6.2 Representing Scientists and Climate Change Advocates

One of the key findings of this report is that there were very few voices of scientists in News Corp’s coverage of climate change. Only 6% of all sources across four News Corp publications were scientists of any kind. Some scientists were also negatively targeted by News Corp publications (Sections 4.4 and 6.4).

Many items that mentioned climate change in the context of science and environment reduced the validity of the science using critical political sources. (Some of these are dealt with in Section 4.4.) In a news story that relates to climate science, News Corp is twice as likely to quote a politician as a scientist. For example, in a story about the Great Barrier Reef (‘Vibrant Reef teaming with life’, The Australian, 13 August 2019), Graham Lloyd began:

The Great Barrier Reef is not dead, is not dying and is not even on life support, federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley has declared after her first official visit to the World Heritage-listed site. Returning from a snorkelling trip … Ms Ley was happy yesterday to broadcast the message that tourism operators desperately want heard around the world. “Today we saw coral that was struggling but we also saw coral that was coming back, that was growing, that was vibrant,” Ms Ley said.

None of the leading climate scientists who are extremely concerned about global warming impacts on the reef are quoted in this article, although Ley refers to the Australian Institute of Marine Science. Another Coalition MP Warren Entsch is quoted in relation to bleaching and climate change. ‘He [Entsch] said it was not a new phenomenon: “It has been happening for millennia.”’ (This is similar to the frequently used sceptical argument: ‘I believe in climate change because the climate is always changing.’). Lloyd does make a passing reference to ‘marine scientist Peter Ridd who is about to begin a speaking tour’. Peter Ridd is a well-known sceptic who has repeatedly attacked other leading marine scientists (see Section 5 and Wilkinson, 2020, p. 196).

The low levels of scientific ‘voices’ reflects very low levels of climate science reporting. In this section, we will look more closely at News Corp’s reporting of climate science, including how scientists are represented.

First, some background issues relevant to climate science reporting.

6.2.1 Low levels of climate science reporting

Some may suggest that the low levels of science reporting can be explained by the complex nature of science or by saying that audiences are simply not interested. However, a lot of science reporting consists of publishing media releases with little or no extra follow-up (ACIJ/Crikey, 2013). ‘Breakthrough’ reports in scientific research have long been part of the staple diet of news organisations.

For more substantial reports, there will always be complexities and uncertainties to explore. The job of journalists is to investigate these with an open mind. In exploring conflicting perspectives, science and general reporters make judgements about who and what are reliable sources. Good journalistic practice involves critical and dissident opinions being tested with the same rigour as scientists whose work has been subjected to review. (There is more discussion of these issues in Bacon, 2013, in Section 3).

The Australian Science Media Centre was established to enhance science reporting and has many useful resources. Think tanks and environmental organisations also have professional communications staff and publish resources that are especially designed for journalists, including those who are short of time.

Low levels of climate science reporting may reflect broader declines in specialist rounds. Our earlier report showed very low levels of reports about peer-reviewed climate science research across ten Australian publications and a decline in climate science reporting from 2011 to 2012. (Bacon, 2013, Section 4.5). Over six months, there were no reports in the Herald Sun that relied on peer-reviewed research and one in The Daily Telegraph. It is not within the scope of this study to investigate how coverage of climate science reporting compares with other fields of science. However, we can note that the massive focus on Covid-19 in 2020 shows how much reporting is possible when an issue is high on the national (and international) agenda, as climate change should be, given its risks. Nor is this study aimed at comparing News Corp Australia’s reporting with that of other organisations, although our observation is that there is more climate science reporting in The Guardian, the ABC and Nine publications.

6.2.2 How are scientists represented in News Corp’s climate science reporting?

Climate science stories usually include an authoritative individual or organisational scientific source that provides key information. In order to identify climate science stories, we selected news and features with a science and environment dominant theme that also had a scientist or academic individual or organisation as the first source.

Through this process, we identified 57 stories coded as having a dominant theme of ‘science and environment’ that quoted a scientist or academic as a first source. Even allowing for a margin of error (for example, source descriptions may be confusing), this is an extremely low number in a sample of 3,552 news and features. These four News Corp Australia publications pay very little attention to climate scientists or other academics researching climate change.

Nearly half of these stories were in The Australian. The Australian’s environment editor Graham Lloyd, one of whose stories is mentioned above, had more climate science articles published than anyone else. The Australian promotes Lloyd as a ‘fearless reporter of all sides of the environment debate’. (See below for more on Lloyd.)

