It's 2021, and the NZ news media is still doing climate change denial

Let's not deny it

The Spinoff’s Bulletin newsletter is always a banger, and the one that came hot on the heels of the IPCC’s catchily-named Sixth Assessment Report was no exception. The roundup was excellent, linking to a number of concise, accurate commentaries detailing the key points in the report.

The problem was this bit I’ve highlighted.

To be clear, I think the Bulletin is great and that you should subscribe immediately. Author Alex Brae1 has the difficult job of pulling together a good chunk of the news that’s fit to print over the course of 24 hours and he does it very well. If you want to be informed, you could do much worse than the Bulletin. I read it every day.

But I’d argue that “if you’ve read any reputable news publication for any length of time, the certainty of climate change will not be in any doubt” is flat-out wrong.

Why? Because New Zealand mainstream media has consistently platformed climate change denial of all kinds, from denial-lite “sure, it’s happening, but we should probably just carry on as normal” to full-blown “not happening, not us.” (For the full spectrum of denial, here’s a cheat sheet I sketched up a while back.)

Step 5: PROFIT

The news media promulgates climate change denial in a number of ways, including but not limited to:

1. False equivalence

While climate science is virtually unanimous when it comes to the scientific verdict - which is, broadly climate change is real, it’s happening, it’s us, it’s bad, but it’s not too late to act - the media frequently act as if facts themselves were up for eternal debate. This is great for juicy conflict-filled stories but less good for the facts themselves. This trend is often seen in talking-head shows when, instead of representing the overwhelming scientific consensus, they bring on two people - typically a denier and someone picked to represent the institution of science in general - who get to yell at each other. John Oliver did a really funny bit about it.

Outside of TV-land, publications frequently resort to a weak pastiche of objectivity, like this sterling effort from the New Zealand Herald, utilising the he-said, she-said style so “the reader can to make up their own mind.”

This, too, offers reality as a matter for debate, with denier claims treated as equal to the science. Media could quite easily either a.) choose not to cover climate grifters at all or b.) use editorial judgement to debunk denier claims right in the news article, but they frequently do neither.

2. Gifting grifting deniers a platform

While it’s now rarer to see out-and-out climate change denial in the opinion pages of our nation’s mastheads (and kudos to Stuff who, since their management buyout, have adopted editorial policies against climate change denial and literally have an entire section of their website devoted to climate reporting) it’s still frequently happening.

Here’s the Herald again, giving space to the self-styled “sceptical environmentalist,” well-known climate grifter Bjorn Lomborg:

Lomborg, who has no climate science qualifications and who has been debunked by those that do, is a frequent guest of the Herald, which I’m assuming is one of the reputable outlets that Alex talks about.

When an publication offers a platform to deniers, it undermines all the good work that their news teams or editorial staff might also be doing, and rather than informing readers about the facts, it allows them to cherry-pick their reality to suit an existing worldview - “I read it in the Herald, this guy Lomberg is an environmentalist, and even he says climate change is no big deal!”

But, you say, that’s the Herald, and luckily we have other publications like The Spinoff that don’t… oh.

Ah well, at least the excellent Bulletin isn’t potentially compromised by fossil fuel interests… oh.

Again; I genuinely think the Bulletin is great and that you should subscribe to it, and I am absolutely not suggesting that the Bulletin’s content is in any way influenced by its sponsor (history and firm editorial policy suggests that it’s not) but it’s a timely reminder that, no matter how correct their line on climate change, there are very few sectors of the media that can claim to be free of fossil fuel money, if not influence.

3. Implausible deniability

By now it should be fairly clear that reputable mainstream news publications very much don’t offer certainty when it comes to the facts on climate change. In fact, by offering deniers a platform and elevating denial to the same stage as actual evidence, they do quite the opposite. I’d suggest that most lay climate change doubters and deniers find themselves in that position because they’ve been mislead through a selective reading of mainstream media, which is a great gateway drug to the endless mire of climate misinformation available on the internet.

But why go on the internet when you can get shit like this on the radio?

Peter Williams is a long-time climate change denier, who’s been given what seems like a permanent platform on Magic Talk Radio, owned by Mediaworks. If you want to see the sort of effect this stuff has on audiences, just check out the comments.

But that’s talkback, a noted cesspool of terrible reckons, a medium that pretends to challenge its audience but mostly just coddles them. It’s not reputable, is it? Well, for the verdict on that, let’s ask NZ’s biggest broadcaster for the last decade or so, Mike Hosking.

Hmm. But that’s Newstalk ZB. A reputable publication would never engage in this sort of… oh.

It’s important to note that, any appearances to the contrary, the Herald and Newstalk ZB are essentially the same publication. They share an owner (NZME), they share content, and they share an editorial position, which - too frequently - is that the reality of climate change is up for debate. Much of the rest of the news media still share that view.

It’s not true. As the Bulletin admirably points out, climate change denial is lies, promulgated in the media mainly by paid shills and useful idiots. If news media wants to remain reputable, or regain its reputation, perhaps it’s time publishers pledged to stop promoting climate change denial altogether.

Thoughts? Reckon it’s about time the news media pledged not to engage in climate change denial? Let me know what you reckon in the comments. In the unlikely event that anyone feels like getting into some climate change denial, I just won’t publish it! See how easy that was, New Zealand news media?

If you liked what you read here, you can help out by sharing this post (it’s free!) or by subscribing. This newsletter has had a slow start - who knew a baby would be so much work! - but now I’ve got a bit of content backed up and ready to go, so you can anticipate more frequent updates in future.

I’m also going to turn on paid subscriptions, just as an experiment - for the moment, the newsletter will stay free. If you choose to contribute, I really appreciate it - it would be amazing to turn this little newsletter into a going concern. Plus, I have some (extremely cool) contributors lined up, and it’d be nice to be able to pay them for their work!

  1. Since this newsletter ass published, Alex has left, and he's much missed. The Bulletin is still good, tho, and now features (mercifully) less cricket.