Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Putting faith in Authority. Climate coverage at the ABC Part 3

Part 3: Putting faith in Authority
Part3 of a four part series looking at climate reporting at the ABC.

ABC’s editorial guidelines 5.2.2 (f) state: Be questioning. Serve the public interest by investigating issues affecting society and individuals. One interpretation of this clause would be “don’t be naive”. When ABC seeks comment from authorities it seems in some cases very little work goes into verifying the claims that are made. Prior to the politicization of climate science this was arguably a fair call, experts should know what they are talking about, however things have changed significantly over the last few decades, and the motives of experts and authorities alike are not as pure as they once were. Just because they wear a sheriff’s badge doesn’t necessarily mean they are on the side of the good guys.

One example is a recent story 2010 on track to be hottest year. The story featured an interview with Bureau of Meteorology climatologist Dr David Jones in which Dr Jones listed a number of weather events that he considered were “uncharacteristic”. However, on closer examination it turns out that these weather events were not unprecedented. It’s a shame ABC’s reporter did not take the 30 minutes or so required to verify Dr Jones claims, instead the ABC let a number of half truths be promulgated, misleading its audience in the process. These included the following:
Half truth: “We actually got into the low 50s for parts of the Middle East and Pakistan a couple of weeks back”
Truth: Parts of the Middle East and Pakistan record temperatures into the low 50’s pretty much every year[1].
Half truth: Beijing the other day just fell short of 41.
Truth: The recorded temperature was 40.3 (104.5F)[2], and no where near historical highs of up to 46.1C (115F)[3].
Half truth: We're seeing 40s right up and down the US eastern seaboard.
Truth: What an exaggeration! Apparently 40 reported at just one location.[4]

In early June I requested ABC substantiate claims it made in its report borrowed from the BBC titled, Melting ice making Everest climbs dangerous, that: "Studies show temperatures are rising faster at Mount Everest than in the rest of South Asia." We requested ABC provide details of the studies. ABC replied with the following:
Received 2 August 2010
"On receipt of your complaint, we have investigated whether it could be established that a significant error had been made that warranted correction, as required by section 5.2.2(c)(ii) of the ABC’s Editorial Policies. Audience and Consumer Affairs note that studies do appear to show temperatures are rising faster at Mount Everest than in the rest of South Asia, as illustrated in Table 10.2 of the Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007:  http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg2/en/contents.html. In view of this, we are unable to conclude that a significant error has been made which warrants correction. However, should you have specific further information which you feel is relevant to our decision on this point, we would be happy to consider it."

Once again ABC put its faith in the IPCC and did not bother to check the source. We sent ABC Audience and Consumer Affairs the following reply:
“The ABC report states: "Studies show temperatures are rising faster at Mount Everest than in the rest of South Asia." You have now provided the IPCC table 10.2 as a reference for this information, however for South Asia this table indicates temperature rise in Sri Lanka at "2°C increase per year in central highlands " while the annual increase for the Himalaya is given as "0.09°C per year in Himalayas". Clearly the values for Sri Lanka greatly exceed those of the Himalaya, and Sri Lanka, not the Himalaya, is the area where temperatures are rising faster in South Asia. Clearly both trends are also worthy of further journalistic inquiry for if continued both would greatly exceed IPCC forecasts.”

It seems that the IPCC table 10.2 contains a number of errors, worthy of their own headline. These are summarised below but have been dealt with in more detail at ABC News Watch and in a post on Watts Up With That
Errors in Table 10.2 IPCC Working Group 2 report
1. Table 10.2 indicates that warming in the Himalaya is 0.09º C.yr-1 however warming citing for Si Lanka is 2°C increase per year in central highlands. On the IPCC’s figures the ABC and BBC claim does not stack up.
2. IPCC provide the incorrect reference to back their figure for the Himalayas. They cite two conference papers and one peer reviewed paper that related to precipitation, not temperature. The correct reference is found to be: Shrestha, Arun B.; Wake, Cameron P.; Mayewski, Paul A.; Dibb, Jack E., 1999. Maximum Temperature Trends in the Himalaya and Its Vicinity: An Analysis Based on Temperature Records from Nepal for the Period 1971–94. Journal of Climate, 9/1/99, Vol. 12 Issue 9 pp:2775-2786.
3. The references for the Sri Lankan Temperatures are not from peer reviewed journals, they relate to precipitation, not temperature.
4. The figure quoted for the Himalaya is the winter trend, not the annual trend. The annual trend is 0.057 º C.yr-1.
5. The highest annual trend for Nepal cited in Shrestha et al., 1999 is 0.09º C.yr-1 for the Trans-Himalaya (an area that excludes Mt Everest).
5. The basis of the Himalayan trends (Shrestha et al 1999) is just 6 weather stations. The average trend of 5 of these stations dating back to the 1960s is (Max/Min) 0.013º C.yr-1, much less than the 0.057º C.yr-1. All five of these stations are located in the eastern Himalaya.
6. The trend cited for Sri Lankan is incorrect and was brought up in the review of IPCC AR4 WGII.

We have passed this on to the IPCC for comment but have not yet received a reply.
To the ABC’s credit they spent considerable time investigating the matter. Remarkably this was undertaken by ABC's complaints division and not by ABC News. In the end ABC amended the report and added the following note: "Editor's note (September 1, 2010): A reference to studies of climate in the Himalayas has been removed from this story because the ABC was not able to verify its source." However the damage had been done.

Sadly, it is now necessary to treat statements by authorities, some climate scientists, and press releases from some university departments with the same cynicism as those of politicians and government departments. While published papers are necessarily restrained in their conclusions, as they need to pass peer review, the same level of rigour does not apply to IPCC reports, press releases and public comments, and in these, some scientists apply liberal coats of varnish to bolster somewhat tepid claims and hide somewhat shonky science. Astute journalists can see through the gloss. It seems ABC needs to employ some of these sceptical journalists to balance its current crop of gullible reporters.

A list of posts by ABC NEWS WATCH reporting on ABC climate change stories where more questions could have been asked can be found HERE.

Groupthink, Sensationalism, Naive and Inept Journalism: Climate coverage at the ABC- Part 1.
Cherry picking the science. Climate coverage at the ABC Part 2

Next: Part 4 Making Mistakes

[1]  For Saudi Arabia: “The average summer temperature is about 45° C, but readings of up to 54° C are not unusual.” http://www.weatheronline.co.uk/reports/climate/Saudi-Arabia.htm
[3] http://newspapers.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/10727070

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