Science in the Media: From Profits to Propaganda

Since the federal election was called, questions have arisen as to whether Australia actually has a free media, when an alarming concentration of media ownership is in the hands of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp Australia (formally News Ltd). The concern for such media saturation surfaced after a series of News Corp’s tabloids dismissed a Labour re-election, echoing Murdoch’s personal opinion on twitter that the Labour Party was ‘wrecking [the] country with its sordid intrigues’. Underlying this editorial line is speculation that the Government’s Broadband Network (NBN) plan presents a significant commercial challenge to the Foxtel pay TV monopoly.

 

Interestingly the inter-twining of politics and commercial interests is not something new to science communications. In fact, it’s rather old news. Despite 97% of scientific papers agreeing on the existence of anthropogenic climate change, the reality of this scientific consensus has not translated proportionally into public belief. A recent study conducted in the United States and published in the fully peer-reviewed journal Public Understanding of Science (a downloadable PDF is available here) surveyed Americans on their media consumption and their views on climate change. The results suggest that a consumption of conservative news media, specifically News Corporation’s Fox News, lowered viewers’ trust in science and subsequently decreased their belief in climate change, while non-conservative media consumption had the inverse effect.

 

Several content analyses of media coverage show that conservative news outlets promote the opinions of climate deniers and broadcast stories designed to discredit climate scientists through ridicule and distrust. One example involves the Fox News host and contrarian, Greg Gutfeld, comparing divestment student activists to ‘radical Islamists’. Could the editorial stance taken by Fox News be somewhat influenced by Murdoch’s position on the strategic advisory board of oil and natural gas company, Genie Energy?

 

Although the study focuses on News Corp in the US, the research points to the challenge that climate scientists, activists and environmentally aware policy makers face when being reported in the media. The ramifications of this are also experienced in Australia as shown in a segment on ABC’s Media Watch that shed light on News Corp’s systemic silent treatment of the most recent Climate Commission report.

 

While the treatment of the federal government by the Murdoch press has hit the spotlight, and caused many to question their previous assumptions on the reliance of principles of ‘free’ press, the question remains: Why has it taken so long to expose agenda-driven media organisations, and more importantly, why is science still hidden in the shadows?