BBC Criticized for “Fake Balance” in Science Reporting

Filed in Science and Health by on July 25, 2011

The British Broadcasting Corporation recently commissioned a report surveying the coverage of science topics across all of their departments and networks. Led by Steve Jones, Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London, with content analysis support provided by a team from the Imperial College London.

This report generally gave the BBC very high praise for its science reporting noting that there was a great deal of depth and accuracy to their reporting across a very wide range of science topics and news.

The report also says we should make sure that we achieve the right balance between well-established scientific fact and opinion. Otherwise, Professor Jones argues, there is a danger of the BBC giving undue prominence to critics on the fringes of what is actually a settled scientific debate.

According to Clive Crook at the FT:

Prof Jones found that some news and current affairs programmes had been guilty of “false impartiality, of presenting the views of tiny and unqualified minorities as if they have the same weight as the scientific consensus”. This applied particularly to controversies about vaccines, genetically modified crops and climate change.

In other words, the effort by the BBC to provide “balance” to scientific stories ended up giving equal weight to both the scientific consensus and to the fringes of dispute gives the impression of more controversy over certain scientific topics than actually exists. The report notes that the limited pool of scientific sources for stories, a lack of cooperation for stories across BBC units as well as a lack of training in science by journalists contributes to this over-privileging of fringe views. You can see the report for the ways that the BBC can fix these problems.

This report gets to the heart of the vulnerability of science reporting right now — that it is too easy to change what should be a discussion of science into a political discussion. And as long as the media presents people with little to no background in a topic as the contrary voices to scientific discussion, they’ve just helped to make that topic a political one. Because the individual injected in to this discussion isn’t interested in science, that person is interested in influencing pubic opinion. And no one does science on the basis of public opinion — that would be the business of politics.

Unfortunately for us, this is the British trying to understand how they can communicate the world of science better. This kind of introspection is probably not possible here — certainly not at a level where journalists will make changes to their approach. But it does mean that we have the prospect of seeing a better quality of science reporting from British sources at least.

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"You don't make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas." -Shirley Chisholm

Comments (3)

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  1. Liberal Elite says:

    Science reporting in the US is just terrible, and the media doesn’t seem to care.

    Evolution, Global warming, Pollution, Age of the world, Ethanol for fuel, Nuclear power, Generic engineering, Cloning,…

    There’s really a lot of good science out there. Too bad the fringe gets such a large voice that a majority of American are duped on a regular basis.

    And when the fringe is not really a fringe, but actually moneyed interests (e.g. Global warming, Pollution, Ethanol for fuel,…), we are simply victims of rank propaganda. Should the oil companies really be spreading lies about global warming??? But that’s what they do on a regular basis.

  2. Dana Garrett says:

    I’m surprised about the dearth of coverage concerning discoveries in the brain sciences, especially since they have potential wide implications for our individual lives and social policy.

  3. cassandra_m says:

    To be fair, one of the things that has been first to go as news media has been cannibalized for profits by the investment banking set has been science reporting. I think that there are good science reporters and science reporting out there — the NYT still does a decent job, but I think that increasingly you won’t find good general interest science reporting unless you go to some of the specialist sites. But science reporting isn’t especially conducive to the press release driven style of alot of news outlets and really does need people who have enough background to be able to grasp what is going on. The people who have this background seem to be working in very long form these days.

    Observant cartoon on the state of science reporting.