Introduction by Croakey: Survey after survey has shown that the climate crisis is one of the top concerns for voters, and every week it seems another report or extreme weather event intensifies these concerns.
The latest is the World Meteorological Organization’s new report showing that four key climate change indicators – greenhouse gas concentrations, sea level rise, ocean heat and ocean acidification – set new records in 2021.
However, an analysis of Australian media coverage by journalist Lyndal Rowlands has identified many gaps and failures in how influential mainstream media publications and programs are covering this critical health, security and economic concern during the election campaign.
And, yes, we also acknowledge the important work that some are doing in this space, such as Fact checking the Treasurer’s misleading claims on the Government’s achievements in reducing emissions and investigations of local communities’ concerns and the work of publications like Renew Economy.
Lyndal Rowlands writes:
Media coverage of the first federal election since Australia experienced catastrophic bushfires suggests that some Australian media outlets have yet to reflect on their own role in the climate crisis.
Australian media coverage is often not connecting the dots between climate change and major election issues including health, economics and foreign policy even though many Australians see climate change their top concern for this election.
Fiona Armstrong from the Climate and Health Alliance, who is also a former journalist, told Croakey that there is an “urgent” need for a “public conversation about the risks and opportunities so we can collectively mount an appropriate response.”
Yet, instead of reporting on how election policies will affect people’s lives, coverage of the 2022 election echoes concerns previously raised by NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen, that Australian election media coverage focuses on what he calls “horse-race” journalism, examining which candidate won or lost each day of the election.
Recent bushfires, floods and heat waves mean it’s not difficult for the media to find people to interview who have already been directly impacted by climate change, Professor Tarun Weeramanthri, the President of the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) told Croakey. But, he said, “those voices are just not being heard and that’s how media coverage affects how we respond to these issues”.
The sample of media coverage that Croakey analysed for this article showed that Australian media are not making the connection between the climate impacts that people are experiencing now and the election. Worryingly, media coverage sometimes portrays the impacts of climate change in a positive light, while people and policies focused on addressing climate change appear to attract more negative coverage.
Fossil fuel industry influences talking points – such as the idea that climate change is a “debate” or “war” – continue to influence Australian media coverage of climate change. This reflects both a lack of investment in public interest journalism in Australia, including that specialising in covering the climate crisis, as well as the fossil fuel industry’s well-documented strategies of influencing political discourse.
For this article, I conducted an analysis of front-page and op-ed articles published by Nine Entertainment’s Sydney Morning Herald and Seven West Media’s West Australian newspapers between 22 to 28 April and episodes of ABC’s Insiders aired between 10 April and 1 May.
Health workers speak up
Australian media coverage of health has increased significantly during the pandemic and during the dates analysed by Croakey, health was the election issue which received the most media coverage.
Yet, key public health concerns, including climate change, are still not being covered, Weeramanthri told Croakey. “It’s silence about some issues, and then sticking to an unchanged script around others,” he said.
Australian health workers are increasingly concerned about climate change, with more than 90 Australian health and medical organisations now calling for urgent action. Some health workers are so concerned about climate change that they have decided to become political candidates themselves.
Dr Monique Ryan, a paediatric neurologist who ran the neurology department at the Royal Children’s Hospital, is running as a candidate in the Melbourne electorate of Kooyong, currently held by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.
Ryan’s campaign prompted a people’s forum debate hosted by News Corp Sky News – which offered a notable contrast to other media coverage of the election. Ryan insisted that she would only debate Frydenberg if questions were posed by people from Kooyong, and the first question asked was on climate change.
During the forum Ryan, who has over 50 peer-reviewed publications, said that although she loved her job, she had to leave it because as a scientist she looked at Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports and realised that climate change is “the existential threat for us right now”.
Many other Australians scientists and health professionals share similar concerns to Ryan, yet these views are not being reflected in media coverage.
The absence of these perspectives from media coverage reflects broader issues with Australian democracy beyond the media, including alleged restrictions placed on government scientists speaking about climate change.
Focus on economics misses economists’ top concern
After health, economics was the second most common theme of election media coverage from the sample analysed by Croakey.
A recent survey of 50 of Australia’s top economists by the Economic Society of Australia found that 74 percent listed “climate and the environment” as the most important issue for the election, significantly higher than any other issue.
Yet climate change was absent from most media coverage of broader economic issues. This was not for a lack of political candidates making this connection. For example during the people’s forum, Ryan compared the cost of taking Australia to net zero by 2050 of $86 billion to the much greater costs of “unmitigated climate emergencies and disasters we would experience if we don’t do that” at $2 trillion dollars.
By contrast, the media coverage analysed by Croakey showed that where climate change was mentioned in relation to economics, the focus was almost entirely on potential costs of taking action. This framing was far from the full picture as it did not include fossil fuel subsidies, the costs of not taking action on climate change, nor the potential economic benefits from transition jobs.
Dr John Cook, from the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub, told Croakey that this kind of framing of climate change is “really buying into and reinforcing climate misinformation framing, whether it’s from the fossil fuel industry or from right wing think tanks”.
There are some notable exceptions, of course, such as this article published by Ross Gittins.
By contrast, an episode of the ABC’s Insiders filmed in Gladstone, Queensland, on 24 April appeared to adopt a framing focused on the costs of taking action on climate change to fossil fuel companies.
