Science journalism under scrutiny

Let the Broadcaster Beware: Science, the BBC, and the Burden of Balance

Science Media Under Scrutiny

In July, the BBC Trust released a major review into the impartiality and accuracy of BBC science coverage on TV, radio and online, based on extensive analysis by members of Imperial’s Science Communication Group.

Recent controversies like GM foods, global warming and the MMR vaccine scandal have led to accusations of ‘false balance’ by the BBC: that the corporation favours an adversarial tone in interviews, preferring heated debate over rational, balanced argument.  This approach can, it’s claimed, allow extreme, minority or non-scientific opinion equal airtime to well-supported scientific findings, undermining the weight of evidence-based argument.

The charge against BBC science is serious for two reasons.  Firstly, the corporation dominates media communication of science in the UK, comprising over a third of all science media specialists.  Secondly, balance isn’t just desirable for the BBC – it’s an obligation: it is bound by charter to ensure impartiality in its coverage.  This review, chaired by Steve Jones, Emeritus Professor of Genetics at UCL, was therefore an appropriate response to the need for public scrutiny of BBC output.

So – was the corporation guilty of bad journalism and a lack of balance?

Well, yes and no.  The review begins by acknowledging that the BBC does science very well.  The corporation is praised for the accuracy and breadth of its science coverage, with Professor Jones stating: “the precision and clarity of most material is exemplary.”  The Imperial analysis reveals “no significant factual inaccuracies” in the BBC’s coverage.

That said, there is evidence of a lack of balance in the BBC approach to science journalism.  “This can produce an adversarial attitude to science which allows minority, or even contrarian, views an undue place,” said Professor Jones.

Clearly, such journalism can cause real democratic harm.  It’s right that it’s exposed and eradicated.  However, a more detailed reading of the findings suggests that media balance may be trickier than the headlines suggest.

Firstly, the study noted that the BBC has an over-deferential attitude towards scientists, rather than any lack of respect.   Journalists too often take scientists wholly at their word, and fail to adequately scrutinise claims by other experts in the field.  Professor Jones argues that science should in fact be challenged more vigorously, not less – but that those challenging should be experts armed with evidence, and not simply someone holding strong opinions or unsupported beliefs.

Secondly, the BBC were criticised for an over-reliance on press releases for their stories.  According to the review, “three quarters of broadcast news items about scientific research related to stories where the institution that was the source of the story had provided a press release.”  The problem with basing a story solely on a press release is that the press office sending it wants to maximise attention, kudos or funding potential.  A journalist who simply regurgitates a press release (a practice known as ‘churnalism’) risks being spoon-fed hype by the institution that undertook the scientific work. Hardly a recipe for balance.

Lastly, the BBC was accused of failing to communicate how science really works.  Science doesn’t deal in ‘facts’, because nothing in science can ever be completely certain.  The best it can do is to establish a consensus around a well-tested probability of truth.  Some scientific principles are easier than others to unite around.  The Earth moving around the Sun is pretty well established.  Yet many other scientific theories are disputed – even with evidence to support them.  If powerful media organisations like the BBC convey the idea that science produces indisputable facts, then the danger is that these may later be disproven – leading to a loss of public credibility for the whole scientific project.  “If there’s a perception that science is about discovering absolute facts, then when scientists can’t give a definitive answer or solution, people can think it’s because the scientists have made mistakes or have failed,” says Dr Felicity Mellor, head of the Imperial team.

On the surface, the three indictments above seem like a straightforward observation of journalistic failings.  But is science itself completely innocent in the development of these bad practices?

For example, given the choice between a deferential journalist hanging on their every word, or a rival scientist debunking their cherished theories in front of TV cameras, how many scientists would actively choose the latter – even though this is standard practice behind closed doors?

On the subject of scientific uncertainty, I believe that science itself can send very mixed messages.  Scientists frequently (mis)use the words ‘fact’ and ‘truth’ to describe scientific output, yet fall back on the defence of uncertainty when things go wrong.  I believe this adds to public confusion.  Professor Jones reminds us that “uncertainty is part of the system” of science – yet he also describes science as presenting “objective, tested and accepted truth”, and of possessing “a body of scrutinised fact”.  So what are the public to understand?  That science is fact… except when it isn’t?

Taken together, these effects can give the impression of a kind of caveat emptor in science communication; a feeling that the responsibility for balancing out flaws in science’s self-promotion, methods or transparency lies solely with those communicating its output, rather than those creating it.  Science reserves the right to be opaque, exaggerated or just plain wrong – but woe betide the BBC if it doesn’t decipher the riddle for public consumption with sufficient balance.

Steve McGann is studying for a Masters in Science Communication at Imperial College.

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