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Opinion Piece

The Murdoch paradox: bias in climate reporting

Originally published in Crikey, September 24 2012

New research out of the US has provided evidence of the “misleading” reporting of climate change by News Corporation. The report, Is News Corp. Failing Science, written by the Union of Concerned Scientists, looked into representations of climate change at Fox News and The Wall Street Journal over a period of six and 12 months respectively.

In their study, stories were investigated and rated “accurate” or “misleading”. Misleading pieces were defined as those that:

  • Had a broad dismissal of the scientific evidence that climate change is occurring and is largely due to human activities
  • Disparaged climate scientists generally or specifically
  • Disparaged or mocked climate science as a body of knowledge
  • Cherry-picked individual facts or findings to question overall climate science conclusions
  • Engaged in debates or conversations in which misleading claims drowned out accurate ones.

Out of 40 mentions of climate change on Fox News, 37 were determined to be misleading, or 93% of stories. The reporting in The Wall Street Journal (researchers looked at the opinion section) was slightly more accurate; 81% of stories were considered misleading. Disparaging the basic fundamentals of the science was the most common approach at both outlets.

This finding brings into stark reality the challenge climate scientists and activists have when it comes to the issue being reported in the media. Anecdotal evidence of misleading reporting on climate change is common, but this report provides evidence. It also shows that climate change reporting goes beyond simply providing “equal sides” to scientists and sceptics. What it shows is that at least when it comes to News Corp, climate change is not even framed as a 50-50 debate, but is shaped by denying the existence of the problem.

The report focuses on News Corp in the US, but has ramifications in Australia. News Limited, the Australian subsidiary of News Corporation, which has 70% of Australia’s newspaper market share, has been criticised for its reporting on climate change. The subject may have come up during Rupert Murdoch’s recent Australian visit.

In Robert Manne’s 2011 Quarterly Essay, “Bad News: Rupert Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of a Nation”, he took aim at News Ltd’s reporting on global warming. Manne’s research found The Australian contained a high number of articles from those who denied the science of climate change, while commentary from those who had been published in academic journals on climate science was rare. He summarised this by stating:

“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.”

Manne’s research was backed up in November 2011 by Wendy Bacon from the Centre of Independent Journalism and the University of Technology Sydney. Bacon reported that News Ltd had presented highly biased coverage of the federal Government’s carbon pricing package. She stated:

“Negative coverage [of the carbon price] 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.”

Bacon’s research found that this coverage was systematic across News Ltd papers, with The Daily Telegraph and The Herald Sun being standouts. Bacon found Fairfax newspapers were more balanced, with 56% of their stories positive and 44% negative.

These realities for News Corp run counter to some of the public posturing of Rupert Murdoch (as well as the internal policies of the company). In 2007 Murdoch stated:

“Now, I realise we can’t take just one year in one city or even one continent as proof that something unusual is happening. And I am no scientist. But there are signs around the world, and I do know how to assess a risk … Climate change poses clear, catastrophic threats. We may not agree on the extent, but we certainly can’t afford the risk of inaction.”

News Corp has also worked extensively to tackle climate change internally. The company has set up a Global Energy Initiative to address the company’s carbon emissions. The GEI website boasts that News Corp’s action on climate change has seen the Carbon Disclosure Project rank the company in the top 5% of companies in the S&P 500 and the top 10% in the Global 500 for action on climate change.

What this report shows however, is that action within, and news coverage from the company, are very different beasts.

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About Simon Copland

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.

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