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Trusting what you see and hear: the media's role in covering science accurately

Alison Hastings


Climate change is 90 per cent likely to have been caused by humans. That was the conclusion of the influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007.

So how does the BBC as a broadcaster go about reporting this, ensuring that the dominant opinion is reflected, but that an appropriate amount of airtime is given to a minority of dissenting voices?

Of course, science is no stranger to controversial issues like global warming. And as a former print journalist, I know first-hand that these controversies often have a political dimension and can be characterised by entrenched views on both sides. They make great copy.

But the media plays a crucial role in our understanding of science – a subject that can seem daunting to many. The media has a responsibility to the public to report science accurately.

The BBC Trust, the body which is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the BBC's programmes are impartial, and of which I am a member, recently asked eminent scientist Professor Steve Jones to take an independent view of the BBC's science coverage.

He identified a real challenge for broadcasters in accurately reflecting the latest scientific thinking, thanks to the peculiarities of scientific debate. That of keeping pace with the evidence, and in particular in taking care when reporting to distinguish between opinion and well-established fact or consensus.

This doesn't mean that BBC reports will not feature people who do not believe climate change exists. And it is emphatically still the case that the BBC must rigorously scrutinise any issues it reports – after all, scientists can get it wrong.

But when something moves from opinion to well-established fact, viewers should be aware of this, and the broadcaster must adjust its coverage and its approach to achieving impartiality accordingly. Both facts and opinions have their place in science – indeed any – reporting, but the audience must be clear which is which.

The frontiers of scientific understanding have always been pushed forward by testing a belief to see if it can be proven. In this way, if proven, a belief becomes knowledge: we all accept that the earth is round, even though people once believed it was flat.

A body of evidence – like that assessed by the IPCC report - changes how the BBC's obligation to cover issues with 'due impartiality' is applied.

Otherwise, the debate in the media can lag behind scientific debate. And it is precisely because of the media's impact on what people believe, that it is imperative to make sure reports are accurate and impartial.

The BBC is aware of this, and my own committee has dismissed complaints about the BBC's coverage of climate change on the basis of the way impartiality is applied where there is a compelling body of evidence on a controversial scientific issue.

Despite this, Prof. Jones found that in some instances the 'presentational style of coverage has continued to suggest that a real scientific disagreement was present long after a consensus had been reached'. In other words, the BBC was, on occasion, still covering climate change as if the core of the debate is about whether it exists, not how to cope with it.

But even though climate change is the subject of intense interest in some quarters, the BBC must take the same approach with other issues. There is a similar consensus about the efficacy of homeopathy, which the majority of scientists believe only has a placebo effect. And we've seen the body of evidence which now supports the safety of the MMR vaccine, meaning that those voicing doubts about it are in a minority and against the weight of scientific evidence.

For the average man or woman on the street, their only exposure to science since their school years comes from a television or a newspaper. The public need to be able to trust what they see and hear about scientific issues, and find a way to navigate often complex and conflicting debates.

And it's not just about the BBC. Broadcasters and the science industry have a responsibility to work together in the interests of accurate and impartial reporting of science in order to retain the trust of the audience.

From the broadcaster's perspective, accurately and impartially reflecting the nature and progress of scientific debate while making output accessible and appealing to audiences is a difficult balancing act. And audiences have very high expectations of the BBC.

The challenge for the BBC's programme makers is to absorb the lessons of Professor Jones' report, while continuing to deliver fantastic programming like The Ascent of Man, Life on Earth and long running strands such as Tomorrow's World, QED and Horizon, through to daily news bulletins and the very recent Bang Goes the Theory and Human Planet.

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