A line in the sand: calling journalists to account via formal complaint processes

[Hat tip Deltoid and Climate Progress]  

As I reported back in March, Sunday Times Journalist Jonathan Leake was under fire for misrepresenting the work of scientist Simon Lewis.  

Lewis, an expert on rainforsts and the impact of climate change on them, lodged a complaint with the UK’s Press Complaint Council (PCC).

This extract from his >30 page statement sums up how Leake totally misrepresented Lewis as the faux “Amazongate” scandal was breaking:

I spoke to Jonathan Leake on the afternoon of Saturday 30, a few hours before the article went to press, as he wanted to check the quotes he was using by me (checking quotes was agreed between ourselves on Friday 29 January). The entire article was read to me, and quotes by me agreed, including a statement that the science in the IPCC report was and is correct. The article was reasonable, and quotes were not out of context. Indeed I was happy enough that I agreed to assist in checking the facts for the graphic to accompany the article (I can supply the emails if necessary). Yet, following this telephone call the article was entirely and completely re-written with an entirely new focus, new quotes from me included and new (incorrect) assertions of my views. I ask the Sunday Times to disclose the version of article that was read out to me, and provide an explanation as to why the agreed correct, undistorted, un-misleading article, and specifically the quotes from me, was not published, and an entirely new version produced.

I’m not sure if the PCC has issued a ruling (I’ve searched), however the Sunday Times has retracted his article:

The Sunday Times and the IPCC: Correction

The article “UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim” (News, Jan 31) stated that the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report had included an “unsubstantiated claim” that up to 40% of the Amazon rainforest could be sensitive to future changes in rainfall. The IPCC had referenced the claim to a report prepared for WWF by Andrew Rowell and Peter Moore, whom the article described as “green campaigners” with “little scientific expertise.” The article also stated that the authors’ research had been based on a scientific paper that dealt with the impact of human activity rather than climate change.

In fact, the IPCC’s Amazon statement is supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence. In the case of the WWF report, the figure had, in error, not been referenced, but was based on research by the respected Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) which did relate to the impact of climate change. We also understand and accept that Mr Rowell is an experienced environmental journalist and that Dr Moore is an expert in forest management, and apologise for any suggestion to the contrary.

The article also quoted criticism of the IPCC’s use of the WWF report by Dr Simon Lewis, a Royal Society research fellow at the University of Leeds and leading specialist in tropical forest ecology. We accept that, in his quoted remarks, Dr Lewis was making the general point that both the IPCC and WWF should have cited the appropriate peer-reviewed scientific research literature. As he made clear to us at the time, including by sending us some of the research literature, Dr Lewis does not dispute the scientific basis for both the IPCC and the WWF reports’ statements on the potential vulnerability of the Amazon rainforest to droughts caused by climate change.

In addition, the article stated that Dr Lewis’ concern at the IPCC’s use of reports by environmental campaign groups related to the prospect of those reports being biased in their conclusions. We accept that Dr Lewis holds no such view – rather, he was concerned that the use of non-peer-reviewed sources risks creating the perception of bias and unnecessary controversy, which is unhelpful in advancing the public’s understanding of the science of climate change. A version of our article that had been checked with Dr Lewis underwent significant late editing and so did not give a fair or accurate account of his views on these points. We apologise for this.

This is an embarrassment for Leake. He should never be allowed to report on climate issues again. Perhaps he can join the roster of deluded hacks over at “Watts up with that? ”

Indeed, when the paper you write for is forced to retract a piece it’s a sure sign you’ve compromised journalistic standards.

Says Lewis:

“The public’s understanding of science relies on scientists having frank discussions with journalists, who then responsibly report what was said. If reporting is misleading then many scientists will disengage, which will mean that the public get more opinion and less careful scientific assessments. This is extremely dangerous when we face serious environmental problems, like climate change, which require widespread scientific understanding to enable wise political responses to be formulated and enacted.” [1]

A line in the sand: calling journalists to account

Lewis – and by extension the scientific community – have scored a small victory.

However it is five months after the event, with the damage to the reputation of science and scientists has been enormous.

Nor will it seriously slow down the denial machine. They’ll simply move on to framing the next false scandal. Should we give up?

Traditionally scientists have been reluctant to engage in public debates with anti-science advocates or the messy business of “science communication”, as they’ve left to the journalists. However, science journalism is on the decline as papers cut back on reporting science issues.  

The result has been disastrous – a perfect storm of misinformation – with the public left at the mercy of peddlers of misinformation. Society should be debating a response to climate change, genetic engineering and peak oil.

Instead, the media pumps out a steady stream of celebrity “news”, faux scandals such as Climategate and puff pieces on “how to look younger in 10 easy steps”.

Sure, this is what the market wants – but the media help shapes what we want as well.

What can we do about it?

What can we do? Complain, and complain loudly.

Let’s start calling journalists, publishers and broadcasters to account.

Let send the market a strong signal. You may want to boycott publications that provide platforms for deniers. I no longer buy the Herald Sun or The Australian. Their reporting on science is atrocious, and they have done a great deal to mislead the public. [2]

What can you do?

There are a few other obvious things you can do. If they publish known falsehoods don’t just shake your head in disgust but:

  • Write a letter to editor
  • Comment in the online forums/discussion calling attention to errors in science reporting
  • Report it to me! I’ll expose it as best I can
  • Report it to other sites such as Deltoid, DeSmogBlog, Open Parachute and others.

However there may be an even more “radical” approach: a formal complaint with those authorities that are supposed to regulate the media.

Should we be officially complaining?

