Mar 21, 2011

The Long View: climate change and the search for balanced reporting

Climate change adviser Ross Garnaut recently suggested the media treatment of the issue has undermined support for action by giving equal weight to mainstream peer-reviewed science and sceptical views not backed by published evidence.

Margaret Simons

Journalist, author and director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism

These days anybody can publish, spreading news and opinion to the world. Meanwhile, holed up in the remaining nooks, crannies and shelters of mainstream media, journalists adhere to their traditional credo: that what they publish should be balanced. That disinterested reporting, a fair shake of the stick to all concerned, is what defines credible media.

But what does that mean? The case de jour, and for that matter of the year, the decade and the century, is climate change. What constitutes balanced reporting?

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310 thoughts on “The Long View: climate change and the search for balanced reporting

  1. Captain Planet

    Alan Sunderland:-

    “if for example 90% of credible, peer-reviewed scientific opinion supports the existence of human-induced global warming, then you would expect that weight to be reflected in our coverage.”

    Hear, Hear.

    Finally a voice of reason from within the media establishment.

  2. willozap

    Surely the central credo of a good journalist is not to adhere to some mythical notion of ‘balance’, but to represent both knowledge and uncertainty as accurately as possible? Surely?

  3. Captain Planet

    @ WilloZap,

    Unfortunately in the modern media environment the central credo of a “good” journalist is to write stories which sell as much advertising, newspapers, airtime etc. as possible.

    Creating the illusion of a hard fought debate over climate science and then covering the manufactured debate with breathless anticipation, as though it were a world heavyweight title fight, sells more papers and attracts more viewers / listeners than sound, accurate presentation representative of the majority of the world’s scientific opinion.

    Especially when the intrinsic message is that our way of life has to change drastically. People don’t want to hear that and they will flock to any media outlet which offers them an alternative viewpoint – no matter how unsubstantiated.

  4. Jedimaster

    As Garnaut said: “That’s a very strange sort of balance. It’s a balance of words, and not a balance of scientific authority.”

    The ABC should heed this comment. For example, in its coverage of the on-going nuclear power station problems in Japan, the ABC has given prominence to two passionate, non-expert nuclear boosters- Ziggy Switkowski and Barry Brook.

    Fran Kelly was almost fawning when she back-announced Switkowski last Monday as a “nuclear expert”. He was a theoretical physicist 35 years ago and Ansto chairman recently, but he is not an engineer or nuclear safety expert.

    Brook is a professor of environmental science, not even nuclear science, but continues to get airplay on ABC’s 24, making reassuring, seemingly technical, comments about a topic that is far afield from his expertise.

    If these gentlemen were asked for their qualifications to substantiate their opinions, they would be found wanting. As would many interviewees on the ABC who are more than eager to make unsubstantiated claims for their cause.

    Of course journalists cannot be expected to be expert on everything that they have to report on, but they need to have the skills to verify the expertise of those whom they interview.

    And they should heed Lord Northcliffe’s dictum: “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”

  5. klewso

    Which “journalists” (holed up in thoose nooks and crannies – like “cockroaches”?) that “adhere to their traditional credo: that what they publish should be balanced” are you referring to – read today’s editorial and that piece – nurturing uncertainty and prejudice?
    “Journalists”? You mean like “Papa ‘doch’s” “political correspondents” – with an agenda to run?

  6. willozap

    @Captain Planet: Oh, I don’t doubt it that journalists have to drum up readership.

    I just thought we were debating the pull of journalists’ ethical code (as Margaret argues, balance; as I would prefer, accuracy) against any more prosaic business interests.

  7. arnold ziffel

    I cannot reoncile the quote from Sunderland above with the attention that was given to Lord Monckton last year – the ABC’s idea of balance apparently doesn’t consider credibility as a factor.

  8. RoXX

    A nonsense story – more deserving of a place in “The Australian”.

    Blind Freddy or possibly even a cadet journalist will be able to discover the difference between *truth* and *lies* in a complex story – all in less than half an hour.

    Especially anyone who has been trained to use the research *tools* that are now generally available to everyone. And if they can think then they might even do it in 15 minutes.

    Or are you saying the current crop of *journalists* can’t do that?

  9. Meski

    @Jedi: A bad joke, to demonstrate things regarding Aussie experts in the nuclear field.

    Q: What do you call a qualified Aussie nuclear engineer?

    A: Unemployed.

  10. Meski

    @Climate Change: Yes, I’d give the mainstream scientific viewpoint on this the benefit of the doubt, but *never* be uncritical of it. After all, Heliocentrism[1] was once mainstream too. :^) It’s kind of disappointing that the mainstream scientists are behaving like the Vatican in the sixteenth century.

    [1] and a long long list of science ‘facts’ over the centuries.

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