The BBC Trust—the governing body of the BBC—announced last week that it will review the accuracy and impartiality of the outlet’s coverage of science.
“Science is an area of great importance to licence fee payers, which provokes strong reaction and covers some of the most sensitive editorial issues the BBC faces,” Richard Tait, chair of the Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee, said in a press release. “Heated debate in recent years around topics like climate change, GM crops and the MMR vaccine reflects this, and BBC reporting has to steer a course through these controversial issues while remaining impartial.
“The BBC has a well-earned reputation for the quality of its science reporting, but it is also important that we look at it afresh to ensure that it is adhering to the very high standards that licence fee payers expect.”
The BBC has long been regarded as a leading international outlet for science news, features, and documentaries on television, radio, and in recent years online. But it has also drawn its fair share of criticism over the last few years. The Daily Mail, a U.K. tabloid, ran a useful sidebar outlining critics’ complaints about the BBC’s coverage of various issues (sometimes referring to specific work it has produced), as well as the BBC’s responses. The article in which the sidebar appeared reeked of partisan sniping, however, and hurled unsupported assertions such as, “The BBC Trust acted after a string of complaints that the corporation is acting as a cheerleader for the theory that climate change is a man-made phenomenon.”
In 2007, the BBC cancelled a plan for a “Comic Relief-style day” of television programs about environmental issues after two of its senior news and current affairs executives questioned the special’s impartiality. And while it is true that, more recently, global-warming skeptics accused the BBC of downplaying the “ClimateGate” affair, which raised concerns about the integrity of prominent British and American climate scientists, environmentalists had attacked the corporation just two months earlier because of an online article suggesting that global warming stopped ten years ago. Not incidentally, the same BBC reporter, Paul Hudson (a climate correspondent and weather presenter based in one the BBC’s regional offices), was involved in both incidents. Overall, the corporation’s climate-change coverage has been relatively strong and objective.
Moreover, if one looks at other areas of the BBC’s scientific reportage – from GM foods to vaccines coverage – it is easy to see that it often inspired criticism from both sides of the aisle (for instance, that it both overplayed and underplayed the risks). According to the BBC Trust, “for the purposes of the review, ‘science’ will be defined to include not just the natural sciences but also those aspects of technology, medicine and the environment that entail scientific statements, research findings or other claims made by scientists.” The BBC has indicated that it will raise the profile of science coverage across all its media platforms this year (although it was planning to cut two science and environment positions as recently as July) and the review will place particular emphasis on matters “relating to current public policy and matters of political controversy.”
In July, a heated discussion about the quality of science journalism in the U.K. emerged at the sixth World Conference of Science Journalists in London. The debate rolled over into the fall when, in September, Lord Paul Drayson, the government’s science minister, publically debated the quality of British science reporting with Ben Goldacre, an M.D. who writes a popular media criticism column for the Guardian called “Bad Science.”
Drayson argued that the quality is already good, but his office had nonetheless commissioned an “action plan” in May designed to identify areas were coverage could be improved. That task fell to a team led by Fiona Fox, who runs the U.K. Science Media Centre, a clearinghouse of sorts for science information and contacts. The plan, titled “Science and Media: Securing the Future,” was released Wednesday [full disclosure: I am credited in the acknowledgments section].
“I have to be honest and say that [our] group finds science in the BBC to be in rude health and there was a real commitment and passion amongst the science correspondents and science commissioning editors to bring science into the mainstream,” Fox wrote in an e-mail. “The only thing they all said was that non science editors and generalists often sideline science as ‘too complicated’ and I think this review will help focus the minds of senior editors and commissioners about the importance of science.”
This is the third impartiality review the BBC Trust has carried out. Previous topics covered were BBC coverage of business in 2007 and its devolved nations (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland) in 2008.