When spin meets research

THE evolution of spin and manipulation of facts reached new levels of clarity this week following the release of a CSIRO report which detailed research into community sentiment about wind farms.Included in the report was an analysis of media coverage of wind farm developments and a conclusion that a minority opposed to such projects received better coverage than those who held more supportive views.The Courier, which was not assessed as part of the research, was one of the few media organisations which chose to seek views of state and federal politicians, regional wind farm operators and pro-wind lobby groups on the report.The responses The Courier received were varied, although pointedly the MPs questioned the detail and independence of the report. In these circumstances, it warrants further investigation.The CSIRO is transparent in its direction. According to the report: “the CSIRO Energy Transformed Flagship aims to lower greenhouse gas emissions by providing sustainable, efficient, cost-effective energy solutions for electricity supply and transport”.The federal government has a clear agenda to increase renewable energy and the majority of Australians, and certainly this newspaper, understand the need to explore and engage more earth-friendly and viable options of energy production. The major problem with wind farms is that few people want to live next to one and these people often find the media as the only voice prepared to listen.In this context it makes sense that the government-funded CSIRO would explore the benefits and potential pitfalls to communities of wind energy.The CSIRO’s deputy director of energy technology, Jim Smitham, said the report showed there was a “disconnect” between negative media coverage about wind farms and the attitude of a majority in the communities where wind farms were proposed or already operating. “Going into the field and doing interviews at community level, they have different reasons but many of them support the wind farm; it just isn’t as apparent as the people who are able to find a short, sharp reason to reject it.” Fair enough, but now let’s quote directly from the report to understand the methodology of the research which might have led to such a conclusion:“The ProQuest Asia Pacific database was searched for all articles and letters to the editor featuring the phrases ‘wind farm’ and the word ‘community’, and published in newspapers covering the areas of each wind farm case study in the latter six months of 2010. The media search found 49 articles and letters in 19 available newspapers from national, state (NSW, ACT, South Australia and Victoria) and local jurisdictions in this selected timeframe.”Just to be clear – this national study did not assess even 50 articles. It comprised a survey of 19 newspapers across four states in the six-month timeframe. The analysis found more references opposing wind projects than those in favour.The research also involved interviews, although the report also states: “Where stakeholders were unavailable for interview, documents were sourced that provided perspectives on the research questions.”Twenty-seven interviews were conducted, with nine of the interviewees being from wind farm companies. A further four interviews were conducted with wind turbine “hosts”. Just four interviews were conducted with people in Victoria.The report’s authors found: “There is strong community support for the development of wind farms, including support from rural residents who do not seek media attention or political engagement to express their views. This finding contrasts with the level of opposition that may be assumed from the typically ‘conflict-oriented’ portrayal of wind farm proposals in the popular media. This media coverage frequently gives significant attention to legal challenges, political protests, and vocal opponents including ‘Landscape Guardian’ and high-profile individuals, but fails to balance this with coverage of middle-ground views, or with equivalent attention to the potential benefits of wind farms.”In Victoria, the articles were drawn from The Age, The Sunday Age, the Herald Sun, The Weekly Times, the Sunbury Macedon Ranges Leader, Northcote Leader, Moorabool Leader, Geelong Advertiser, Geelong Echo and the Geelong News. There are no wind farms in Melbourne, where The Age, the Herald Sun and most of the Leader papers are headquartered. The Great Ocean Road and Bellarine Peninsula near Geelong are off limits to wind projects.None of the newspaper articles were from newspapers in Gippsland, where the study asssessed two wind farm projects. And why were newspapers in central Victoria, such as The Courier, The Advocate at Daylesford and Bendigo Advertiser, which have covered wind farm projects in much greater detail than the metropolitan media, ignored? These papers were not researched despite the Hepburn and Castlemaine community wind farms also being studied as part of the research project. The Castlemaine Wind Farm is proposed, rather than operating.Why were radio stories not considered? Why were television pieces not researched?The conclusions in regard to media coverage might not have been any different had further research been undertaken. The point is that the CSIRO is held in such high esteem and regard as a meticulous and completely thorough investigative, scientific organisation that members of parliament, or anyone else for that matter, would rarely seek to criticise it.Most disturbingly it is not the questions related to the research undertaken in the study that is of most concern. Details about the scary transition which has been made to campaigns of aggressive attack against individuals or organisations which are prepared to question particular views or directions now abound and are even alluded to in the CSIRO report.It used to be that governments and pressure groups would employ public relations professionals to “spin” a message. They now employ them often just to denigrate their opposers. This is highly evident in the debate surrounding climate and renewable energy – on both sides of the fence – and the media and the public are none the wiser. It means the great and relevant cause to create a greener world is being compromised by a small number of extremist individuals and groups who see opposition or questioning of their goals and vision not as part of the process of community debate but as a serious affront which must be eradicated.This week we had an example of research by a peak government-funded body being brought into this equation.Dangerous territory for anyone who has dared involve themselves in the past will attest.