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Analysis
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Environment

Will Postmedia Face a Reckoning for Its Climate Coverage?

SFU prof hopes ethics complaints against the Vancouver Sun and the National Post will stop media promotion of misinformation.

Sean Holman 15 Jul 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Sean Holman covered B.C. politics for 10 years and is now a journalism professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

Against the backdrop of a deadly heat wave now attributed to global warming, the Vancouver Sun is resisting a request to retract an interview promoting climate science rejectionist Patrick Moore’s new book Fake Invisible Catastrophes and Threats of Doom.

As a result, Simon Fraser University communication professor Robert Hackett has launched a formal ethics complaint against the Sun, as well a separate complaint against the National Post for publishing a guest column by Moore about the book.

Those complaints were filed with the National NewsMedia Council, an industry self-regulating body. If they are upheld by the council, the newspapers will be required to publish a summary of the decision. Earlier this year the council dismissed a complaint relating to a National Post column by another climate science rejectionist, Rex Murphy.

However, Hackett said he hopes the council, which adjudicates such ethics cases for Canada’s news industry, will reach a different conclusion this time and that the Post might even voluntarily address his concerns about Moore’s column, having assigned a staffer to look into it.

Those complaints were triggered by a lengthy Tyee investigation into Moore’s use of mainstream scientific research to support the arguments in his book, which has charted on Amazon as an “environmental science” bestseller and been covered by prominent international conservative outlets. When The Tyee contacted the authors of those studies, each of those who responded described how Moore got their work wrong.

Moore, a former Greenpeace leader who doubts the fact carbon dioxide and human activity are the main causes of climate change, has said that’s because those scientists don’t want to be “associated with climate skepticism.”

Patrick Moore claimed the herbicide glyphosate wasn’t harmful. Then cut the interview short when offered a glass.

But this isn’t the first time Moore’s credibility has been tested. Perhaps the best-known example was when Moore claimed on camera that drinking a quart of the herbicide glyphosate wouldn’t be harmful and then refused to do so when French filmmaker Paul Moreira offered a glass of the probable carcinogen. That footage was widely circulated in 2015 and received significant media coverage.

Postmedia promotes Moore’s book

Nevertheless, despite such attention, the Postmedia-owned National Post published a guest column by Moore promoting Fake Invisible Catastrophes and Threats of Doom on Feb. 10. That op-ed, in the newspaper’s financial section, ran beneath the headline “De-bunking climate and other varieties of alarmism.” A subhead stated that Moore’s book shows how environmental claims are “fake news and fake science.”

As an example, Moore declared the Great Barrier Reef is “alive and well,” despite a study published four months earlier by James Cook University’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies that found it “lost half its corals in the past three decades.” The National Post had even published news about that study, as well as an article about how the International Union for Conservation of Nature raised the World Heritage Site’s status to “critical.”

Terry Hughes, who leads the ARC Centre, said it would be more accurate to say the reef was “still alive, but with much less corals than before,” and it is too early to say if it would recover from its 2016 and 2017 bleaching.

Moore also claimed “massive forests fires” aren’t the result of climate change, even though scientists have found global warming has increased the risk of such blazes around the world, including those that scorched Australia and British Columbia.

Moore ended his op-ed by promising the “main attraction” of his book would be his belief carbon dioxide emissions aren’t “wreaking havoc on an unsuspecting planet and all species of life thereon,” despite the fact scientists have concluded there’s just a one-in-3.5 million chance that something other than human activity is responsible for global warming.

Two days later, the Vancouver Sun’s website broadcast a televised interview with Moore on Conversations That Matter, a partner program with Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. The interview was promoted with news stories in the Sun’s print and online editions.

Patrick Moore spread the word about his new book, as well as his climate change claims, on a Simon Fraser University-backed talk show.

The SFU centre’s executive director Shauna Sylvester stated it “does not practise editorial control” over the show and that its host, Stuart McNish, raises the funds for it, although the money does “come through” Simon Fraser University.

It is unclear whether that relationship has changed following The Tyee’s coverage of Moore’s appearance on Conversations That Matter, though programs broadcast after March 5 no longer have the centre’s logo on them.

Neither McNish nor Sylvester, who earlier said she was “disappointed” Moore’s views went unchallenged, responded to requests for comment about that change for this article.

During his appearance on the show, Moore accused activists, politicians, scientists and the news media of “making up so-called narratives that are fake” about environmental issues. He also claimed carbon dioxide’s effect on global temperature is “completely unproven” and that “there’s no indication it’s going to warm a lot.” Instead, he attributed recent changes to a “gentle warming period” that has occurred since the Little Ice Age. “We are [a] tropical species. So warming of the Earth will not really be that big of a problem for human beings.”

McNish, a former BCTV reporter, wouldn’t discuss that interview unless I appeared on his show to ask the questions. In the past, he has said, “being tough on my guests is not what Conversations is all about.” His show has been promoted and rebroadcasted by the Sun since it started in 2014.

However, McNish has hosted climate scientists and climate science rejectionists in the past, with the later including Institute for Advanced Study physicist Freeman Dyson, former Trump administration National Security Council appointee William Happer who co-founded the CO2 Coalition Moore helps lead, and Friends of Science communications manager Michelle Stirling.

This was Moore’s third appearance on Conversations That Matter. “I think he thinks I’m a conversation that matters,” Moore said. “He gets a lot of heat for interviewing me.”

When asked about the National Post’s decision to run Moore’s op-ed, communication vice-president Phyllise Gelfand responded in an email.

“It was a commentary and no one paid Postmedia to publish it,” she wrote. “We publish a variety of opinions.” She didn’t respond to a question about the process the National Post took to verify the op-ed’s claims prior to publication, although Moore told me he got a “good edit.”

