Report praises BBC Science output

Professor Steve Jones Report author, Professor Steve Jones

The BBC's coverage of science is 'high quality…clear, accurate and impartial', but could be even better, according to an independent review published by the BBC Trust today.

The review, by geneticist Professor Steve Jones, says individual BBC science teams are doing excellent work, but should collaborate more - and programmes should stop trying to fulfill impartiality guidelines by always having 'pro' and 'anti' commentators on science stories, for example, climate change.

Professor Jones said: 'The world is not flat, life is not six thousand years old, carbon dioxide levels are rising through human activity and smoking does cause lung cancer. Millions of people choose to disagree with each of those statements but within the world of science there is almost no difference of opinion about any of them.'

  • Main findings
  • Science coverage is high quality
  • One in four news items was science related
  • Links between programme makers 'underdeveloped'
  • Range of sources too narrow
  • Distinction between opinion and fact.

The report warns; 'Outside the Corporation there is widespread concern that its reporting of science sometimes gives an unbalanced view of particular issues because of its insistence on bringing in dissident voices into what are in effect settled debates.'

Ways to improve

The report found the BBC already has far more science output than other broadcasters and that 80% of the public say they learn about science from the BBC. Content analysis by Imperial College, London found one in four BBC news stories was science related.

Nonetheless the report suggest improvements, including appointing a specialist Science Editor, getting science programmes to collaborate across genres, widening the source base for stories and clearly identifying to the audience when something is scientific fact and when it is opinion.

Welcoming the report the BBC said it would appoint a specialist Editor, and create a pan-BBC science forum which will meet bi-annually. It will also establish a new training programme on impartiality as it applies to science and run seminars with science journalists.

The Trust said; 'In particular [we] are concerned that new editorial guidelines on 'due impartiality' are used appropriately and effectively in science coverage. Programme makers must make a distinction between well-established fact and opinion and make sure it is clear to the audience.'

David Shukman in the Arctic David Shukman & cameraman Duncan Stone photographed in the Arctic by Mark Georgiou

Alison Hastings, chair of the Trust's Editorial Standards Committee, who led on the review, said: 'Taken in the round, this is a vote of confidence in the BBC's coverage of science.

'The report finds a lot to commend in the quality, depth, breadth and accuracy of programming, and our recommendations should be taken in that context.'

Political controversy

The review assessed news and factual output that refers to scientific findings, particularly output relating to current public policy and matters of political controversy, such as climate change.

For the purposes of the review, 'science' was defined to include not just the natural sciences but also aspects of technology, medicine and the environment that entail scientific statements, research findings or other claims made by scientists.

It is a key priority for the Trust that the corporation covers potentially controversial subjects with due impartiality, as required by the Royal Charter and Agreement. Previous reviews have focused on coverage of business and the devolved nations.

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