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media debates on science: delicately balanced

I have done my fair share of whinging about ‘false balance’ in science reporting where producers and editors feel the need to balance a scientist representing the overwhelming scientific consensus with an activist or maverick making spurious scientific claims. So it’s not surprising that Dominic Ponsford, Editor of Press Gazette, approached me to speak against this trend at a debate at City University last week. But on this occasion I declined, preferring instead to sit in the chair and on the fence.

When I first started thinking about the issue of journalistic balance and science ten years ago, much of the comment on the issue was coming out of the US with good stuff on Columbia Journalism Review and the wonderful Jay Rosen coining the phrase ‘He said/She said’ journalism. However, Professor Steve Jones’ report on science coverage for the BBC Trust, published in 2011, brought the issue centre stage in the UK when he accused the BBC of giving undue weight to minority opinions.

These days no discussion of science and the media is complete without a good old rant about ‘false balance’ and editors’ choices of guests on the big science controversies of the day has become the subject of political debate, official complaints and even a protest outside Broadcasting House.

The Jones report gave voice to those in science who believe that that too often accuracy is being sacrificed at the altar of journalist principles of impartiality and balance. Jones had plenty of powerful examples, not least the MMR scare where the media’s obsession with balance misled the public into believing that medical science was split down the middle on the vaccine’s safety. The example I provided for the report was one where the brilliant Professor Jonathan Jones from the John Innes Centre got about two minutes on the Today programme from a chilly field to explain his rare new field trial of GM blight resistant potatoes while an activist from Friends of the Earth got twice as long in the warm studio to rubbish it.  One of the many angry emails in my inbox that day listed no fewer than ten inaccurate scientific claims by the activist, none of which were challenged by the presenter.

Print is also afflicted. I was recently copied into an email exchange between several journalists discovering to their horror that their ‘go to’ opponent of mitochondrial DNA transfer was missing in action on the day of a significant development. The thought of filing their stories without the ‘other side’ sent the reporters into a panic until eventually he was tracked down and reliably provided the perfect soundbite which slammed the news.

There are plenty of reasons to be infuriated by false balance and the loudest groans in the SMC office are reserved for the dreaded calls from producers looking for ‘pro- and anti-’ scientists on GM, nuclear and climate change.

So why not take sides against this kind of journalism? Let me explain why not:

The small matter of public opinion
It is true that our top scientists believe that GM is safe, the climate is warming and homeopathy is voodoo but, as the latest BIS poll shows, not all the public is convinced. Repeating the fact that scientists are generally agreed on the safety of GM or the basics of climate change is an important point for scientists to make and for journalists to highlight. But the scientific consensus should not be used to close down debate or refuse to engage with opponents.  Do the views of anti-vaccine campaigners or climate sceptics reflect public opinion? We might not think so but that is a separate question from that of scientific accuracy, and if news editors believe those views have a degree of public support they are entitled to decide whether they should be aired. I think scientists would do better to use these encounters to good effect than refuse to engage. Creating a row where none exists is wrong. Reflecting real divisions in public opinion in a TV studio feels legitimate.

Let’s all have a heated debate
I’m not sure if it’s my Irish Catholic upbringing, where the dinner table was the place for a good row about politics, but I am partial to a heated debate. Nor throughout my long press office career have I ever had more faith in those I work with to impress and prevail in media debates than the faith I have in scientists. Watching stem cell researchers battle the Government and Catholic Church for a year to overturn a ban on research on human animal embryos was a sight to behold. When politicians and the media decided to turn the recent floods into a silly row about dredging and a blame game with the Environment Agency I took the most enormous pleasure in putting up engineers with forty years expertise to destroy the simplistic narrative by sheer force of knowledge. Not for nothing does the latest BIS poll show, yet again, that the public trusts scientists every time over politicians and the media, with a staggering 90% stating that they trust university academics to tell the truth. Maybe it’s time to repay the compliment and trust the public to value evidence over opinion in these set piece battles.

Unfortunately, scientists’ anger at false balance seems to be rising in inverse proportion to the scale of the problem. At the very time when journalists are becoming more reflective and dealing with it more intelligently the scientific community appear to be getting angrier. The BBC in particular had been debating the issue at a senior level for some years before the Jones report and the number of requests for a pro- and anti- are in decline in the SMC office (even if more slowly than we would like). I also find the timing of this frustration from the scientific community a little jarring, because scientists have never been more visible in the media than they are today. Indeed some out there are concerned that that scientists are dominating media debates on science stories to the exclusion of other voices. The irony here is that the anger generated by a small number of interviews is almost certainly misleading people about the good quality of science reporting in the UK and the much improved relationship between science and the media.

Be careful what you wish for
I say this with some trepidation… but I think there is a very strong chance that the reason the public cares about climate change, GM and nuclear power is because there is a row. Other scientific issues might enjoy more measured coverage, but that coverage is often on the inside pages of the posh papers and the science strand of Radio 4 rather than the front pages of our red tops and the 8.10 interview on Today. In our ideal media science would not have to be contested to be big news; in the real one it might be the price we pay to have science in the headlines.

Also, these waters are muddy
Much of the ire of the scientific community is reserved for spokespeople who dress up their political opposition in bogus scientific claims. This happens too much and is infuriating. Producers should be better at framing these debates differently and presenters should be better at challenging guests who misuse the science.  But the line between politics and science is a messy one. I have occasionally sat in despair at SMC briefings when scientists claim that their research findings ‘demand’ a particular course of political action or a change in public health policy. Research findings never ‘demand’ anything. Yes there is a wealth of scientific evidence on the relative harms of illegal drugs, but my good friend Professor David Nutt would be the first to admit that he does not stick purely to the research. In his view (and I agree with him) politicians should adopt an evidence-based drugs policy and he uses his media appearances to press that point. He is a scientist but he is being political, and proudly so. Yes, the IPCC is a collection of thousands of peer-reviewed studies that most of us could not even read but the report itself is written by climate scientists for governments. In other words, some science is about politics and some politics is about science. The BBC gets this wrong sometimes, without a doubt. But you would surely concede that it’s not easy to draw a neat dividing line.