Editors should have known book was ‘highly problematic'

In an interview, Hackett said Moore’s op-ed should never have been published. Nor should the Vancouver Sun have promoted and shared Moore’s interview.

“The press has generally been responsible in not promoting anti-vax or anti-masking theories or Stop the Steal or QAnon conspiracy theories. So why should climate science denialism be any different?” said Hackett, who has written or co-written several books on the subject of media and politics, including Journalism and Climate Crisis.

“They could have done a bit of science checking about Patrick Moore’s track record or they could have consulted their own science reporters, assuming… they’ve got some on staff… about how credible this book [is],” Hackett added. “And they should have simply read the Amazon summary of the book and realized this is highly problematic.”

That’s why he’s filed complaints against the two newspapers with the National NewsMedia Council. In those complaints, Hackett charged them with choosing to “promote a book that the editors should have known would be highly problematic, amounting to misinformation on a matter of supreme importance” — climate change.

Hackett said the National Post and the Vancouver Sun have contributed to “public confusion about the scientific consensus — a confusion that serves the interests of high carbon polluting industries and has delayed essential remedial action to mitigate the climate crisis.”

Referencing The Tyee’s coverage of Fake Invisible Catastrophes and Threats of Doom, Hackett requested the newspapers add a caveat to the articles promoting Moore’s book that lets readers know they contain “numerous demonstrable misrepresentations of scientific sources and findings.” Better still, Hackett wrote the National Post and the Vancouver Sun could remove them and publish retractions “advising readers of the book's inadequacies.”

Editors at both newspapers have so far not done that. In his complaint against the Post, Hackett stated the newspaper’s comments editor Carson Jerema had read The Tyee’s coverage of Fake Invisible Catastrophes and Threats of Doom and assigned someone to review Moore’s op-ed. However, having alerted the Post to his concerns on June 25, Hackett said that process hasn’t been completed, with no end date provided. In an email, Jerema confirmed the newspaper had “received a complaint about alleged errors in a piece written by Patrick Moore and is looking into that matter.”

Vancouver Sun editor-in-chief Harold Munro told Hackett that while there is “no dispute” that climate change is real, “there is room for legitimate debate on our editorial pages about the best solutions, pace of change and fairness in sharing the financial and social burden.”

Moore’s book isn’t about any of those subjects. Munro had also told his newsroom last year that there are “certain lines” the Vancouver Sun doesn’t cross, with one of them being “climate denial.” Munro didn’t respond to a request for comment.

National NewsMedia Council dismissed earlier complaint

This isn’t the first time this year that the National NewsMedia Council has considered a complaint against a Postmedia newspaper for publishing an article by a climate science rejectionist. Earlier, University of Ottawa communications professor Patrick McCurdy filed one against the National Post after it published a column by Rex Murphy that claimed global warming is an “anti-Western ideology” and a “politically correct dogma for all progressives.”

In that column, Murphy suggested the “furious winter blast” in Texas in February called into question the scientific consensus about climate change. “I thought we were not to have winter anymore according to the high priests of global warming. I thought snowfalls were a thing of the past, according to their acolytes in the media.”

Murphy then quoted from a Wall Street Journal editorial that claimed Texas’s over-reliance on wind power made it vulnerable to the blackouts which happened during the state’s winter storm. In fact, according to FactCheck.org, “the bulk of the deficit in the energy supply was due to frozen infrastructure for natural gas, not wind.”

Responding to McCurdy’s complaint, the National Post acknowledged this fact, having published articles offering a more complete view of the reasons for the power grid failure.

However the newspaper argued Murphy’s statements were consistent with his bombastic approach to commentary and that he was criticizing years of dire prediction of global warming rather than its existence.

For the most part, the National NewsMedia Council sided with the National Post. “It is not the role of the NNC to deliberate over the science, but to assess whether the statements in the column fall within the wide latitude afforded to opinion writers to express provocative views,” it wrote in the decision.

This latitude includes the ability of columnists to cite “particular sources of information and omit others to build their argument,” the decision said, although the council noted it has “consistently held that opinion pieces must be grounded in fact.”

The council dismissed McCurdy’s complaint with reservation, stating it was concerned about Murphy’s sources and “lack of context that pushes the boundaries of logical argument,” as well as the potential to “mislead a reader unfamiliar with the writer’s style.”

In reaching its decision, the council did not appear to consider Murphy’s history as a climate science rejectionist and oil and gas industry ally, which included recently urging conservatives to “defy the conventional idea that if you deny global warming you are some sort of benighted Neanderthal.”

Climate coverage guidelines urged

Hackett is hoping the council takes a different approach with his complaint, recommending it create “guidelines regarding journalism's responsibilities vis-a-vis fact-checking and the dissemination of misinformation on what is increasingly recognized, by governments, scientists and publics, as a climate emergency.”

To consider Hackett’s complaints, the council’s board needs to waive the usual one-month post-publication time limit for filing, something it has the power to do. Hackett believes such a waiver should be granted because the articles are “still at risk of misinforming the public about climate change.”

“Both of those articles are still on websites. So, in a sense, they are being republished every day. It’s not like the old days of the so-called legacy media where something published in the newspaper might disappear into the recycling bin,” said Hackett.

“By keeping it on the website of two supposedly reputable news organizations, that lends the news media’s credibility on an ongoing basis to the book and to the recirculation of the misinformation associated with it.”

As a result, Hackett said it’s important for the National NewsMedia Council to hear his complaints. “This case could help establish a professional standard in Canadian journalism for sourcing and reporting practices on global warming.”

* Story amended on July 16, 2021 at 2:50 p.m. to correct the affiliation of Freeman Dyson, who is not associated with Princeton University.  [Tyee]

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