2023-08: Penna v Toronto Star

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March 17, 2023 – for immediate release

The National NewsMedia Council dismissed a complaint about accuracy in a November 24, 2022, editorial, “A welcome step in the climate fight,” published by the Toronto Star.

The editorial argued that an international agreement to help developing countries deal with the devastating effects of climate change was a “landmark victory,” but cautioned that action must be taken quickly and collectively to address a changing climate and its impact on vulnerable nations.

The editorial stated, “…with sea levels advancing and temperatures rapidly rising and land literally disappearing, Tuvaluvians face the real prospect of becoming the world’s first climate change refugees.” It also referenced public statements made by Tuvalu’s foreign affairs minister indicating plans to “make Tuvalu the world’s first digital nation.”

Pav Penna filed a complaint with the NNC stating that the editorial incorrectly reported that land in the island nation of Tuvalu was “literally disappearing.”

In his submission, the complainant cited scientific studies and recently published articles to support his argument that coral atoll islands, like those of Tuvalu, were in fact growing with rising sea levels, and were, therefore, not threatened by climate change.

The news organization responded to the complainant’s concerns by noting that it carefully reviewed the research provided by the complainant as well as other published articles. After doing so, it determined that a correction was not necessary in this case. In particular, the Star referred to the same 2018 research study cited by the complainant, which showed that while the majority of the more than 100 individual reef islands that comprise the nation were growing, other smaller islands were eroding.

It is worth noting that both the news organization and the complainant cited research that showed, “notably, eight of nine atolls experienced an increase in land area. Nanumea was the only atoll where a loss in land was detected, although this totaled less than 0.01 per cent.” The Star also pointed to the finding, “the remaining 28 islands (27.7 per cent of total) decreased in area, totaling −7.24 ha and ranging from 1 to 100 per cent reduction. On average, eroding islands decreased in area by −0.5 ha (22.69 per cent).”

The Star stated, “In other words, it’s fair to say there has been some land lost in Tuvalu.”

In addition, the Star referred to published observations from people on the ground as an example of the significant impact of climate change on the country’s shoreline, citing a 2004 Smithsonian article, which reported, “a gun emplacement, planted on dry land by U.S. soldiers in World War II, now sits 20 feet offshore.”

The complainant responded by stating, “There are areas where local erosion has affected the shoreline. However, the study clearly shows that accretion (build up) more than makes up for the effects of erosion and sea level rise – Tuvalu is growing in area, not ‘literally disappearing.’ Rising sea levels are not making the islands uninhabitable as the Star editorial claims.”

The news organization provided links to other articles to support its view that the statements in question accurately reflected the issue. In particular, it referenced an Agence France-Presse (AFP) Fact Check article that assessed the widely-circulated claim that Pacific islands are growing and are, therefore, not threatened by climate change.

The fact-checking piece further noted that the claim misrepresented the relevant scientific research, and included comments from scientists indicating that there is general agreement that rising sea levels and major storms are threats to the islands. It also included comments from the researcher responsible for the 2018 report. The researcher stated that the science showing that Tuvalu’s islands were growing had been misrepresented, and noted that “island communities face challenging times as they adjust to the ever-changing position of the islands on reef surfaces. Such change is likely to become more rapid as a consequence of sea level rise and increased wave activity.”

The complainant responded by stating that the observations from individuals on the ground, as cited by the Star, were anecdotal in nature. He argued, “Tuvalu effectively utilizes activist media and NGO’s [sic] to spread scary climate change stories to attract international attention and funding,” and that the editorial’s “alarmist narrative” is not supported by the facts.

The NNC reviewed the relevant materials, widely-available information, and positions presented by both parties. It is worth noting that it is not the role of the NNC to decide on scientific findings. That said, it is the role of the NNC to assess whether the news organization’s treatment of available information adheres to the journalistic standard of accuracy in opinion writing.

While the NNC would emphasize that journalists are not generally obliged to undertake an entire academic literature review on the subjects they cover, the NNC has frequently pointed out that accuracy is a fundamental component of accountable journalism and that opinion writing must be grounded in fact.

In this case, the NNC noted that the research study cited by both parties provided empirical evidence that indicated that Pacific islands are expanding and changing shape.

At the same time, widely available information, including comments from the author of the specific study, provide additional context worthy of consideration. For example, while the size of the islands may be growing, in some cases, this is attributable to shifting sediment. According to scientists who study these issues, this fact does not necessarily mean the added land mass is habitable or sufficient to mitigate the effects of climate change on the islands and their infrastructure and resources.

The NNC would also note that the editorial included paraphrased comments from political leaders with hyperlinks for readers to understand more about the context in which the comments were made.

The NNC agrees that the editorial does not enumerate all the ways that climate change may impact Tuvalu, including the challenges posed by land changes, flooding, or other factors such as long-term sustainability of resources. While including these facts could better capture the nuances of the science in this case, and present a fuller picture of the situation to readers, not including such information does not indicate a breach of journalistic standards.

An ordinary reading of the article offers an argument in support of recent developments to support countries dealing with climate-related disasters with the caveat that time is not on their side. Readers may disagree with this perspective, but that itself does not indicate a breach of journalistic standards.

For the reasons outlined above, Council dismissed the complaint about accuracy.