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News Ltd carbon coverage campaigning not reporting: new report + News’ response

Tap, tap, tapping at the public consciousness: News Ltd has been accused of slanted coverage of carbon price policy. Fickr/Monochrome.

News Ltd’s coverage of the Government’s carbon price policy has been so negative and one-dimensional that some papers in the stable are misleading the public by doing partisan campaigning rather than balanced reporting, a report released today claims.

The report’s author, Professor Wendy Bacon of the Centre for Independent Journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney, said that the bias is at odds with balanced and well-informed debate, and thereby undermines the public interest. Professor Bacon said that it begged the questions: “How can we develop a democratic media which can deliver fair and impartial coverage? And is it in the public interest that one dominant company should have the power to campaign for a particular political outcome?”

A team led by Professor Bacon analysed relevant editorials, opinion pieces, news stories and feature articles appearing in 10 newspapers between February and July of this year.

In the first of two installments of A Sceptical Climate: Media coverage of climate change in Australia 2011, Professor Bacon writes that “Negative coverage across News Ltd newspapers far outweighed positive coverage with 82% compared to 18% positive articles. This indicates a very strong stance against the carbon policy adopted by the company that controls most Australian metropolitan newspapers, and has 70% of Australian newspaper circulation.”

The slant of the coverage was not the product of lone journalists with barrows to push, Professor Bacon said. “A range of journalists were certainly involved at every paper. The climate story was a big political story and a business story; it was also covered by environmental reporters but overall the poltiical, business and general reporters were just as prominent.”

“The patterns speak for themselves,” said Professor Bacon. “This is what this study is about … I’m not investigating the actual practices in newsrooms; I’m showing what the result is of a range of different practices across different genres of [newspaper] journalism.”

In contrast to the overall direction of News Ltd on carbon pricing policy, the researchers found that Fairfax “was far more balanced in its coverage of the [Government’s carbon] policy … with 56% positive articles outweighing 44% negative articles.” The Age was more positive than the Sydney Morning Herald, and neither paper published a single opinion piece about the Government’s carbon policy by a climate change sceptic during the period under review, finds the report - which was conducted with the support of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

The most negative coverage of all the papers came from The Daily Telegraph, News Ltd’s Sydney tabloid, and its Melbourne equivalent, The Herald Sun.

Overall, the review found the quality of the journalism often wanting, with findings from an analysis of news and feature-writing including:

11% of news and features quoted no source and 30% of the rest quoted only one source. The claims by many single sources about the likely impact of the carbon policy were not tested against the views of other sources. Only 42% of the rest of the articles included more than two sources.

Fossil fuel lobby and other big business sources opposed to the policy were very strongly represented, often without any critique or second source.

Although they played a key role in negotiations, the Australian Greens received low coverage (5% of all sources).

“Much of the reportage was quite shallow with many sources being untested or contested,” Professor Bacon said. “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.”

The newspapers selected for the study were The Australian (national, News Ltd), The Age/Sunday Age (Melbourne, Fairfax), The Sydney Morning Herald/Sun Herald (Sydney, Fairfax), The Daily Telegraph/Sunday Telegraph (Sydney, News Ltd), Herald Sun (Melbourne, News Ltd), The Advertiser (Adelaide, News Ltd), Courier Mail/Sunday Mail (Brisbane, News Ltd), The Northern Territory News (Darwin, News Ltd), The Mercury (Hobart, News Ltd), and The West Australian (Perth, Seven West Media).

Comment was sought from a journalism academic with experience writing for both News Ltd and Fairfax, and, following that, from News Ltd itself.

Dr Andrew Dodd, Senior Lecturer in Journalism, Swinburne University of Technology, who has worked as a journalist with both The Age and the Australian

On the ideological line of a newspaper

The editor’s ideological line will tend to reflect that of the proprietor. It works like this: the proprietor picks the editor, and at that point the proprietor generally lets the editor do the job that they’ve been appointed to do - which often just happens to reflect the ideological agenda of the proprietor.

Proprietors aren’t hands-on pulling the strings. They set a tone. The tone is known to the editor. The tone is set at News Ltd through various statements by the proprietor, by Rupert [Murdoch]; the tone tends to be disseminated through things like annual conferences where the News Ltd editors come together and a kind of group-speak develops. But on a day-to-day basis, it’s not the case that the proprietor tells the editors or the reporters what to put in the papers - generally.