A more ambitious – or radical approach – may be to make greater use of the existing complaint mechanisms and/or authorities in most countries that regulate the media.

I’m not sure this is a the best approach, however I’m throwing it out there as an idea. No doubt the deniers will call this an attempt at censorship (my response, when you lie, you should be prepared to be called to account).

In the UK the PCC fulfils this role, while in Australia it is the Australian Press Council.

It’s statement on journalistic principles outlines the basis for complaints :

  1. Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced. They should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers either by omission or commission.
  2. Where it is established that a serious inaccuracy has been published, a publication should promptly correct the error, giving the correction due prominence.
  3. Where individuals or groups are a major focus of news reports or commentary, the publication should ensure fairness and balance in the original article. Failing that, it should provide a reasonable and swift opportunity for a balancing response in an appropriate section of the publication.
  4. News and comment should be presented honestly and fairly, and with respect for the privacy and sensibilities of individuals. However, the right to privacy is not to be interpreted as preventing publication of matters of public record or obvious or significant public interest. Rumour and unconfirmed reports should be identified as such.
  5. Information obtained by dishonest or unfair means, or the publication of which would involve a breach of confidence, should not be published unless there is an over-riding public interest.
  6. Publications are free to advocate their own views and publish the bylined opinions of others, as long as readers can recognise what is fact and what is opinion. Relevant facts should not be misrepresented or suppressed, headlines and captions should fairly reflect the tenor of an article and readers should be advised of any manipulation of images and potential conflicts of interest.
  7. Publications have a wide discretion in publishing material, but they should balance the public interest with the sensibilities of their readers, particularly when the material, such as photographs, could reasonably be expected to cause offence.
  8. Publications should not place any gratuitous emphasis on the race, religion, nationality, colour, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness, or age of an individual or group. Where it is relevant and in the public interest, publications may report and express opinions in these areas.
  9. Where the Council issues an adjudication, the publication concerned should publish the adjudication, promptly and with due prominence

Much of what is climate change denial appears under the the guise of “opinion”, and those provides a loop hole for the likes of Bolt et.al. to make outrageous and false claims (Point 6). Another loop hole is “fair and balanced”, a tactic exploited to great effect by the denial machine (Point 2).

Complicated issue, but worth investigating

By manufacturing a “debate” they confuse the public into thinking there are actually two sides on the issue. Still the question remains: by disparaging scientists and misrepresenting their work, is it a legitimate cause for complaint?

And who should complain: scientists, or the public? No doubt it’s a complicated issue that needs further investigation. Nor should we abuse the system with nuisance complaints. That only bogs down the regulators.

I also imagine the various bodies have a mish-mash of rules, guidelines and processes which makes it difficult to adopt a uniform approach to the issue in Australia, the UK, the States, Canada, NZ and around the world.

However in clear cases of fraudulent and dishonest behaviour I think we should be using bodies such as the PCC and APC as legitimate tools to correct inaccurate and shoddy reporting.

Climate Progress has stated we need more scientists like Lewis to stand up to the deniers – I second that.

It prompts the question: should more scientists take follow the example of Lewis?


[1] http://climateprogress.org/2010/06/20/amazon-ipcc-climategate-sunday-times-jonathan-leake-simon-lewis-apology-retraction/

[2] There’s an idea, an organised boycott of the Herald Sun!


6 thoughts on “A line in the sand: calling journalists to account via formal complaint processes

  1. 🙂 You’re sounding a lot like me; I’ve grown to loath almost all media.. I guess what started this for me was when a young guy was taken by a shark here and in a short time another was taken in WA – it was about 8 or 9 yrs ago. For a few weeks there were pull-out mags in the Australian and Advertiser; all explaining just how sharks are specially designed to kill you… It drove me mental and the following hysteria was absurd. I figured that people must be really bored if they need such terrible and sensational journalism. It’s got so bad that I can’t handle commercial media in general. Especially greenwashing..
    I have to say that I think anything that resembles censorship won’t fly. I’d argue like scientific credibility, journalism should be just as accountable. If some scientist fudges their work and it gets caught, it could ruin their career. They’d certainly need to work very hard to be taken seriously again, if it’s possible. however, as you recently wrote about with Bolt – the idiot can lie, manipulate and distort, get a slap on the wrist and continue his horrible behaviour. Nova is nothing short of a joke as a scientific communicator. There should be higher penalties for journos that intentionally step out of reality to discredit someone. There is little being done to make these people accountable for their inaccuracies.
    Stuff censoring them; the law should expose them for what they are and no creditable rag should run their stories.

  2. waow… the great post today. thank you.

  3. Adam says:

    I’ve been thinking of a financial challenge to the deniers who claim that the world is ‘cooling’ or that sea ice is inceasing etc.

    The setup will need to be framed fairly.
    We know that to display a recent ‘cooling’ trend of global air temperatures that you need to begin your effort from the highest temp of the El Nino year of 1998 AND end at the low point of the La Nina year last year or so.

    And you need to choose the HadCRUT3 records because they give you the lowest of the record sets.

    So give the deniers the chance to put their money where their mouth is. Give them the sporting chance to ‘invest’ some of their cash in the great global swindle sweepstakes.
    A ticket is created for every combination of temperatureset+starting year+ending year (for an average period greater than 8?).
    If they truly believe that the world is cooling then they would have no hesitation in playing the odds. If they understand that they cherrypicked their stats then they would know that they would lose and refuse to play.

    This could be an idea to work off? Any ideas?

  4. Sounds like a practical method to approach economically minded people. It’s more or less a risk management way of planning – one that takes more than profit into account.
    Good idea – would be fun to nut out! 🙂

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