On closer inspection of the few ‘scientists’ who were quoted, we recognised the names of several well-known sceptics or individuals on the fringes of climate science. While some of these individuals do accept the anthropogenic climate change consensus, they reject other consensus findings such as those linking climate change with extreme weather or argue that climate change improves the world. (See Section 6.3.)

How are civil society voices represented?

Australian civil society also struggles to get a voice in Australia’s biggest media organisation when it comes to climate change. Organisations and movements advocating and acting to address climate change are much more likely to be collectively derided in News Corporation publications than they are to be quoted. (For examples of phrases and words used to describe those who advocate for urgent action to address climate change, see Section 6.4.)

Environmental and other organisations regard visibility in the media as important and expend resources to achieve it. There is no shortage of easily accessed information packaged in mediafriendly ways. This did result in organisations including the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility, Environment Victoria, and others getting quoted occasionally. Their communication strategies appear to be more successful in relation to other organisations, including the ABC, Nine Entertainment Co, The Guardian, other commercial media and independent media.

The Climate Council

The Climate Council, which was established privately in 2013 after the Abbott Coalition government abolished the Climate Change Commission, aims to provide ‘authoritative, expert advice to the Australian public on climate change’, funded entirely by the community. The Council and its staff include leading scientists, researchers and other subject matter and policy experts.

The Climate Council’s representatives were quoted in climate science-related stories as a first or second source on approximately 12 occasions in all news and feature stories coded. (Note: We only coded first and second sources because stories with three or more sources were very rare, so it is technically possible the Climate Council was quoted on a few more occasions.) ‘Qld a hotspot for extreme weather’ (6 August, 2019) was based on a Climate Council report about extreme weather and renewable energy in Queensland. This is an example of a short local story about climate change that was also published on the Courier Mail online. It is based on a Climate Council report focused on Queensland, and quotes Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie. It begins, ‘Queenslanders are on the frontline of climate change and extreme weather impacts, according to a Climate Council report released today’. It portrays a very encouraging view of renewable energy developments in Queensland.

This story, relying on the Climate Council as the sole source, was typical of a Courier Mail story that was positive to action on climate change. Our data analysis showed that the Courier Mail had almost an equal number of news and features that were positive as negative towards action on climate (see Section 4.6).

In a column on June 21, 2019, Bolt promoted an issue of magazine The Spectator that included an attack on the Climate Council for allegedly taking journalists to report on ‘artfully-selected patches of the Barrier Reef to see the bleaching first hand’. It criticised the Climate Council’s CEO Amanda McKenzie for linking climate change with extreme weather and suggesting that Greta Thunberg, ‘the mercilessly-exploited unwell Swedish 16-year-old, to Skype her apocalyptic ravings to gullibles here: ‘She’s an amazing communicator and absolutely fantastic…’

Tim Flannery – object of hostility rather than a source

Tim Flannery is the Chief Councillor of the Climate Council and is a leading scientist. He is a mammalogist who has played a leading role in climate advocacy in Australia. He served as the Chief Commissioner of the Climate Commission, a Federal Government body until it was abolished by the Abbott Government, and as the Chief Councillor of the Climate Council.

Tim Flannery was referred to in a negative way in more than 40 opinion pieces by News Corp columnists during the period of the study. We could find no occasion on which Flannery was given the opportunity to explain his views. We found one occasion on which he declined to comment. In other words, he was constantly subject to attack but effectively denied a voice. Those who attacked him included Chris Mitchell, Chris Kenny and Andrew Bolt who published more than 30 attacks on Flannery in seven different News Corp publications around Australia.

Comments about Flannery often mention his earlier descriptions of climate change threats including grave risks of water shortages in Perth, Western Australia. Wilkinson reports that Flannery later ‘qualified the statement and said that it was contingent with governments not taking action.’ A desalination plant was built. ( Wilkinson, 2020, p.197). In its series Holy Wars, Crikey (2017) gave Flannery an opportunity to explain some points that News Corp sceptics have used against him for years, including some of his predictions. He argued that his remarks had been taken out of context.

None of this makes any difference. Flannery’s earlier statements are repeatedly used by opinion writers against him. While Flannery, like any other public figure, should be open to critique by the media, he never appears to be asked by News Corp writers to clarify his earlier statements or put his comments in context.

