Pacific Media Centre Pacific Media Watch Pacific Journalism Review Asia Pacific Report

South Pacific climate change and 'status-quo journalism'

Tokelau's atolls are vulnerable to cyclones and storms that are becoming more severe due to climate change. Image: Selwyn Manning/Pacific Scoop

Asia-Pacific Journalism, Daniel Drageset, Pacific Media Centre

7 November, 2012

How attached should a journalist be when reporting on climate change in the South Pacific? The findings of this case study showed that The New Zealand Herald’s main challenge is not that they misuse the traditional journalistic practice of "balance" by giving sceptics of climate change unreasonably much space. Its challenge, however, is that it does not accept its responsibility as a media organisation when it comes to this issue. An Asia-Pacific Journalism special report.

ANALYSIS: The level of attachment a journalist should have when reporting a news story, is a question with no definite answer. While so-called First World journalism advocates "objectivity" and "balance", and thus detachment from the news story, Third World journalism is focused on the social responsible role of media and how media can make a contribution to the development of society, thereby implicitly emphasising the attachment and responsibility of a journalist (Robie, 2008).

This question may be seen as particularly pertinent when it comes to climate change. In 2007, the United Nations (UN) appointed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presented their assessment report, which established that human-made climate change definitely was happening (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCCC], 2012).

In the wake of this report, there has been a widespread consensus concerning anthropogenic climate change. The harmful effects of climate change are especially severe in several Pacific island nations, such as Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu, due to them being low-lying atolls (Boncour & Burson, 2010).

This article will investigate the issue of South Pacific climate change reporting in the newspaper The New Zealand Herald. It will firstly give an outline of how thorough climate change reporting might be in conflict with traditional First World news. Secondly, the article explores 20 recent articles from the online version of The New Zealand Herald.

A content analysis approach is applied, where the author will examine what the focus of the stories are, what sources are used, to what extent background information is given, and how balanced the stories are.

In addition, the author interviewed the i-Kiribati editor, journalist and academic Taberannang Korauaba about New Zealand reporting on South Pacific climate change. In the third and final part, the article analyses the findings and suggests that South Pacific climate change is not, based on these findings, an important issue for Herald.

Measures that emphasise the importance of this issue therefore need to be taken. The responses collected from Korauaba amplified this conclusion.

Western media and climate change – a mismatch?
The traditional Western notion of the media being a watchdog of democracy – a Fourth Estate of the government that ensures that the other estates works smoothly – is an important element of democracy that appears to be in decline due to increasing pressures from market forces.

The result of which is not a greater diversity in media content, as some might argue, it is rather a convergence of content: "The corporatisation of media […] homogenises mainstream voices, making it harder to hear alternative viewpoints" (Dixit, 2010, p. 22).

Reporting on climate change is a challenge in today’s journalism norms. Dixit (2010) argues that the public service role of media is slowly disappearing as news is more focused on what sells, not what is responsible towards the community the journalist lives in. Journalists are rarely given the opportunity to do in-depth investigations. The result is that the stories are oversimplified and sensationalised, and important details are left out.

The kind of journalism practice that emphasises attention-grabbing, unambiguous and dramatic stories is incompatible with good climate change reporting. Climate change is a complex process, which plays out over years and decades, not a matter of hours that today’s journalism might prefer. It therefore necessitates a holistic approach.

Climate change is often presented as:

“An environmental story, or as a story of environmental disaster at some point in the future, or as a story of political or economic wrangling between countries or geographic power blocks. […] It is rarely presented as a developing story, which makes the links between economics, politics, ecology, development choices, hunger, flooding or social unrest” (Gess, 2012, p. 63)

‘Balance’ and ‘objectivity’ vs. ‘responsible’ reporting
A central element of Western journalism is to "balance" a news story by providing opinions from two or more viewpoints. The journalist should be objective and not voice his or her opinion on the subject matter.

“The proponents of this media school claim that such 'balanced' and 'neutral' reporting is a time-tested model of journalism and the only one that works. But we know that status-quo journalism is biased because it cannot take sides against wrongs. And by denying this bias, mainstream media actually show partiality” (Dixit, 2010, p. 46).