Editors can tell reporters what to put in the paper. Even then they know that they can have a hands-off approach and the general line that has been communicated will tend to be written anyway. In a sense, that’s the newspaper working efficiently. So at a paper like the Australian or the Daily Telegraph, the position is well known and journos tend to write in a way which reflects the line as they perceive it to be.

You [the journalist] will rail against it for so long, [during which time] you’ll find your stories aren’t published. Over time you’ll tend to mollify and modify your views enough so they fit within the paradigm of the paper. You might find ingenious ways to get around it. For example, when I was at News Ltd and I wanted to write things that questioned News Ltd’s ownership and concentration of the Australian media, I found that I had to frame it in the form of questions rather than bold statements if I had any chance of getting it through the various tiers of editorial control. Journos get good at that.

But generally an ethos is set and everyone tends to work to it. There is such a thing as a culture within a newspaper and it does pretty much drive the content, and the content reflects it.

On negativity in reporting

You get these conversations, like “Why are newspapers so negative? Why do they pick holes rather than build up? Why don’t they work in a constructive way for the betterment of society?” There are lots of answers to those questions, but it comes down to what news itself is. News tends to be something new, informative, or interesting for your audience, and sure, under than definition, good news should be getting a run. But there’s a countervailing force - and that is that there are no shortage of people who want to tell you how good they are at doing what they do. Very few people will step up and say, “You know what? I fucked up.” It requires a force that is fearless and rigorous to be able to point that out, and that is the fourth estate role of the media.

On balanced reporting

Good journalism often starts with a hunch. A hunch would be something opinionated and subjective: “I don’t think that’s working.” And in the inquiry, the methodology is that you seek the truth in a disinterested way, you give due weight to the various sides and allow them to have their say, and over time you achieve a form of balance. It doesn’t mean you give unrealistic balance; it means you exercise your judgement to be able to come to a conclusion which gives due weight to the evidence. The issue with the Australian and other papers in the News Ltd stable is that they don’t give due weight to the evidence.

On unnamed sources in stories

If you can imagine the bottom of a circle, on the left hand side you’ve got journalism that has no sources and it’s all opinionated. It’s sheer crap. Then you go around the circle to almost the same point and you get stories that don’t have named sources because they are the most rigorous and the most important kind of journalism where people can’t speak out because to do so would be highly dangerous. so that [unnamed sources] in itself doesn’t prove anything.

It’s about the content and the rigour of the reporting, and it’s about whether it fulfills the basic principles of good journalism. And what is the motive here? Is the motive to taunt, to be polemical, to be essentially propaganda, or is to seek out in a dispassionate and disinterested way the truth?

An example of climate reportage

If you look at something like the Age’s series, The Climate Agenda, that Michael Bachelard wrote where he, in conjunction with OurSay, allowed people to ask the really difficult questions about climate change. and if you look at that reportage and how thorough it was, you can see an example of extremely good journalism.

Readers were encouraged to submit their questions about climate change. The process was reportedly manipulated by climate change sceptics who encouraged their followers to flood the portal with questions that basically undermined the whole premise about climate change. But even though the questions were incredibly sceptical, the reporting came up with really thorough answers to difficult questions. It’s a terrific example of how it doesn’t matter what the question is: if the reporting is good it’s going to stand up anywhere because the answer is the answer.

News Ltd’s spokesman says the company’s newspapers proudly campaign on a variety of issues, and that “campaigning” only becomes a dirty word when someone disagrees. AAP/Joel Carrett

Greg Baxter, Director of Corporate Affairs, News Limited

On Professor Wendy Bacon and her research

Wendy Bacon has absolutely no credibility with this company. It is a matter of great regret that she teaches young people in this country who aspire to be journalists. The fact that Wendy Bacon produces a piece of research that is negative about this company is no surprise to anybody - she’s been doing it for 25 years.

