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Should newspapers ban letters from climate science deniers?

October 17, 2013

Graham Readfearn

Construction of liquid natural gas processing plant LNG in Aniva Bay on Sakhalin Island Russia. Photograph: Iain Masterson/Alamy

Construction of liquid natural gas processing plant LNG in Aniva Bay on Sakhalin Island Russia. Photograph: Iain Masterson/Alamy

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 the Herald letters team is planning to make a statement to readers outlining the paper’s approach to climate change and letters.*

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”. Read more in The Guardian.

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