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Friday, October 19, 2012

Leo Hickman: Climate change: journalism's never-ending fight for facts

An Australian DJ must undergo 'accuracy' training after saying falsehoods about climate change. But will this improve journalism?

Leo blog : DJ Allan Jones during anti-carbon tax rally in Australia
Sydney broadcaster Alan Jones speaks during an anti-carbon tax rally in Sydney in 2011. Photograph: Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images
by Leo Hickman, The Guardian, Environment Blog, October 19, 2012
The debate about climate change is dogged – possibly even defined – by its interminable, intractable tug of war over the "facts." A hand grenade is lobbed into no-man's land triggering a volley of return fire. But, when the dust settles, can anyone truly claim to have advanced their position?

Of course, the art of "manufacturing doubt" has long been in the playbook of those hoping or needing to divert attention away from evidence. We saw it a generation ago with smoking, just as we see it today with climate change. But knowing how this blatant tactic is deployed doesn't make it any easier to nullify or deter. Compounding the problem is the speed at which "facts" can now spread unchallenged across the internet. Rebutting or contextualising inaccuracies takes expertise and, above all, time and energy.

This week has witnessed two text-book examples of this phenomenon in action. First, we had an article in the Mail of Sunday with the arresting headline that "Global warming stopped 16 years ago." Predictably, it was picked up and repeated across the world by news outlets keen to push that line. A day or so later the rebuttals and clarifications from scientists started to land, but the meme had already gained purchase with those seeking such confirmation.

And then we heard the extraordinary news that Alan Jones, the Australian climate sceptic shock jock, had been ordered by the country's media regulator (full ruling here) to undertake "factual accuracy" training, and to employ fact-checkers, following one of his infamous near-daily rants about the climate "hoax."

Each tale hints at a different outcome: the one that got away, versus the one that got caught. People can debate that, but I think taken together these two stories ask a deeper, more pertinent question about how – particularly in light of the fact that the Leveson inquiry is soon to publish its findings – the media can be persuaded, cajoled, forced – you chose the word – into taking a much more responsible position when it comes to relaying facts about climate change to its audience.

What, for example, can realistically be done about David Rose and his periodic articles in the Mail on Sunday purporting to cast doubt on climate science? The Press Complaints Commission has confirmed to me that it has received complaints about the latest article's accuracy. But it adds that it takes, on average, 35 working days for it to investigate and adjudicate on such cases. How could that ever correct the fact that the story was picked up and repeated all around the world with hours? Will all those outlets publish any adjudication if, indeed, it rules against the Mail on Sunday? I think we already know the answer.

Perhaps the scientists interviewed for the article should have smelt a rat, given Rose's form? After all, Professor Judith Curry complained that she had been misattributed not just for this week's article (she claims she never said climate models were "deeply flawed" despite the article attributing this comment to her), but for the Mail on Sunday article last year where he also quoted her. Why would she trust him second time round? Warning bells must have been sounding inside her head, surely?
The result was that she spent the rest of the week posting ever-longer articles on her blog trying to clarify and better explaining the "facts" within the original article.

But, ignoring for a moment that she had already been stung by Rose once before, what measures could she realistically have taken to ensure the article printed was an accurate portrayal of the basic facts, as well as her own views? This is a dilemma that faces all climate scientists when they are approached by journalists. The last thing we want is for scientists to retreat back up into their ivory towers.

One of the best forms of rapid rebuttal we now have to counter misinformation is the fact that an increasing number of scientists are taking to Twitter meaning they can react instantly if they spot mistakes in the media. And they can also directly and publicly field questions via Twitter, not just from journalists but from the wider interested public. Sure, a very small section of society actually use Twitter, but it is closely followed by most journalists so you would hope comments posted by scientists crying foul would be picked up, absorbed and disseminated.

What about "punishing" the journalists who persistently mislead on climate change? Is exposing their mistakes and wilful misinformation enough? Or do they need to face some kind of tougher sanction? If so, who would act as the judge, jury and prosecutor? Are ombudsmen a powerful enough deterrent? (The Guardian, for example, has a reader's editor, who acts independently of the editorial staff. But many media outlets still do not have one.)

I certainly have mixed views about the training course that Alan Jones has been ordered to undergo. On the one hand, it has the benefit of shaming him – and his associates – very publicly. But, equally, is it really likely to make much of a difference to his "journalism"? As a professional controversialist, he knows the prejudices of his audience intimately and he plays up to them relentlessly. His "martyrdom" might even improve his standing with his supporters, such is their logic.

Personally, I think this is all very much an open question. I certainly don't envy Lord Leveson in his deliberations on how best to improve the standards and veracity of journalism. I certainly hate the idea of anyone being denied a voice or a platform – if that's even possible any more with the option of self-publishing online. Publish and be damned, etc. But can we really continue to allow some journalists to manipulate and distort the "facts" for their own purpose unchecked, particularly with subjects such as climate change? As the famous saying goes: "You're entitled to your own views, but not to your own facts."

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