As a journalist, I spend a fair amount of time defending the much maligned media industry to friends and family. "We're not all bad," I protest, "most journalists are responsible professionals who spend their lives reporting stories that are both accurate and in the public interest. A few bad apples step over the line occasionally, but the country is the better place for having a vibrant free press and we'd soon miss the Fourth Estate if, as current economic and legal trends seem to indicate, it becomes under resourced and neutered."
Sometimes however the media's collective handling of a story becomes so warped that it becomes impossible to maintain this defence with anything like a straight face - this week's feeding frenzy over the government's climate change adverts was one of those occasions.
In case you've missed it, the story stems from the government's high profile "fairy tale" TV and press adverts warning that climate change will lead to droughts and floods in the UK. The adverts inevitably attracted a flurry of complaints, 939 in total, and Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) this week released its resulting adjudication on the adverts.
Anyone bothering to read the adjudication would find that the government's stance was almost entirely exonerated.
Complaints that the TV ads were political in nature, scary for children, misleading because they presented climate change as manmade, exaggerated the potential impact of extreme weather, and misleadingly presented CO2 as a rising cloud of black smog, were all rejected.
Similarly, complaints that the accompanying press ads were misleading because they presented climate change as manmade and stated that 40 per cent of carbon emissions come from everyday activities were rejected.
In fact, only one complaint in relation to two press ads was upheld after the ASA ruled the statement that "extreme weather events such as storms, floods and heatwaves will become more frequent and intense" could not be fully substantiated given the IPCC could only assert it was "likely" that the frequency of "hot extremes, heatwaves and heavy precipitation events" would increase as a result of climate change.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change's error (and let us be in no doubt that it is still a bad error) boils down to the fact they used the word "will" when they should of used the words "is highly likely to".
Not that you would appreciate any of this if you looked at many of the hundreds of media reports on the story.
"Ed Miliband's adverts banned for overstating climate change" roared the Sunday Times' headline, before musing that the "rulings will be an embarrassment for Miliband, who has tried to portray his policies as firmly science-based" (as opposed to all those policies based on tea leaves and astrology presumably). "Government rebuked over global warming nursery rhyme adverts" slammed the Telegraph, before waiting until the second to last paragraph to admit "the watchdog found that the other elements of the campaign, including a television and cinema advert in which a father read his daughter a nightmarish bedtime story about a world blighted by climate change, did not breach its guidelines".
But at least these stories, while being highly selective in their reporting, were not misleading as such. Channel 4 News on the other hand decided to break up its report on the fact a number of government ads had been banned with a clip of the TV advert, even though the advert has not been banned and all complaints against it were rejected.
My personal favourite though came from the BBC, which offered the headline: "Climate change "exaggerated" in government adverts". Note the quotation marks around the word "exaggerated". The word actually appears four times in the ASA adjudication, once to detail that there had been a complaint that claims had been exaggerated, once to confirm that DECC had rejected any suggestion that its claims had been exaggerated, once to confirm that advertising advisory agency Clearcast had agreed with DECC, and once to state unequivocally that the ASA had concluded the imagery used in the print adverts "were not themselves (and particularly not in the context of a nursery rhyme "what if" presentations) exaggerated or misleading".
In fact nowhere does the adjudication say the adverts "exaggerated" climate change, ruling only that the presentation of climate change risks should have been phrased "more tentatively".
Of all the mainstream media outlets only the Guardian took a more nuanced approach, reporting that "Climate change adverts draw mild rebuke from advertising watchdog".
Of course, if we were to run a story every time the press delivered an unbalanced report on climate change issues we would not have time to write anything else. Scientists over at the Real Climate blog recently produced an excellent analysis of the reporting surrounding the handful of errors found in the IPCC's most recent review, detailing how stories containing "multiple errors, misrepresentations and misquotes" were not only published, but were not corrected despite requests from the scientists who insist their work has been misrepresented.
Meanwhile, the Union of Concerned Scientists was so angered by a report in the Daily Mail suggesting "there has been no global warming since 1995" that it issued a statement accusing the paper of "grossly misrepresenting a scientist's words".
It is increasingly apparent that if green businesses and environmental groups really want to challenge growing public doubt over the need to curb carbon emissions, they would be well advised to spend less time arguing with climate sceptics and more time trying to work out why journalists are willing to present climate change stories in a manner that is designed to downplay climate change risks and undermine the credibility of those trying to orchestrate the transition to a low carbon economy.
There is no easy answer to this widespread mis-reporting, but you do get the sense that journalists are taking advantage of the fact that governments and universities are more likely to shrug their shoulders and sigh about the unfairness of it all, rather than roll up their sleeves and forcefully demand clarifications and retractions.
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