
The Australian’s coverage of climate change has come at a cost. It has paid a price of some of its best reporters to pursue its political agenda on climate change.
2013: The Australian and Australian Climate Commission’s report The Critical Decade
In June 2013, the Australian Climate Commission published their report The Critical Decade. It was sent to all media outlets on the evening before its release. It was published in many Australian media outlets the following day. A wire service report did appear on The Australian online but as The Australian’s editor Clive Mathieson later told ABC’s Media Watch, it just didn’t “make the cut” for the hard copy edition. In the following days, The Australian’s Cut and Paste column and Andrew Bolt both took the opportunity to criticise the ABC for their coverage of the report.
(The Australian Climate Commission was abolished by the Abbott Coalition government in September 13, 2013. Its staff have announced they are beginning a replacement Community Council to disseminate information about climate science).
While The Australian ignored this major report, it’s environmental reporter Graham Lloyd has continued to publish reports which create confusion about climate science.
On June 24, 2013 then Presenter Jonathan Holmes critiqued two reports by Lloyd, one of which appeared on May 4, 2013 that under the headline: ‘Emissions debate heats up while experts warn of a coming ice age’ and continued with “Researchers around the world remain at odds on the causes and future of global warming”. (‘Emissions debate heats up while experts warn of a coming ice age’, The Australian, May 4, 2013).
“Researchers around the world suggests a broad group of scientists. But as Jonathon Holmes said on Media Watch,’ Well, no. Two Taiwanese scientists are worried that particulate pollution from China might have a cooling effect – but neither of them questions the warming effect of greenhouse gases. Only one expert quoted in the article does’.”
(The full critique can be found in the transcript.)
“The Australian gives prominence to the small number of scientists who dissent from the view that global warming is being caused by human activity; and down play or ignore the publications – and the warnings – of the scientists who do. Quite simply, The Australian is misreporting the true scientific debate.”
The Australian produces more coverage of climate science than any other print publication in Australia. Over the period studied, it appeared to become more critical of the global warming consensus position. Less articles were published in the three month period in 2012 than in 2011. Those that were published tended to be more sceptical.
This research report confirms earlier research which has found that The Australian plays a significant role in promoting climate scepticism. Approximately half of its articles did assume anthropogenic climate change was occurring. However many of these were constructed in ways which undermine the credibility of climate scientists or those arguing for climate change policies that are not supported by The Australian. The other half of the articles either questioned or rejected the consensus position.
A substantial number of stories which pay lipservice to the consensus position are structured in ways that misrepresent climate science or undermine the credibility of climate scientists. Other stories promote research which downplays the threat of climate change.
There is evidence that The Australian neglects otherwise newsworthy stories that do not fit with its editorial stance.
The Australian singles out journalists at Fairfax and the ABC who cover climate change from the point of view of the consensus for criticism. Meanwhile reporters at The Australian who have attempted to report on climate change and scepticism in what they consider a professional way have found this extremely difficult.
In 2013, The Australian continues to promote sceptics without critiquing their work or the interests they promote. It thus legitimises their claims.
It frames the climate science in terms of an ideological battle and its critics as dogmatists who threaten free speech. It presents climate science as a matter of opinion or debate rather than an field for inquiry and investigation.
Media Watch, Crikey, The Conversation and several bloggers have provided important independent critiques of The Australian’s coverage of climate change.