Thus, Dixit concludes, journalism may be accurate on facts, but it does not offer analysis and it fails to reflect "the larger truth". Dixit’s assertions are supported by Boykoff’s (2008) findings on the climate change reporting in three United States  mainstream television news programmes in the period 1995-2004.

He found that 70 percent of US television news segments provided "balance" in their climate change reporting by giving voice to opinions of climate change sceptics, even though their research has been discredited and only represent a fraction of the researchers on climate change. 

According to Boykoff (2008), this reporting has obfuscated the connection between human actions and climate change. This in turn, has influenced both the American public and policy makers. Monbiot (n.d., as cited in Dixit, 2010), states that also the United Kingdom (UK) television networks BBC and Channel 4 have contributed to the legitimisation of climate change sceptics by highlighting their viewpoints.

The BBC and Channel 4 "gave 15 years of free access to companies like ExxonMobil, by inviting their paid experts to “balance” the views of genuine scientists, without demanding that they disclosed their sources” (Mondiot, n.d., as cited in Dixit, 2010, p. 105).

Similar to fast food chains, which are engineered to maximise profit, media moguls have defended today’s journalism by stating that the journalism that sells, is the journalism the people want.

Gess (2012) questions though if not a better-informed public would make different choices. Dixit (2010) asserts that “the concentration of mass media ownership and big business is manufacturing a new processed consciousness” (p. 207).

This new consciousness may disregard climate change, or only view climate change in certain ways, which is not constructive in efforts to mitigate it. It seems therefore that the journalism of today is not well suited to report well on climate change.

About the content analysis
The selection for the author’s content analysis includes 20 articles from The New Zealand Herald published between December 8, 2008, and October 1, 2012.

Sixteen of the articles were traditional news articles, whereas four had the form of commentaries, three of which were written by climate scientists. The commentary articles were included because they contribute in giving a picture on how the Herald reports on climate change.

The New Zealand Herald was chosen as it represents the largest newspaper in New Zealand with a circulation in June 2012 of 169,555 (New Zealand Audit Bureau of Circulations, 2012), as well as being considered one of the leading newspapers in the country.

It may thus be seen as playing an important role in the ‘manufacturing of consciousness’ in New Zealand.

The content analysis consists of four categories: Firstly, what is the "focus" of the stories; secondly, what sources are used; thirdly, to what extent are the articles balanced; and fourthly, to what extent do the articles give a comprehensive background on the issue of South Pacific climate change.

The articles were selected by accessing The New Zealand Herald’s online news search engine using the search term "climate change". The author then reviewed the results and included the most recent articles where the South Pacific region was mentioned.

The author’s findings in the "focus" category can be divided into four sub-categories: "New Zealand helping South Pacific countries coping with climate change", "other countries/organisations helping South Pacific countries", "South Pacific countries in crisis" and "other".

Some of the articles might overlap to some degree, but for the purposes of this article they are placed in definite categories.

Ten of the 20 news articles can be put in the "Pacific countries in crisis" category. A typical example of this is the article "Tiny island’s race against the tide", where the journalist concludes in the first sentence that "The Pacific atoll of Takuu is sinking, threatening its unique culture. Phil Taylor reports on the plight of the islanders” (Taylor, 2010).

Headlines of other articles in this category included “Sea levels Pacific’s big worry” (Trevett, 2011), “Climate change sinking Kiribati” (Walker, 2010), and “Trouble in paradise for many Pacific nations” (Coates, 2010). Other articles are more subdued, but still emphasises the ‘crisis’ element of the story.

The author put four articles in the "New Zealand helping South Pacific" sub-category. "NZ aids Tuvalu in water crisis” (2011) is a standard article whereby New Zealand efforts to help their neighbours are highlighted. Two articles were put in the category of other countries or organisations helping the South Pacific.

An example of this is an article about the EU increasing its aid funding for the Pacific (Trevett, 2012). Four articles were categorised in the "other" category, two of which the issue of South Pacific climate change was not the main focus of the news articles.

Another article in this category focused on Samoa, which called on developed countries to take a lead in climate change (Jackson, 2008).

