Media ‘impartiality’ on climate change is ethically misguided and downright dangerous

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

In September 2019, the editor of The Conversation, Misha Ketchell, declared The Conversation’s editorial team in Australia was henceforth taking what he called a “zero-tolerance” approach to climate change deniers and sceptics. Their comments would be blocked and their accounts locked.

His reasons were succinct:

Climate change deniers and those shamelessly peddling pseudoscience and misinformation are perpetuating ideas that will ultimately destroy the planet.

From the standpoint of conventional media ethics, it was a dramatic, even shocking, decision. It seemed to violate journalism’s principle of impartiality – that all sides of a story should be told so audiences could make up their own minds.

But in the era of climate change, this conventional approach is out of date. A more analytical approach is called for.

The ABC’s editorial policy on impartiality offers the best analytical approach so far developed in Australia. It states that impartiality requires:

  • a balance that follows the weight of evidence

  • fair treatment

  • open-mindedness

  • opportunities over time for principal relevant perspectives on matters of contention to be expressed.

It stops short of saying material contradicting the weight of evidence should not be published, which is the position adopted explicitly by The Conversation and implicitly by Guardian Australia.

Guardian Australia’s position is to concentrate on presenting the evidence that human-induced climate change is real and is having a detrimental effect on global heating, wildlife extinction and pollution. It states that this is the defining issue of our times and fundamental societal change is needed in response.

The position of Australia’s other big media organisations is far less clear and rests on generalities applicable to all issues.

Read more:
Bushfires, bots and arson claims: Australia flung in the global disinformation spotlight

The former Fairfax (now Nine) newspapers, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, have separate codes. The Age code does not mention impartiality but requires its journalists to report in a way that is fair, accurate and balanced. The Herald’s does mention impartiality but confines it to an instruction to avoid promoting an individual staff member’s personal interests or preferences.

Both say, however, that comment should be kept separate from news.

News Corp Australia’s editorial professional conduct policy is quite different from all these. It states that comment, conjecture and opinion are acceptable in [news] reports to provide perspective on an issue, or explain the significance of an issue, or to allow readers to recognise what the publication’s standpoint is on the matter being reported.

Its journalists are told to try always to tell all sides of the story when reporting on disputes.

However, the policy also states that none of this allows the publication of information known to be inaccurate or misleading.

Markedly different as these positions are, they have one element in common: freedom of the press does not mean freedom to publish false or misleading material.

From an ethical perspective, this is a bare minimum. The ABC requires that its journalists follow the weight of evidence, which is a substantially more exacting standard of truthfulness than anything required by the Fairfax or News Corp newspapers. The Guardian Australia and The Conversation have imposed what it is in effect a ban on climate-change denialism, on the ground that it is harmful.

Harm is a long-established criterion for abridging free speech. John Stuart Mill, in his seminal work, On Liberty, published in 1859, was a robust advocate for free speech but he drew the line at harm:

[…] the only purpose for which power can be exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

It follows that editors may exercise the power of refusing to publish climate-denialist material if doing so prevents harm to others, without violating fundamental free-speech principles.

Other harms too provide established grounds for limiting free speech. Some of these are enforceable at law – defamation, contempt of court, national security – but speech about climate change falls outside the law and so becomes a question of ethics.

The harms done by climate change, both at a planetary level and at the level of human health, are well-documented and supported by overwhelming scientific evidence.

At a planetary level, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report last year on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.

It stated that human activities are estimated to have already caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, and that 1.5°C was likely to be reached between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate.

At the level of human health, in June 2019 the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners published its Position Statement on Climate Change and Human Health.

It stated that climate change resulting from human activity “presents an urgent, significant and growing threat to health worldwide”.

Projected changes in Australia’s climate would result in more frequent and widespread heatwaves and extreme heat. This would increase the risks of heat stress, heat stroke, dehydration and mortality, contribute to acute cerebrovascular accidents, and aggravate chronic respiratory, cardiac and kidney conditions and psychiatric illness.

At both the planetary and human-health levels, then, the harms are serious and grounded in credible scientific evidence. It follows that they provide a strong ethical justification for the stands taken by The Conversation and Guardian Australia in prioritising Mill’s harm principle over free speech.

Read more:
Bushfires won’t change climate policy overnight. But Morrison can shift the Coalition without losing face

Aside from these two platforms and the ABC, journalists are offered very limited internal guidance about how to approach the balancing of free-speech interests with the harm principle in the context of climate change.

External guidance is nonexistent. The ethical codes promulgated by the media accountability bodies – the Australian Press Council and the Australian Communications and Media Authority – make no mention of how impartiality should be achieved in the context of climate change. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s code of ethics is similarly silent.

These bodies would serve the profession and the public interest by developing specific standards to deal with the issue of climate change, and guidance about how to meet them. It is not an issue like any other. It is existential on a scale surpassing even nuclear war.

As I write in my study at Central Tilba on the far south coast of New South Wales, the entire landscape of farmland, bush and coastline is shrouded in smoke. It has been like that since before Christmas.

Twice we have been evacuated from our home. Twice we have been among the lucky ones to return unhurt and find our home intact.

The front of the Badja Forest Road fire (292,630 hectares) is 3.6 kilometres to the north, creeping towards us in the leaf litter. A northerly wind would turn it into an immediate threat.

