Warning: your journalism may contain deception, inaccuracies and a hidden agenda

Your media may not be giving you the full picture. DeeKnow/Flickr

MEDIA & DEMOCRACY - Stephan Lewandowsky and Ullrich Ecker have some tips on how avoid being fooled by the media.

Bad media can do considerable harm.

Professor Stephen Kull has been keeping track of key beliefs among the American public for many years, and his data are as stunning as they are concerning.

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the US began its search for the “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) it had used to justify the invasion. The search proved futile, but large segments of the US public continued to believe in their existence. Indeed, in 2004, some 20% believed that WMDs had been used by Iraqi troops during the conflict.

And in 2010, almost 45% of the American public erroneously believed that scientists are evenly divided on whether or not climate change is occurring.

In fact, an overwhelming majority of scientists supports the consensus view, labelled a “settled fact” by the US National Academy, that the Earth is warming due to human activities.

Are all media bad all the time?

Do these data imply that the media in general misreports important issues?


Further inspection of Kull’s work reveals that the extent of mistaken belief varies dramatically with people’s preferred news source. Consumers of Murdoch-owned Fox News were most likely to be misinformed on a range of issues, whereas those who primarily listened to National Public Radio (roughly comparable to our ABC) were most likely to be attuned to reality.

Moreover, the extent to which Fox consumers were misinformed increased with how much they were glued to their preferred channel. Those who entered the Fox “matrix” every day were least likely to be connected to reality. Those who watched Fox “rarely” or “only once a week” escaped nearly unscathed and resembled occasional listeners of public radio.

(In contrast, increased consumption of Public Radio increased people’s understanding of reality, and daily listeners were typically the best-informed people across a number of studies spanning nearly a decade.)

We are not aware of any corresponding data involving the Australian media. But as the preceding articles in this series have shown, it can be very challenging for the Australian public to consume the major Murdoch-owned papers and still retain a grip on the scientific reality of our changing climate.

It is particularly concerning that this judgment applies not only to the low-rent tabloids, but also to the national broadsheet that, nominally at least, engages in actual journalism.

As Dr Tim Lambert of UNSW has meticulously documented, The Australian is surprisingly incapable of accurate reporting when it comes to climate change.

We say “surprising” because of the vast and motivated mendacity that is required to serially ignore a mountain of scientific data in favour of quotes from Farmer Fred or Swimmer Sam or an academic with no climate expertise but a background in the oil industry.

Ignoring the complexity of scientific data is, however, not without merit, as revealed by the fact that The Australian’s Editor-in-Chief, Chris Mitchell, received the “JN Pierce Award for Media Excellence for leading the newspaper’s coverage of climate change policy” in 2009.

The award is presented each year by the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association.

Getting your head above the spin

A functioning media is a crucial element of a functioning democracy.

But those in the media who cast aside accurate reporting in favour of ideological drivel and spin are dysfunctional and must themselves be held accountable.

The continued calls for an enquiry into the Australian media appear amply justified by the evidence revealed here during the past few days — the media matter and bad media can do considerable harm.

But until bad media are held accountable by shining a bright light onto their practices, what can a member of the Australian public do to avoid being misinformed?

As we saw at the beginning of this piece, an obvious response is to choose one’s source of news wisely.

Another response, based on research in cognitive science, is to be highly sceptical of the media and to accept that some organs may be pursuing an agenda other than to objectively inform the public.

We know that people are more likely to discount information that later turns out to be false if they are warned ahead of time of the possibility that they are being misled. In an ideal world, warning labels on mendacious media products, akin to those on tobacco products, would be a solution: “We frequently mislead — disbelief of content is advisable.” And we’re not the only ones who have thought of this.

In the absence of such labels, this series of articles on the media and climate change has provided ample warning that some Australian media organs simply cannot be trusted to report the science accurately.

Know whom to trust

We also know from research that raising suspicion about the source of potential misinformation helps alleviate its effects. We found that people who were suspicious about the official reasons for the 2003 Iraq invasion — namely the search for weapons of mass destruction — were better at distinguishing between truthful news reports concerning war events on the one hand, and false and later-retracted reports of events on the other.

In a nutshell, people who believed the WMD story also continued to believe in other war-related information which they knew had been retracted. People who thought Iraq was invaded for reasons other than WMDs, appropriately disbelieved information they knew to be wrong.

Hence, general suspicion surrounding an event and its architects can help us discount information that turns out to be false. Without this suspicion, that information otherwise lingers in people’s memories.

By extension, learning that some prominent climate change deniers, such as outgoing Australian Senator Nick Minchin, also long denied the adverse health effects of tobacco smoke may make one justifiably more suspicious of their claims involving scientific issues.

Likewise, entertaining the possibility that some media organs are pursuing a propagandistic agenda may induce healthy suspicion about what those organs are likely to print or broadcast.

When science meets agenda

Recent research at the University of Queensland found that among Australian politicians, the percentage whose views on climate are influenced by scientists — as opposed to, say, the local publican or barber — ranges from 44% to 98% across parties.

The party at the bottom, which in its majority rejects science, is the Liberal party. The party that nearly exclusively prefers peer-reviewed science to gossip is the Greens.

In this context, it is worth recalling that The Australian — taking a stand against radical activism and flying the banner of journalistic impartiality — has recently vowed to help destroy the Greens at the ballot box.

This is what most people would call an agenda.

This is the final part of our Media and Democracy series. To read the other instalments, follow the links here:.

This article is about the media’s representation of climate change - we’d love to hear your opinions on that topic. If you would rather discuss the existence of climate change, there are many other articles on the site covering that issue: please take your comments to one of those discussions.