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“What's the difference between climate science and climate journalism?”

Lunney, D. (2012) “What's the difference between climate science and climate journalism?”. In: Banks, P., Lunney, D. and Dickman, C., (eds.) Science Under Siege: zoology under threat. Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, Mosman, NSW, Australia, pp. 23-44.

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This study scrutinized the reporting in the Sydney Morning Herald, a major NSW newspaper, in three periods between mid-2008 and early 2012, to examine Jay Rosen's clever question and answer: “What's the difference between climate science and climate journalism? The former is self-correcting, the latter has become self-destructive”. The approach taken was to sample articles by science journalists that covered interesting stories that were independent of the subject of climate change, stories that mentioned climate change, and others where climate change was the central focus. This approach was rewarding in that it showed the quality and depth that the journalists displayed in their craft. The second step was to examine those journalists who occupied prime space in the opinion pages, and the subsequent letters to the editor. These opinion pieces not only cluttered the debate about climate change, which is serious enough, but cast the whole discipline of science, and those who work in the area, namely scientists, as being unreliable, even vicious and irrational. This puts science under siege and raises ethical issues for journalists of distorting the truth, getting the facts wrong, and being deliberately misleading and uncaring. It appears that editorial policy has exhibited Orwellian doublethink, i.e. the ability to accept contradictory facts simultaneously, and to discipline the mind to ignore the conflict between them. The results support Rosen's view, but with a caveat. The science journalism in the Herald, including the science writing on climate change, was not self-destructive. It was instructive, interesting, and the presentation was engaging. The destructive element came from the opinion writers, either challenging the science outright, or promoting just one scientist, a denier of human-induced climate change. The study was then extended to examine how journalists themselves are responding to the representation of climate change in the media, how scientists are viewing the matter, as well as a range of skilled commentators. Australia's Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, in an address in 2011, was emphatic when he stated that all science risks damage when some science is attacked. Chubb said that climate change is the leading example because it is the very core of science that is being attacked, its principles, its processes, its standards, its ethics and its people. In contrast to such glum conclusions, I delighted in the intellectual rigour and excitement of a challenge that has been accepted by journalists themselves, by scientists, and by members of the community.

Item Type: Book Chapter
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Biological Sciences and Biotechnology
Publisher: Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales
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