Every now and again this kind of research comes out and it masquerades as some kind of definitive analysis, and usually it’s got more flaws in it does the insights it purports to have about what it’s studying. We see this all the time. Most research about journalism is atrocious. Most of it purports to unveil or uncover some kind of systemic problem and yet it’s generally guilty of the same sins that it’s trying to identify in others: the way the questions are framed, the kind of methodology that’s used. It’s all usually skewed to achieve a particular outcome.

If a story’s an feature article or an opinion piece, it’s clearly not going to have too many sources. If it’s a news story, you’d probably expect it to have more than one source depending on what the source is. If it’s a report on a statement that’s been made on the government, for example, you’d probably expect there to be a counterbalancing comment from the opposition.

On campaigning in journalism

In certain quarters it [perfectly neutral reporting] is a treasured theoretical principal about what basic journalism should look like, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect the needs and the wants of a particular newspaper’s readership. Newspapers will campaign on things all the time. I know we’ve been criticised for running campaigns but it depends which campaign you’re talking about and which side of the argument you’re on.

We ran a campaign very successfully through our newspapers, particularly in Victoria some time ago which ended up with the breast cancer drug, Herceptin, being listed on the PBS [Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme] - it was quite extraordinary that it wasn’t on the PBS considering how common breast cancer is and how expensive the drug was. Now I don’t think there’d be too many people who argue that that campaign wasn’t a good thing. We’ve run campaigns in Sydney to try and reduce the road toll, particularly among P-plate drivers - which has been highly successful - and again, I don’t think too many people would see that as a bad thing.

Both of those campaigns were very aggressive at taking on government inaction. So where do you draw the line on these things? If a newspaper has a view on immigration or carbon policy or refugees - whatever it might be - the people who don’t agree with that position are going to refer to it as a campaign in a derogatory sense. The people who agree with it are going to think it’s terrific. The editor’s job is to determine what he thinks or she thinks the readership is interested in and what they want, and that ultimately is the job of the editor - to service the readership.

On Rupert Murdoch setting an editorial line for News Ltd editors and reporters to follow

That’s total bullshit. I’ve attended and been involved in organising all of the editors’ conferences that we’ve had in this company for the last eight years, and I’ve been to a number of the overseas conferences with the wider News Corporation where you’ve got the other parts of the organisation - television, film production and so on - and to News Corp conferences where you’re just dealing with newspapers from Australia, the UK, and America, and this just does not happen. I know it’s been written about, and people have alleged it over a long period of time, but it is just garbage.

The closest thing you’ll get to it is a discussion of, broadly speaking, what do we believe in as a media company? And there are some pretty obvious things: we believe in free enterprise; we believe in small government; we’re passionate believers in education and we spend a lot of money funding education projects; and we believe in indigenous reconciliation. So there are some fundamental things that as an organisation we think it’s important to take a leadership role in the way these issues are presented and covered in Australia. Which might not be reflecting, necessarily, the interests of the readership - but we’re attempting to provide leadership on an issue for the readership.

If you look at the Australian’s coverage of indigenous affairs, it’s way ahead of all the others. It has a very, very deliberate editorial policy on coverage of indigenous issues and it has had for long time. And it also has a pretty clear position on climate change issues.

The Australian’s position on climate change is that the paper believes that humans are warming the planet - but obviously there is doubt among those who claim otherwise - and that something needs to be done to rectify it. The best way to achieve this is via a market based mechanism such as but not limited to an emissions trading scheme. The paper doesn’t support expensive forms of direct intervention; it supports the most cost efficient market based solutions. It does not apologise for the intense scrutiny it gives to climate change issues especially in a case such as this where there is such a vocal self-proclaimed consensus view that is intolerant of being challenged.

I know that there’s this idea that the editors get in a huddle in a room and agree on what we’re going to do, but if you look at the last couple of elections, the editorial positions of the papers on those elections varied across the country. And that again is a reflection of the readership of those newspapers, not a reflection of what Rupert Murdoch believes or what John Hartigan believes.

We had an election in November 07 and he [Murdoch] was here just before that, and there were plenty of discussions with editors, but not about “This is what you have to do.” Generally, the question is, “What do you think?” and the editor will explain their position on an issue and what they’re proposing to do, and that’s it. It’s an exchange of information. Clearly if we were running a campaign, all of our papers would be running on the same basis, which they don’t.

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