“I recommend that the BBC takes a less rigid view of ‘due impartiality’ as it applies to science (in practice and not just in its guidelines) and takes into account the non‐contentious nature of some material and the need to avoid giving undue attention to marginal opinion.” This is one of the recommendations of a review commissioned last year by the BBC Trust from Professor Steve Jones, emeritus professor of genetics at University College London. He was asked to assess the impartiality and accuracy of BBC science coverage across television, radio and the internet. His review and the Trust report which responds to it have now been published, along with the news that the BBC has accepted his recommendations.
Professor Jones was impressed by the professionalism of the BBC’s science coverage and the progress it has shown over the past decade. His suggestions in conclusion were intended to ensure continuing improvement. I’ve highlighted the one which bears most closely on climate change denial, though he related the concern to other issues as well, such as the MMR vaccine and GM food. His discussion of due impartiality, on pages 53-77 of the report, is thoughtful and thorough. I’ll extract a few of its main points.
He reports “widespread concern within the scientific community that in News and Current Affairs undue attention is given, when certain subjects are discussed, to oppositional views of received results.”
“To identify impartiality is a particular difficulty when it comes to science, for that field, unlike any other, claims to present objective, tested, and accepted truth. Most of the time, it does; and without a widespread acceptance of that agenda science could not progress. Often, there is little reason to dispute its assertions: the world is not flat, life is not six thousand years old, carbon dioxide levels are rising through human activity and smoking does cause lung cancer. Millions choose to disagree with each of those statements but within the world of science there is almost no difference of opinion about any of them, nor for most of the corpus of physics, chemistry, biology and the rest. In most areas of endeavour, the famous ‘wagon wheel’ involves the presentation of divergent opinions; but science deals, most of the time, with opposed evidence. To confuse the two can destroy the whole basis of impartiality.”
He remarks on a frequent conflation of balance and impartiality in science reporting. Journalists uncertain of the facts presented by each side in strongly opposed views may apply balance while describing it as impartiality. But balance is not impartiality if one proponent is presenting dubious evidence.
Broadcasters may not all be aware that impartiality checks are built into the scientific enterprise.
“The objectivity of researchers is judged as they undergo a series of painful processes from the successful grant application, to endless discussion within a group as to the validity of a result, to a journal’s peer review before a piece of work becomes public and then, quite often, to the presentation of contrary views in the scientific literature.”
By contrast, many of those put up in opposition to a scientist on the broadcast media have had no scrutiny at all of the claims they put forward. He suggests that this differential examination of the ideas of each party might be taken into account by broadcasters considering the need for due impartiality.
Scientists are generally not liars.
“Financially driven or otherwise, bias, fraud and self‐delusion are uncommon in science. To listen to some of the BBC’s coverage would be to doubt that statement. Although much of it is excellent, again and again news and current affairs return to the sub‐text that the correct way to treat a scientist on air is as if he or she were a politician: someone whose devotion to the truth is determined by a pre‐existing agenda.
“…science is not intrinsically, as elements of the media sometimes imply, a shady pastime awaiting exposure by the bright beam of reportorial truth.”
On the specific matter of global warming Jones describes denialism as the use of rhetoric to give the appearance of debate.
“This is not the same as scepticism, for a sceptic is willing to change his or her mind when provided with evidence. A denialist is not.”
He notes approvingly the BBC Executive’s Impartiality Report of 2008 which said:
“Given the weight of opinion building up around the IPCC it makes sense for us to focus our coverage on the consensus that climate change is happening, is serious, but is manageable if tackled urgently…”
However it is not clear to him that these words are reflected in the practice of some programmes, which have continued to suggest that a real scientific disagreement was present long after a consensus had been reached.
“For at least three years, the climate change deniers have been marginal to the scientific debate but somehow they continued to find a place on the airwaves. Their ability so to do suggests that an over‐diligent search for due impartiality – or for a controversy – continue to hinder the objective reporting of a scientific story even when the internal statements of the BBC suggest that no controversy exists. There is a contrast between the clear demands for due impartiality in the BBC’s written guidelines and what sometimes emerges on air.”
However Jones remains generally appreciative of the BBC’s treatment of science, and his criticisms are gently offered. The BBC in its response to Professor Jones’ recommendation on due impartiality has accepted, with caveats, that providing an opposite view without consideration of ‘due weight’ can lead to ‘false balance’, meaning that viewers might perceive an issue to be more controversial than it actually is. Specifically, it has announced what looks like a sensible outcome:
The BBC Executive will establish a new training programme for journalists on impartiality as it applies to science and will run seminars with science journalists to debate current issues and coverage in the media.
On a much humbler level than the BBC I can’t leave the subject without pointing to a recent example in New Zealand’s newsprint media of where the provision of so-called balance can lead an otherwise sensible and serious coverage of a climate change issue. Under the heading Climate change evidence ‘undeniable’ Kiran Chug reported the comments of prominent climatologist Dr Kevin Trenberth, Professor Lionel Carter of Victoria University’s Antarctic Research Centre and Professor Martin Manning, of Victoria’s Climate Change Research Institute. They all pointed in the same direction – that extreme weather events, warming oceans and Antarctic ice melt are signs that global warming is under way and its consequences are global and serious. Then suddenly, in a final brief paragraph, the reader was informed that ACT candidate and agriculture spokesman Don Nicolson sees it all as a matter of natural variations in climate: “No-one can give me conclusive proof that mankind is actually having an effect on the weather.”
What happened? It’s an obvious add-on. Did the writer think, “Gee, I’d better get an opposing opinion in before I finish”? Or did someone up the editorial chain say to her, “You need a balance. Give Don Nicholson a ring”? Either way it’s patently ridiculous and a good local example of exactly the false balance that Professor Jones points to in his BBC report.