During the 2019 Federal election period, Flannery was targeted in a prominent news article that reported that he had moved to a multi-million-dollar mansion in Manly. He was accused of waging a ‘vendetta’ campaign against Tony Abbott, the man who ‘canned his old department in 2013’, and that he had secured a ‘raft of climate-related’ positions at universities’ (‘Climate chief’s sea change aids abbott foe’, The Daily Telegraph, 9 May 2019). The tone and content of these news stories is calculated to undermine the credibility of Flannery as a source on scientific matters. Flannery was given an opportunity to comment but declined.

The personalised campaign extended to other sources connected to the Climate Council. Reports were written about the ex-Commissioner of Fire and Rescue, Greg Mullins, being funded by the Climate Council. Mullins had set up a fire chiefs' climate group, which was referred to as Flannery’s ‘pet project’, seemingly an attempt to delegitimise by association. Scrutinising the conduct of individuals and funding for projects is valid journalism so long as it is disinterested and offers the right of reply. However In the context of years of hostile commentary, a story like this seems more like part of a campaign to discredit Flannery and Mullins.

How scientist Professor Andy Pitman became fodder for sceptics

Professor Andy Pitman directs a team of researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Science at UNSW, studying how extreme weather events such as heatwaves, bushfires and drought affect the environment. He has made many public statements about the links between extreme weather and climate change, and has signed letters urging governments to take urgent action. During 2019, he made a statement that ‘as far as the climate scientists know there is no link between climate change and drought’. Instead of contacting him for clarification, News Corp used this remark for months as evidence that there were no established links between climate change and extreme weather, including fires. Bolt alone mentioned in more than 20 columns published by the three News Corp tabloids. Pitman issued a clarification stating that he had meant ‘direct’ link, but that was ignored.

ABC’s Media Watch analysed the affair and noted that ‘Bolt, Kenny and Jones have blocked their ears, because they’re still treating Pitman’s original quote as gospel’. Media Watch was also critical of scientists for not correcting the record quickly and clearly.

Ex-Prime Minister Tony Abbott also used the Pitman statement in an opinion piece rejecting the link between bushfires and climate change (‘Forget climate politics, this brutal bushfire season showed our fighting spirit’, The Australian, 23 January 2017). Pitman’s response was reported by Crikey. He told Crikey, ‘Science is about accuracy and appropriate conclusions being reached from the data, and not about cherry picking parts of science to suit your argument’.

The treatment of Flannery and Pitman reveals two different editorial strategies in the representation of scientists. In Flannery’s case, he has been targeted with hostile reports for years and denied an adequate voice to respond. In Pitman’s case, a single statement was adopted by sceptics to strengthen their position. In neither case was News Corp Australia interested in exploring or giving voice to the scientists’ actual views.

Examples of climate science and environment stories

As we have reported in Section 4.6, news reportage is less negative than the opinion pieces. Here are three examples of reports that were positive towards action to address climate change. The first was sabotaged, which led to a lot of negative commentary.

Example 1: 11,000 scientists call ‘climate emergency’

In early November 2019, 11,000 scientists from 153 countries endorsed an article titled ‘World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency’ in the journal BioScience. This warning was widely covered around the world including in The Australian. According to our Factiva search it was not covered by the other three outlets.

The Australian reported that the statement claimed there was a ‘climate emergency’ that called for major transformations in the way global society functions and interacts with natural ecosystems. It quoted the group as stating that ‘policymakers and the public urgently needed access to a set of indicators that convey the effects of human activities on (greenhouse gas) emissions and the consequent impacts on climate, our environment, and society’.

This was an example of a basic straight news story. It was one of the few examples in our sample that mentioned global inequalities related to predicted climate change impacts.

It is also an example of how the linkage of stories online can be used to undermine sources’ authority. Readers who read the story online of the 11,000 scientists’ warning are pointed via a link to a piece by Chris Kenny berating the ABC for ‘ignoring the facts on climate change’. In this column Kenny attacked Media Watch and Paul Barry for ‘climate groupthink’ and the ABC for ‘wilful deceit on global warming [that] is so entrenched that its self-censorship was as difficult to predict as sunrise’.

Another link embedded in the ‘11,000 scientists warning’ news story took the reader straight to a different news story by Graham Lloyd (‘US formally announces withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement’, 5 November 2019) that was largely made up of statements from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the United States’ record on climate action.

The original ‘11,000 scientists’ story backfired when it was discovered that somebody had placed bogus signatories on the petition. Graham Lloyd reported this the next day in ‘‘Mickey Mouse’ on climate petition’ (The Australian, 7 November 2019).

