Case Number: 962

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2004

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Balance, Lack Of

Professor Michael Mann of the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia complained about two articles in the New Zealand Herald relating to climate change and published on August 7, 2003. Both were by science reporter Simon Collins.

The Press Council has not upheld the complaint.

The first article, “Climate study just hot air say critics” on Page 5 of the paper’s first section, used US sources for the story. It reported comments to a US Senate committee hearing which were critical of both Auckland University geographer Dr Chris de Freitas and of a controversial study in the journal titled Climate Research of which Dr de Freitas is one of the editors. The Herald story reported that the published study argued against the view there is increasing global warming, that some of the journal's editors including the editor-in-chief had resigned because the study was published, and that there were serious criticisms of the study and Dr de Freitas.

Professor Michael Mann was quoted in testimony to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, saying “Chris de Freitas, the individual in question, frequently publishes op-ed pieces in newspapers in New Zealand attacking IPCC [the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] and attacking [the] Kyoto [Protocol] and attacking the work of mainstream climatologists in this area.”

A pointer at the bottom of this article, Herald Feature: Climate Change, referred readers to Page 20 in the paper’s first section and the article “Warmth – It’s a hot topic” which was largely an interview with Dr de Freitas in his Auckland University office. It traced Dr de Freitas’s change of viewpoint from being a scientist warning about global warming in Listener articles published in the 1980s to his present stance where he describes himself as “a global warming agnostic, not a sceptic.” This feature canvassed his views as he gave comparative examples of temperature studies which supported his conclusion that “global temperature has not risen appreciably in the last 20 years.”. The feature also quoted graphs produced by Professor Mann in the IPCC’s latest report in 2001 which showed by contrast a “sharp kick-up [in Northern Hemisphere temperatures] in the 20th century.”

After quoting Dr de Freitas’s opinion that “ although the future state of global climate is uncertain, there is no reason to believe that catastrophic change is under way,” the feature went on with the assertion: “This is clearly a minority view,” with supporting quotes from Jim Salinger of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) and Professor Mann again. The feature ended on an inconclusive note that “if the changes in our era are much faster than any others in the past few thousand years, human beings may be chiefly to blame. In that case, we still have something to worry about.”

Professor Mann exchanged emails about the articles with the reporter and consequently submitted to the features editor on August 9 by email a 1300-word rebuttal of Dr de Freitas’s views headed “Greenhouse Gases and Global Warming.” Professor Mann stated forcefully in his article, “The overwhelming weight of opinion among the world climate scientists is that the evidence for global warming is unequivocal.” He criticised “the myths that de Freitas hoists upon us” including that there was evidence from satellite measurements for global cooling, whereas the satellite measurements were corrected for errors due to the slow steady decay of their orbits and found to indicate instead rates of warming.

Professor Mann noted in his article that Dr de Freitas asserted that in medieval times, England was warm enough to support 50 vineyards. But that compared with 350 vineyards today which was “hardly evidence of unusual warmth in medieval times.” Professor Mann found “egregious” Dr de Freitas’s statement that no one disputes that the world was about 2 degrees Celsius warmer about 5000 to 10,000 years ago and says nothing in that statement is remotely correct and he cites evidence for his views. He even supplies photos of the substantial retreat of the Franz Josef glacier over 100 years. “Glacier retreat is driven by two factors: the amount of snowfall and the temperature…If rising temperatures were not a factor in the retreat of the New Zealand glaciers, then the amount of snow falling on the glaciers should have been half of what has actually been measured. In fact, however, the snowfall did not reduce,” says Professor Mann.

The Herald did not run Professor Mann’s article nor respond to his two emails on August 13 and August 24 enquiring whether the article would be published. He wrote a letter of complaint to the editor-in-chief on September 7, and subsequently complained to the Press Council on October 21.

The grounds of Professor Mann’s complaint are that the two articles were inaccurate, lacked balance and showed excessive advocacy. Under lack of accuracy he said the overall tone of the articles left readers with the false impression that the jury was still out on global warming and climate change where, as far as the vast majority of the world’s climate scientists were concerned, it is not. He gave particular examples of the inaccuracies he observed, along the lines of those cited in his article.

Under lack of balance, he was concerned broadly that the articles gave greater weighting to the opinions of Dr de Freitas than to the considered opinion of the IPCC. His criticism of “excessive advocacy” said sound science and open debate was to be encouraged but “unfortunately, the platform for the promotion of misinformation provided by the Herald to the dissenting view of Dr de Freitas falls far short of sound science or open debate.”

The editor-in-chief in defence of the newspaper said the first article was essentially a news item with a report on the nature of accusations against Dr de Freitas. The bulk of the article contained criticisms of Dr de Freitas, and the second background article explained the views which had received such criticism. He denied any advocacy on the part of the newspaper or the reporter. He said if Professor Mann’s article had been run, the paper would be faced with a demand for right of reply from Dr de Freitas, and an endless debate. Professor Mann was unsatisfied with the editor-in-chief’s explanation about the weighting of the articles, reasserting his opinion that “de Freitas’s claims have no place in any serious scientific discussion.”

Professor Mann drew the attention of the Press Council to a further article on de Freitas which the Council was aware of, but the article, mostly a human interest story, does not alter the decision.

The press has a difficult job in reporting on complex subjects with a technical base. Yet there is the public interest in such topics as climate change, genetic modification, immunisation and any number of scientific debates, and such articles have to be clear and simple, and appealing to read. Professor Mann may have expected too much from the newspaper in this instance in what was a generally well-handled exposition of a topical debate, coupled with a personal backgrounder which gave a local angle to the subject.

Newspapers are not journals of peer review. They generally cannot pronounce on the merits of scientific arguments with expert authority, nor run the full exposition of each view in every article. Readers probably expect at best a broad general outline of multi-layered arguments, possibly some human interest and at least signposts to sources of the detailed arguments and specialists in the field.

The press’s requirements ensure a more popular and general approach to the most arcane subjects, and wide-ranging, mass-readership publications will report minority views and even opinions that may be manifestly counter to the prevailing wisdom, or even wrong. Flat Earth Society advocates may appear in a newspaper article. The general elements of newspaper balance – the other viewpoint – can be observed in all these situations, and were followed here by the New Zealand Herald. Advocates of a particular standpoint may not find the press always serving their purpose, but then the function of the press is to serve their readers in the broadest terms.

The one aspect the Herald could have handled better would have been to give Professor Mann the courtesy of a reply to his correspondence about his submitted article. Given that Professor Mann writes well for a newspaper readership, the newspaper may have even lost an opportunity to run a well-constructed article that added to a current debate – editors certainly have the prerogative to stop such discussions at any time.

The complaint is not upheld.