While corporate media often criticise the poor communication of others, they are reluctant to critique their own power to influence public opinion and debate. Today the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism publishes a study that shows how ten Australian newspapers participated in the tense political debate over carbon policy in Australia during 2011.
The publications audited were:
the News Ltd-owned papers, including the national newspaper The Australian, the two biggest Australian newspapers The Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph, and the only metropolitan newspapers in their respective cities — the Courier Mail, the Adelaide Advertiser, Hobart Mercury and Northern Territory News
the Seven West Media-owned metropolitan newspaper in Perth, The West Australian.
It will be no surprise to readers in Australia that although there was substantial amounts of neutral and some positive articles in all publications, the coverage was far more negative than positive towards the Gillard government’s carbon price policy. What is more striking are the differences between publications.
After neutral articles were discounted, the Sydney tabloid The Daily Telegraph was the most hostile to the policy, with 89% of partisan articles negative compared to 11% positive.
Indeed both The Telegraph and the Melbourne Herald Sun were so biased in their coverage it is fair to say they “campaigned” against the policy rather than covered it.
The influence of these two publications extends far outside Sydney and Melbourne. Their climate sceptic columnists are syndicated across News Ltd mastheads including some regional ones. These columnists publish blogs and regularly appear on television and radio, supported by corporate marketing techniques designed to amplify their impact.
Overall, News Ltd publications were more negative than The West Australian or Fairfax publications, although some News papers were more balanced than others. The Australian was 47% negative, 44% neutral and only 9% positive.
New Ltd often attacks Fairfax for being “biased” in favour of the “Left”. According to this study, the SMH was balanced.
The Age was the only paper to be more positive toward the policy than negative. However, the ratio of negative to positive was substantially greater in most News Ltd publications than The Age’s ratio of positive to negative.
Some may argue these findings simply show how negative news values tend to result in coverage that highlights conflict and dissidence. But there is a difference between negativity in journalism and its watchdog role of criticism and scrutiny.
Coverage can be negative and fail to scrutinise the powerful sources it promotes. It can be positive and still hold sources to account. To be positive or negative towards a policy does not imply that a journalist loses impartiality or fairness.
Just as important as bias in coverage are silences. Journalists exercise power through determining the visibility or invisibility of groups and sources and the ways in which different audiences are told (or not) what interests are at stake.
In our study, 31% of news and feature articles had no more than one source. This indicates that many sources were not held to account at all.
Labor government sources were quoted more frequently than other sources, especially at times of major announcements. Next most frequent in all papers in this study were business sources. They were represented more strongly than all other non-government sources including the Coalition opposition.
Fossil fuel industries, whose interests will be affected by the carbon reduction policy, were more strongly represented than other industries, often in ways that suggested they stood for all industry. In reality, industry opinion was divided, but even large businesses struggled to get coverage if they supported government policy.
All NGOs and scientists combined were not quoted as often as a single steel company BlueScope Steel. BlueScope was quoted more often than any other business source.
News Ltd’s negative approach to the carbon policy can be seen in the light of its negative coverage of the Greens and the Labor government, which it defends by arguing that its role is to hold the government to account. This argument has force, but private power, as well as government, also needs scrutiny.
Despite the fact the Greens played a key role in negotiations over the carbon policy and are often criticised for wielding too much influence over the government, they were only quoted on 5% of occasions. Non-government organisations that played a prominent role in campaigning for climate change action were quoted on only 2% of occasions.
The media are sensitive about accusations of bias because their own claim to legitimacy rests on codes and ethics that urge them to seek the truth through fairness, accuracy and impartiality. In a media market where two companies control a large slice of the media, accusations of bias are particularly discomforting and suggest some sources and points of view may not be getting a “fair go”.
Opinion produced by in-house journalists and regular commentators is a substantial part of all coverage. The person with the most individual columns and highest number of words published was senior economics journalist Terry McCrann. He was extremely hostile to the policy and is often critical of those who support the scientific consensus on climate science. In all, McCrann published 60 pieces, including repeats syndicated across News Ltd publications.
On February 24, McCrann published a column, “A pledge of suicide”. In the second paragraph of the piece he wrote that the tax is “designed to force us to cut our carbon dioxide emissions. To stress, emissions of the life-enhancing gas, not the so-called carbon pollution of bits of grit subconscious image that Gillard and Co deliberately promote” (author’s italics).
McCrann’s key argument is that there was no point in Australia reducing its emissions because China will be dramatically increasing its emissions, but he heavily laces his argument with emotional attributions of blame and irrationality. He ends the column with: “It is not just designed to hurt every Australian. Permanently. It is effectively a national suicide pledge. From the nation’s leader. Incredible. Surreal. All-too real”.
The second-most-published commentator, both in number of articles and words, was climate sceptic Andrew Bolt.
The issue here is not one of free speech or the right of these individuals to push their ideas. It is whether an overwhelmingly dominant company using its market power to build support for particular policies and ideas gives citizens access to a satisfactory range of perspectives on important issues.
Many Australians did not receive fair, accurate and impartial reporting in the public interest in relation to the carbon policy in 2011.
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 down the news agenda. Meanwhile, newspaper readers in Australia received their usual dose of climate scepticism.
Read the full report.