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? 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. He said:
"If you take our mainstream media, it will often seek to provide some balance between people who base their views on the mainstream science and people who don't.
"That's a very strange sort of balance. It's a balance of words, and not a balance of scientific authority."
Data is hard, perhaps impossible, to obtain. After all, climate change is an issue that bleeds into everything else, from the economy to gardening columns. How does one even begin to measure amounts of air play or balance? It’s a bit like trying to measure the coverage given to food, money, motherhood or any other foundation of our existence. Yet the impression remains that as the majority of scientists become more certain on the evidence, and their predictions grow more gloomy, climate change is being treated with less urgency and more scepticism by journalists and the public they serve. And then there is the straight-out drubbing given to the experts by some, such as this effort by Andrew Bolt, first on the Steve Price Breakfast Show and then in transcript and text, when Jill Duggan from the European Commissions’s Directorate General of Climate Action was the guest. It seems there is an edge to the debate in this country and in the US, a scepticism about the weight of scientific opinion, which doesn’t exist in Europe. Consider the comments on this story as just one example. You’ll find similar fare at the foot of most online reports on the issue. Why is it so? And what, if anything, has changed in media coverage since 2007, when Kevin Rudd was elected after declaring climate change the greatest moral challenge of our times, and today when carbon tax might turn out too hard a political ask? I spent some time contacting the people who run our news services last week to get their response to these questions. Some, sadly, such as the editor of The Age, Paul Ramadge and the editor-in-chief of the Herald and Weekly Times, Phil Gardner, did not respond to stimuli. Others, such as the ABC’s head of policy for news, Alan Sunderland, responded with length and thought, his answers sure to provide more fodder for the ferals on Senate Estimates next time that particular show rolls into town. (For Sunderland’s complete response, see my blog.) Keep in mind that this is a particularly pointy issue for those at the ABC, with chairman Maurice Newman having last year declared himself a climate change "agnostic" (as though it were a question of religion, not science), and labelled those journalists who fail to report sceptics as being guilty of group think. But we all know, if we think about it at all, that the battle for mainstream opinion is fought, not on the ABC’s airwaves but on commercial radio and commercial television news, still the main sources of news and information for the majority of Australians. The head of news and current affairs at Channel Seven, Peter Meakin, said that although he didn’t have figures to back up his impressions, he believed climate change was more newsworthy now than it had been in 2007, and as a result  his channel was running more stories about it. Why? Because of  the floods, bushfires and other natural disasters that had pushed the issue to the front of viewers’ minds. His newsman’s instinct was that people in general were more worried about it now than they had been in 2007, and Channel Seven was responding to that. And what about balance? It was the nature of public debate, says Meakin that passionate believers "would like to see their opponents silenced". It was the job of journalists to make sure that didn’t happen. "Not all climate change sceptics are lunatics," he said. And most journalists were not scientists. Balance meant representing the debate that was actually occurring, not trying to create the debate that one or other side thought should occur. Sunderland, on the other hand, rejects any notion of balance that means tit-for-tat coverage. His understanding leaves a role for journalistic judgment and weighing of evidence. He says:
"It is one of the most common and inaccurate myths about balance on this or any other topic that it requires all sides to be given equal time and equal weight. It does not. It never has and it never will. Our editorial policies make it quite clear that 'it is not essential to give all sides equal time'. Another better way to express and understand this is to understand that the kind of balance we aim to achieve in our news coverage is balance that follows the weight of evidence. In other words, 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. I believe it is."
Yet those inside the ABC will tell you wearily how every time they publish or broadcast a climate change scientist, the sceptics will complain. And being an accountable public broadcaster each complaint must be dealt with, in triplicate, before the aforementioned hashing over in Senate Estimates. In this, the real politic is that the more Clive Hamilton you publish,  the greater the pressure to publish Mike Hendrickx as well. Balance is even harder to maintain, or even to define, when suffering from battle fatigue. The classic example of dilemmas to do with balance in journalism is the tobacco and public health debate in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. Would a good journalist in those days have given equal coverage to the scientists who said that smoking damaged health, and the industry that claimed there was no evidence to support the contention? In hindsight, we know that the industry itself had evidence that it chose to cover up about the damaging health affects, so it is easy to assess right and wrong. But the climate change debate is much bigger than even Big Tobacco. As Sunderland says, it is a story that impacts on every other. And we have no hindsight. Climate change is more than one issue, and it is simplistic to simply conflate all of the aspects into one topic. There is, of course, a continuing debate over the fundamental question of the extent of human-induced climate change, and this debate has both a scientific and political aspect to it. There is also a debate about the appropriate responses to human-induced climate change, including the appropriate policy settings. This too has  scientific and political aspects to it as well, and it is a debate that is taking place internationally as well as taking place within Australia … And within the broad issue, there are also very specific associated issues such as the state of Arctic ice, the fate of low-lying islands in the Pacific, the future of nuclear power, the future of coal-based industries, the role of fossil fuels and biofuels, etc, etc, etc … So what does balance mean? What does a good journalist do? Hard to proscribe.  At this time in human history, climate change is about everything, and everything is about climate change. And if objectivity means anything, it surely means slavish, courageous following of the evidence. We have yet to see if humanity is up to that task, let alone the media.

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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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