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The climate change skeptics may be a lonely lot in Copenhagen, but no one disputes that they have had an effect, however hard to quantify. British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, recently cautioned against the public being distracted by the “anti-science, flat-earth climate skeptics” while Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, derided them as being the “comfortable bedfellows of the global conspiracy theorists.”

While very few of the skeptics have any scientific credentials in climate sciences, that doesn’t prevent them gaining significant coverage in pockets of the mainstream media? Why is this the case?

Both Sides of the Story?

A common argument on why climate change skeptics get so much traction in the media is that when it comes to scientific disputes such as over global warming, generalist journalists and editors find it easier to simply opt for a “he said, she said” story. Using this formulaic approach, stories assign equal weight to both the views of peer-reviewed scientists who are specialists in their field and the arguments of skeptics who commonly have no or very limited scientific credentials.

Back in 2004, two academics, Max and Jules Boykoff, reviewed mainstream news media coverage (pdf) of global warming and concluded that “the prestige press’s adherence to balance actually leads to biased coverage of both anthropogenic contributions to global warming and resultant action.” The bias, they argued, “contributed to a significant divergence of popular discourse from scientific discourse.”

But sometimes, it is far, far worse, when even the “balanced story” formula is jettisoned and a journalist uncritically cites the opinions of a climate change skeptic without even offering readers any alternative point of view.

A month ago, Sean Whittington from the Australian PR firm, Field Public Relations, issued a press release promoting a speech by Ian Plimer, a mining company director and noted global warming skeptic. Plimer was one of the skeptics who spoke last week at the oppostional Copenhagen Climate Challenge, which was co-sponsored by the U.S.-based Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow and the Danish group, Climate Sense. Whittington’s media release, issued on behalf of the Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, a professional group for those working in the mining industry, rather unremarkably featured a dozen paragraphs extracted from Plimer’s speech.

Before Plimer had even made his speech, an Australian Associated Press (AAP) journalist filed a story. As blogger Tim Lambert wryly commented on his Deltoid blog, “I think it is awesome that the AAP can report from the future.”

The AAP story was sprinkled with cute Plimer quips: “My greatest fear is this country’s lights will go out and the rest of the world will think no one is home—and they will be right,” Plimer claimed. “Australia will go broke and will become the laughing stock of the world if our political leaders keep making decisions on climate change based on ideology rather than on science,” was another quote. “This country is heading down a very dangerous path of self-destruction if these people continue on their current path of ignorance and ignore scientific due diligence when making such important decisions about the future of this country,” was another.

Plimer also promoted nuclear power as clean and green. “It’s no secret, the more energy a country uses, the richer it becomes. Yet in Australia we are told nuclear energy is dangerous and that climate change is human induced and dangerous. So on top of everything else it needs to contend with, the mining industry is now confronted by a new age of irrationality,” AAP reported.

Not surprisingly, the wire service story was picked up on News.com.au, a website of Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited, which has become a champion of climate change skepticism. AAP is a wire service owned by four major newspaper companies, one of which is News Limited, which holds a 45% stake in the company. On its website, AAP boasts that the pillars of its reporting are ” balanced and fair reporting”, “get it right, then get it first”, and “produce quality news that’s ready to use.”

But the AAP story on Plimer’s speech is an exemplar of the success of PR. Of the dozen paragraphs in Whittington’s media release, nine were used in their entirety in the AAP story and another one in a paraphrased form. Only two paragraphs weren’t used. None were attributed as being from a media release.

But there were other problems too. While reporting Plimer’s enthusiasm for nuclear power, the report gave no indication that Plimer is a director of Ivanhoe Australia, a mineral exploration company with uranium exploration interests. In its 2008 prospectus (pdf), Ivanhoe Australia argue that “one of the arguments for nuclear energy is its substantially reduced level of carbon emissions.”

Nor did AAP even try to get a comment from anyone to incorporate a different perspective on any of Plimer’s claims.

