BBC science coverage given "vote of confidence" by independent report

Date: 20.07.2011     Last updated: 23.09.2014 at 09.48
The BBC's coverage of science is "high quality…clear, accurate and impartial" according to an independent review published by the BBC Trust today. The review also identifies a number of measures that can be taken to further improve coverage.

The review of impartiality and accuracy in the BBC's science coverage consisted of an independent report from Professor Steve Jones, Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London, and in-depth content analysis carried out by Imperial College London for two separate periods in 2009 and 2010.

Professor Jones found that "in general, [BBC] output is of a high quality, widely praised for its breadth and depth, its professionalism, and its clear, accurate and impartial manner".

The review also found that science is spread across a wide range of specialist and non-specialist BBC programming. One in four broadcast news items related to science, and Radio 4 and BBC Four receive particular credit for the depth and frequency of their contributions to overall output.

The report concludes however, that in particular the BBC must take special care to continue efforts to ensure viewers are able to distinguish well-established fact from opinion on scientific issues and to communicate this distinction clearly to the audience.

The BBC must also enable greater collaboration between science programme makers across the corporation, as well as widening the pool of sources for stories by increasing contact with the scientific community. To achieve this, the BBC will recruit and appoint a Science Editor and will create a pan-BBC science forum to meet and share information bi-annually.

The Trust is today publishing Professor Jones' report, the content analysis, a response from the BBC Executive and a commentary from the Trust.

Alison Hastings, Chair of the Trust's Editorial Standards Committee, who led on this 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.

"Without in any way compromising journalistic rigour and scrutiny, the BBC must take extra care to be duly impartial when covering science so that the audience are clear about the difference between established facts and opinions. The new Science Editor will join other editors to become a figurehead and an ambassador for their specialism, and the BBC will also look at making adjustments to its newsgathering and information sharing in order to further improve its coverage."

Lord Patten, BBC Trust Chairman, added:

"The UK's science industry delivers significant economic value to our country. The public's interest in science continues to grow, and levels of scientific literacy are improving as a result. There are some issues which will inevitably attract controversy, and reflecting scientific debate while making output accessible and appealing to audiences is a difficult balancing act. While there are areas for improvement, Professor Steve Jones' comprehensive report shows the BBC is able to achieve this balance, and I'm delighted to note Sir David Attenborough's view that the BBC's science programming is head and shoulders above any other broadcaster."

The review's main findings, and the BBC Executive's response are outlined below:

  • The BBC's coverage of science is of a high quality and significant quantity - a thriving and improving genre of programming which is well established across a wide range of BBC services. Its accuracy is "exemplary."
  • Over the period surveyed, one in four broadcast news items was science related, with particular strengths in Radio 4's Today and BBC One's Panorama.
  • The links between science programme-makers across BBC divisions are underdeveloped, meaning that internal expertise is not sufficiently exploited.
  • The BBC Executive will appoint a Science Editor for BBC News who, as well as broadcasting on the subject, will liaise with science programme makers across the BBC and have responsibility for oversight of the weight of BBC coverage given to different areas. It will also create a pan-BBC science forum which will meet bi-annually to share information and contacts across the organisation.
  • The range of sources for stories, particularly in news, is too narrow and is overly reliant on press releases. Although publication of a press release does not necessarily mean that the BBC initiated its story in this way, the significant proportion of stories that were also press released does suggest that this is an issue which needs to be explored.
  • The BBC Executive will review the BBC's information sources with a view to widening and strengthening them, subject to cost.
  • When considering 'due impartiality' under the new Editorial Guidelines, the BBC needs to continue to be careful when reporting on science to make a distinction between an opinion and a fact. When there is a consensus of opinion on scientific matters, providing an opposite view without consideration of "due weight" can lead to 'false balance', meaning that viewers might perceive an issue to be more controversial than it actually is. This does not mean that scientists cannot be questioned or challenged, but that their contributions must be properly scrutinised. Including an opposite view may well be appropriate, but the BBC must clearly communicate the degree of credibility that the view carries.
  • The BBC Executive will establish a new training programme for journalists on impartiality as it applies to science and will run seminars with science journalists to debate current issues and coverage in the media.

The main findings in the content analysis from Imperial College London included:

  • The coverage had no significant factual inaccuracies
  • Science coverage is spread over a wide range of BBC content
  • Three quarters of the broadcast news items about scientific research related to stories where the institution which was the source of the story had provided a press release
  • A disproportionate number of items were presented by men or featured men as contributors in relation to the split of male and female scientists in the UK
  • There were a higher proportion of stories from the South East of England as opposed to elsewhere in the UK.

The Trust has asked the Executive to report back on progress in 2012.

Notes to editors

More on the review of impartiality in the BBC's science coverage

The Trust's review, which was carried out over 12 months, set out to look at the BBC's coverage of science across television, radio and online, particularly where it relates to public policy or matters of controversy. It took in news and current affairs, as well as factual output across a wide range of programmes including science and general strands and series, natural history output, one-off documentaries, together with news and opinion from the BBC website.

The Trust asked Steve Jones, Emeritus Professor of Genetics and head of the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London to write an independent report. He was selected on the basis of his academic credentials, of his knowledge of the media and his reputation amongst the scientific community.

As part of the process of compiling the report, Professor Jones carried out interviews with science programme makers inside and outside the BBC, held group meetings with parties with an interest in science broadcasting, met with representatives from the science, academic and business communities and wrote to external organisations (societies, charities and other commercial bodies) to ask for their views on the BBC's science coverage.

The Trust also commissioned an independent content analysis of the BBC's programming and online output in May, June and July in 2009 and 2010. This was carried out by Imperial College London.

More on the Trust's impartiality reviews

The Trust has carried out a number of reviews of impartiality in BBC coverage since its inception. These are: a review of business coverage in 2007; a review of impartiality by John Bridcut, 'From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel', in 2007; a review into coverage of the devolved nations in network news output in 2008; and a follow up review on that subject in 2010. This autumn, the Trust will begin a review of the BBC's coverage of conflict.

Documents being published today:

  • The report on the review of impartiality and accuracy in the BBC's coverage of science, comprising the report from Professor Jones, the Executive response and the Trust commentary
  • The content analysis from Imperial College London
  • The review's terms of reference.

Read the review