From this perspective, media acquiescence in climate change denial, failure to follow the weight of evidence, or continued adherence to an out-of-date standard of impartiality looks like culpable irresponsibility.The Conversation

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Tweet streams: how social media can help keep tabs on ecosystems’ health

File 20170811 1159 km7y0f
Social media posts, such as this image uploaded to Flickr, can be repurposed for reef health monitoring.
Sarah Ackerman/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Susanne Becken, Griffith University; Bela Stantic, Griffith University, and Rod Connolly, Griffith University

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram could be a rich source of free information for scientists tasked with monitoring the health of coral reefs and other environmental assets, our new research suggests.

Ecosystems are under pressure all over the world, and monitoring their health is crucial. But scientific monitoring is very expensive, requiring a great deal of expertise, sophisticated instruments, and detailed analysis, often in specialised laboratories.

This expense – and the need to educate and engage the public – have helped to fuel the rise of citizen science, in which non-specialist members of the public help to make observations and compile data.

Our research suggests that the wealth of information posted on social media could be tapped in a similar way. Think of it as citizen science by people who don’t even realise they’re citizen scientists.

Read more: Feeling helpless about the Great Barrier Reef? Here’s one way you can help.

Smartphones and mobile internet connections have made it much easier for citizens to help gather scientific information. Examples of environmental monitoring apps include WilddogScan, Marine Debris Tracker, OakMapper and Journey North, which monitors the movements of Monarch butterflies.

Meanwhile, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Flickr host vast amounts of information. While not posted explicitly for environmental monitoring, social media posts from a place like the Great Barrier Reef can contain useful information about the health (or otherwise) of the environment there.

Picture of health? You can learn a lot from holiday snaps posted online.
Paul Holloway/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Twitter is a good resource for this type of “human sensing”, because data are freely available and the short posts are relatively easy to process. This approach could be particularly promising for popular places that are visited by many people.

In our research project, we downloaded almost 300,000 tweets posted from the Great Barrier Reef between July 1, 2016 and March 17, 2017.

After filtering for relevant keywords such as “fish”, “coral”, “turtle” or “bleach”, we cut this down to 13,344 potentially useful tweets. Some 61% of these tweets had geographic coordinates that allow spatial analysis. The heat map below shows the distribution of our tweets across the region.

Tweet heat map for the Great Barrier Reef.
Author provided

Twitter is known as place for sharing instantaneous opinions, perceptions and experiences. It is therefore reasonable to assume that if someone posts a tweet about the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns they are talking about a nearby part of the reef, so we can use the tweet’s geocoordinates as indicators of the broad geographic area to which the post is referring. Images associated with such tweets would help to verify this assumption.

Our analysis provides several interesting insights. First, keyword frequencies highlight what aspects of the Great Barrier Reef are most talked about, including activities such as diving (876 mentions of “dive” or “diving”, and 300 of “scuba”), features such as “beaches” (2,909 times), and favoured species such as “coral” (434) and “turtles” (378).

The tweets also reveal what is not talked about. For example, the word “bleach” appeared in only 94 of our sampled tweets. Furthermore, our results highlighted what aspects of the Great Barrier Reef people are most happy with, for example sailing and snorkelling, and which elements had negative connotations (such as the number of tweets expressing concern about dugong populations).

Casting the net wider

Clearly, this pool of data was large enough to undertake some interesting analysis. But generally speaking, the findings are more reflective of people’s experiences than of specific aspects of the environment’s health.

The quality of tweet information with regard to relevant incidents or changes could, however, be improved over time, for example with the help of a designated hashtag system that invites people to post their specific observations.

Read more: Survey: two-thirds of Great Barrier Reef tourists want to ‘see it before it’s gone’.

Similar alert systems and hashtags have been developed for extreme events and emergency situations, for example by the New South Wales Fire Service.

Tweets also often contain photographs – as do Instagram and Flickr posts – which can carry useful information. An image-based system, particularly in cases where photos carry time and location stamps, would help to address the lack of expertise of the person posting the image, because scientists can analyse and interpret the raw images themselves.

The Great Barrier Reef is, of course, already extensively monitored. But social media monitoring could be particularly beneficial in countries where more professional monitoring is unaffordable. Popular destinations in the Pacific or Southeast Asia, for example, could tap into social media to establish systems that simultaneously track visitors’ experiences as well as the health of the environment.

The ConversationWhile it is early days and more proof-of-concept research is needed, the technological possibilities of Big Data, machine learning and Artificial Intelligence will almost certainly make socially shared content a useful data source for a wide range of environmental monitoring in the future.

Susanne Becken, Professor of Sustainable Tourism and Director, Griffith Institute for Tourism, Griffith University; Bela Stantic, Professor, Director of Big data and smart analytics lab, Griffith University, and Rod Connolly, Professor in Marine Science, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How Al Gore is using social media to try to change the conversation on climate change


Climate change has a serious communication problem. Will Al Gore be the one to help fix it?

These two lines of thought simultaneously ran through my head as I dialed into a phone interview last week with the former Vice President, who earlier that week had confirmed that he once tried unsuccessfully to buy Twitter and merge it with Current TV (first reported in Nick Bilton’s book). Naturally Gore and his team behind environmental social media effort The Climate Reality Project had an agenda for the interview: to tell me about their third annual 24 Hours of Reality, a live online broadcast that kicks off this Tuesday and which over a 24-hour-period will showcase the local effects of extreme weather and carbon pollution across six continents.

Gore, who’s as congenial as he is media-trained in a phone interview on the topic of climate change, launched the first…

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