malcolm roberts
One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

The Conversation‘s decision to bar climate denialists from commenting on articles is a critical step forward in the media fixing up the mess it has created over climate change.

Since the notorious Frank Luntz memo to Republican leaders in 2003 (the one that urged shifting from “global warming” to “climate change”), challenging the scientific consensus around anthropogenic climate change has been central to the fossil fuel industry’s campaigns.

It powered a hacking of journalistic practice that rewarded controversy. It aimed to widen what the Centre for Climate Change Communication calls “the consensus gap” — that difference between the proportion of scientists who accept that anthropogenic climate change is real (97%) and the proportion of the general public who do (about 67%). 

Journalists need to accept significant responsibility for this gap: the yawning difference between the spread of denialist talking points by mass media and the near certainty about climate change in peer-reviewed scientific papers was noted in Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

In the 13-odd years since, journalistic progress has been slow. Quality media like The Guardian, ABC News and the once-were Fairfax mastheads, has generally stopped treating denialism as legitimate, although they can rarely resist reporting sensationalised talking points by public figures (hello, David Littleproud and Malcolm Roberts.)  

While these stories usually include rebuttal, reporting the comments carries on the attack on scientific consensus.

Commercial television networks (particularly Seven) continue to bounce around from ignoring the issue entirely to repeating — usually by interviewing figures who repeat — denialist talking points. Take a look at Pauline Hanson’s many appearances on Sunrise.

News Corp, on the other hand, has been an active promoter of the denialist campaign to undermine the scientific consensus, both through their own media and through the power of their corporate scale in Australia to shape all media. The conservative echo chamber is a powerful force for denialism, putting the consensus gap between conservative voters and scientists at about double the community average. 

Closing this gap matters. Acceptance of the scientific consensus will lead to support for climate action.

Despite the power of News Corp’s conservative pundits (particularly in Australia), denialists are eager to get their views into other mainstream outlets, to use the credibility of a brand as a cover for propaganda. Triggering a debate in the comments section of a scientific and academic voice like The Conversation helps powers the denialists’ erosion of scientific consensus. Think about why Eric Abetz is getting so fired up about it all. This debate has real effects. 

Last week’s climate strike is encouraging the media to think harder about its responsibilities. The Columbia Journalism Review has launched Covering Climate Now to encourage news organisations to lift their game, to “close the gap between the size of the story and the ambition of your efforts”.

At the same time that the media has slowly been getting better, fake news is making things worse. Last week, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Inside Climate News reported that troll bots were swarming Twitter, attacking climate science, scientists, and activists such as Greta Thunberg.

Climate scientist Michael Mann says this is likely driven “by bad state actors and fossil fuel interests, to create disinformation, discord and division as we approach the all-important UN Summit and children’s youth event”.

Part of fixing the mess that journalism helped create relies on direct rebuttal of denialist talking points (such as the work of Australia’s own Skeptical Science). But this doesn’t mean media have to lend their platforms — or their audiences — to the voices of denial.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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