This is a blogpost by Tom Sheldon, Senior Press Officer at the SMC.
The IPCC has published the first part of AR5, its long-awaited report on the climate. Media coverage was pretty straight with the dominant conclusions of the report broadly reflected in the headlines and loads of the best climate scientists in the mix. So why have some scientists weighed in to attack the BBC for its coverage? Does the corporation really deserve a kicking or should scientists be celebrating?
The specific target of the attack was World at One which featured an interview with Bob Carter, an Australian climate sceptic. Presenter Shaun Ley was woefully briefed and failed to challenge Carter on some basic myths. The format too was lazy: Peter Stott, a climate scientist who has a long and distinguished publication record in climate science, got four minutes; Bob Carter, who hasn’t, got the same. It was a tedious set-up which harked back to the bad old days though fortunately Peter gave a passionate and compelling interview. Nonetheless, the lay listener was given no other clue as to which of these was the more authoritative voice.*
This interview has gone on to be described by John Ashton as “a serious lapse if not a betrayal of the editorial professionalism on which the BBC’s reputation has been built over generations”; some took to Twitter to further denounce the BBC for ‘letting sceptics back on the airwaves’.
So a single example has been held up as evidence that the BBC is still wedded to the false balance Professor Steve Jones savagely chastised them for in his 2011 review. It’s true that the traditional editorial habit of balancing a yea with a nay does not work for science, and slamming the BBC for this has become something of a blood sport amongst scientists in recent years – the SMC playing its own part in that.
But too many leading scientists continue to condemn the media from an out of date evidence base that would be shameful in their field of research, ignoring the fact that much has changed for the better – not least thanks to hard petitioning by BBC science journalists like Richard Black, Roger Harrabin and David Shukman. Scientists have gone from being a weak voice to a major player in a vast range of stories and it feels like a step too far to condemn the BBC when the Jones recommendations have been absorbed so broadly across the corporation.
I also know from talking to BBC producers and journalists that they agonised over walking the right line on AR5. On the day of publication the Today programme trailed the report in several slots without a sceptic to be found. A Costing the Earth special on climate change featured a panel debate where the closest thing to a sceptic was Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist. Climate scientists outnumbered sceptics ten to one on the airwaves, with headlines and content overwhelmingly reflecting the findings of the IPCC.
The climate science community was busy around AR5. At the SMC alone we arranged dozens of broadcast interviews, issued over thirty quotes from climate scientists across every discipline, and gathered journalists and scientists to watch the IPCC press conference live and engage in a Q&A immediately afterwards. So you might expect us to join the calls for dissenters to be sidelined.
But the SMC has never been about stifling other voices; science does not own the issue of climate change. We should remember that AR5 is a report for governments on a defining subject of our time. Surely therefore a key responsibility of the media that day was to bring the science into the broader context of politics and society. That needs to be done intelligently and delicately – but also independently. For science to demand dominance on this (or any) subject feels wrong and will only fuel those who talk of scientism – the tendency of some in science to act like it is the only way to interpret the world.
Of course scientists, like anyone, are entitled to shout when the media get it wrong. If you don’t say yes to the question ‘do you shout at the radio when science is being misrepresented?’ you don’t get a job at the SMC. And if you bugged our office you would hear staff trying to persuade lazy producers to break the habit of pro vs. anti on a daily basis. But there is a big difference between shouting at the radio and trying to persuade journalists of our case than publicly slamming the media and demanding apologies and explanations. Ashton says that by giving Bob Carter a platform the BBC “will be undermining its friends when it needs them most”. The interview might have annoyed a lot of climate scientists, but I don’t believe the BBC should view scientists as its friends. The free press should never be the mouthpiece of science.
The SMC refuses to scour the country looking for outliers on climate change or GM crops to feed the media’s thirst for mavericks. We are here to reflect the weight of scientific evidence on these issues from the mainstream. But that does not mean that we want a media which simply suppresses the views of dissenters in science. Yes, editorial decisions must be taken intelligently. Is the interview about climate physics, or the extent of ocean acidification, or even about the strength of the evidence? Putting up a scientist against a non-scientist in that case really would be false balance – and we try to persuade producers of this on a daily basis. But a wider discussion about the response of government or of individuals – or even about the IPCC itself – must be open to a variety of voices.
And we should remember (with a wry smile) that climate science owes its high media profile to those competing voices. Without a row in society I fear our main complaint to the BBC would be about the lack of any coverage at all. As things stand climate scientists already have the ears of the public; they now need use that voice to good effect, not silence the competition. And having listened for years to our best climate scientists versus the Bob Carters of this world I am more convinced than ever that climate science has nothing to fear from these encounters. Far from making me angry they often have me cheering on the scientists whose integrity and expertise is almost always a match for those they encounter. Do we really need to demand apologies and explanations from the media for featuring guests we disagree with – just as scientists are getting ever better at demonstrating their superior expertise?
The media must play their role shrewdly. Some sceptics do have a tendency to go much further than their expertise allows but the smart editorial response to this is not to sideline the outliers and avoid the argument. Much better that producers and presenters are wise to the myths and specious claims in advance and, when embarking on an interview, are equipped with the knowledge they need to challenge unscientific assertions or spot cherry-picked data. That’s the media I want to see – a thoughtful, informed and challenging media which find their way to the truth by a combination of the right guests and well-informed presenters. We all learn more that way.
Scientists enjoy more channels than ever before to communicate their work directly to their target audiences, bypassing the media mechanisms and news values which often simplify or distort in ways we find frustrating. But with national news media the rules are different; these are the conditions of a press which is independent, critical and fiercely protective of its right to reflect other viewpoints.
News coverage in the media has always had a tense relationship with science but we should acknowledge progress where it’s made. BBC science coverage in particular is better and more prominent than ever. That episode of World at One was not the BBC’s finest (three quarters of an) hour. But nor was it representative of the BBC’s coverage overall. I believe the BBC’s clear, fair, science-heavy reporting of AR5 should be a cause for celebration by climate scientists. By wading in to criticise we unfairly condemn an organisation which got so much right that day.
*An amendment was made from the initial post ‘…bad old days and the lay listener learned nothing’ to ‘…bad old days, though fortunately Peter gave a passionate and compelling interview. Nonetheless, the lay listener was given no other clue as to which of these was the more authoritative voice.’
This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.