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Carbon pricing policy in the media

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…

Australian newspapers took a largely negative view of carbon pricing. avlxyz/Flickr

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:

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.

Join the conversation

31 Comments sorted by

  1. Marc Hendrickx

    Geologist

    Not to worry, the newspaper coverage appears to have been balanced by blinkered reporting by the ABC.

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    1. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      No by politics and activism

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    2. Fran Barlow

      teacher

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      "blinkered by the curse of evidence and science."

      Much to the chagrin of Howard, Abbott and their wailing banshees no doubt

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    3. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      ABC has politics and activism?

      Are you referring to your own Opinion contribution "IPCC Science: are you willing to take the risk?"?

      Or, are you referring to the comment in which I clarified any confusion regarding the central role of atmospheric CO2 in post-Cretaceous climate (and to which you failed to respond)?

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    4. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist

      In reply to David Arthur

      Do the sums yourself Mr Arthur. The Cretaceous lets see, life thriving (including corals) with temps a few degrees warmer and CO2 at about 1700ppm. Seems climate sensitivity to CO2 is not what the IPCC or climate commission would have you believe. Of course you will not read about it, or hear about it on the ABC. You certainly would not read about it here on The Con.

      Thanks for the plug for my unleashed piece. My favourite contribution remains "The Prince of Precaution: Big Tim's Little Monster". Probably won't see it on the first Tuesday Book Club.

      http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/31154.html

      if that has been censored try this one...

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-SGsPCJCpow

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    5. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      Thanks Mr Hendrickx.

      The Holocene, let's see, life thriving (including corals) with temps around as at present and with CO2 around 300 ppm. Temps cooler than the Cretaceous despite somewhat brighter sun due to lower atmospheric CO2; (part of this may also be that the Cretaceous-ending asteroid ejected a significant proportion of the earth's atmosphere?).

      Sea levels about 80 m lower than the Cretaceous, low enough for built infrastructure and the lands of billions of people to not be inundated by oceans.

      Mind you, I'm drawing you into an off-topic discussion. The topic, after all, is carbon pricing policy in the media; my reply to Tim Scanlon's contribution is a comment on carbon pricing.

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    6. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist

      In reply to David Arthur

      Sorry David, but your point appears to be missing. You appear to have missed our capacity to adapt to virtually any climatic condition thrown at us including the extremes of outer space. Given availability of cheap energy this won't change, and given we start on advanced nuclear there will be no change. We will continue to prosper! The carbon tax a minor hiccup in the scheme of things.

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    7. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      My point is the sea level rise. It may be only 1-1.5 m from present by 2100, but it will be several metres next century. That's a good deal of infrastructure investment.

      It's not our capacity to adapt that I question, especially as I'll be dead well before even 2100, it's our blindingly stupid rush into (what was, as of 1990) the wholly avoidable loss of so much.

      The thing is, it's not just me who'll be dead (given my present age, I must be realistic about that); (another) point is that the majority of people alive today will have NO surviving descendants by 2200.

      Nor will many other species. You're a geologist; you relate better to dead things than living things. If you are wise, you will refrain from having children because that way you won't have to say sorry.

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  2. Xavier Mayes

    Communications Officer

    Marc, it's unfortunate that the ACIJ didn't increase their scope to online media. If they had, I strongly feel it would uncover your comment as rutted ideology supported by little evidence.

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  3. Bruce Moon

    Bystander!

    Wendy

    I applaud the Centre for focussing on the stance taken by the media on this subject. For mine, the tax is a step in the right direction to minimise energy consumption (I believe the primary goal).

    In some respects, your findings were pre-empted by News itself a fortnight or so ago when News' (ex)Australian CEO (Hartigan) told the media inquiry that its newspapers were against the Carbon Tax and sought to influence stories to do what it could to not only negate the (proposed) tax but also support the NOalition.

    Here is another example of the dilemma Australians face as their nation is controlled by duopolistic enterprise.

    Cheers

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  4. Troy Barry

    Mechanical Engineer

    A preponderance of negative coverage does not necessarily indicate bias. It may be the response to A Bad Thing. Bushfires, train wrecks and financial crises all tend to get uncontested negative coverage. The difference between newspapers can be a reflection of a legitimate editorial position, and that position will be legitimately influenced by a paper's willingness to express dissent. I value dissenting media - governments ought to be scruntinised and held to account, and bad policy should be recognised and criticised. In that respect, those papers which are most critical of carbon policy are doing their job the best. National government with its rich access to mass media advertising and promotion doesn't need help from the independent media, it needs challenging.

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    1. Fran Barlow

      teacher

      In reply to Troy Barry

      "A preponderance of negative coverage does not necessarily indicate bias. It may be the response to A Bad Thing. "

      True, but if you look at that preponderance, it was long on venting and high dudgeon but short on actual substantive critique. Most of what weas written was demonstrably false and misleading and omitted counter claim. It was very clearly part of a campaign of regime change being run by the Murdoch press.