He wrote, ‘Dozens of signatories including Mickey Mouse and Harry Potter headmaster Albus Dumbledore from Hogwarts have been removed from an Alliance of World Scientists declaration of a “climate emergency”’.

Lloyd again included some of the findings of the Bioscience article but finished with a ‘balancing’ source. He chose consulting geologist Marc Hendrickx, who highlighted the errant signatures, and said ‘legitimate researchers passionate about the scientific method do not do science by social media’. Marc Hendrickx has a long history of climate scepticism and has used the term ‘climate dementors’ to describe those who accept mainstream climate science.

Lloyd’s report set off a barrage of sceptic letters in the ‘debate’ that followed. The letters were headed ‘Scene set for new climate debate’ (The Australian, 6 November 2019). One letter read:

The role of carbon dioxide in global warming is not universally accepted, but sprawling cities are measurably hotter than their surroundings. By concentrating research and activism on greenhouse gases, often to the detriment of developing economies, we run the risk of turning our backs on the one ray of hope for humanity — the creation of high wealth and low population growth economies.

One of the letters was from Marc Hendrickx himself.

Looking over the 11,000 signatories from scientists declaring a climate emergency, I found a certain Professor Mickey Mouse, Institute for Blind, Namibia. It seems as much quality control has gone into this survey as climate science. I think I’ll switch off the alarm bells.

Another read:

Earth is 4.5 billion years old yet 11,000 scientists have seen fit to declare a “climate emergency” on the basis of their examination of statistics on the past 40 years. That’s hardly scientific rigour.

The BioScience ‘11,000 scientists’ story received massive coverage around the world. But other than in Australia, the Mickey Mouse angle received little publicity. None of the tabloids provided their readers with a serious report of the study. However, the ‘Mickey Mouse’ revelation was rich fodder for Andrew Bolt. He told his followers that the rest of the ‘The media fell for the "study" that claimed "11,000 scientists" had declared’ (Herald Sun, 5 November, 2019). He mocked other media outlets, accusing them of repeating ‘any nonsense’, and wrote, ‘Global warming hysteria is now so manic that I don’t trust a thing journalists say until I’ve checked for myself’ (Herald Sun, 10 November 2019).

However, at least one columnist at News Corp Australia had a different view. Susie O’Brien wrote a strong column, ‘Bushfire crisis must be a climate wake-up call for Australia’s leaders’, in which she declared that while federal politicians did not want to talk about climate change during the bushfires, ‘this is the ideal time to talk about global warming’. She added, ‘The 11,000 signatories of the BioScience petition warning of a climate emergency agree. Disparaging a handful of the signatories because they’re still students doesn’t weaken its impact or importance’. (Susie O’Brien was mentioned in Section 5 as one of the News Corp columnists who accepts the key findings of climate science.) O’Brien’s column was one of the few signs of real debate about the link between climate change and the bushfires in News Corp’s coverage.

Example 2: Greg Bearup: ‘The Battle For The Barrier Reef’ (13 December 2019)

Bearup is a very senior reporter who wrote a feature about the Great Barrier Reef. He explains that ‘at the invitation of Tourism Queensland and the conservation group Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, a number of journalists were flown to Cairns to observe the annual mass coral spawning and to look at a number of coral restoration projects in which tourism operators have partnered with scientists’. The story expresses more optimism than can be found in the views held by some leading scientists, but it does describe the ‘devastation caused by the twin bleachings – it’s like a poisoned forest. It wiped out 95 percent of the coral cover but you can see the baby corals regenerating among the carnage’. It does acknowledge that ‘The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority found that the long-term outlook for the reef’s ecosystem has deteriorated from poor to very poor… Concerted global action to limit global warming is needed to turn around the deteriorating outlook for the Great Barrier Reef – and all other coral reefs.’

As Bearup frankly acknowledged at the outset, this well-written feature was produced as a result of a Queensland tourism campaign. It celebrated attempts to fix the reef while acknowledging that the reef is threatened by global warming. Leading coral reef scientists such as Professor Terry Hughes have expressed concern about how positive narratives about attempts to ‘fix’ the reef may be used to deflect from urgent action to reduce the impact of fossil fuels. More reportage will be needed to investigate the viability of technologies that are proposed to save/restore the reef. However, Bearup’s story does stand in stark contrast to much of News Corp Australia’s coverage of coral reefs that has amplified the voices of those who promote the view that the Great Barrier Reef is not seriously threatened by global warming.

