Climate change coverage at a crossroads in Australia

Conservative news outlets News Corp and Fairfax Media tend to control the message

Australia is entering what meteorologists are predicting will be another sweltering summer, with October already experiencing its hottest day on record.

But coverage of the record temperatures, which scientists agree can be traced to global warming, isn’t always covered as such here. Australia’s concentrated media landscape, dominated by two owners that skew toward climate-change skepticism, has led to coverage that denies or minimizes the warming weather. Some media watchers hope that a host of new digital additions to the media scene will diversify rhetoric.

According to the United Nations, there is strong scientific consensus that the global climate is changing and that human activity contributes significantly to this trend. But last year, the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism found that a third of Australian newspapers rejected or cast doubt on climate change over a three-month period in both 2011 and 2012. In its analysis of 602 articles on climate change across 10 mastheads, the ACIJ found that 32 percent of the articles did not accept the scientific consensus. The report also found that most of the skepticism came from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

All of which Adelaide University’s Simon Divecha, who writes on climate change and Australian media for academic and research site The Conversation, sees as a failing of the Australian media industry.

“At the time of the high heatwaves, it just wasn’t getting reported,” he said. “The articles talking about the heat didn’t connect it to climate change.”

Part of the homogeneity lies with how concentrated print media is in Australia. According to The Conversation, among most influential metropolitan and national dailies, News Corp accounted for 65 percent of the circulation in 2011, while Fairfax Media, the second biggest publisher, which owns The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age, controlled only 25 percent.

Murdoch’s Australian arm of News Corp controls 59 percent of all daily newspapers, with sales of 17.3 million papers a week, making it easily Australia’s most influential publisher.

Murdoch himself has often been critical of climate change, and earlier this year told Sky News Australia, which he partially owns, that “we should approach climate change with great skepticism.” News Corp likewise showed a similar tendency to cast doubt on whether humans are actually affecting the climate and whether climate change is happening.

Investigative journalist Wendy Bacon was the author behind the ACIJ report, titled, “Sceptical Climate: Climate Science in Australian Newspapers.” Bacon explored how climate change is covered through the amount of words dedicated to the topic and whether those pieces were news features or commentary.

Bacon found that 31 percent of climate science stories were comment pieces, where non-scientists wrote the majority of the opinion. She found that 10 percent of articles in Fairfax media either rejected or cast doubt on man-made climate change, which is far lower than the 41 percent of News Corp articles that did so. Her conclusions were damning.

“Climate science reporting in the News Corp tabloids… is dominated by commentary and heavy doses of climate scepticism along with scathing commentary on journalists and scientists who research and publish material that accepts the climate consensus position,” Bacon wrote. “Readers receive almost no information that would enable them to understand the complexities or likely impacts of the impact of climate change domestically or internationally.”

In 2014, this trend has only continued. The Australian summer is a season known for deadly bushfires and blistering heat, but there are key differences in how news organizations are covering the leadup to fire-danger season.

The Murdoch-owned tabloid The Daily Telegraph has been a force for climate skepticism, publishing a story last month titled “What a difference a year makes: snow in Blue Mountains a year to the day bushfires caused death and destruction.”

This story isn’t out of character for the outlet. In October 2013, while bushfires ravaged New South Wales, the paper published a story headlined “Bush fuel is to blame for NSW blazes, not United Nations’ climate change theory, experts say.” In a separate story later in February that analyzed the bushfires, the Telegraph quoted an expert as saying, “Blaming climate change is unproductive.” News Corp-owned websites have remained relatively quiet in producing stories linking bushfires and climate change.

News Corp’s dailies frequently prefer to run stories analyzing climate change policies rather than the science behind climate change. Only last week, top-ranking website ran a story asking, “What is Tony Abbott’s climate change policy?” It shifted the focus away from scientific consensus, while at the same time avoiding the fact that the prime minister’s government is actually doing very little to mitigate the effects of climate change.

News Corp’s The Australian has a dedicated climate section on its website, though Bacon found in her report that the national, daily broadsheet was more likely than any other publication to suggest doubt about man-made climate change. The content run under the section over the past week has included a raft of stories on coal, which produces around 85 percent of Australia’s electricity production, and a story calling for calm on climate refugees.

“That tends to be a really reductive conversation that we’re having,” said Dr. Mary Debrett, senior lecturer at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University in Melbourne. “Instead of looking at what’s happening out there and what the possibilities are, and what the diverse risks are, we’re having this conversation all the time of ‘is this happening’ and whether the government’s policy is right or not.”

Fairfax, Australia’s second largest publisher, fares reasonably better in its coverage of climate change and the science behind key issues.

In October, The Sydney Morning Herald ran ‘Threat of air pollution to worsen along with global warming, warns Climate Council,” which also highlighted the increasing risk of bushfires in the state of New South Wales. Fairfax has a dedicated “climate change” tab under the environment section on its website, with a recent story titled “Hottest October on record in Australia as fire danger rises.”

However, Fairfax’s largest stakeholder, with 14.9 percent, is mining magnate Gina Rinehart, Australia’s wealthiest person. Rinehart has been known to actively question climate change. There have been concerns Rinehart could make a takeover offer, which means she could effectively control the climate-change debate across Fairfax mastheads, further homogenizing the market.

But outside of the two major publishers, a raft of new media outlets have gained traction in Australia and have diversified climate change coverage, at least online.

The Guardian Australia, which launched in 2013, ran a story late last month titled “Bushfire season ‘will be more severe as a result of climate change.’” And when Mashable released an Australian edition in late October, one of its first stories was, “Australia is sweltering and the worst is yet to come.” BuzzFeed, too, launched an Australian edition in January of this year.

“The way that Mashable and BuzzFeed cover climate change from what I’ve seen of them is essentially that climate change is happening, it is a serious problem, and something should be done about it,” said Catherine Alexander, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Sustainable Society Institute.

BuzzFeed has run coverage like “21 Reasons Why Australian Environmentalists Are Really Angry Right Now,” which generated intense discussion in the comments. The story was one of the company’s most shared political or news piece so far in 2014, hitting 150,000 page views in Australia alone, says BuzzFeed Australia’s editor, Simon Crerar.

“It was an attempt to, in an entertaining way by using GIFs and the list format, get people through quite serious issues,” he said.

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Thuy Ong is an Australian journalist based in Sydney. She's previously worked as a correspondent for Reuters and completed her studies at the University of South Australia and Ryerson University in Toronto