4.5 How News Corp Produces Climate Scepticism

Some argue that the term climate denialism is more appropriate than the term climate scepticism. However, the term climate denialism also over-simplifies the issue and since the term scepticism is very widely used, we have adopted it in our report.

A key finding of this report is that News Corp Australia continues to produce a substantial amount of content that rejects or undermines the findings of climate science. In this chapter, we lay-out the context and patterns in which that scepticism occurs.

Climate science reporting includes describing, explaining, and investigating the findings of climate scientists and their predicted impacts. Our findings show that in the year under review News Corp Australia’s publications did very little of that (see Section 6.2). Instead, editors continued to actively promote and publish scepticism. In doing so, they continued a News Corp practice that goes back more than 20 years (Bacon, 2011; Lewandowsky, 2011; Bacon, 2013).

News Corp Australia’s responses to accusations that they promote climate scepticism range from repudiating the accusations to arguing that it sees its role as one of promoting fairness by presenting debate. Critics point out that climate science is an issue of fact, not opinion. Even if one was to entertain the ‘debate’ defence as valid, News Corp Australia in fact suppresses debate to the advantage of sceptics by not engaging with evidence of fact, as we show in Sections 5 and 6.2. It presents views and opinions but does not engage with evidence in a way that can clarify facts and develop analysis.

4.5.1 What is climate scepticism?

The consensus position on anthropogenic climate change has been well established for more than 15 years. As scientific investigations progress, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change findings and assessments of risk have strengthened (Hoegh-Guldberg et al, 2018). Despite this, the four publications covered in this study continue to publish sceptical opinion that does not engage with evidence but simply repudiates it. They are part of a broader movement of climate scepticism that has been an active force in the climate change debate for nearly 30 years. There is extensive research showing that the scepticism movement is strongly linked to fossil fuel interests and has been since its inception (Oreskes, 2004).

Journalism ethics and climate scepticism

Initially, and despite the increasing consensus and strength of findings in many areas of climate science, the media tended to amplify sceptical views. (More discussion of this can be found here.) However, with the increasing strength and urgency of climate science findings, the growth of public disquiet and journalists’ ethical concerns about reporting information that does not align with evidence, most of the Australian media that is not owned by News Corp has stopped publishing scepticism. Some media organisations, including The Guardian and The Conversation, have developed explicit policies to not reproduce the views of sceptics.

For example, last year The Conversation editors decided that it was ‘journalistically irresponsible to present settled science alongside comments that undermine and distort it and mislead our readers.’

In response to questions, editor Misha Ketchell replied: ‘It’s part of the role of a journalist to filter disinformation and curate a positive public discussion that is evidence-based and doesn’t distort the range of views…’ The Australian accused The Conversation of stifling free speech (Kenny, 2019).

Scepticism covers a range of attitudes to climate change (Hobson & Niemeyer, 2012). It may be expressed in the allegation that climate science findings are a hoax or fundamentally flawed. It may be that a person writes that they accept that the climate is changing but challenges the role of humans in causing it. Or, it may be that climate change is happening but that it won’t have the destructive impacts that have been established by climate scientists. It may mean asserting that, despite thousands of scientific reports demonstrating that there is a link between extreme weather and climate change, no such link exists. Scepticism can also be expressed by suggesting that ideology and not science lies behind the work of climate scientists. Climate scientists and advocates are labelled as ‘warmists’, ‘zealots’, or following a ‘religion’ (Rusi et al, 2015). This issue is further dealt with in Sections 5 and 6.4.

4.5.2 Measuring scepticism

In our previous research, we found that a binary measure of ‘accepts’ and ‘rejects’ for attitudes to scepticism was too crude. A writer may say that they accept the science of climate change but then deliberately undermine it or delegitimize it by vilifying the scientists. Therefore we developed a measure of scepticism that includes ‘rejects and questions/suggests doubt‘. Articles coded ‘questions’ or ‘rejects’ can be grouped to indicate an overall measure of scepticism.

This study includes all articles that deal with climate change, if only in minor ways. For this reason, the issue of scepticism is not relevant in many articles. These articles were coded ‘unable to discern’. This does not mean that their authors do not have an attitude to climate science but simply that it was not manifest.

As we have previously acknowledged in Section 3, coding of this kind involves interpretation. We used a set of principles to encapsulate the findings of climate science, which included the following:

4.5.3 Scepticism in News Corp

Across items in the sample, it was not possible to discern an attitude in 42% of cases. Many of these were focused on other topics or did not express a position either way. In the remaining 5,002 items, 55% of articles were coded as accepting, 20% were questioning and 25% were rejecting of climate science. Simply put: where a position could be discerned, 45% of items were sceptical of climate science.

As demonstrated in Sections 4.3 and 4.4, extremely few of the 55% of stories that communicated acceptance of climate science findings were reports about climate science research, the impacts of climate change or focused on repudiating or clarifying misunderstandings produced by climate scepticism (sections 5 & 6.2). Many of these ‘accepts’ pieces were about consumer choices of products that could reduce emissions or minor mentions that communicated a passive acceptance, without engaging further with issues relevant to climate change (Section 6.3). On the other hand, the sceptical articles were often very assertive or aggressive.

Figure 4.5.3.a: Figure showing number and proportions of items position on climate science per News Corp publication from April 2019 to March 2020.