The last article featured new research, which claimed that Pacific islands are growing as a natural response to climate change (Gibson, 2010).

Sources used
Eight of the news articles in the selection contained two or more sources. Seven news articles contained only one source, whereas five articles contained no direct sources. The latter group included summaries of political events, such as the Pacific Islands Forum, or recent climate research.

The articles with one source were shorter in length than the ones with more sources. They generally contained a plea to someone about mitigating climate change in the South Pacific.

In “UN must help Pacific nations and Syria” (Bennett, 2012), the New Zealand Minister for Foreign Affairs, Murray McCully, asks the international community to do more to mitigate the effects of climate change in the South Pacific.

New Zealand officials were sources in five articles, whereas foreign officials – from non-Pacific countries – were sources in an additional three articles. Four of the articles included officials from South Pacific island nations.

Three articles involved climate scientists, and only one article contained South Pacific lay people. Also, only one article cited a person representing a non-governmental organisation (NGO).

None of the articles cited scientists that were sceptical to climate change. In fact, the articles were one-sided in that the focuses of the stories were not challenged further down in the articles.

Comprehensive coverage
This category is not as measurable as the categories above. The five "no source" articles are mere summaries, and do not attempt any investigative, in-depth reporting.

The same can be stated about the seven "one source" articles, which simply regurgitates the view of the one source.

In the eight remaining articles with two sources or more, six articles simply report on news events, such as UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon visiting Auckland to address the Pacific Islands Forum leaders summit (Young, 2011), and do not do any investigative reporting.

The only article to look at multiple issues concerning South Pacific climate change is “Tuvalu facing uncertain future” (Williams, 2010).

The journalist, who has visited Tuvalu to write the story, makes the connection between climate change and a range of challenges facing Tuvalu today, such as too little space for rubbish, and pigs being forced to stay at places where they contaminate the soil and water supplies.

Furthermore, the journalist offers perspectives from local ‘laypeople’, and he also ties in the national economy and attempts a more holistic approach. The headline, although suggesting Tuvalu’s demise, is factually correct and not sensationalist or dramatised.

The author referred the i-Kiribati journalist and academic, Taberannang Korauaba, to four questions regarding The New Zealand Herald’s reporting on South Pacific climate change. Korauaba completed a masters thesis on South Pacific climate change and journalism at Auckland University of Technology in February 2012, and is currently working as editor and publisher of The Kiribati Independent in Auckland covering i-Kiribati issues.

Question 1: What is your general opinion of the climate change reporting in The New Zealand Herald?
“I would say that cc [climate change] is not yet becoming a big issue to NZH [The New Zealand Herald] and other mainstream media in NZ, which is quite sad to me and especially to low lying islands because these small island nations look up to NZ for support, and being a very close neighbour, they had like to see more positive coverage from this mainstream media”

Question 2: What are the consequences of the current reporting?
“'Who cares if they sink' – they won’t sink anyway, and if they do, it’s not our fault. that’s the first consequence, it would create a mindset among journalists here and around the world that journalists have no role here.”

Question 3: What is the most common mistake New Zealand reporters do when reporting on South Pacific climate change, and how can one avoid it?  
“The most common mistake I found in my thesis, which I believe is still a problem as I write is that New Zealand reporters such as [at the] NZH “were too Western,” with their approach; they continue to play a 'Yes –No”' game and put on emphasis on 'disasppearing or sinking'.  That’s the only story you will read/see on the news. I found in my study that the NZH didn’t tell much about PI [Pacific island] stories at the COP15 [climate change summit in Copenhagen], rather it talked about Western cc, politics, celebrities etc”

Question 4: How balanced do you find the climate change stories in The New Zealand Herald?
“With climate change, well, the danger is real, I think the issue here is not about 'balancing the cc story' – it’s about understanding science, what’s the problem and what needs to be done today for the future because there’s always a solution.”

Dixit (2010) encourages journalists to go beyond "objectivity", take responsibility and be a part of the solution, so that the world can combat climate change. Gess (2012) argues that the context around the issue of climate change:

“needs to be built up in such a way that events resulting from it (be they political, social, agricultural, ecological or economic) can be understood within that context. This requires a sophisticated form of journalism but, if done in an appropriate way, does not infer that only a sophisticated consumer will understand it” (p. 62)

Perhaps the clearest finding in the author’s content analysis is that The New Zealand Herald does not "balance" the issue of climate change, but treats it like an established truth.

