When invited to comment on the BBC’s coverage of science Sir David Attenborough responded that it stands, ‘head, shoulders, thorax and abdomen’ over that of any other broadcaster. Having been commissioned by the BBC Trust to carry out an independent assessment of the accuracy and impartiality of science coverage, geneticist Steve Jones is minded to agree, though in his words ‘My review gives the BBC head and shoulders, and probably thorax, but suggests that we need to talk about the abdomen’.
Amongst the complications found by Jones in the abdomen was the thorny issue of ‘journalistic balance’ as applied to science. Indeed before last week’s publication of the Review I would have half expected this piece to appear on one side of a page opposite James Delingpole’s objections. But if the Review is to be believed the days of the BBC’s obsession with balancing every view from mainstream science with an opposing view may be numbered. Agreeing with Professor Jones’s views on this, the Trust has stated that a ‘false balance between well-established fact and opinion must be avoided’. And BBC bosses agree, stating in their response that an ‘over rigid’ application of the need for balance has allowed minority or even contrarian views an undue place’. They have offered to run training and seminars to ‘improve our journalists understanding of impartiality in science’
These bits of the report have found favour among leading scientists with Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society saying, “It is important to have debate but marginal opinion, prominently expressed but not well based on evidence, can mislead the audience”. Like Attenborough and Jones most scientists rate the BBC’s science coverage highly but the ‘he said/she said’ reporting of contentious issues drives them to distraction . As Jones says:
“The world is not flat, life is not six thousand years old, carbon dioxide levels are rising through human activity and smoking causes lung cancer. Millions choose to disagree with each of these statements but within the world of science there is almost no difference of opinion about any of them.”
Jones repeatedly calls for ‘equality of voice’ by which he means that if the BBC insist on featuring disagreements they should at least choose guests with some expertise and understanding of the debate. And in one of many great one liners in this report Jones says ‘The BBC would not have a discussion between a centre-forward and an opera critic but some of the debates on science have been that surreal.”
I know people are bored with the MMR example and admittedly much has changed for the better in the past 10 years, but there are good reasons not to forget it just yet. Whether your preferred villain of the piece is Andrew Wakefield, the Lancet or the Blairs (for refusing to confirm that baby Leo had the jab), the truth is that none of those actors can be blamed for
misleading the public into believing that medical science was split down the middle on the safety of MMR. That most wholly inaccurate and dangerous belief was down to the media’s obsession with ‘balancing’ every interview with a medical scientist defending the safety of the vaccine with someone against.
And while the most intelligent discussions I’ve had on this issue are with specialist science reporters at the Beeb, I am not entirely convinced that everyone has been able kick the habit. When the government announced a new attempt at a national dialogue on GM crops earlier this year I had a horrible sense of déjà vu. Producer after producer on news programmes called asking for pro- and anti-GM guests. Now considering the story was a call for dialogue, it is not surprising that different voices were sought, but the result was an unnecessarily polarised debate. While the ‘perfect storm’ of climate change, food shortages and population rise should have changed just about everything about the context of this debate it seems some in the BBC just want to re-run the old debate.
For me the frustrating bit of this ‘he said/she said’ reporting is the implicit failure of journalists to guide their audiences closer to the truth. After 10 years in science I am better qualified now to judge between two experts making diametrically opposite scientific claims, but less qualified people are just left having to hazard a guess. Alternatively, in what one commentator has called ‘regression towards a phoney mean’, the journalists seem to hope that their impartiality will lead audiences to conclude that the truth lies somewhere in the middle (Jones likens this to asking a mathematician and a maverick biologist what 2 + 2 equals. When the mathematicians says 4 and the maverick says 5, the presenter sums up that the answer is something like 4.5 and proclaims that “the debate will go on”).
Interestingly the Trust is now suggesting that the broadcaster should have more of a responsibility for guiding audiences towards the truth. Speaking at the press briefing the Head of Standards clearly stated that presenters will be expected to make the distinction between well-established fact and opinion clear to the audience. While they insist that minority voices are not going to disappear from the airwaves, they will in future be ‘sign posted’ by presenters.
Of course all this stuff would have been sorted by now if it was easy and I’m sure I am not the only one with questions as to how this will work in practice. How will the presenters ‘signpost’ where the weight of evidence lies when guests are disputing exactly that point (one sceptical editor has already suggested playing a jingle in the background to alert listener to the maverick!). Will the Trust put their money where their mouth is when the complaints from the critics of science come flooding in, and what happens when the scientists themselves stray into expressing personal or political views – is that signposted too?
There is also a danger that Steve Jones’ position looks like special pleading for science, a call for censorship, or an example of ‘scientism’, the claim that science is the only valid way of understanding the world. However on the whole Jones stays on the right side of these lines and there are wonderful passages in the report about the need to be open about scientific uncertainties, to challenge orthodoxies and to have robust debate on policy issues. However Jones subscribes to the view that people are entitled to their own opinions but not entitled to their own facts. He also holds to a contentious, shared by many in science, that impartiality checks are already built into the scientific enterprise whereby findings have been thoroughly tested, replicated and reviewed by peers before they would ever get on air.
Yet Jones’ repeated call for a ‘common sense’ interpretation of impartiality suggests that this debate is as much about intelligent journalism as it is about prescriptive rules and signposts. My own view is that most of the real horror stories in ‘false balance’ happen when the science reporter leaves the office and hard pressed general reporters have to find guests at short notice. While it may get little attention the recommendation that could sort out most of the problems in this respect is that general news journalists, editors and presenters should make much better use of the excellent science specialists that surround them
There are other nuggets in this report that deserve highlighting. Pointing out that the BBC has more science reporters than the rest of the UK media put together, Jones urges the corporation to lead by example in encouraging more original reporting and less reliance on the ‘diary’ stories that emerge from the weekly diet of scientific journals.
The least convincing recommendation for me is the proposal for a new Science Editor for News. The new role is posited as the answer to what Jones identifies as the ‘fractionated’ nature of science in the Beeb where science journalists working in different parts of the organization stay in silos. But if, as looks likely, the post becomes the new Robert Peston for science then the new editor will spend so much time reporting the top science stories that they will have little time for the kind of co-ordination needed.
At the end of the week in which the Review was published I chaired the press launch of the new Academy of Medical Sciences report on the use of research animals containing human material. In a week where tabloid subeditors and picture desks had a field day with ‘Frankenstein monsters’ and ‘Planet of the Apes’, it was good to turn on the Today programme and hear Tom Feilden and Fergus Walshcovering the report beautifully. If the Trust Review does nothing more than remind busy BBC bosses that they should look after their science reporters it will be a job well done.
An edited version of this article appears in the latest edition of ‘Ariel’, the BBC’s staff magazine.
This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.