The Daily Telegraph is the most sceptical of all News Corp publications in the study.

Comparing scepticism across types of items

We have already discussed the strong influence of opinion on the overall coverage and the close links between comments and letters. Commentary is prominently displayed and letters are triggered by commentary. The Australian even has an Engagement Editor who produces a column by selecting letters for republicaton. This is designed to provide readers with a sense of ‘belonging’ and a sense that they matter to the publication.

Figure 4.5.3.b: Figure showing items and their position on climate science across four News Corp publications from April 2019 to March 2020.

We grouped commentary (editorials, opinion and letters) and reportage (news and features). Where an attitude to climate science was revealed:

The highest level of scepticism in reportage was in Courier Mail with 19%. In other words, almost one in five of the news and feature articles in that publication did not accept key findings of climate science. On the other hand, this does show that reporters are mostly not producing scepticism. Examples of sceptics and scepticism are offered in Section 5.

AAP and local news

From April 2019 to March 2020, a number of the ‘accepts’ articles in reportage came from the AAP newswire service (62 at least). AAP news is based on strong reporting principles and does not promote scepticism. During 2020, News Corp sold out of AAP and ceased its subscription to the news service. Without the AAP stories, the coverage in our study would have been even weaker. News Corp has set up its own internal wire service for court crime and politics for the moment.

We also observed that local suburban news outlets were more likely to publish soft promotional stories on climate change that were included in the sample because they were also published online by the Herald Sun, The Daily Telegraph or Courier Mail. During 2020, News Corp Australia has closed or reduced resources at many of its suburban outlets. The few stories that are still published now appear online behind a paywall.

These changes in the Australian media are likely to have had a negative impact on the quality and quantity of coverage of climate change in News Corp publications. This needs to be further researched across all fields of reporting.

Commentary: Letters

Letters are strongly linked to comment pieces, either endorsing or disagreeing with them. These letters do not include the hundreds of comments posted online across News Corps publications.

Of the 1,699 letters in the sample that expressed an attitude to climate science, 66% were sceptical and 34% were accepting of climate science findings.

The highest proportions were evident in the Daily Telegraph – 80% were sceptical and 20% accepted climate science findings, and in The Australian – 74% were sceptical and 26% were accepting.

These extremely high proportions cannot be explained as merely a reflection of audience opinion because letters are selected to achieve editorial objectives and views about what will build audience engagement. They demonstrate an ideological drive to mobilise audiences to support certain policies, attitudes and values. This represents an editorial choice.

Commentary: Editorials

Editorials are a statement of a media outlet’s position on issues.

Overall, of 72 editorials that expressed a view towards climate science, 61% of these were coded as sceptical in relation to one or more of the principles explained above. Thirty-nine percent of the editorials expressed an acceptance of climate science findings reaffirming that News Corp’s Australian publications have an editorial strategy that involves turning science into a debate and continue to vastly overrepresent sceptical views.

Commentary: Opinion

Overall, 65% of opinion pieces (1,370) rejected or questioned the climate science findings and only 35% accepted them. In other words nearly two-thirds of comment pieces were sceptical.

The highest proportion of scepticism was found in the Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph. In both, 77% of pieces, or more than three-quarters of opinion pieces, promoted sceptical views. The great majority of these were produced by in-house opinion writers whom News Corp refers to as journalists. This is followed by the Courier Mail with 59%, and The Australian with 50%.

Comment pieces are not only high in volume but also take up a lot of space. Sceptic columnists play a big role in mobilising readers around polarising narratives of climate action. The most prolific sceptic is Andrew Bolt.

In Section 5, we discuss the top sceptics.

4.5.4 Discussion

The climate change scepticism displayed in News Corp publications comes as no surprise because it follows a pattern established over many years (McKnight, 2010; Manne, 2011). In 2013, the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ) investigated Australian media coverage of climate change. This study found that 32%, or nearly one-third of 602 articles that referred to climate science either rejected or suggested doubt about the consensus position. The highest proportion of climate scepticism was found in The Daily Telegraph. This much larger, more recent study shows that News Corp continues to promote climate scepticism.

Oreskes and others have shown that the media tend to amplify uncertainty of science when economic and political interests are at stake (Oreskes, 2010). In an earlier study, the Reuters Institute found that there was more scepticism in the United Kingdom and the United States media than in Brazil, China, France and India and that it was more likely to be found in right-leaning than left-leaning media (Painter, 2011). This is also true in Australia. News Corp promotion of climate scepticism closely aligns with the political ideologies and positions it supports. The politicisation of climate change and ideological underpinnings of scepticism can also be shown through analysing the language that is used and the context for the scepticism. In Section 6.4, we provide examples of how language is used to brand and stigmatise those who act to address climate change.

Recent surveys have shown that a majority of Australians accept the key consensus position on climate science (Australia Institute, 2020; IPSOS, 2020). However there is a solid minority that reject the findings of climate science. News Corp commentary deliberately targets these minority readers and seeks to reinforce their hostile views and sense of exclusion.

The promotion of scepticism occurs in a context in which conflict over climate policy continues to play a strong role in domestic politics and in which the Morrison government and sections of the Labor opposition (and state Labor governments) continue to oppose the phasing out of fossil fuels. As we have already shown, the news and features are strongly framed in the context of domestic politics. Attitudes to action to address climate change will be further explored in Section 4.6.