The Skeptics “Water Vapour” Argument Evaporates

The AAP report also reported that Plimer “contends that water vapor is responsible for most of the so-called greenhouse effect.” In the world of skeptics, framing water vapor is a way of exonerating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. If, their thinking goes, carbon dioxide has been falsely accused of being a climate change culprit, then why should the burning of fossil fuels be curtailed?

It is an argument that the BBC lists as number nine in its “Climate scepticism: The top 10” list. The BBC notes that “The statement that water vapour is “98% of the greenhouse effect” is simply false. In fact, it does about 50% of the work; clouds add another 25%, with CO2 and the other greenhouse gases contributing the remaining quarter. Water vapour concentrations are increasing in response to rising temperatures, and there is evidence that this is adding to warming, for example in Europe. The fact that water vapour is a feedback is included in all climate models.” A simple Google search on"water vapour” and “sceptics” (the Australian English spelling of the words) would have got the journalist there. Even if they didn’t want to take the BBC summary at face value, at least it should have flagged that it was worth probing further.

Despite the ease with which dissenting information could be found with a ten-second Internet search, there wasn’t a single comment from any climate scientist on the “water vapor” theory that was being touted by Plimer, a geologist, as being the overwhelming cause of global warming.

In climate change skeptics circles, variations of the water vapor claims have been kicking around for a long time. Back in 1995, an internal document(pdf) of the Global Climate Coalition (GCC)—an industry front group that disbanded in 2002—reviewed some of the “contrarian” arguments used by Richard Lindzen and other climate change skeptics.

In a section on the “Role of Water Vapor”, the GCC’s Science and Technical Advisory Committee wrote that “In 1990, Prof Richard Lindzen of MIT argued that the models which were being used to predict greenhouse warming were incorrect because they predicted an increase in water vapor at all levels of the troposphere. Since water vapor is a greenhouse gas, the models predict warming at all levels of the troposphere. However, warming should create convective turbulence, which would lead to more condensation of water vapor (i.e. more rain) and both drying and cooling of the troposphere above 5 km. This negative feedback would act as, a ‘thermostat’ keeping temperatures from rising significantly.”

However, the GCC’s own science advisers noted that this argument had been discounted to the point that “even Lindzen has stopped presenting it as an alternative to the conventional model of climate change.”

What Would Rupert Murdoch Think?

As the COP15 conference enters its second week of negotiations, the climate change skeptics are redoubling their efforts in the hope of weakening the shaky political resolve of global leaders to take decisive action on global warming. One of the greatest allies the skeptics have is lazy journalism.

But sloppy journalism, such as regurgitating the wild claims of climate change skeptics, is not only doing a disservice to readers but ultimately damages mainstream journalism itself. Last week, in an opinion column in the Wall Street Journal, Rupert Murdoch defended the idea that readers would pay for content on News Corporation websites “but only if we give them something of good and useful value. Our customers are smart enough to know that you don’t get something for nothing.”

He then returned to his recent theme of criticizing online news sites. These website, he complained “rewrite, at times without attribution, the news stories of expensive and distinguished journalists who invested days, weeks or even months in their stories—all under the tattered veil of “fair use. These people are not investing in journalism. They are feeding off the hard-earned efforts and investments of others.”

It would be a more persuasive argument if AAP—which is part owned by a Murdoch subsidiary—didn’t dress a PR handout up as journalism or that another of his company’s subsidiaries didn’t post it online as though it was quality material. But they did.

Does Rupert Murdoch really expect that his “smart” customers should pay for a rewritten, un-attributed media release peddling scientific nonsense? Or, even if it is not the sort of content he wants put behind a subscription paywall, why should it be served up as though it was quality journalism at all.

Bob Burton is the Managing Editor of SourceWatch. His Twitter feed is BobBurtonoz. Many of the links in the above article are to articles on SourceWatch, the Center for Media and Democracy’s collaborative online encyclopedia (which has a special section on climate change).