      "I value dissenting media - governments ought to be scrutinised and held to account, and bad policy should be recognised and criticised."

      Braying for the amusement/misapprehension of the ignorant is not dissent or scrutiny. It's the opposite -- mere cover for alternative poor policy. Wjhat is needed is intellectual rigour -- a careful weighing of data salience, accuracy and timiliness against all of the policy options and their likely consequences.

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    2. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Troy Barry

      Gday Troy, you write: "... those papers which are most critical of carbon policy are doing their job the best." Err, not quite.

      There is a difference between a genuine critique, a thoughtful weighing up of pros and cons, and a discussion around the point, and the ridiculous blast of fantasy fiction which passes for commentary in much of our public media.

      For example, Prof Bacon mentions Terry McCrann's 24 February column “A pledge of suicide”.

      A more thoughtful critique than McCrann's would…

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    3. Troy Barry

      Mechanical Engineer

      In reply to David Arthur

      You reasonably point out how reporting could be more thoughtful and complete, but I do not believe the commercial news media has or ought to have any obligation to do that. What it does do is make people aware that the government's opinion is not uncontested and the story they sell is not complete. Then it is the obligation of citizens to weigh the evidence and the healthily competing ideas, and draw their own conclusions. If citizens are ever persuaded that news reporting is neutral and unbiased…

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    4. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Troy Barry

      The obligation you mention is not wholly on citizens. After all, "the public interest" is oft-cited by news media as justifying their privileged position to pry and intrude. Following from this, there is at least a moral obligation for any opinion expressed therein to be grounded in reality.

      Newspapers then go on to describe themselves as "informing the nation", and they demand payment from purchasers. I suggest that newspapers that do not fully inform an issue have failed to meet the contractual obligation implicit in setting as cover price.

      In its verdict on a "Herald Sun" column written by Andrew Bolt, the Federal Court found that several of the "facts" on which Mr Bolt relied in arguing his case were false. While I don't have a problem with journalists expressing their views, I do have a problem with fallacies and falsehoods. being propagated in support of those views.

      The same consideration holds for Mr McCrann.

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  5. Warwick Brown

    Retired

    Without seeing the methodology or detail it is hard to judge from this short extract, but the two names, Terry McCrann and Andrew Bolt, show the dangers in giving this too much weight for being "informative" as yet.. Seeing as how these two writers are unashamedly against the global warming theme, one on highly detailed economic grounds and the other on general grounds,I would like to see the balance with those two out of it but no matter .I dont clasify Andrew Bolts columns as straight news anyway…

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  6. Gideon Polya

    Sessional Lecturer in Biochemistry for Agricultural Science at La Trobe University

    The positive versus negative categorization of carbon price or climate change coverage hides the key issue of whether the arguments or the media assertions were actually correct.

    If the coverage ignored key realities then it was unacceptable lying by omission and if the media coverage was false it was lying by commission.The national debate has been appalling due to these gross, unethical Mainstream media deficiencies.

    Here is a bit of my own research into the taxpayer-funded ABC that has an…

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    1. Fran Barlow

      teacher

      In reply to Gideon Polya

      "i.e. the Labor Plan would INCREASE GHG pollution."

      No, it wouldn't.

      a) at worst, it would allow emissions to increase <em>in Australia</em>, as would the LNP's in practice

      b) Total emissions (Australia <em>and elsewhere</em>) would decline by 5% since offshore credits would be purchased. In the end, it doesn't matter where CO2 output declines.

      Your contribution lacks rigour.

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  7. Tim Scanlon

    Author and Scientist

    I'm not a fan of this tax, it is a victim of the "it's not happening" debate. Instead of a proper informed discussion of the best mitigation strategies, we have a piece of legislation that sets very low targets and pays money to the polluters.

    While I do think a tax is better than a market driven offset scheme, I wish we had the debate we should have had, rather than the one we did have. This idea that "well at least it is a start" is akin to handing a toddler the car keys. Now that we do have this tax I want to see the removal of payments to "affected industries" and instead have tax breaks installed that will come into play if they invest in changing industry practice.

    My example would be: Coal miner takes tax break for reducing mining and diversifying into geothermal (given their expertise). Or a coal power plant upgrades facilities to be more efficient and rather than building a new plant builds a wind farm.

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    1. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Forgot to include my other point.

      The bias in the news media are responsible/to blame for our second rate tax. They should be ashamed of themselves. Of course, now they get to complain about it again and be even more biased again. If they had discussed the issue that needed to be discussed - the best way for a carbon tax scheme to operate - we would have been much better.

      Also, the less air we give to Andrew Bolt, the better. Bolt is frequently the least informed climate commentator in Australia.

