Media foster climate of denial

Rally organised by Perth's Coalition for a Safe Climate. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

Climate deniers love banging on about media bias. It’s a favourite theme.

They claim media outlets suppress the debate, peddle global warming hysteria and refuse to give deniers an equal hearing.

Indeed, the evidence (always a knotty issue for deniers) shows that there is a glaring bias in the way the Australian media covers climate change. But it’s a bias for climate denier propaganda, not against it.

Take the Rupert Murdoch-owned media empire: Australia’s largest. The editorial line of its flagship broadsheet, the Australian, is notorious for its climate denial.

News Limited’s other big daily newspapers and websites give a platform to columnists such as Andrew Bolt, Tim Blair, Terry McCrann and Piers Ackerman, who are prepared to rubbish the work of climate scientists.

But the Australian media bias for climate denial is not limited to the opinion columns in the Murdoch press. The bias is often just as telling in what the mainstream media choose not to report.

British climate denier Lord Christopher Monckton’s tour of Australia in early 2010 overlapped with a visit by US climate scientist James Hansen. Both were visiting Australia to promote their views on climate change.

A Media Monitors study, published by Crikey in March, found that Monckton received 455 media mentions. Hansen, one of the world’s top climate scientists, received a mere 21 media mentions.

Even the ABC mentioned Monckton about 18 times more than Hansen (161 mentions to nine).

Climate deniers have as much cause to complain about media bias as they have evidence that global warming is a big conspiracy.

But how should the media report climate change? Do they have a responsibility to report “both sides of the debate”? Do climate deniers deserve any media coverage at all? Or should the media strive to stay detached from the political issues in the name of presenting a balanced view?

These questions were debated at the George Munster Award Forum, hosted by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism in Sydney on October 22.

The forum panellists included Macquarie University climate scientist Anne Henderson-Sellers, the ABC's national environment and science reporter Sarah Clarke, Ben Cubby, environment editor of the Fairfax-owned Sydney Morning Herald, and Monash University professor of journalism Philip Chubb.

Henderson-Sellers criticised the way climate change was reported in the mainstream media. Far too often, scientifically robust views are given equal weight to non-expert opinions that are not based on facts. “I am against this false balance, this pretence of balance”, she said.

Chubb said that giving equal coverage to deniers was not balanced reporting, but led to a bias in favour of climate deniers.

He said: “The fact is that a recent, creditable study has indicated that 97% of published, peer-reviewed climate scientists support the concept of anthropogenic [human-caused] global warming.

“If you have a media representation of that reality which accords people who do not have that expertise … equal representation in the media, you are utterly distorting the situation.

“You are creating a position [that] is biased, in the sense that it is distorted. And you are confusing the public.”

Chubb said the mainstream media’s willingness to give deniers a platform was bad journalism. In practice, it means the most important debates about the climate crisis are buried.

“I believe”, Chubb said, “that there is plenty of dissention, argument, colour and movement within the climate change debate amongst the credible climate change scientists about the extent of the problem, how disastrous the situation actually is and what needs to be done to remedy it.

“If the media is seeking conflict, there is plenty of it within the halls of climate science. It doesn’t need to go outside the halls of climate science and talk to people who are irrelevant, who don’t understand the concept of evidence, but who are prepared to shoot off their mouths nonetheless.”

Cubby responded to Chubb’s criticisms: “One thing about journalism that is different from, say, a scientific journal, is that it is also about story-telling and to some extent about entertainment as well.”

At this point, Henderson-Sellers shook her head in disagreement. Cubby continued: “Anne can shake her head at that, but it is. You’ve got to sell newspapers. You’ve got to make people watch their TV show.

“That can lead to an unacceptable level of distortion. But the opposite is that every story in the paper can be dull but worthy. And it would be incredibly boring.”

Clarke, who has reported on climate change issues for the ABC for the past eight years, defended the record of her employer: “I think Phil’s kind of having a go at the wrong targets tonight … I think [the ABC and Fairfax] are the ones who have delivered the objective, scientific [analysis] … I think Fairfax and the ABC have delivered.”

Later on in the discussion, Cubby said: “This gets to an important point [about] what journalism is for in this context. I’m getting the vibe that we should really be fighting a tide of scepticism on behalf of the climate science community.

“Now, I’m very cautious about campaigning on issues like that. I think the principles of neutrality are extremely important to have a functioning system of journalism. In some ways, those are more important than winning an argument in the public’s mind about climate change.”

Chubb said he could not agree with Cubby’s defense of media neutrality: “Nobody’s asking journalists to get on the team. Nobody is asking journalists to get on any team. There is a difference between journalism and politics and a difference between journalists and politicians and there ought to be. That’s true.

“However, it’s also true that the concept of neutrality only goes so far in reporting the truth. Neutrality obscures the truth at a certain point. There is a point beyond which neutrality as a concept for journalists … ceases to be useful.

“It ceases to be useful in precisely this type of situation — where if you are being neutral you are actually biasing the representation of the argument against one side.

“Neutrality is, in this case, attacking the essence of journalism. The essence of journalism is verification and truth.”

In reality, no line in the sand can be drawn between journalism and politics. Journalists do not exist in a bubble separated from the rest of society. They make political decisions all the time. And political decisions are made for them too, whether they are aware of it or not.

Indeed, Cubby and Clarke’s defence of the liberal media’s record on climate would have been more convincing had they been more willing to admit the heavy political restrictions media corporations place on individual journalists.

But Chubb’s main point about the pitfalls of accepting “media neutrality” is a powerful one.

It recalls how US freelance journalist T.D Allman once defined “genuine objective journalism” in his 1983 obituary to exiled Australian dissident journalist Wilfred Burchett: “Genuine objective journalism not only gets the facts right, it gets the meaning of events right.

“It is compelling not only today, but it stands the test of time. It is validated not only by ‘reliable sources’, but by the unfolding of history. It is journalism that ten, twenty, fifty years after the fact still holds up a true and intelligent mirror to events.”

Media corporations discourage this kind of journalism because it is subversive by definition. But at a time when so much is at stake, subversive and objective journalism is what we really need.