BBC BLOGS - The Editors
« Previous | Main | Next »

Phrasing headlines

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 09:49 UK time, Monday, 15 October 2007

So Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to build up and disseminate knowledge about man-made climate change.

The World TonightThis has refocused attention on Mr Gore's Oscar winning film, An Inconvenient Truth, which has been called by its critics a 'shockumentary'. It was in the news earlier this week when a High Court judge ruled that the film should only be shown in schools with accompanying guidance notes to balance what the judge called Mr Gore's "one-sided views". My colleague Craig Oliver has blogged on this.

We led the programme with the story on Wednesday because it was clearly an interesting development in the arguments over climate change and man's role in causing it. But some of our listeners thought some BBC headlines were misleading. We opened the programme by saying:

"The film made by the former American vice president Al Gore about climate change - which the government wants to be shown in thousands of British schools - has been strongly criticised by a High Court judge for making exaggerated and alarmist claims."

When we introduced the item after our news bulletin we said:

"Al Gore got it wrong on global warming. So said a High Court judge today, who ruled that his Oscar-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth, contains at least nine errors."

Al GoreIt's this that some listeners took issue with - they pointed out that boiling what the judge said to “Al Gore got it wrong” is misleading because the judge didn't say the nine claims he criticised were necessarily wrong - they were controversial and not part of the scientific consensus (my colleague Roger Harrabin goes into more depth on this).

Some of the papers the next day simplified it even further, “Al Gore's climate film's nine untruths” or “Gore's green film is alarmist, says Hight Court judge” being two examples.

Our critics argued that headlines are what stick in most people's minds and so we need to be more careful how we phrase them so that we don't mislead while trying to pique our audiences interest in a story to keep them reading/listening/watching.

Earlier on Wednesday, I had been taking part in a conference at the Royal United Services Institute on relations between the media and the Ministry of Defence where one of my co-panellists argued that headlines can be so inaccurate as to almost contradict what is in the story. A much discussed example there a headline in mid-August that British soldiers in Afghanistan had a one in 36 chance of being killed in combat which the most of the participants at RUSI insisted was not what the reports actually said.

These critics are right in at least one respect - we do need to be careful with our headlines and we don't always get it right - though on Wednesday night I think our headline was an accurate rendering of the story and the introduction to the item in the programme was in that context and was not misleading - you can check it out for yourself and make your own mind by clicking here to listen to the programme.


  • 1.
  • At 11:04 AM on 15 Oct 2007,
  • Bryan wrote:

When we introduced the item after our news bulletin we said:

"Al Gore got it wrong on global warming. So said a High Court judge today, who ruled that his Oscar-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth, contains at least nine errors."

Funny that, because the headline on the BBC website went something like this:

Judge BACKS Gore film for UK schools

A biased, misleading headline if ever I saw one, implying the judge's full support for the film.

What would have been wrong with this:

Judge ALLOWS Gore film in UK schools

At least that headline is more faithful to the actual judgement - i.e. the judge allowed the film to be distributed to UK schools, but with reservations and conditions.

The bias of BBC headline writers has been apparent to quite a few people for quite some time. This is a particularly pernicious form of propaganda since many people don't have the time or inclination to read past the headlines.

The BBC has been pushing the man-made global warming theory so hard the last few months that your introduction that "Al Gore got it wrong on global warming" stands out as an exception that proves the rule of your implacable bias on this issue. Even your very own Jeremy Paxman has acknowledged this bias.

But if your programme is a sign that the BBC is doing something about its one-sided approach to global warming, then it is to be welcomed.

Those headlines certainly sound misleading, since the judge said that the film was broadly accurate.

  • 3.
  • At 11:14 AM on 15 Oct 2007,
  • Mike Daly wrote:

Alistair, have you read Justice Burton's ruling? Referring to Gore's film he stated that the 'causes and likely effects of climate change were broadly accurate'. Difficult to reconcile this with your headline or story content.

The judge didn't even identify nine errors. Several claims were considered unproven but that doesn't make them wrong. It does justify the inclusion of guidance notes to set the context.

The real problem with these type of reports is that they lack a context. Consider how someone with limited knowledge of the subject might react to this item. It should be made very clear that the judge is critical of the presentation and not the underlying science. BBC News items have become ever closer to tabloid style articles. Start with a dramatic headline, give a few brief details to support the headline and ignore the substance of the issue.

Do you still stand by your headline? Should we refer the matter to the judge?

  • 4.
  • At 03:45 PM on 15 Oct 2007,
  • M K wrote:

Opening lines of the style "Al Gore got it wrong on global warming. So said a High Court judge today..." are one of the most irritating features of BBC news. The first part masquerades as a quotation, but does not use the judge's actual words - it's a snappy paraphrase, designed to catch the listener's attention, so of course there's a danger that it will misrepresent what was said. In this case it was deeply misleading.

You must know the difference between direct and reported speech. Isn't it rather dishonest to conflate the two in a news programme?

  • 5.
  • At 04:31 PM on 15 Oct 2007,
  • John Whyte wrote:

Curious if you [Mr Burnett] watched Screenwipe on BBC4 the other night. I'm guessing "no".

  • 6.
  • At 04:54 PM on 15 Oct 2007,
  • Tim Dennell wrote:

‘The BBC has been pushing the man-made global warming theory so hard the last few months that your introduction that "Al Gore got it wrong on global warming" stands out as an exception that proves the rule of your implacable bias on this issue.’
Bryan. Comment 1.

