Wendy Bacon Responds To News Corp


Last week, the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism published its second report on Australian coverage of climate change. This report, of which I am the author, focuses on the coverage of climate science in Australian print publications.

Australia’s print media is concentrated in the hands of News Corp, which own seven of 10 newspapers studied. The report found that Australia's biggest publications The Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun are misleading and confusing their readers about scientific findings on climate science. (A detailed comparison of Fairfax Media and News Corp can be found here)

Australia’s only national newspaper for a general audience, The Australian, deliberately creates uncertainty and a debate about aspects of climate science that the world’s leading climate scientists have found are "virtually certain", the report found.

The report identifies columnist Andrew Bolt as the most prolific and widely published writer on climate science in Australia. He constantly attacks climate scientists and journalists (who report on climate change from the point of view of 97 per cent of the world’s climate scientists) across News Corp publications, on 2GB and on Channel 10. He has done this again this week in two blog posts, one column and on 2GB.

From the point of view of professional journalism, I argue that much of News Corp’s reporting of climate science is unethical.

Public understanding of climate science has policy implications and the ramifications for communities that are vulnerable to climate change is huge. If people do not understand the threat of global warming, they cannot be expected to support changes to mitigate it.

On Tuesday, The Australian published a piece in its Cut and Paste column suggesting that I, as a professor of journalism, would ask media students to “swallow” a consensus. In fact this is the opposite to what I suggest. As an investigative journalist I am very aware that a journalist must be open to inquiry on all matters.

Inquiry however should be based on evidence. If dissidents suggest to journalists that the world’s most established and respected climate scientists are wrong, journalists should only promote these views after a rigorous independent checking process.

In fact, independent researchers and journalists have done that and are constantly critiquing the coverage of scepticism. I use the ABC’s Media Watch and ex-News Corp journalist Graham Readfearn as Australian examples of independent critique. One of my criticisms of Andrew Bolt and others who promote the views of those who deny anthropogenic climate change and other key findings of climate scientists is that they fail to subject sceptic views to critique and simply recirculate them.

On Wednesday, I wrote this letter to The Australian:

Dear Editor,

In your "Cut & Paste" column on November 5, you misrepresented my views on how journalists should approach the reporting of science. I would never suggest that anyone “swallow” a consensus position on science or anything else; indeed, precisely the opposite.

My complaint about the columnist Andrew Bolt is NOT that he asks too many questions but that he does not sufficiently question sceptic views, especially given their lack of scientific credibility.

In my report I specifically addressed the issue of how journalists approach science reporting and specifically how they can deal with dissident scientific sources. I write:

“Some have argued that journalists should leave climate science to the scientists and simply report evidence that has been peer reviewed or independently assessed. Critical and independent journalists will not agree. While daily reporters develop techniques and conventions for assessing the credibility of sources, in-depth and specialist reporters have a responsibility to interrogate experts on behalf of the public. Journalism’s central preoccupation is with the truth or discovering which claims are valid or which claims are not.

If a reporter is contacted by a source holding views contrary to mainstream scientific opinion, a range of actions are possible. A reporter can first establish the basis for the difference and then canvas views from a range of experts. Has the dissident view been critiqued? Has the dissident responded to that critique? What is the nature of the evidence or proof of alternative scientific claims? Is there evidence that dissidents are being marginalised to protect powerful interests? Or are dissidents being funded by interests with a stake in particular policies? What interests or motivations underlie the difference between parties with differing views? Occasionally, stories of scientific fraud or suppression are exposed by following such methods.”

Although I am not a specialist science reporter, I have read material that rejects the findings of climate scientists and the critiques of it. I have also followed the reports of reputable climate scientists. It is on that basis that I support the scientific consensus on the contribution of human beings to dangerous global warming. I believe that the media has an obligation to report those findings clearly to the public. My study found that a number of News Corp publications are not doing that.

Wendy Bacon

The Australian didn't publish the letter, preferring others that further promote doubt about anthropogenic climate change. Instead in today's editorial, they further attack me.

The Australian’s editorial states not for the first time that the paper accepts that greenhouse gas emissions are producing global warming and that action must be taken. However they defend the fact that nearly half their coverage and more than half the words in articles dealing with climate science do not support this position as an example of “balanced” coverage. In my report I critique the argument that the journalistic norm of balance can be used to justify reporting and promoting false material about climate science.

The editorial then claims that I have said media should practice a consensus. It quotes a retired professor as arguing that my position is “monstrous”. In fact what I have clearly said is that journalists should have regard for the consensus that already exists among climate science and, as they would with any other field of science, report it.

Contrary to what The Australian suggests, I have consistently encouraged young journalists and students to question prevailing ideas. The Australian Centre for Independent Journalism has been part of developing international student debates about the ethics of reporting climate science, including how balance or “false balance” applies in this case.

The Australian does not respond to or discuss any of my detailed analysis of its coverage of climate science, through which I demonstrate how it uses different genres of reporting to create doubt. 

News Corp promotes news that suggests global warming may not be as serious as once thought but fails to cover other key reports. It publishes the views of denialists who completely reject the scientific consensus on climate change. It snipes at journalists who cover climate scientists in a straightforward way. It undermines the reputation of climate scientists to engender public distrust in them.

In their editorial, the Australian also attacks Fairfax Media for reporting climate science from an ideological point of view. But as our study found, Fairfax Media were balanced on the coverage of climate policy but reported climate science from the scientific consensus point of view.

News Corp meanwhile reports climate policy in an extremely biased fashion and creates confusion and doubt about evidence about climate change that has been established by the world’s leading scientists and scientific bodies. It is News Corp who are on an ideological mission with their reporting on climate change.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.