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    2. Fran Barlow

      teacher

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      I'm not a fan of the fixed price permit phase being called "a tax". It is only done because the Murdoch-led media know that "tax" is a dirty word and rallying cry for the right and can be used to make the "Juliar" claim. Why the ALP doesn't slap this down (rather than running dead) is hard to fathom. It is not a tax. A tax would operate as a levy on embodied carbon at the site of collection, or perhaps at the docks or some other point. Taxes are not for services (like dumping waste as this one is) and are levied without tradeable offsets.

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    3. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      I'm not a fan of this carbon pricing scheme, either. I cannot bring myself call it a 'tax' because it is rather more convoluted than that; it is specifically designed to turn into an emission trading scheme in 2015.

      The fundamental flaw of emission trading is that it cannot give pricing certainty. As with every other traded commodity, emissions permit trading will only compound the price instability that gave us the GFC.

      The economically efficient way to price carbon is via a fossil carbon…

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    4. Tim Scanlon

      Author and Scientist

      In reply to David Arthur

      Very much in line with what some economists were proposing earlier this decade.

      A price on carbon is so that traders can get in the game and play the stock market. It also means that offset schemes will suddenly get legs when they shouldn't have any. I know of several offset schemes that are bogus storage mechanisms that only cure guilt. Allowing this to occur just does nothing for the environment, makes money for the traders and is a great big cost for everyone.

      Which is, once again, why we needed a proper discussion of the tax in the media, rather than the shameful "it's not happening" event we ended up with.

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    5. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      You write a "price on carbon is so that traders can get in the game and play the stock market. It also means that offset schemes will suddenly get legs when they shouldn't have any."

      The point of a carbon consumption tax is that there is no game for traders to get into (parasites, if unchecked, can be a crippling metabolic load for any organism), and no offset schemes.

      I am generally sceptical of offset schemes, particular as they are a diversion from the essential requirement, which is complete cessation of fossil fuel use as quickly as possible (atmospheric [CO2] is presently > 390 ppm, whereas our Holocene comfort zone is ~300-320 ppm.

      In other words, the favoured carbon pricing tool (emission trading and offsets) is simply the bankers and financiers' way of sticking their blood funnel into yet another stream of wealth which had previously not come to their attention.

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  8. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    Could I raise an issue for discussion - can the fact you believe certain topics are worthy of research suggest a political position? And does it matter?

    For example, if a research centre largely publishes on the adequacy or otherwise of migrants' English levels, violence in ethnic communities, the rapid expansion of the international student industry, and problems with housing and transport, you might assume this is driven by a position critical of high immigration.

    Similarly, the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism publishes on quite a narrow range of issues (http://datasearch2.uts.edu.au/acij/publications/index.cfm): global warming, indigenous health, Aboriginal deaths in custody. And the carbon tax and the Murdoch media as in the above article.

    Can we assume the Centre's members share a certain political outlook? And is it relevant if research methodology is sound?

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  9. Chris Harper

    Engineer

    In a free society it is the right of everyone, every person, to be critical and to campaign against any government policy they see fit. If some newspapers were conducting such a campaign then so be it, it is their right.

    As to the consensus of scientists, well, there is no such thing. The claim of a consensus is a political construct which has no objective existence. In fact, there is a debate raging amongst scientists and getting hotter by the day. However, if you depended on only the Fairfax press…

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    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Chris Harper

      Thanks Chris.

      Irrespective of our self-proclaimed freedom to believe whatever silly thing we choose, and irrespective of the blatherings in the Murdochery, (let alone commentary in Fairfax media) the following simple physical truths bind us all.

      Earth is warmed by absorbtion of short wave sunlight. Because of this, Earth's temperature can remain unchanged by returning the same amount of energy to space. That is, solar shortwave energy is balanced by the earth re-radiating to space as a 'black…

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    2. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to David Arthur

      David,

      Thank you, all true I know, but none of what you say addresses anything I said. I stand by it all.

      The science is shoddy, the IPCC is politicised, rotten and riddled with activists, the climate models are failures, and the core scientists are pursuing an agenda which distorts their claims.

      None of this is 'belief', it is demonstrable, and none of it is reported by the ABC.

      And there is no consensus.

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    3. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Chris Harper

      You'll be pleased to know, Chris, that the next round of climate models will be vast improvements.

      1. Having finally realised that pre-Industrial atmospheres had much lower levels of aerosols than present, they've rerun climate models and achieved much improved temperature distribution in the pre-Industrial past.

      2. Up to AR4 (2007), IPCC modelling did not look at polar ice melt, which constitutes a substantial sink for accumulating sensible heat.

      3. I agree, there is a shabby agenda, namely…

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  10. Chris Harper

    Engineer

    In a free society it is the right of everyone, every person, to be critical and to campaign against any government policy they see fit. If some newspapers were conducting such a campaign then so be it, it is their right.

    As to the consensus of scientists, well, there is no such thing. The claim of a consensus is a political construct which has no objective existence. In fact, there is a debate raging amongst scientists and getting hotter by the day. However, if you depended on only the Fairfax press…

    Read more