A Down-Under Journalistic ‘Wipeout’ In Covering Risks to the Great Barrier Reef


BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA — Growing tensions between scientists and major news outlets in Australia center around scientists’ concerns over coverage of the potential effects of climate change on coral reefs.

Many of the environmental scientists point to what they see as biased and misleading reporting, leaving them frustrated and wondering how they can best engage in a public debate that seems to have left them behind.


Unlike anywhere else in the world, national media coverage of coral reefs in Australia is a near-daily occurrence. The primary reason? The close proximity of theGreat Barrier Reef (GBR), a natural wonder made by the accumulation of calcareous skeletons of countless billions ofcoral polyps over the last 8,000 years. The GBR is more than 2,000 km long and consists of thousands individual reefs. The biodiversity of the GBR is bewildering; a single reef can easily house many times more coral and fish species than the entire Caribbean Sea, the global center of biodiversity.

Across this vast island continent, citizens have a genuine and broad sense of national stewardship of the GBR, in part because this natural tourism magnet is valued at $51.4 billion, nearly 5 percent of Australia’s annual GDP.

A threat to the reef 40 years ago by exploratory oil drilling and outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns-starfish, a voracious coral predator, largely inspired the beginning of the now global reef conservation movement. Cars since the 1970s have criss-crossed the nation sporting “Save The Reef” bumper stickers. This popular movement led to establishment of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and to what is now in many regards the world’s largest and best managed marine reserve.

Over those three-plus decades, coral reefs around the world have declined as the result of a range of impacts. Local threats include activities like dynamite fishing and damage from boat anchors. Globally and in the longer-term, threats mount from ocean warming and from acidification.

Coverage of the GBR and reef science on radio and television programs of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and some other outlets is generally sympathetic to conservation efforts and in alignment with the findings and perspectives of reef scientists.

In contrast, the nation’s largest daily newspaper, The Australian, frequently reports on and champions aggressive opposition to coral reef science and management and to the Labor government’s proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A recent example is a front-page February 4 story bylined by reporter Jamie Walker and headlined “Report undercuts Kevin Rudd’s Great Barrier Reef wipeout.”

Australia’s pro-environment Prime Minister, Rudd recently spoke to the parliament of potentially devastating future effects of anthropogenic global warming on the Great Barrier Reef. Temperatures only 1 or 2 degrees C above normal summertime highs can cause “coral bleaching“. If such warming lasts for weeks or goes much higher than that, corals can die en masse, having cascading impacts on all the reef inhabitants.

The well-documented temperature sensitivity of corals leads to theexpectation that if tropical ocean temperatures increase by 2-3 degrees C, as they are predicted to do even under the more conservative IPCC emissions scenarios, coral populations would be reduced and the overall reef ecosystem could be degraded.

A Journalistic Wipeout

The lead of Walker’s story was “Kevin Rudd’s insistence that the Great Barrier Reef could be ‘destroyed beyond recognition’ by global warming grates with new science suggesting it will again escape temperature-related coral bleaching.”

The new science purportedly undercutting Rudd’s warning came from theAustralian Institute of Marine Science, an internationally respected research institution. The report indicated that as of mid-January, there was no sign of mass bleaching on 14 reefs on the southern GBR. According to Hugh Sweatman, PhD, leader of the AIMS Long Term Monitoring Program, the absence of any mass bleaching is attributable to several recent cyclones and current atmospheric conditions having reduced local water temperatures.

The point is that the reef has not (yet) bleached this summer, a simple consequence of the fact that temperatures around the Reef had not increased to more than 1 degree C above the long-term average (the well-documented trigger for coral bleaching and the basis for the satellite “hotspot” detection program run by NOAA in Washington D.C.).

Furthermore, the first sentence of the second paragraph of the report states “median reef-wide live coral cover declined on the majority of sampled reefs [10 of 14] since previous surveys [in 2009].” That finding does not jibe with the rosy description of recovering and resilient reefs painted by the newspaper’s “wipeout” story nor in recent Australian stories tellingly titled “Scientists ‘crying wolf’ over coral” and “How the reef became blue again.”

Besides getting the science wrong, The Australian’s February 4 article illustrates what appears to be a new approach to media news coverage in Australia of climate change: The central interpretation was not corroborated by the text of the report or by any scientist. This fact and Walker’s tone make this front-page article better suited for the opinion pages.

These examples of recent coverage illustrate that the once-honored wall between news pages and opinion pages in Australia appears increasingly porous. This is probably not surprising given the strong influence of the British Broadsheet format on Australian papers.

