Menu Close

Changing climates

Politicised media: false balance and the pseudo climate debate

Former US vice president Al Gore has been vocal in criticising the American news media’s coverage of climate change. EPA/Pietro Crocchioni

On the same day that the summary of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report was released, climate change campaigner Al Gore was giving a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington that denounced US media coverage of global warming.

With the US gripped by a fracking frenzy to unearth every last gallon of coal seam and shale gas, Gore accused mainstream media of being swept up in the ferment of a fossil-fuel energy boom.

He particularly targeted television, with advertising by coal companies during news programs and chat shows now being modelled on tobacco advertisements of the 1980s.

Just as big tobacco “hired actors and dressed them up as doctors, and put them in front of cameras with a script” to refute the dangers of smoking, there is a conscious styling of pro fossil-fuel ads, which seek to simulate “authoritative” sources that erase climate change from the attention cycle.

Gore laments:

Here in the US, the news media has been intimidated, frightened, and not only frightened, they are vulnerable to distorted news judgements because the line separating news and entertainment has long since been crossed, and ratings have a big influence on the selection of stories that are put on the news.

In some forms of media, the climate deniers - who work for thinktanks, funded by big oil gas and coal companies (or are paid directly by these companies) - have the upper-hand as they jump on any news outlet that attempts to even deal with climate. Gore complains that many outlets “get swarmed by these deniers online and in letters and pickets and all that if they even mention the word climate”.

Really it is like a family with an alcoholic father who flies into a rage if anyone mentions alcohol, and so the rest of the family decides to keep the peace by never mentioning the elephant in the room. And many in the news media are exactly in that position.

Doubtless, television media in the US steered well clear of the IPCC report coming out last Friday and over the weekend compared with newspapers, which had some coverage.

As is the case in Australia, commercial television is the main source of news for US citizens, and in this context there is not much public broadcasting or alternative media to rely on.

In Britain and Australia however, the BBC and ABC have been covering climate change in depth for many years. However, there are signs that they too maybe be surrendering to the media-industrial-political complex of climate denial.

It is not that the BBC and ABC are afraid of mentioning climate change; it is that they are buying into the issue as if it were a debate that required “balanced reporting”.

Thus, on the same day that the IPCC report was due out, the BBC’s World at One program on Radio 4 featured one of Australia’s most active climate crisis deniers, Bob Carter: a retired geologist, and leader of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change. Carter is also a key figure in the Institute of Public Affairs (co-founded by Rupert Murdoch’s father) and its campaign against climate science in Australia, and a regular contributor to The Australian and Sydney’s Daily Telegraph.

Carter was recently caught out on Chris Smith’s 2GB program (filling in for Alan Jones) going along with the UK Daily Mail’s false reportage of a leaked IPCC report that Smith was reviving even after all of the newspapers that had sourced the Daily Mail had to issue corrections.

But with the support he receives from the free market lobby group the Heartland Institute, Carter manages to move from one media world to another with ease, and is not easily called to account for the positions he takes.

The UK Guardian reported that the Radio 4 program still managed to present Carter as an authoritative voice who balanced up the science reporting as if it was a debate, even though earlier in the day, the BBC’s Today program said it could not find a single British climate scientist who disagreed with the IPCC’s central findings.

Further, John Ashton, a former climate change official at the Foreign Office, was scathing of the move to give Carter so much airtime, which was recycled in the news bulletins. He argued that the BBC needed to defend how “its decision to give a platform to Carter serves the public interest”. Another critic, Steve Jones, a biologist and science advocate who reviewed the BBC’s science output in 2011, argued that to promenade Carter was to manufacture a “false balance” and that balance does not involve alternating reputable scientists with private-interest-backed skeptics.

Jones is quoted in the Guardian as saying:

Science turns on evidence. Balance in science is not the same as balance in politics where politicians can have a voice however barmy their ideas are.

This call by Jones, may well be heeded by Hayden Cooper’s story on ABC’s 7.30 report last Thursday, which invited one of Australia’s best climate science communicators, Professor David Karoly, onto the program, but only in order to exploit doubts that opponents of the consensus science have recently created in relation to the IPCC. The interview questions, the editing and the narration sought to revive the debunked accusations about leaked emails from scientists at the University of East Anglia, formerly known as “Climategate”. Cooper picked up on calls for reforming the IPCC and on attempts to discredit the IPCC, because of what the latest report sees as a modest slowdown in warming, which has been occurring since the first report was released in 1988.

The need to reconstruct the reporting of climate science as a pseudo-debate seems overpowering - even for the ABC, with its otherwise rigorous professional standards. Claims that the IPCC today has become politicised are quite correct, except that it is the media - in its pandering to power elites - that is the main driver of this politicisation.

Reform, if it is to happen, should be demanded of journalistic standards for news reporting in general, and science reporting in particular.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 187,300 academics and researchers from 5,000 institutions.

Register now