Murdoch Press Coverage of Aussie Carbon Price So Negative in 2011, “It’s Fair to Say They’ve Campaigned Against It”

I was struck by a recent analysis from Daily Climate showing a substantial drop in the number of stories covering climate change in 2011. In spite of the dramatic increase in extreme weather events and the white-knuckled political tension around government investments in energy, there was still a 20% drop in coverage of climate-related issues last year.

One of the exceptions to that drop, however, was Australia. News outlets like the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and the Sydney Morning Herald saw a 60% increase and a 21% increase respectively. Australia was a particularly important country to watch in 2011 because of the dramatic political battle that unfolded over a comprehensive climate bill.

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But experience in that country illustrates a hole in analysis that simply tracks the quantity of articles — it ignores the quality of those stories.

A recent report from the Australian Center for Independent Journalism attempts to fill in that hole. The researchers looked at climate policy stories in 10 major newspapers from February of 2011 through July of 2011 and tracked how positive or negative those stories were, who was quoted, and what kid of language was used. The results were overwhelmingly negative. Here are some highlights:

  • Overall, negative coverage of the Gillard government’s carbon policy across ten newspapers outweighed positive coverage across ten Australian newspapers by 73% to 27%. (Note: After neutral items were discounted).
  • After neutral items were discounted, negative coverage (82%) across News Ltd newspapers far outweighed positive (18%) articles. This indicates a very strong stance against the carbon policy adopted by the company that controls most Australian metropolitan newspapers, and the only general national daily. [Note: This is an organization owned by Rupert Murdoch.]
  • Headlines were less balanced than the actual content of articles. Neutral articles were more likely to be headlined negative (41%) than positive (19%).

In an interview with Climate Progress at the Durban climate talks, Christine Milne, the Deputy Leader of Australia’s Green Party, lamented the domination of negative stories in Murdoch publications:

“The Murdoch press is a very big problem in Australia. It owns 70% of the print media and has run a massive campaign against the climate science and against the climate pricing policy that we’ve delivered in Australia. And it will continue to do so in the hope that the opposition is elected and the whole thing is repealed. This is a critical time in Australian politics and for the climate.”

Remarkably, even though the Green Party provided the political catalyst for getting a climate bill considered in the first place, members of the party only received 5% of quotes in stories on the issue.

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When journalists reached out to the business community, which sector got the most quotes? By far, sources directly or indirectly representing the fossil fuel industry, “often without any critique or second source”:

(The researchers also factored the aluminum and steel industries into these figures.)

The range of findings show a clear political bias against the carbon pricing policy moving through parliament in 2011:

  • The claims by many single sources about the likely impact of the carbon policy were not tested against the views of other sources. Only 42% of the rest of the articles includedmore than two sources.
  • Fossil fuel lobby and other big business sources opposed to the policy were very strongly represented, often without any critique or second source.
  • Business sources (23%) receive more coverage than all Australian civil society sources together including unions, NGOS, think tanks, activists, members of the public, religious spokespeople, scientists and academics (17%).
  • Business sources quoted 4 or more times over the 6-month period were quoted being negative towards the policy in almost 80% of occasions. Many Australian readers would have been left with the impression that the nearly the entire business community was opposed to the carbon price policy. In fact this was far from the truth.
  • Academics and scientists were also poorly represented.
  • Over half the articles only used the word ‘tax’ (51%), 11% used ‘price’ and another 39% referred to both. Once again there are differences between Fairfax and News Ltd.’s metropolitan newspapers.

Let me take my last statement back: These findings show far more than a simple “bias.” They show a stunningly blatant attempt to stop a price on carbon. One wonders how political leaders were ever able to pass a climate bill at all.

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“Some of Australia’s leading newspapers have been so negative in their reporting of the Gillard government’s carbon policy it’s fair to say they’ve campaigned against it rather than covered it,” reads the primer for the report. The top six newspapers most negative about the Australian government’s proposed carbon policy are all owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Tracking the raw number of stories focused on climate is an important task. But this kind of qualitative analysis gives us a much fuller picture of how the content of those articles influence the actual story itself.

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