Reporters around the world in fact appear to be getting more assertive and openly subjective in their role as arbiters of the frenzied debate over climate change science, further blurring the line that for many had long separated news and opinion pieces.

A typical example is coverage of the snowstorms in Washington D.C., suggesting (falsely) that such localized weather events indicate global warming has ended.

Among reporters seeing through the fog of weather/climate confusion,Washington Post political reporter Dana Milbank correctly wrote, “As a scientific proposition, claiming that heavy snow in the mid-Atlantic debunks global warming theory is about as valid as claiming that the existence of John Edwards debunks the theory of evolution.”

Journalistic Accountability

AIMS CEO Ian Poiner, PhD, in a letter to The Australian published online one week after the February 4 “wipeout” story, wrote, “This year the Australian Institute of Marine Science has observed that there is no mass coral bleaching on the southern Great Barrier Reef.” He said The Australian’s front-page story “uses these observations to contradict the view that the reef is threatened by climate change. This is not the case. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the healthiest coral reef ecosystems in the world, but climate change is a significant long-term threat … One or two seasons of no bleaching do not mean that the GBR is not threatened.” (AIMS has also issued an easy to read white paper on its home page, outlining its major findings related to coral reefs and climate change.)

Given the recent focus by some media on development and review processes of IPCC reports and of scientific peer-review more generally, scientists find the absence of rigorous review or accountability in the mass media ironic and frustrating.

Reacting to such coverage, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland in Brisbane said, “The recent unprofessional and unethical behavior of journalists has all of us very concerned. Not only does there seem to be a lack of accountability for telling fibs, but there seems to be a concerted effort to harass and intimidate some of our best scientists as well as the institutions to which they belong.”

Unequal Media Access

The only major news outlet in Australia regularly and responsibly reporting on climate science and openly challenging reporting by The Australian has been the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Veteran ABC reporter Jonathan Holmes followed up a hard-hitting segment of his Media Watch program that dissected the flaws in the newspaper’s story with a broader editorial about the disproportionate prominence in Australian mass media of climate change “deniers”:

There’s no denying that the climate change deniers, or sceptics, (the term you prefer depends which side you’re on) have succeeded, to a degree that orthodox climate scientists find baffling, in persuading a large proportion of the public that the science of global warming is, in the Opposition leader’s words, “absolute crap”.

The opinion pages – and as we showed on Media Watch last Monday, sometimes the news pages – of our only national broadsheet have heavily favoured sceptics over proponents of the scientific consensus.

The Melbourne-based Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt responded with an editorial of his own, disagreeing with Holmes’ assertion that journalists unfriendly to science are dominating Australian newspapers.

I’m flattered, but Holmes is kidding himself. Warmists have for years had unrivalled access to the mass media. Even better, they’ve had their cause taken up by the most powerful outlets … Every newspaper environment reporter pumped out warmist scare stories about polar bears and collapsing glaciers …

Perhaps. But the tide has clearly turned, and in the news columns and not solely on the editorial pages. The Australian has been running a campaign ofnear-daily articles andeditorials sharply critical of the IPCC and evidence of anthropogenic climate change.

The relative frequency of “denialist” and “warmist” pieces in Australian media could be quantified. Yet that would miss Holmes’ central point: there is a big difference between merely describing the science in the dry and balanced tone of an environmental reporter and vehemently attacking it and its practitioners from a pulpit of populist outrage and scorn.

There is no Aussie media watcher comparable to the liberal climate analystJoe Romm, nor a nationally syndicated columnist like The New York TimesTom Friedman, forcefully advocating green energy policies, often from a centrist economic or national security perspective. Climate change scientists simply lack an adequate platform to communicate directly with the public the way agenda-driven critics of their research do. Like many of their science colleagues in the U.S. and elsewhere, they are also stuck on the defensive and are sorely in need of training on how to work more successfully with the media.

The battle of words among reporters and opinion makers in Australia goes on, with neither scientists nor the science playing any discernable role. Despite some knowledgeable media coverage of threats to the GBR and reefs around the world, scientists sense their findings are being drowned out and misrepresented by partisan and agenda-driven advocates with daily access to hundreds of thousands of readers.

The consequences are sobering, Hoegh-Guldberg cautions. “You might write bad journalism off as simply an acceptable consequence of our freewheeling society. The implications, however, are extremely serious. It threatens to undermine our ability to respond to the challenges of climate change. In my mind, the media must devise mechanisms to deal with such journalistic practices or we will all suffer the consequences.”

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