The role of the media is absolutely central to what we see and think of the world around us. It is not a ‘window to the world’ but instead tells us stories that we use to comprehend both ourselves and the world around us. Our life is lived in, rather than with, media – we are living a media life (Deuze, 2011).
Traditionally, Journalism and News Media is considered a ‘fourth estate’: an independent
‘watch-dog’ ensuring the accountability of powerful people and groups in society. However, more recently, we see rise in the emergence of a ‘Fifth Estate” in the form of fact checking websites, comedy news and Wikileaks which act to essentially hold the “Fourth Estate” accountable for their role as ‘watch-dog’.
In this paper I will be acting as ‘Fifth Estate’ investigating examples of ‘good’ and ‘bad’
journalism on the topic of climate change communication and reviewing how these align
with the normative theories of the media being their role and responsibility toward society.
It must be understood by the reader that the issue of climate change is not one for debate
in this paper but a recent study shows that over 97% of the world’s climate scientists
support the consensus position that human beings are contributing to climate change which is a landfall in the very least. Despite this though, it has been found that with Australia’s concentrated newspaper ownership one third of articles do not accept this consensus (Bacon, W 2013). Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a strong relationship between the political perspective of a media organisation and its position on climate change (Painter, 2011). It is the effects that this may have on public opinion that will be discussed here.
It has recently been reported that a portion of a UNESCO and UN report on the effects of
climate change on World Heritage listed sites has omitted every reference to Australia at
the request of the Australian government with the Australian Department of Environment claiming that the information could harm tourism.
The exclusive was given to The Guardian Australia who launched online in Australia in 2013 and is now one of the top 10 news media websites. The Guardian Australia has a unique business structure which their website states has ‘no shareholders, advertisers or billionaire owners’ which gives them a unique freedom from influences, agendas and commercial interests. Examined alongside this story, an article published in The Australian, owned and run by News Corp Australia (News Ltd) a part of the Murdoch empire who are notoriously ‘Right Wing’ in their political reporting despite their strict editorial code of conduct outlining a requirement for facts to be reported impartially.
The issue of how climate change is communicated in the media highlights a range of issues at stake, this essay however will focus most closely upon the corporate/commercial pressures of political agenda setting, objective and unbiased reporting and accurate, quality information.
Most of those who work in journalism agree that true objectivity is more an ideal than an obtainable reality. The case both for and against objectivity rests not only on the debate over whether or not reality can be accurately described, but also on the ability of journalists to represent any given reality as free as possible from bias, but not necessarily from subjectivity (Bivins, 2009)
The Australian sets the precedence of it’s article with an opening statement claiming that
“activist scientists” have distorted surveys, maps and data to misrepresent the extent and
impact of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef quoting the chairman of the Great
Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Russell Reichelt.
In framing their article in this light, readers of The Australian are lead to distrust any data they may have already received and in a lot of ways, the issue of the UNESCO omission is severely distilled when it goes on to suggest that the censored report was complimentary of the Turnbull government’s actions to protect the Great Barrier Reef.
There has been a number of articles printed since the break of this story that suggest that
the information suppressed is not complimentary, nor is it derogatory toward the current government but that it does contain matters of climate change impact on our World Heritage sites that are widely known and already understood.
More recently Dr Reichelt told Guardian Australia that he did not mean to imply in his
comments to The Australian that activists and lobbyists were being misleading. Rather, it
was the media that was misinterpreting the data it received from scientists, lobbyists and
activists, he said.
By comparison, The Guardian presents the facts through a method of thematic framing,
linking the event to broader issues and contexts suggesting that the omission occurred in
early 2016 during a time of significant pressure on the Australian government in relation to both climate change and world heritage sites. By presenting a wider issue to the audience it allows readers to critique the establishment, not the individuals they represent.
The obligation of news media should be in communicating the facts to the public, in the
case of The Australian it seems that the facts have been altered or excluded shedding a
positive light on the current government and warranting their actions of omission. It even to some degree reduces the significance and accuracy of the report with no information provided on UNESCO or the UN and their obligations on an international platform.