One may question, however, if this is because of the political environment in which the newspaper is situated.

When analysing the findings it seems like external sources are influencing The New Zealand Herald more than what the Herald is influencing the environment around them. The traditional notion of the agenda-setting media organisation thus seems to have been abandoned in this issue.

On the other hand, one may argue that The New Zealand Herald is in fact part of the solution, because it sympathises with Pacific island nations in their fight to mitigate climate change. This argument falls short though, because by just being “an inert interpreter who translates the jargon of specialists into chewable news bits, reporters are not taking responsibility for the consequences of their coverage. The right to free expression is meaningless without the responsibilities that go with the profession” (Dixit, 2010, p. 60).

By viewing The New Zealand Herald in light of this, the newspaper is clearly not acting responsibly.

The most imminent challenge of The New Zealand Herald is therefore not how detached or attached a journalist should be to the subject he is reporting on. It is rather the independence of the reporting as such. Does the leading newspaper of New Zealand wish to report on maybe the most important issue people are facing in the 21st century by simply being a mouthpiece of official sources?

Perhaps the consciousness that has been manufactured by The New Zealand Herald does not include climate change. One may also deduce this from the sheer number of articles. The author had to go nearly four years back to find 20 articles about South Pacific climate change.

The i-Kiribati academic and journalist Taberannang Korauaba supported the author’s impression of the Herald being "uninterested" in reporting on South Pacific climate change, and suggested that journalism of The New Zealand Herald has failed to successfully cover this issue.

South Pacific climate change needs to become a central issue in the reporting of New Zealand’s leading newspaper. The nature of this reporting should seek to provide a holistic picture of the communities in question. For instance by taking into account the local inhabitants’ viewpoints.

One example where a holistic approach may be productive concerns the notion that migration to New Zealand and Australia will skyrocket as a result of South Pacific island nations becoming uninhabitable due to climate change. As Mortreux and Barnett (2008) demonstrate though, Tuvaluans have no intention of leaving their home country. They are fond of their land and would like to stay there.

According to Korauaba (2012), the people of Kiribati are not united on the issue of climate change. Journalists in Kiribati therefore need to report in a way that creates unity on this issue.

Among his proposals, Korauaba (2012) suggests a climate change journalism training course based on a culturally adapted model. Based on this author’s findings, an appropriate approach for New Zealand journalists would be to instil a greater sense of urgency and importance concerning climate change.

This could be done by implementing it in training courses, as well as emphasising the need for a holistic approach in journalism.

In this article the author raised the question of how attached a journalist should be when reporting on climate change in the South Pacific. The findings showed that The New Zealand Herald’s main challenge is not that they misuse the traditional journalistic practice of "balance" by giving sceptics of climate change unreasonably much space.

In fact, no climate sceptics were present in any of the articles in the author’s selection.

The New Zealand Herald’s challenge, however, is that it does not accept their responsibility as a media organisation when it comes to this issue.

This is evident by The New Zealand Herald simply forwarding the message that certain sources have on climate change. In sum, it seems that the newspaper does not view the issue of climate change in the South Pacific as important.

If this is the case, it is a grave miscalculation that needs to be rectified. This is not easy as the market forces in society are strong.

As the author sees it, one needs to launch a wide-reaching training programme for young and old journalists, so that the importance and urgency of the issue of South Pacific climate change can be instilled in current and future journalists.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 New Zealand Licence.

About the authors

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Asia-Pacific Journalism

AUT journalism school

Filed by an AUT University postgraduate student journalist.

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Daniel Drageset

PMW contributing editor 2013

Daniel Drageset is a Norwegian radio journalist who graduated with a Master in Communication Studies degree at AUT University.

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Pacific Media Centre

PMC newsdesk

The Pacific Media Centre - TE AMOKURA - at AUT University has a strategic focus on Māori, Pasifika and ethnic diversity media and community development.


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