In his judgemnent Mr Justice Burton also said many of the claims made by the film were fully backed up by the weight of science. He identified “four main scientific hypotheses, each of which is very well supported by research published in respected, peer-reviewed journals and accords with the latest conclusions of the IPCC”.
In particular, Mr Justice Burton agreed with the main thrust of Mr Gore’s arguments: “That climate change is mainly attributable to man-made emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide (‘greenhouse gases’).”
The other three main points accepted by the judge were that:
1. “Global temperatures are rising and are likely to continue to rise.”
2. “That climate change will cause serious damage if left unchecked.”
3. “That it is entirely possible for governments and individuals to reduce its impacts.”
Source: TimeOnline. 11/10/07

So, nonwithstanding Al Gore’s personal views the BBC is right to consider the man-made global warming theory as being basically correct and in presenting this information to the public.

  • 7.
  • At 05:00 PM on 15 Oct 2007,
  • John Lish wrote:

But Al got a number of things seriously wrong and also deliberately misled people on the historical correlation between temperature and greenhouse gases. For those unaware, increases in greenhouse gases follow temperature rises some 800 years afterwards (+/-600).

Al Gore got it wrong is accurate.

  • 8.
  • At 05:24 PM on 15 Oct 2007,
  • Bedd Gelert wrote:

Somewhat off-topic, but I pose the question of how the BBC will plan to report the potential commissioning of a new generation of nuclear plants ?

There are many 'green' groups against it , James Lovelock is strongly in favour, and Tony Benn rightly reminds us that early British nuclear power was driven as much by the need to feed nuclear weapons as to keep the lights on.

How does one report 'consensus' in a debate with such polarised views ?

  • 9.
  • At 06:23 PM on 15 Oct 2007,
  • Bram wrote:

Well in spite of the grousing about the headlines that some commenters have indulged in I'd like to see this in a positive light: the return of at least a semblance of balance in the BBC reporting on climate change. Will the World Service follow suit? (I live in the Netherlands and can listen to long wave Radio 4 and the WS on mid wave.) The World Service news acts as a megaphone for climate change agitprop and has abandoned all pretense of journalistic impartiality - as it has indeed with quite a few other issues but that's for another post.

  • 10.
  • At 06:52 PM on 15 Oct 2007,
  • Martyn wrote:

I would be comforted that so many BBC editors are agonising over their coverage of this story, but then they all say they were right all along.

I think if you polled your audience many of them will remember the report as being a judge finding against the global warming theory Gore sets out in his film. Yet the judgement makes it very clear he found all the major points made in the film were substantiated by a massive amount of scientific evidence and did not need to be balanced by infromation from "sceptics".

Somehow the media has left the public with the idea there is still a significant level of doubt about whether or not global warming is down to man or not. Impartial appraisals of the science such as that by the judge shows the fundamentals are not seriously challenged.

That has to be a failing of the media (as well as Government, campaign groups etc) but every BBC editor seems to be arguing on this blog that they have got it right. Seems remarkably complacent to me.

  • 11.
  • At 11:41 PM on 15 Oct 2007,
  • Dr A wrote:

Criticism of the BBC here for tabloidism is unfair. The BBC cannot report news with a pro-Gore spin in the face of what is so obviously a judgement against him without losing entirely the illusion of impartiality and credibility. Most other coverage I've seen was even more scathing, and gave rather more detail on the judgement. You win some, you lose some, and you concede your losses gracefully.

There were 11 points that had to be raised by teachers, but this is just the small subset of the film's many faults the court considered. In a number of cases the court did say they were false, others true but misleading, and yet others unproven. Speaking as a scientist, we have always known the film to be misleading. Roger Harrabin with his 'flutter of unease' knew it too. Climate change is real and its consequences can, and have in the past, been very serious. But the version of it AIT paints is an over-simplified fiction, a scare story designed for political polemic.

In making it they thought the ends justified the means, but it was a horrible mistake. Its eventual exposure will do irreparable damage.

  • 12.
  • At 11:44 PM on 15 Oct 2007,
  • Sarah wrote:

Bryan - that is fantastic - you are a genius!

First you highlight the only almost accurate headline out of a batch of BBC headlines and introductions that virtually all failed to mention the fact that a court judgement found all the fundamental arguments of Al Gore's had a massive scientific consensus behind them, and so were OK to teach in schools. Then you say that one headline shows bias in the BBC in favour of global warming theory.

Simply brilliant. Paranoid admittedly, but still brilliant.

  • 13.
  • At 12:02 PM on 16 Oct 2007,
  • Xie_Ming wrote:

Almost always, an editor will be defensive of the actions for which he is responsible.

However, being defensive is also good for one.

As Uncle Alfred said of Royal Commissions:

"They allus takes two years

they allus says you didn't do nuthin' wrong-

but don't do it again"

  • 14.
  • At 09:51 PM on 16 Oct 2007,
  • Steven Martin wrote:

"we do need to be careful with our headlines and we don't always get it right"

Yes, you've reminded me of the now infamous BBC headline about the proposed ending of two term Presidential limits in Venezuela (which would require a referendum). The headline was...

"Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has confirmed that he will try to change the law to allow him to remain in power indefinitely."

What's even funnier though, is that when I complained, the BBC didn't really see anything wrong with it.

  • 15.
  • At 08:52 AM on 20 Nov 2007,
  • George Robinson wrote:

A month after the past comment was published, I dispute the fact that a judge had no right to critise Al Gores film. Is this judge some kind of scientific expert, or is it just because he is a judge that everybody should stand up and listen, my God, who do they think they are.

This post is closed to new comments.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.