Quality and Accurate Information
The scientific method is subject to intense criticism, rigorous testing and significant data
analysis often under subsidy from the government which cements the integrity of this work but it remains challenging to communicate. The scientific language is not always easily translated or understood and a lot of meaning is lost in this way so it is imperative to reporting the issue of climate change that this be taken into account.
It is made even more difficult to find accurate representation of meaning in this context with little availability to visual effects of climate change or an individual face to help the reader associate themselves with the story. Climate change is however, a matter of international significance.
The Australian has used a Tourism Queensland image of a snorkeler surveying a healthy
and vibrant part of the reef with the caption noting “growing scientific conflict over
bleaching” while The Guardian chose an image of a lone Green Turtle swimming through a colourless patch of reef captioned “Reef is in the midst of its worst crisis in recorded history”.
The opposing views of the articles are mirrored by their use of imagery supporting their
article and each encourages an emotive response from the audience. The seemingly good
state of the reef portrayed in The Australian is calming and for most Australian readers will be associated with memories of the reef. The Guardians image however, is somewhat alarming and I am drawn to attention from it, feeling uncomfortable.
Data visualisations and image comparisons could however, be a more accurate
representation of this topic. NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies teamed up with
Bloomberg to create a data visualisation comparing observed temperatures from 1880 –
2015 with Natural Factors and Human Factors showing that Human Factors were more
significantly aligned to the observed temperatures which rather artistically supports their article in an informative and engaging way (Roston & Migliozzi, 2015).
Diverse Range of Perspectives
The diversity in perspective is lost for the most part in The Australian piece as it focuses
solely on the views of Dr Russell Reichelt who vocally rejects the claims of others in his
field without room for the audience to make any determinations. The article dedicated a
large subsection to comments from the current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull while no comments were taken from the opposition leader, a short note read only “Labor announced $500 million towards protecting the reef”. This inequality in coverage or of information is in direct contrast to the News Ltd editorial code of conduct which states that every effort must be made to contact all relevant parties to tell all sides of the story, in any kind of dispute (News Ltd, Editorial Code of Conduct Policy 2012)
On the other hand, The Guardian provides a narrative from the head of Australia’s Climate Council, Will Steffan, who had worked on the UNESCO / UN report and concludes with a statement from a spokesperson for the environment department which represented a more diverse and relevant range of perspectives to the discussion at the core of the story.
It is worth noting that The Guardian has since printed several subsequent articles on this
story providing more insight into what information was omitted from the report and further discussions with Environmental Minister, Greg Hunt. The Australian story was printed after all of this information was made available, yet failed to address these issues in their article which demonstrates a neglect of the facts.
It is evident from these examples that there are several aspects of ‘good’ quality journalism missing from our current media landscape though I would suggest they are a wonderful model to induce change. The rise of the internet may have shaken the pillars that our media have stood so proudly upon but the focus is once more shifting to originality, to brave and powerful reporting that takes hard work and persistence to pull off and the established news organisations hold the ace (Kiss, 2014).
McChesney argues that the only way for us to improve journalism or reach a ‘real media
utopia’ is with massive public subsidies (McChesney, 2012) but I would instead argue that a new method of production and story telling needs to be developed to better suit this ever changing media landscape and the complexity that is the scientific language, one that gives the quality and accuracy that the public looks to it’s media for, one that is free from bias that aims to educate, and inform.
Bacon, W (2013) “Sceptical Climate Part 2: Climate Science in Australian Newspapers”
Australian Centre for Independent Journalism
Bivins, Tom (2009) “Mixed Media : Moral Distinctions in Advertising, Public Relations, and Journalism”
Christians et al. (2009) “Normative theories of the media: Journalism in democratic
Deuze, M. (2011) “Media life” Media, Culture, & Society, 33, 137-148.
Kiss, J. (2014). A new medium seeks old skills. British Journalism Revew, 25(3), 33-38.
Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) – Journalists’ Code of Ethics.
News Limited – Editorial Code of Conduct Professional Conduct Policy July 2012
Painter, J. (2011) “Poles Apart: The international reporting of climate change scepticism”
Roston, Eric and Miliozzie, Blacki (2015) “What’s Really Warming the World?”