Should newspapers ban letters from climate science deniers?
Here’s an excerpt from a Letter to the Editor, printed earlier this week in The Australian newspaper.
“While [temperatures] have been higher than before the past 15 years, they have not increased in line with fossil fuel emissions, just as they failed to do over the 1948-77 period. This makes incorrect the theory that fossil fuel emissions cause temperature increases.” Des Moore, South Yarra, Victoria.
Wrongheaded and simplistic views like this are a regular feature on the letters page of The Australian newspaper and no doubt hundreds of other newspapers around the world where readers respond to stories about climate change.
Some letter writers have accepted that humans cause climate change, a conclusion backed by multiple lines of evidence from thousands of studies around the world going back a century or more.
Some readers haven’t.
The mailbag and inbox at the Los Angeles Times is also stuffed with climate science denial, but letters editor Paul Thornton has revealed that correspondence claiming there’s no evidence that humans cause global warming will no longer be printed. If Des Moore lived in LA, he’d have to take his thoughts elsewhere. In a recent column, Thornton wrote:
Simply put, I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page; when one does run, a correction is published. Saying “there’s no sign humans have caused climate change” is not stating an opinion, it’s asserting a factual inaccuracy.
Thornton’s decision could well leave a few editors wondering if they should follow suit. Julie Lewis, who is the co-editor of the Sydney Morning Herald’s letters page, for example, told me by email she is planning to ask that newspapers’ readers what they think about such letters being published.
Letters pages occupy prime real estate in printed newspapers. You could see the decision of the LA Times a few ways, depending on how you see the role of newspaper letters pages.
If we see them as a place where statements of fact need to backed by evidence, which Paul Thornton and the LA Times clearly does, then it’s hard to argue against banning letters claiming there’s no evidence for human caused climate change.
But if you see the letters pages of newspapers as a reflection of what the community of readers believe – which presumably some newspaper editors do – then it’s clearly OK to run views by readers who find it hard, for whatever reason, to accept the existence of mountains of evidence.
Letters pages usually sit side-by-side in modern newspapers with opinion columns, and both these spaces have been targeted by climate sceptics over the years. In 2011, one climate sceptic group the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC) revealed in a strategy document that they purposefully targeted these pages. The document stated:
The letters to the editor section is the most frequently read part of many newspapers, aside from the front page, so letter submissions are a worthwhile activity for ICSC. Regional newspapers publish about 10% of letters received from the public, with a typical paper receiving about 100 or more letters a day.
Now climate science denial organisations would not be alone in encouraging members to write letters to newspapers. Plenty of environmental groups no doubt do the same, and it’s up to editors to decide if they want to play a part in that or not.
One Australian study, published in the journal Rural Society, looked at the content run by newspapers around the publication of Heaven + Earth – a book written by Australian climate science denier and mining company director Professor Ian Plimer.
The study, titled “Duelling realities“, analysed 48 items from 13 rural newspapers and found half of the coverage of the book came in the form of readers’ letters.
“Climate change is not man-made,” said one letter in The Kalgoorlie Miner. “We can ponder the way the world has been fooled into thinking that climate change is man made,” wrote a Newcastle Herald reader. A letter in The Townsville Bulletin described human-caused climate change as a “scam”.
Study author Elaine McKewon, of the University of Technology Sydney, told me:
The LA Times policy would certainly have excluded most of the letters in my study, because they repeated the same unsupported scientific claims and conspiracy theories used by climate change deniers around the world. It is patently untrue that there is no evidence that human activity is the main driver of global warming. The first commitment of the news media should be to truth and accuracy. So I think this decision is laudable and I hope it gives other mainstream media outlets the courage to stop appeasing the climate denial noise machine. In the scientific community, the debate about anthropogenic global warming has been over for decades. The scientific consensus on climate change is as strong as the consensus on human evolution or the link between smoking and cancer.
McKewon argues the LA Times’ decision shouldn’t be dismissed as unwelcome censorship.
This is not about censorship or free speech. Keeping errors of fact out of the newspaper is what responsible editors do. The letters page is there to enable readers to engage in valid, meaningful public debate. Pseudoscience and misinformation serve only to create false scientific controversy. It is not the role of the news media to provide a platform for claims that were refuted long ago in the scientific literature.
Away from the letters pages, the US magazine Popular Science announced last month it was going to take away the ability of readers to comment on its stories online, because of concerns that “trolls and spambots” could “skew” their readers’ understanding of the issues being covered. In a story justifying the move, Popular Science‘s online content director Suzanne LaBarre wrote:
A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.
Editors are obviously in a difficult position.
Moderating comments on stories takes time (I know this myself, after moderating more than 10,000 comments on an environment blog I used to write for News Ltd). Guardian columnist George Monbiot has written how companies specialise in creating fake online identities in order to target comment threads.
If a newspaper or other media outlet is publishing content which it knows is factually questionable or demonstrably wrong, does it have a responsibility to keep such pseudo-science statements off its pages?
While we ponder that, I’m off to check my horoscope – courtesy of the LA Times and hundreds of other mainstream newspapers around the world. Alternatively, I offer an excerpt from another “Letter to the Editor”, also printed in The Australian earlier this week:
“What’s the difference between a computer and a global warming denier? You only have to punch information into a computer once.” Chris Roylance, Paddington, Queensland