Understanding Climate Risk

Science, policy and decision-making

A Sceptical Climate: biased climate media in Oz

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Many Australians did not receive fair, accurate and impartial reporting in the public interest in relation to the carbon policy in 2011.

An estimated 25% of Australians read one of the ten capital city newspapers (omitting the Canberra Times). Between February and July last year, these ten papers printed almost 4,000 articles on climate change policy, a whopping 28% in The Australian alone. Most were on the Gillard Government’s carbon price policy. Of the total, 43% were negative, 41% neutral and 15% positive. News Limited  publications comprised 65% of the total. For the News reader, the respective numbers were 50%, 41% and 10%. That’s right, less than 10% of the 2,770 articles on climate policy in the major News Limited papers during this period were positive towards climate policy.

Total articles on climate change policy Feb-Jul 2011

Ratio of negative to positive articles in 10 major Australian newspapers Feb-Jul 2011

In December, the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ) released its report A Sceptical Climate: Media coverage of climate change in AustraliaPart 1- Climate Change Policy. The study provided a snapshot of how climate change policy was covered over a six-month period from February to July 2011. The dominant issue during this period was the introduction of the Gillard Labor government carbon emissions pricing scheme.

The articles were divided into news, editorials, features and comment. Most comment was in-house and dominated by a few commentators. The top ten commentators were negative or neutral commentators, although the Fairfax media featured a number of consistently positive commentators outside the top ten. The report noted that being positive or negative did not preclude investigative reporting. However, Terry McCrann, Andrew Bolt, Tim Blair, Miranda Devine, Piers Akerman and Christopher Pearson accounted for 21% of the commentary. They are not noted for their investigative reporting skills. All present disproven “scientific” allegations as fact and are overwhelmingly negative to almost all forms of carbon policy.

Four percent of the articles were editorials. They were slightly more positive than the sample average but displayed the same tendencies as total articles. The total was roughly one half negative, one third neutral and one quarter positive. The News Limited editorials were two-thirds negative, one-third neutral with a few positive; the Fairfax broadsheets were the other way around. The weight of ownership skewed the total sample towards the negative.

Framing and sources were also both investigated. The carbon price policy was framed mainly as a business issue. Economy, jobs and investment were 43%, prices 30% and No integrity (Gillard)/No point frames totalled 25%. The climate policy benefits and risk management aspects were not named in the framing section at all.  11% of all stories had no sources and 30% one. When the first three sources in all stories were added up: 28% were Labor, 18% Liberal and  23% business. Total civil society sources were 17%, emphasising the strong political, rather than policy, framing of the content. According to the report, when covering international climate policy, the only societies that had a lower level of civil society sources in such articles than Australia were Pakistan and Israel.

Business sources were also used highly selectively. Fossil fuel sources comprised 28% of all business sources, 8% of the total, although one might expect that given their exposure to the issue. Of the 826 business sources used, 79% were negative 4% neutral and 17% positive.  The Fairfax/News split here was less pronounced. Some business sources were heavily utilised—Bluescope Steel 71 times—while other business interests favouring the policy complained that they were being sidelined. The Businesses for a Clean Economy are hardly the driving power for the economy, but a look at their website demonstrates they could show the Australian Trade and Industry Alliance a thing or two about transparency.

This is Part 1 of a two-part report where the second part will look at the representation of climate science in the media. I await it with interest:

Yes, this report has established that the reporting of climate change in sections of the Australian media has been far from impartial, fair or balanced. Is it in the public interest for a media organisation that dominates the market to ‘campaign’ as The Daily Telegraph and The Herald Sun have done, on an issue which a huge majority of the world’s scientists have found threatens the lives of millions? In what circumstances does a lack of diversity and balance, represent a threat to democracy?

Our research has also found evidence of strong reporting, both in these ten publications, the ABC and the fledgling independent media. At the same time however, News Ltd amplifies the power of some of its most biased reporting through blogs, video, links with talk back radio and broadcast media.

Our second report which deals with the reporting of climate science will provide more evidence that while the carbon policy was the focus of intense attention, climate science reporting slipped right down the news agenda. Meanwhile Australian readers received their usual dose of climate scepticism.

Evidence in this report suggests that many Australians did not receive fair, accurate and impartial reporting in the public interest in relation to the carbon policy in 2011. This suggests that rather an open and competitive market that can be trusted to deliver quality media, we may have a case of market failure.


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