BBC Trust to Review Science Coverage

Outlet's “accuracy and impartiality” to be scrutinized following criticism

The BBC Trust—the governing body of the BBC—announced last week that it will review the accuracy and impartiality of the outlet’s coverage of science.

“Science is an area of great importance to licence fee payers, which provokes strong reaction and covers some of the most sensitive editorial issues the BBC faces,” Richard Tait, chair of the Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee, said in a press release. “Heated debate in recent years around topics like climate change, GM crops and the MMR vaccine reflects this, and BBC reporting has to steer a course through these controversial issues while remaining impartial.

“The BBC has a well-earned reputation for the quality of its science reporting, but it is also important that we look at it afresh to ensure that it is adhering to the very high standards that licence fee payers expect.”

The BBC has long been regarded as a leading international outlet for science news, features, and documentaries on television, radio, and in recent years online. But it has also drawn its fair share of criticism over the last few years. The Daily Mail, a U.K. tabloid, ran a useful sidebar outlining critics’ complaints about the BBC’s coverage of various issues (sometimes referring to specific work it has produced), as well as the BBC’s responses. The article in which the sidebar appeared reeked of partisan sniping, however, and hurled unsupported assertions such as, “The BBC Trust acted after a string of complaints that the corporation is acting as a cheerleader for the theory that climate change is a man-made phenomenon.”

In 2007, the BBC cancelled a plan for a “Comic Relief-style day” of television programs about environmental issues after two of its senior news and current affairs executives questioned the special’s impartiality. And while it is true that, more recently, global-warming skeptics accused the BBC of downplaying the “ClimateGate” affair, which raised concerns about the integrity of prominent British and American climate scientists, environmentalists had attacked the corporation just two months earlier because of an online article suggesting that global warming stopped ten years ago. Not incidentally, the same BBC reporter, Paul Hudson (a climate correspondent and weather presenter based in one the BBC’s regional offices), was involved in both incidents. Overall, the corporation’s climate-change coverage has been relatively strong and objective.

Moreover, if one looks at other areas of the BBC’s scientific reportage – from GM foods to vaccines coverage – it is easy to see that it often inspired criticism from both sides of the aisle (for instance, that it both overplayed and underplayed the risks). According to the BBC Trust, “for the purposes of the review, ‘science’ will be defined to include not just the natural sciences but also those aspects of technology, medicine and the environment that entail scientific statements, research findings or other claims made by scientists.” The BBC has indicated that it will raise the profile of science coverage across all its media platforms this year (although it was planning to cut two science and environment positions as recently as July) and the review will place particular emphasis on matters “relating to current public policy and matters of political controversy.”

In July, a heated discussion about the quality of science journalism in the U.K. emerged at the sixth World Conference of Science Journalists in London. The debate rolled over into the fall when, in September, Lord Paul Drayson, the government’s science minister, publically debated the quality of British science reporting with Ben Goldacre, an M.D. who writes a popular media criticism column for the Guardian called “Bad Science.”

Drayson argued that the quality is already good, but his office had nonetheless commissioned an “action plan” in May designed to identify areas were coverage could be improved. That task fell to a team led by Fiona Fox, who runs the U.K. Science Media Centre, a clearinghouse of sorts for science information and contacts. The plan, titled “Science and Media: Securing the Future,” was released Wednesday [full disclosure: I am credited in the acknowledgments section].

“I have to be honest and say that [our] group finds science in the BBC to be in rude health and there was a real commitment and passion amongst the science correspondents and science commissioning editors to bring science into the mainstream,” Fox wrote in an e-mail. “The only thing they all said was that non science editors and generalists often sideline science as ‘too complicated’ and I think this review will help focus the minds of senior editors and commissioners about the importance of science.”

This is the third impartiality review the BBC Trust has carried out. Previous topics covered were BBC coverage of business in 2007 and its devolved nations (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland) in 2008.

“[Our group] is really excited because other impartiality reviews have resulted in really quite big changes in BBC policy,” Fox wrote, “so we’re hoping that this one could result in a push for the kinds of things we’re calling for – like the training of all non science BBC journalists in the basics of science.”

Goldacre, who called the BBC’s science coverage “dumbed down … to attract a science-naïve audience” in an e-mail to CJR, also saw potential for the review, but had some concerns about possible consequences.

“I dare say it might be useful, but I’m concerned about the way it has been framed,” he wrote. “‘Impartial’ is a word you use to describe political disputes. We don’t want media coverage of science to be obsessed with representing all political constituencies and extreme interest groups, confusing ‘balance’ with ‘accuracy.’”

Goldacre’s opinions seemed to reflect those within the BBC itself.

“Reaction among staff in my office was ‘oh crap,’” said a BBC staffer who asked not to be identified by name:

Firstly we’re over-burdened with bureaucracy anyway and spend too little of our time doing what we’re actually employed to do – this is just one more thing we could do without. Secondly, the Trust will have to find something negative to say; and if those negatives concern climate change, they will be seized on and exploited to the max by skeptics groups. We’re already struggling against critical comments in several newspapers – some of our senior editors do not have the cojones to stand up to it, basically – and there’s a chance we’ll have to bend to the skeptics even further.

If the review is done constructively it could help science coverage. To start with, there is precious little real science on the airwaves – there’s much more health and environment. Many editors just don’t get how fascinating audiences find science, and they don’t generally don’t want real science on their programmes – they’d prefer something more touchy-feely that they think more of their audience will understand. It would be lovely if they mean what they say about raising the profile of science. Also, there have been some appalling episodes (this was the last) – and if something is changed so that kind of thing doesn’t happen any more, that would be a very good thing. On the other hand, if they come down hard on our independence regarding climate change, we’re screwed.

Other BBC staffers (who also declined to be named) felt the same way, stressing that while there is something to be gained from the review, the Trust must distinguish between scientific theories supported by evidence and the “theories” of those commenting on scientific issues, especially online. For example, one said, it is legitimate to quote a pro-life advocate saying they disapprove of stem cell research for moral reasons—but a reporter should not have a creationist questioning a peer-reviewed paper on evolution.

The BBC has moved away from this flawed notion of balance and towards evidence-based reporting, according those familiar with its operations. In 2007, the BBC published a report on its rethinking of impartiality. But groups such as Biased BBC have routinely accused the BBC of bias in just about every area of its reporting.

The BBC Trust said it expects to launch this review in the spring, and further details about the process will be confirmed at that time. The review findings will be published in 2011.

CJR contributing editor Cristine Russell contributed reporting to this article.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.