Example 3: ‘Monash Uni’s Julie Arblaster says the science shows that reducing carbon emissions is urgent’

(also titled: ‘Ringing the warning bell’, 11 October 2019)

This is a profile of a top scientist by Sian Powell in The Weekend Australian. Powell combines an opportunity to cover a woman who has reached the top of her field and also to focus on her belief climate change research is crucial, using ample quotes from Arblaster.

Understanding the extremes of climate change is crucial … because the resulting flash floods and crippling heat waves affect people’s health and wellbeing. “A one degree rise in average temperatures doesn’t sound like a lot, but it can have a really big impact on the extremes, like the heatwaves and the extreme rainfall events, that lead to the flooding we saw in Queensland a few years ago,” she (Arblaster) says.

There were many similar examples of both long and very short features in our study where journalists found opportunities to highlight the issue of climate change. Unfortunately, opportunities lessen as resources shrink.

The media politics of the Great Barrier Reef

There were several other stories, apart from the two already quoted in this section, that were about the fate of the Great Barrier Reef. This is a bigger evolving issue that goes beyond the scope of this report. Eight years ago, in our second Sceptical Climate report, the authors of this report analysed two ‘good news stories‘ about the health of the reef. We concluded then:

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.

Amongst the small number of climate science in our sample, there were several by Graham Lloyd that quoted Dr Peter Ridd as a source on the health of the Great Barrier Reef.

Ridd was sacked by James Cook University for publicly attacking the credibility of the university’s marine science research on Sky News and elsewhere. The Australian supports Ridd’s belief that his sacking was an assault on free speech. Ridd won his case against James Cook University in 2019 but that judgement was overturned in July this year. Ridd has said that he is appealing to the High Court of Australia and is supported by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA).

Although Ridd claims to accept that human-induced climate change is happening, he has long publicly rejected the credibility of some of Australia’s top coral reef scientists. His claims that the reef is not seriously threatened fly in the face of thousands of national and international reports. He regards these as unreliable and ‘doom science about the GBR’. He wrote a chapter in a new edition of the IPA book, Climate Change: The Facts. (This book was promoted by the Herald Sun. For more on Ridd and other sceptic sources see Section 6.4). He is supporting political campaigns against more regulation of farming run-off in Northern Queensland.

Of all the journalists employed by the four publications in our study, Lloyd is the only one to be given the time to seriously research scientific issues. He reads scientific papers and has at times identified statements by climate change advocates that he claims overstate the connection between specific extreme weather events and climate change. However, he also uncritically promotes sources that suit The Australian’s editorial line, which is that those who reject well established findings of climate science have a right to be published whether or not their claims are justified. While other mainstream publishers have decided that it is unethical to publish statements without evidence to support them, The Australian positions ‘dissidents’ as free speech champions who deserve exposure.

In a news story celebrating Ridd’s initial court win, Lloyd revealed his own position. He wrote, ‘Peter Ridd has struck a powerful blow against the notion that climate can be conducted by consensus. …. Ridd has shown that ‘plain speaking and an open mind can still trump bureaucratic intrusion and the dead hand of conformity.’ Lloyd refers to an ‘age of climate change dogma’. By conveying the impression that consensus in science is about dogma and conformity, Lloyd sidesteps the principles that underpin a ‘consensus’ in science which is only achieved through a long process of independent peer review. Lloyd has never explained how the coral reef research that Ridd has repeatedly rubbished as ‘unreliable’ and ‘not objective’ has passed through hundreds of evaluation processes. Other researchers have criticised Lloyd’s journalism. In their “Wind turbine syndrome: a communicated disease on the controversy around wind farms”, Professor Simon Chapman and Fiona Crichton provide an extended critique of the reporting strategies Lloyd used in a series of articles supporting the case of the anti-wind farm lobby (Chapman & Chrichton, 2017).

6.2.3 Conclusion

While News Corp Australia wages war against climate science and climate action advocates, these four outlets displayed little interest in reporting stories about climate science research in a fair way. However the stories analysed in this Section reinforce our overall finding that reportage is fairer than commentary. The last two (by Bearup and Powell) illustrate how senior journalists may have latitude to do stories that do not reflect the more sceptical overall editorial line. However, reportage can also be used to delegitimise climate action advocates, including scientists. Isolated instances such as a few false signatures (which may themselves have been a result of the actions of sceptics) on a 11,000 strong petition of support can become the trigger for a major attack from climate sceptics opinion writers and their followers.