Does Nat Geo need a public editor to ensure integrity on climate change coverage?

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National Geographic has been a leading source of accurate scientific information about climate change, but some activists are concerned that could change under a new partnership agreement with Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox.

Activists group launch online petition based on concerns about Rupert Murdoch’s climate science denial

By Bob Berwyn

Concerned that National Geographic’s coverage of climate change could be politically tainted under the majority ownership of 21st Century Fox, activist groups have called on the magazine to appoint a public editor.

The ownership change was announced early September by National Geographic in a press release, which characterized the deal as an agreement to expand an 18-year partnership that will increase the National Geographic Society’s endowment to nearly $1 billion. Under the agreement, the new entity will be owned 73 percent by 21st Century Fox and 27 percent by The National Geographic Society.

National Geographic Society chief communications officer Betty Hudson said the concerns may be unfounded, and that National Geographic and its readers have enjoyed the benefits of the partnership with 21st Century Fox for nearly two decades.

“We think our 127 year track record speaks for itself, and find it kind of ironic that our all-climate change issue is being published the week they put forward this petition,” Hudson said via email. “We’re very comfortable with the robust governance guidelines the (joint venture) has in place, and would repeat our shared belief that the essence of the value of the enterprise is ultimately connected to our brand integrity,” she said.

Hudson said National Geographic has enjoyed “editorial autonomy and mutual institutional respect” during the relationship with 21st Century Fox, and expects that to continue. The terms of the recent transaction include “an expanded and specific governance framework designed to ensure that the content, publications and activities of National Geographic Partners remain supportive of the mission of the National Geographic Society and consistent with the National Geographic brand.”

The concerns about coverage arise because conservative 21st Century Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch is a known climate science denier. His critics claim he also has a history of skewing the editorial position of the company’s publications, including the Wall Street Journal, which was recently singled out in a study as having particularly weak climate change reporting.

As a result, a coalition of groups led by ClimateTruth.org and supported by SumOfUs, Common Cause, and Free Press is circulating an online petition calling for a public editor, which are used by other media outlets like PBS and the New York Times to act as an independent check on editorial integrity within the organization, and to investigate and report on complaints raised by members of the public.

“James Murdoch says he has no interest in altering the editorial direction at National Geographic, but just three months into his leadership at 21st Century Fox, his ability to keep that promise is far from certain,” said ClimateTruth.org Campaign Director Brant Olson. “Appointing a Public Editor at National Geographic will ensure that National Geographic’s 127 year track-record on science won’t be undermined by new owners and new incentives as a for-profit enterprise.”

National Geographic’s 6.8 million readers need assurance that Rupert Murdoch won’t apply a right-wing litmus test to coverage of one of the most important issues of our time,” said Free Press Senior Director of Strategy Timothy Karr. “Appointing a public editor is the best way to check against such political meddling while engaging readers in a conversation about the publication’s standards and practices.”

In a statement prepared in response to the petition effort, National Geographic Society said it has the right to review and approve the partnership’s annual content plan ,as well as the annual marketing plan, and has the right to remove the Chief Executive Officer and/or the Chief Marketing Officer should brand integrity be compromised.

The partners agree that the very value of the enterprise resides in that brand integrity, and anything that undermines or dilutes that integrity damages the institution, as well as the investment.

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