What happened to my idea of combating misleading press articles? Here is an update, including about a press complaint I have started to see how things work. This is the first of a series of posts I’ll put up about how that complaint goes. I’d welcome your thoughts.
The initial idea was to gather a lot of people around a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). Earlier advice that the PCC are pretty ineffective in cases concerning climate change and that was backed up in a recent conversation with the fantastic people at Carbon Brief. They pointed me at an article about how to get complaints to work. It concludes that they are only really effective if someone raises a complaint because they have been directly misquoted. Generally, if it is about the science, they’ll let anything go.
So I have tentatively concluded that a mass of people online petitioning editors about individual articles could work, as was suggested by Bob Ward. We’d then decide on a case-by-case basis whether to raise an official complaint, depending on a vote, bearing in mind the chances of success. There is arguably little point wasting effort in raising a lot of official complaints via the PCC if the majority are not going to be upheld. Best case we’d waste our time, worst the papers could use that as evidence that they can continue to say what they want.
The Climate Reality Project are the most likely group to host this website. While I wait for them to get over a hump of work they have on at the moment, I have raised a press complaint of my own to find out how the system works, as John Cook of Skeptical Science suggested to me.
Before raising a complaint, the norm is to correspond with the offending editor first. The article I chose, more or less at random, was published in the Telegraph in the UK. Here is the correspondence I had with them before raising the complaint, following completing a form on the Telegraph website to say I wasn’t happy with the article:
For example (and this is only an example):
 It opens “Top climate scientists have admitted that their global warming forecasts are wrong and world is not heating at the rate they claimed it was in a key report”. Factual inaccuracy – the reports are not forecasts, they are projections. They do not predict over the 5-10 year short-term, they project an overall trend. They do show occasional pauses in temperature increases, but do not claim to forecast where they lie.
 The same sentence is misleading in stating that the projections are “wrong”. Observations are within tolerance. It is a misleading use of words to state that they are “wrong” – it is like saying that the weatherman got the forecast wrong if he said it would be sunny with a temperature of 22 degrees and it turned out to be sunny with a temperature of 23 degrees.
 The final paragraph avoids a factual inaccuracy with weasel wording. It states that the IPCC insist that the Stockholm meeting is not a crisis meeting. The dates for the meeting have been scheduled for years. The article gives the misleading impression that the meeting has been arranged recently. It is like saying that so-and-so insists they are not a pedophile, rather they are heterosexual: which would leave the impression that they may indeed be a pedophile.
The entire article is biased in this way, using wording that paints a misleading picture at every turn, and giving the overall impression that the IPCC have been wrong and are in crisis, which could not be further from the truth.
I could go on. You will be aware that it is reportable if an article is factually inaccurate or misleading or biased. This article is all three.
I repeat that if an apology is not published with the same level of prominence as the original that I will report the article to the Press Complaints Commission.
Thank you for your reply. I have spoken with Hayley Dixon and she has stated:
Firstly, I do not accept that there is a difference between projections – defined as “an estimate or forecast of a future situation or trend based on a study of present ones” -and forecasts – defined as “to predict or estimate (a future event or trend)”.
I do not understand the complaint that the IPCC do not predict over the 5 to 10 year period, these are decade on decade predictions since the 1950s – as is confirmed by the IPCC in their previous report.
Secondly the projections are different – there is an 9 per cent difference between the figure in the 2007 and the figure which is due to be included in this report, as amended by the scientists.
Thirdly I dispute that saying the final paragraph uses “weasel wording”. Again, this is a statement of fact. The IPCC has insisted that this is not a crisis meeting, as can be seen by a press release on their website. At no point in the article does it state that this is an emergency meeting, or that the organisation is in crisis. It does suggest that the IPCC have been incorrect in some areas, because this is the thrust of the comparison between earlier reports and leaked documents. The IPCC did not respond to a request for comment.
However, I believe that the comments from Professor Myles Allen, a contributor to the report, provide a balance by pointing out that the data is not infallible, and that science works by changing predictions according to emerging data. This clearly does not suggest the IPCC is in crisis, it just shows that this is the way that science works.
Thank you for your response. I will now report the article to the press complaints commission.
Before I take this forward with the PCC, I would be grateful if you would consider changing the headline of the article. I think this is the most serious issue with the article.
It states “Top climate scientists admit global warming forecasts were wrong”, where the now revised content of the article states that the difference is that predictions were for a change of 0.13 degrees Celsius per decade, where it has actually been 0.12 degrees Celsius. The article originally inaccurately stated that the forecast was 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade, which would have been further from the observations, but with the correct figure the headline now seems inappropriate.
Would you say that the weatherman had got the forecast wrong if he predicted cloudy and temperatures of 13 degrees, and it turned out to be cloudy with temperatures of 12 degrees?
A more accurate headline would be “Top climate scientists admit global warming forecasts were 92% correct”.
The headline is not based upon that statistic alone, for example it is based on the concession in the second paragraph that the effects of carbon have been misinterpreted, that forecast computers may not have taken enough notice of the natural variability in the climate, the changes to the historical data on temperatures between 950 and 1250 AD, and so forth.
Would you be willing to publish a letter from me to counter that biased and misleading viewpoint?
If you wish a letter to be considered for publication, please e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org (The Daily Telegraph). Please include your name, address, and work and home telephone numbers.
Regrettably, due to the amount of letters received on a daily basis, it is not possible to print each one.
And so I then raised the official complaint – watch this space…