Submission to the Independent Media Inquiry

This is the full text of a written submission to the independent inquiry into media and media regulation, which commenced public hearings in Melbourne on 7 November 2011.


Submission to the Independent Inquiry into Media and Media Regulation

(25 October 2011)


0. Executive Summary

This submission makes reference to several items in the Issues Paper released by the Inquiry on 28 September 2011.

This submission argues that there is substantial evidence that large segments of the media have systematically failed to provide the Australian public with accurate scientific information, especially as it relates to climate change. This points to a systemic failure of current self-regulation schemes. There is much evidence from the behavioural sciences that inaccurate media coverage prevents the public from forming well-informed opinions on complex issues, with adverse consequences for society as a whole.

The systemic failure to provide accurate information, often accompanied by misrepresentation or slander of individual scientists, points to the need to strengthen not only regulatory schemes but also to create a suitable forum for groups who have been misrepresented to set the record straight. There is overwhelming evidence from the behavioural sciences that incorrect information is difficult to dislodge and correct once it has been stored in people’s memories, and the persistent influence of misinformation is known to have adverse consequences for the personal expression of values, for public debate and for society as a whole. 


1. The Media’s Failure to Provide Accurate Coverage of Scientific Issues

There is considerable evidence that large segments of the Australian media, especially the large-circulation organs of the News Ltd. publishing conglomerate, have consistently misrepresented and distorted the current state of climate science. The following summaries of the evidence are relevant:

  • Professor Robert Manne of LaTrobe University has recently catalogued and quantitatively confirmed the systemic inability of The Australian accurately to report findings from climate science. The analysis in Professor Manne’s Quarterly Essay is not readily reconciled with conventional standards of journalistic integrity.
  • Dr Tim Lambert of UNSW has meticulously documented more than 70 cases of sometimes egregious distortions of scientific findings by The Australian on his Deltoid website. I have independently confirmed several of his analyses by either contacting the authors of scientific papers or by reading the peer-reviewed literature; in all cases, Dr Lambert’s analysis turned out to be correct and the reporting of The Australian was legitimately characterized as inaccurate.
  • Colleagues and I have recently compiled an in-depth analysis of media “malpractice” on The Conversation 
  • Multiple additional pieces of evidence that reveal editorial bias and even a disregard for truth when it comes to climate change are available from the ABC’s Media Watch website.
  • The Australian has repeatedly distorted data and science by the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO and has often refused to publish corrections of these distortions.  These distortions are a matter of public record and apply across a number of issues, from sea level rise to sea ice. The serial nature of these distortions was captured by the then-chief climatologist Dr Michael Coughlan, who stated on 6 January 2009: “The Australian clearly has an editorial policy. No matter how many times the scientific community refutes these arguments, they persist in putting them out – to the point where we believe there’s little to be gained in the use of our time in responding.”

On balance, there is considerable evidence of irresponsible conduct by some—but by no means all—Australian media organs. This evidence is relevant to at least two points in the Issue Paper

5 Do existing standards of conduct or codes of practice such as those mentioned in 3 and 4, as well as those established by individual print and/or online media organisations, fulfil their goals?

9.1 Is there effective self-regulation of (a) print media and (b) online media by the Australian Press Council?

The evidence suggests that existing standards do not fulfill their goal and that self-regulation by the Australian Press Council has systematically failed the Australian public.

This failure must not be taken lightly.

There is overwhelming evidence from the behavioural sciences that the media play an essential role in the views people hold and how they behaviour and that irresponsible media can do considerable harm.

To illustrate, in the United States, Professor Stephen Kull and colleagues at the University of Maryland have been keeping track of key beliefs among the American public for many years. Their data give rise for concern: Long after the search for “Weapons of Mass Destruction” (WMD) proved futile after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, large segments of the U.S. public continued to believe that they had actually been found in Iraq.

Further inspection of these data reveals that the extent of mistaken belief varied with people’s preferred news source: Consumers of Murdoch-owned Fox News were most likely to be misinformed on a range of issues, whereas those who primarily listened to National Public Radio (roughly comparable to our ABC) were least misinformed. Although these data leave open the direction of causality, it is noteworthy that the extent to which Fox-consumers were misinformed increased with how much attention they paid to their preferred channel. Those who watched Fox daily were most misinformed, whereas those who watched Fox ‘rarely’ or ‘only once a week’ escaped nearly unscathed and were less misinformed. In contrast to Fox, increased consumption of Public Radio was found to increase—not decrease—people’s level of understanding. Daily listeners of Public Radio were generally best-informed as shown by a number of studies spanning nearly a decade.

