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Do science and journalism mix?

Kevin Marsh

is director of OffspinMedia and a former Today editor

It's a specially relevant question now that the BBC Trust has announced it's to review the accuracy and impartiality of the BBC's science coverage - as it previously reviewed business and devolution coverage. 

The word 'impartiality' can be a tad misleading here. As both those earlier reviews found, such shortcomings as there were arose rarely from partiality, more frequently from unfamiliarity or lack of knowledge. Though, as we set out on this website, impartiality is as much about giving significant views appropriate weight as it is about 'balance' ... something that's particularly important in science reporting.

My guess is this review will find that BBC specialist science journalism is at least as good as anything else out there. But that there can be problems when science meets mainstream, generalist journalists and presenters - and not just in BBC content. 

Science and journalism should be a perfect fit. Both are evidence based; both deal in discovery; both communicate important ideas; both are, to some extent, about disputation.

And yet ... so much headline coverage across all of UK journalism about climate change, GM food, medical 'breakthroughs' (and in a previous age BSE and MMR) seems to rest more on faith and belief (or sheer prejudice) than on science.

The College and London's Fronltline Club will be discussing journalism and science at a joint event on January 13 - and I hope one of the questions will be 'can mass journalism ever communicate scientific ideas accurately?'

It'll be a great evening and well worth your time ... but it won't settle very much. And that's because science and journalism - at the mass end of great headlines and lead stories - just don't mix.

Of course, all journalists should understand risk and statistics. They should understand graphs and data and be able to read a scientific paper without hyperventilating. 



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