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Newspaper Biased Against Climate Change

By Ian Lowe

An analysis of The Australian’s coverage of climate change reveals overwhelming bias towards denialists.

In a recent Quarterly Essay analysing Australia’s national daily newspaper, The Australian, Robert Manne devoted 17 of his 115 pages to the paper’s coverage of climate change. He had conducted a detailed study of all the news articles published in a 7-year period up to April 2011.

Astonishingly, he found only 180 articles that were favourable to the idea of taking action to slow down climate change. These were overwhelmed by 700 that were unfavourable: a ratio of about 4:1 opposing action.

The imbalance in opinion pieces was even worse, with dozens of columns from writers with no scientific expertise whatsoever attacking the science of climate change. Employees of the business lobby group the Institute of Public Affairs were regularly published, along with other unqualified pundits like extreme neo-liberal economists, former politicians and all-purpose political observers.

Analysing the scientists whose opinions were published, Manne found “dozens of articles” from the small number who don’t accept the science and very few from researchers who have published in the climate science journals.

He summarised the coverage: “In the real world, scientists accepting the climate consensus view outnumber denialists by more than 99 to one. In the Alice in Wonderland world of [The] Australian, their contributions were outnumbered 10 to one.” The tone of editorials on the subject tended to be abusive, and implied that scientists were in league with extremists to overthrow civilisation.

Manne argued that the newspaper’s house ideology drives not just the choice of columnists whose opinions are published, but also “news” reporting and the decisions about which stories to publish. There were any number of examples he could have used to demonstrate that point.

My favourite was the front-page story, illustrated by a large photo, saying that one experienced Sydney surfer had not noticed any rise in sea level! It gave the impression that years of painstaking observation at tide gauges around the world and detailed analysis of the readings were trumped by one anecdote.

Editorial staff of the newspaper were given several pages to mount a spirited but unconvincing response to the charges in the Weekend Australian of 17–18 September. As if to demonstrate Manne’s case, the page one lead story in that edition celebrated a proposal by a small group of federal MPs to turn northern Australia into a “food bowl” by damming rivers and establishing new zones of irrigated agriculture. With no serious analysis, the politicians had dredged up the discredited populist view that the nutrient-poor soils of the north could be made magically productive by building dams and providing water. This “vision” was hailed in the leading editorial.

But there was no mention in either the news story or the editorial of the extensive scientific study of the Northern Australia Task Force, completed last year. This concluded that there was little prospect of irrigation making sense. Even ignoring the impacts on ecological systems, the economics just doesn’t add up.

The commercial media seem to think that scientific opinion can simply be dismissed in favour of unqualified populism. Manne quoted one federal politician as saying: “The claims that man-made carbon dioxide emissions are responsible for our warming climate do not add up”. The MP defended this view on TV by saying that many of the general public agreed with him.

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A recent report contained disturbing findings about the level of disillusion among the academic workforce. Even among those under the age of 40, about one in three said they intended to move out and find other career opportunities. I know from talking to younger scientists that the difficulty of getting research funding is making it very hard to establish careers.

So, the Budget decision to close the scheme that funds international scientific cooperation is another blow. Almost $20 million has been distributed to support conferences and joint research efforts between local and overseas scientists.

Australia conducts about 2% of the world’s science. Keeping in touch with the other 98% is critical.

The decision looks like another short-sighted bit of cost-cutting.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.