Maintain the (constructive) rage
Don’t get me wrong: of course scientists are entitled to get angry. Those that do are interested in accuracy and truth telling and the responsibilities of a media in this regard.  And you don’t get to work at the SMC unless you are a pent up ball of anger at the way the media covers science and want to wake up every day determined to improve it. But I do think there is a difference between being angry and prescribing which voices qualify to debate science, and I fear some dangerous lines are being crossed. In the Press Gazette debate Ceri Thomas called on the scientific community to be less ‘exceptionalist’ and made the point that if the BBC is sloppy in balancing expertise with opinion then they are at least “equal opportunity sloppy” because “facts and evidence compete with opinion and prejudice to different degrees in every area  of life.” I agree. Ask our friends at the Education Media Centre and the emerging Religion Media Centre if they get angry about the choice of guests.

The SMC’s founding philosophy was ‘the media will ‘do’ science better when scientists ‘do’ the media better’ and I am still of the view that engaging, rather than complaining, is the best approach to change what the public see and hear. The good news is that the scientific community has never had more opportunities to discuss these issues on their own terms. Most institutes now have impressive news sites where researchers can tell the stories of their science and new journalistic ventures like Mosaic and The Conversation are emerging with radically different news values to the mainstream. However, science still needs the news media that reaches the masses and when we go there we need to accept that things will get messy or, as Ceri Thomas put it, “science has to take its chance out there in the rough and tumble of the media”. I would say that is exactly what the SMC and the scientific community has been doing now for over ten years to pretty good effect.

And lest we forget, the now notorious Nigel Lawson and Bob Carter interviews were also the Brian Hoskins and Peter Stott interviews. Maybe I’m biased but I think they used those encounters brilliantly to convey accurate science to millions of listeners, calmly correct their opponents, and to say that scientists are generally agreed on these issues. They have not complained to the Beeb and have not asked others to complain on their behalf. I like the cut of their jib.


This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

3 Responses to media debates on science: delicately balanced

  1. Andy Williams says:
    I agree with almost everything you say, there, and I think it's a good reflective piece. The main point where I might have taken a slightly different emphasis is the "waters are muddy" section… I agree with what you write, but I'd have taken it a bit further. I think …

    I agree with almost everything you say, there, and I think it’s a good reflective piece. The main point where I might have taken a slightly different emphasis is the “waters are muddy” section… I agree with what you write, but I’d have taken it a bit further. I think the line between science and politics is even more blurred, and that it’s not just a necessary evil for the media to quote campaigners.

    I think it’s generally a good thing, and it’s their duty to do so. I don’t applaud anyone mis-communicating science, of course, or activists cherry-picking evidence, or any of that. But I think it’s essential for society and for the integrity of science itself to have scientific discourses rooted in evidence brought into contact (and inevitably) conflict with other kinds of arguments rooted in politics, ethics, and people’s everyday (lay) experience.

    As you so rightly say, the boundaries between science and politics are blurred. Science often doesn’t reflect very well upon the broader ethical and political structures within which it’s situated, and within which the applications based on the knowledge it produces play out. I think it’s partly the role of the public (often acting as campaigners) to play an informal role in scientific governance by forcing science to reflect on its own foundations and its own future applications (this links up with what you suggest about public opinion, I think). And it’s partly the role of the news media to bring these voices into dialogue.

    I don’t think we’d disagree much if we debated this, to be honest – it’s just a question of emphasis. My point is also linked with what you say about scientific consensus not being used to close down on debate. The evidence for or against something shouldn’t be used to close down debates which should move beyond the science to issues of wider concern. A good example would be commercial applications of GM… this would be an issue where science doesn’t reflect very well upon it’s relations with commerce and industry. Neither do many of our our politicians. That means it’s down to publics/activists to raise issues of GM governance and IP, etc, in public debate, and down to the news media to essentially amplify these voices.

    Dr Andy Williams, Cardiff University

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  2. Gina Hagg says:
    Science Media Centre is busted.. It certainly achieved its mission to spread distrust and confusion about the results of the Séralini paper about GMO feeding study on rats, published in Reed Elsevier's peer-reviewed journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology.. Talk about honesty? You make me laugh.. You guys are industry sell …

    Science Media Centre is busted.. It certainly achieved its mission to spread distrust and confusion about the results of the Séralini paper about GMO feeding study on rats, published in Reed Elsevier’s peer-reviewed journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology.. Talk about honesty? You make me laugh.. You guys are industry sell outs!

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    • Robin Bisson says:
      Hi Gina. I'm not sure your comment is related to the topic of this blogpost? It is worth noting, however, that the SMC (where I am on the staff) sent out reaction comments from the emeritus editor of Food and Chemical Toxicology Prof Alan Boobis(ex-editor in chief) and that the …

      Hi Gina. I’m not sure your comment is related to the topic of this blogpost? It is worth noting, however, that the SMC (where I am on the staff) sent out reaction comments from the emeritus editor of Food and Chemical Toxicology Prof Alan Boobis(ex-editor in chief) and that the comments we sent from scientists were a small part of widespread criticism by the scientific community of both the study and the way in which it was publicised. See for instance:

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