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Scientists vs farmers? How the media threw the climate ‘debate’ off balance

Sections of the Australian media are tipping the debate in the wrong direction. Digitalnative

MEDIA & DEMOCRACY - Natalie Latter wonders if there are some subjects that don’t really require balance.

There’s a principle of balance that applies to news reporting.

It’s important for journalists to cover an issue from more than one perspective, but when it comes to reporting climate change, things gets a little more complicated.

Because there is such consensus among scientists on human-induced climate change, “balancing” their views can lead journalists into tricky territory.

It’s interesting to note that this is a problem that has been solved elsewhere. In Britain, for example, the BBC has determined that it no longer has to present “both sides of the story” on climate change. It considers the science is settled, and not up for debate.

But in Australia, the idea persists that “balance” is achieved by giving a large portion of media space to sceptics.

Numerous climate change articles have been published that adhere to the following, flawed, format.

First, report some climate change news.

Second, “balance” that news with anecdotal evidence from a lay-person – a farmer perhaps, who hasn’t noticed any change in the climate. (That’s not surprising given that climate isn’t something that can be readily observed from one location; climate is not the same as weather.)

Or, sometimes the “balance” is provided by the small cohort of climate “sceptics” with superficially-credible positions at universities or seemingly relevant organisations.

The problem is that in this case, the need to “balance” is false. The credibility of scientific information comes from the peer-reviewed process that scientists work within.

Does the media really need to rehash scientific debate in a popular forum that cannot possibly give due attention to the complexity of the issues? Scientific debate takes place in peer-reviewed science between experts for a reason.

Crucially, there is a difference between those who have facts on their side and scientific evidence and those who merely express an opinion. The problem is that the doubt doesn’t have to be persistently covered in reporting for it to impact on public opinion.

The consequences of creating a distorted debate on climate change in the media are serious.

Climate change policies must be based on the best available scientific information. It would be outrageous (but not unusual) for any government to base complex policy on poor information for ideological reasons.

Once the situation is understood as much as possible, we look for policy solutions that fit with our social values and the kind of society we envision. This second stage is where the hard choices are made and the serious debates happen. At least, that is what ought to take place.

In Australia, the push to inject doubt into the climate policy debate has stalled this process. Instead of moving on to the important second stage and evaluating our choices, we are being forced to debate the information itself.

Climate science must be scrutinised, but this is exactly what the scientific process does. It is not the sort of information that can be debated in a newspaper or on the radio.

Why are we still debating the science in the mainstream media?

This is an area that is continually debated and interrogated within the scientific community, by individuals with great expertise.

Instead of accepting the results of a scientific process that is the very foundation of modern society, we are still busy sifting through media misrepresentations of climate change and climate science.

This is a travesty, for us, our future and the future of our society.

Climate change “sceptics” have repeatedly shown their inability to challenge climate science in the peer-reviewed literature because their claims do not have scientific merit.

But the ideological motivation of many who deny the human influence on the climate system has led them to take an alternative path, of challenging the science in the mainstream media.

In many ways this is a clever tactic; the requirement of scientific rigour is avoided and it is much easier to create doubt than to prove an alternative position.

The public needs to be able to trust the information on which we are basing major public policy decisions. Injecting doubt is an effective way to delay such decisions.

Recently, we have seen those who deny the existence of human-induced climate change turn on the journalists that do ask tricky questions. Alan Jones was recently caught on camera inciting a crowd against Sydney Morning Herald Journalist Jacqueline Maley, and subjected Sky News journalist David Lipsom to the same treatment.

The ABC’s Wendy Carlisle was similarly intimidated by prominent climate change sceptic Lord Monckton and his fans during his recent tour of Australia.

All these journalists were merely doing their jobs – reporting the news, and asking important questions.

But we shouldn’t be so surprised. The media has been feeding the trolls; is it any wonder that the trolls are now so offended by basic journalistic scrutiny?

Distorted media coverage is a serious problem that has prevented us from moving on to crucial non-scientific debates about how to deal with climate change. Stalling the debate in this manner raises ethical questions.

First, in terms of public risk, the media has a duty to verify the information it reports. This means establishing the veracity of claims. It does not mean incorporating alternative non-credible viewpoints for the sake of false balance.

Accurate reporting is an ethical responsibility, particularly when the stakes are so high. Climate change is an enormous challenge and we must be able to make decisions based on the best available information.

Second, we have spent so much time now debating the science, there is a false impression that we just need to gather more information and then we will know what to do about climate change.

This is not the case.

The necessary and important debates are still to come. Climate science doesn’t dictate policy.

We still have to work out how to respond to the science, and it’s about time we moved on to doing just this.

This is part twelve 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.

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