News manipulation: The impartiality dilemma

News manipulation: The impartiality dilemma

Three wise monkeysIn their efforts to avoid accusations of bias, the modern news media has become more biased and more distorted than ever before. A perfect example of this ‘biased impartiality’ occurred this morning on Channel Seven’s revamped Sunrise program. In a segment on the climate change debate, Kochie interviewed Dr Ben McNeil – Senior Research Fellow for the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales – and Lord Christopher Monckton. Who isn’t.

This is not a piece about climate change – so don’t start choking the comments with your theories on climate scepticism or rehashing half-remembered stats to support one side or other. I have my opinion and you, no doubt, have yours. But how much is that opinion shaped by ‘facts’ presented without a correct context – all in the interests of ‘impartiality’. I’m on my soapbox today purely to rant about how the media’s insistence on unbiased and neutral reporting has had the effect of entirely distorting the news, manipulating opinion, disputing fact and creating controversy where none is warranted. The climate change debate is only one arena in which this trend is painfully apparent. It could just as easily be the War on Terror, or private health or tobacco, abortion or even religion!

Monckton has just arrived in Australia to start a National lecture tour attempting to draw attention to the climate sceptic arguments. He was introduced on this morning’s program by Kochie as “one of the world’s leading sceptics on the issue”. A policy adviser to PM Margaret Thatcher from 1982 to 1985 for parliamentary affairs, Monckton is a politician first and a scientist – well, not at all. Yet he was given a platform to spout his climate sceptic claims on a national program. Pitting Monckton against an official climate scientist has the effect of giving Monckton and his views equal recognition, and this sort of ‘impartiality’ has the effect of dramatically distorting the weight of evidence in the public eye.

Richard Dawkins – of whom I am a huge fan – recently declared that he would no longer engage in public debates with Creationists for much the same reasons as I decry the debating of climate sceptics in national news. His reasoning was that, in debating their beliefs he accords them validity. By acknowledging the arguments as worthy of debate, it creates the perception that the Creationists have an equal weight of argument to the humanists.

Winning is not what the creationists realistically aspire to. For them, it is sufficient that the debate happens at all. They need the publicity. We don’t. To the gullible public which is their natural constituency, it is enough that their man is seen sharing a platform with a real scientist. “There must be something in creationism, or Dr So-and-So would not have agreed to debate it on equal terms.” Inevitably, when you turn down the invitation you will be accused of cowardice, or of inability to defend your own beliefs. But that is better than supplying the creationists with what they crave: the oxygen of respectability in the world of real science.

Monckton – and other climate change deniers – is continually given this same oxygen by a media obsessed with neutrality and unbiased reporting. Constantly criticised for bias one way or the other, newsrooms the world over now default to seeking comments from both sides before considering it safe to broadcast or print. There is a myth that news reporting and media has to be neutral, avoiding making judgments about the veracity of claims or the quality of evidence. In his essential book, Flat Earth News, Nick Davies describes how the neutrality myth and the clamour for impartiality has the effect of distorting truth and favouring those with the weakest argument.

Neutrality requires the journalist to become invisible, to refrain deliberately (under threat of discipline) from expressing the judgements which are essential for journalism. Neutrality requires the packaging of conflicting claims, which is precisely the opposite of truth-telling. If two men go to mow a meadow and one comes back and say ‘The job’s done’ and the other comes back and says ‘We never cut a single blade of grass’, neutrality requires the journalist to report a controversy surrounding the state of the meadow, to throw together both men’s claims and shove it out to the world with an implicit sign over the top declaring, ‘We don’t know what’s happening – you decide.’

And so, despite the massive disparity between the mountain of evidence for man-made climate change and the few minor holes picked apart by the sceptics, in the public eye there appears to be genuine uncertainty about global warming.

There is no genuine uncertainty. The sceptics are vastly outnumbered. The evidence is far greater. As McNeil said this morning when Monckton tried to discredit all climate change science as flawed in the wake of the Himalayan glacier mistake, widely reported this weekend.

We have thousands and thousands of peer review (documents) and evidence to go by in these reports. If I was a reasonable person, I could easily accept the 999 observations that are out there.

It becomes a question of probability. Thousands of pieces on the one hand – a few errors or contradictory holes on the other. Where would you place your bets? Sadly, the tens of thousands of pieces of evidence get equivalent weight in the media against the handful of errors leapt upon by the climate sceptics. The Himalayan glacier mistake gets plenty of column inches in the press, unlike the vast majority of evidence that is not disputed and therefore not controversial enough to warrant a story.

And so the public becomes divided, especially as we all have our own biases and interests weighing on our opinions. Reading the comments on the Sunrise website following this mornings report demonstrates just how many viewers are willing to leap on the sceptic bandwagon – but not because of science but because of the risk of higher taxes. With doubt and uncertainty introduced into the debate, it makes any political solution so much harder as so many people don’t want to suffer any impact for something they believe is unproven. Therefore, those with most to lose are more prone to side with the sceptics, fuelling the confusion further.

In giving Monckton a platform this morning, Seven also accorded him far more credibility than his own actions would demand. Monckton’s claims that he is a member of the House of Lords (he’s not) or that he is the recipient of a Nobel Prize (he isn’t) were debunked quite easily in The Guardian by columnist George Monbiot. Monbiot went on to have an interesting email correspondence with Monckton (reproduced on his website) when Monckton’s Wikipedia page suddenly saw the addition of a claim that The Guardian paid $50,000 in damages for printing the false Nobel prize story (since removed).

Monckton also has ties to lobby groups and astroturfing organisations such as The Heartland Institute – part-funded by Exxon and tobacco companies specifically to dispute science related to tobacco and climate change. Surely, Monckton’s willingness to take money from big oil to spout his claims should be declared when seeking his opinion on issues that stand to have major impact on big oil. Such groups, commonly created, funded or supported by business interests, set out deliberately to force a different PR agenda into scientific debates. Very rarely are the links to political or industrial interests declared. Almost always they are courted by the news media to provide the alternative viewpoint in their coverage in order to maintain the neutrality myth.

Would you not consider Monckton’s proven falsehoods and his relationships with those with a vested big business interest in debunking climate change as important contextual information when considering the validity of Monckton’s opinions? If you were to base your opinions on those of Monckton, wouldn’t you want to know if he was paid by big oil or prone to exaggeration and outright lies? Sadly, the lack of such contextual information when providing alternate viewpoints in today’s news is not confined to just climate change. The neutrality dilemma has now infected every part of news, with less actual reporting and far too much regurgitation of ‘official positions’.

Have no doubt. Impartial, neutral news reporting is anything but.