Host David Speers repeatedly asked Labor’s Jim Chalmers how Labor’s proposed tax on multinational companies would affect fossil fuel companies which Speers described as “employers here in Gladstone”.
He said: “I mean, there are a lot of multinationals that have been employees in this town, Rio Tinto, Shell, Anglo coal, Peabody Energy and so on. Will they pay more tax under Labor?”
While the questions adopted a specific focus on multinational fossil fuel companies – which have been turning record profits due to high oil and gas prices – a similar emphasis was not placed on other jobs with longer term prospects – including potential jobs in renewable energy or the 64,000 jobs in Great Barrier Reef tourism.
Despite Gladstone’s proximity to the Great Barrier Reef, the recent mass bleaching of the reef – the first to occur during a La Nina – was not mentioned during the episode.
Climate impacts portrayed in a positive light
A feature on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday 26 April included worrying details about how children’s schooling has been significantly disrupted by recent flooding just two years after other children in the same state faced lost their schools during bushfires.
Photographs of smiling and laughing children accompanying the article contrasted with details, such as that “school will not return to normal for months, or even years”. The article described how at least nine public schools and several Catholic and Independent Schools were so significantly damaged that they had been “earmarked for rebuilding.”
Notably, although the article described the damage bill for just one of these schools as “10s of millions of dollars” these kinds of costs did not seem to be included in the newspapers economics coverage. The article titled ‘Students Hop Aboard School Bus for Fresh Start After Floods’ didn’t include any references to climate change but did say: “what a lesson for children – how to be adaptable”.
A similar positive tone of media coverage was also observable during much of the coverage of the prolonged heat wave in West Australia this past Summer, with so-called fun-in-the sun pictures.
“There were the usual stories of people at beaches, enjoying sunny days, and no mention of climate change,” Weeramanthri told Croakey. “So it was almost presented as a positive thing that it was much hotter over the summer for a long period.”
The Sydney Morning Herald opinion pages placed a considerable focus on foreign policy and security during this period with 10 opinion articles on the Solomon Islands and/or China. However, the perspectives of Pacific Island people were notably absent from much of this coverage.
“When we’ve heard from the Pacific – but we also heard from even people within Australia – they’re saying, climate change is impacting us now,” said Weeramanthri.
Yet not only did media coverage fail to make the connection between climate change and foreign policy, in at least one op-ed published by the SMH, former Queensland Labor Premier Peter Beattie appeared to imply that foreign policy and climate change were unrelated issues. Beattie said that recent developments meant Australia needed politicians able to handle foreign policy and security and called pro-climate candidates a “one trick pony”.
As in other areas, there are exceptions. For example, the Guardian Australia’s three-part audio series ‘An impossible choice: when climate change arrives at your door’ hosted by Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson was recently nominated for a 2022 Covering Climate Now award.
Fossil fuel industry influence
The significant influence that the fossil fuel industry has had over Australian politics has not received much media coverage in Australia.
“It was fossil fuel investment in harmful ad campaigns that was one of the key factors in the toppling of Kevin Rudd”, Cook told Croakey. “So they have a very significant presence in Australian politics.”
One notable exception was an opinion article in the West Australian which referred to disinformation, although it’s worth noting that in the print version of the newspaper the article was placed on page 150.
By contrast, the most prominent climate change headline during the dates analysed by Croakey was an article on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald titled: ‘Nationals Reignite Climate Change War’. Panellists on ABC Insiders also referred to climate change as a debate, in contrast to guests which used words such as climate emergency.
Researchers have found strategy documents which show that fossil fuel companies have employed a public relations strategy aimed at influencing media to frame climate change as a “debate” or “war” since at least the 1990s – a framing which has also made many people feel less inclined to engage with climate change discourse.
More recently supporters of the fossil fuel industry have shifted from a strategy of climate denial to “climate delay”. One of the strategies of climate delay has been to shift the responsibility for climate change away from fossil fuel companies and on to individuals.
In Australia the focus on shifting attention away from fossil fuels has also included a campaign from News Corp to blame environmentalists for the fires, despite evidence climate change and other environmental degradation have made the conditions for bushfires in Australia significantly worse.
As Weeramanthri noted, the UN Secretary General recently said that the “truly dangerous radicals” are not environmentalists but governments – including Australia – “that are increasing the production of fossil fuels”.
An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald on 15 May, titled ‘Major parties must do better on protecting climate’ concluded: “The need for strong action on the climate and environment crisis has never been more pressing, and some of the solutions can only be advanced by politicians. Both major parties need to do better.”
It’s a strong message also for journalism and media organisations.
Lyndal Rowlands is a freelance journalist writing about climate change and health. She is a recipient of UN Correspondents Association Prize for Climate Journalism. Twitter: @lyndalrowlands
A Guardian Australia analysis of election issues shows that while voters’ number one issue of cost of living has been given significant political and media attention, other issues that voters care about, including climate change, appear to have been neglected.
Covering Climate Now resources for journalists
This article is part of Croakey’s contribution to the Covering Climate Now initiative, an unprecedented global media collaboration that is putting the spotlight on the climate crisis. Croakey Health Media is a member of the collaboration, which was co-founded by The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), in partnership with The Guardian.
Croakey thanks and acknowledges donors to our public interest journalism funding pool who have helped support this article.