In Australia, I am not aware of a parallel analysis of how people’s opinions are shaped depending on their media sources. However, a recent CSIRO survey has revealed a phenomenon known as “pluralistic ignorance” that is typically associated with systemic misreporting in the media.

Pluralistic ignorance refers to the divergence between the prevalence of actual beliefs in a society and what people in that society think others believe. The CSIRO data reveal striking pluralistic ignorance with respect to climate change: It found that very few Australians (around 7 out of 100) completely denied the reality of climate change. However, those few falsely believed that their opinion was shared by half the population. Those same few people also think that only 15% of their compatriots accept the prevailing scientific opinion; namely that humans cause climate change—whereas in actual fact that number is around 40-50%, depending on how the question is asked. Based on previous research there is reason to think that this pluralistic ignorance is the result of skewed media coverage that over-emphasizes fringe views on climate change. (For more details and references, see here).

I therefore suggest that the systematic misreporting of scientific is likely to have had adverse consequences to Australian society at large.

It is important to recognize that inaccurate and misleading coverage of scientific issues is not inherently inevitable, as demonstrated by the efforts of reputable media outlets overseas. For example, in the U.K., a BBC Trust review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science (July 2011) determined that: “For at least three years, the climate change deniers have been marginal to the scientific debate but somehow they continued to find a place on the airwaves. Their ability to do so suggests that an over?diligent search for due impartiality – or for a controversy – continue to hinder the objective reporting of a scientific story…”

The recommendations of the BBC Trust review were, inter alia, that: “The BBC needs to continue to be careful when reporting on science to make a distinction between an opinion and a fact. When there is a consensus of opinion on scientific matters, providing an opposite view without consideration of “due weight” can lead to ‘false balance’, meaning that viewers might perceive an issue to be more controversial than it actually is.”

(see here for complete report and press release, respectively.)

It is difficult to conceive of reasons why the Australian media should not be required to live up to similar standards of objectivity as the BBC.


2. Can Inaccurate Media Coverage be Corrected?

The preceding section highlights the importance of the following two points in the Issues Paper:

2.1 If a substantial attack is made on the honesty, character, integrity or personal qualities of a person or group, is it appropriate for the person or group to have an opportunity to respond?

11 Would it be appropriate for such a model to include rules that would:
(a) prohibit the publication of deliberately inaccurate statements
(b) require a publisher to distinguish between comment and fact

Behavioural evidence has much to say about those two issues, especially the importance of avoiding the publication of erroneous or misleading information.

Cognitive science research has consistently shown that people continue to rely on information that turns out to be false, even after it has been identified as misinformation and after it has been clearly retracted or corrected (e.g., the “Children overboard” affair).

In a nutshell, when people receive a piece of seemingly valid information and are later told it is actually false, they nonetheless continue to rely on this misinformation. This even happens when people believe, understand, and later demonstrably remember the retraction—in other words, people will state that they no longer believe the misinformation but their future behaviour proves otherwise.

The persistence of false beliefs in large segments of society (e.g., in the U.S., the claim that President Obama was born abroad) highlights the importance of accurate reporting by the media. It also highlights the fact that simple corrections are often insufficient to neutralize the effects of erroneous coverage.

If simple corrections are insufficient, what then is required to neutralize the lingering effects of misinformation?

Relevant research suggests that people can discount misinformation if they are given a plausible alternative explanation in addition to a mere correction, or if they are alerted to the motives underlying the dissemination of the original misinformation.  For example, if people are alerted to the fact that rumours about President Obama’s birthplace were deliberately circulated by political opponents, then they may be less likely to give credence to those rumours.

Likewise, warning people ahead of time that they may be misled (e.g., by reading a particular newspaper with a sorry record of misrepresentations) also attenuates the continued influence of misinformation.

The findings just reviewed give rise to the following suggestions:

1. Parties who are misrepresented by the media should be given the opportunity to put forward explanations of why this might have happened, rather than just receiving a brief correction.

2. The long-term track record of media outlets (as indexed by the number of successful complaints against them proportional to readership) should be made readily available so the public can better gauge respectability of competing outlets.

3. The boundary between opinion and “objective” reporting has been progressively eroded, thus making it more difficult for consumers to differentiate opinion from fact. This distinction must be restored: media organs may be entitled to their own opinion, but they are not entitled to their own facts.


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