Science & the Media: developments at the BBC

Last week there was a development at the BBC regarding a change in its impartiality regarding science.  This can be found in the Trust Conclusions on the Executive Report on Science Impartiality Review Actions, which can be found on the BBC website in their downloads section (or as I found it, via the Guardian website).  So what has changed?  The BBC has had a long standing tradition (and policy) of impartiality and of giving equal airtime to opposing views.  Have they always got this right?  In my opinion not always, but they have done a considerably better job of it than some other news networks.

The Trust Report is making a slight change to this, and I my opinion a good one.  Basically it says that;

“…impartiality in science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views, but depends on the varying degree of prominence (due weight) such views should be given.”

And that;

“The Trust wishes to emphasise the importance of attempting to establish where the weight of scientific agreement may be found and make it clear to the audiences.”

Essentially what the whole report says is that although impartiality guidelines should still be followed, the weight in coverage should reflect the weight in scientific consensus.  This should apply to science in general, but there is specific reference climate change and environmental science.  This got me thinking about how science in the media is portrayed.

Most people are not scientists (I include myself in that), but what is more, most people don’t understand what science is, how it works or the conclusions it has reached.  If you don’t believe me just go on the Gallup polls website for surveys about evolution, education or climate change and you’ll see what I mean.  Most people haven’t dealt with science since their time in the school classroom, and as most don’t work in a scientific job they will not be as familiar about the material as someone who does.  This is where the media comes in.  They have the responsibility to present the information in a non-biased format.  This does not always happen for a number of reasons.  First of all although the journalist may be reporting on the science and has a good understanding of it, they may not have a scientific background and my not be familiar with all the terminology, conclusions etc.  The second is that a lot of media outlets have a political agenda.  This is true of most media, but is often exaggerated in certain news networks in the USA, and will often twist or misrepresent the material to fit that agenda.

This is why I’m glad to see the BBC’s move.  Although it could be seen as ignoring other points of view (and I hope it never comes to that), the guideline change is basically saying that in the case of overwhelming scientific support, why should you be giving equal airtime to side that has little to no evidence supporting their position?  Although reference was made to climate change, this applies to every issue in which there is a general consensus.  This then means though that the media has a considerable amount of power in bringing science to the masses, and to quote the cliché “with great power comes great responsibility”.  And this is why the BBC change matters.

One of the things that I have found interesting is who the news media has on TV talking about.  In regards to climate I have found it interesting how the climate-change deniers often bring up politicians or economists to degrade climate change science.  Let’s look at it from a different angle.  If you get sick with say a tumour do you see the surgeon or the mechanic?  The obvious answer should the surgeon.  Why?  Because that he/she has spent several years studying medicine at university, then several more years training as a specialist and a surgeon.  If your car breaks down do you take it to the surgeon or the mechanic?  Again the mechanic should be the obvious answer, because he/she has spent years working on car engines and is an expert in their functioning.  So when it comes to climate science why should people trust the politician or the economist (especially if they have a vested interest in the oil or coal industry) over the scientist who has spent the past 10 or 20 years working in the science?

And this is why I like the BBC’s change of guidelines.  They’ve done science training workshops for the editors, better and more detailed fact checking is recommended along with the above mentioned change in air time balance being related more to the weight of scientific support rather than the equal 50/50 balance that was before.  The idea being to better inform the audience on what the scientific evidence actually supports.  So go BBC News for being more science orientated, may you lead the way.

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