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Impartiality and the BBC’s science coverage

Alison Hastings weighs the verdict

I was fascinated to read the last edition of People and Science. Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, is right to emphasise the responsibility that scientists have to spread the word about their work. And it is not just scientists themselves that have an obligation to explain the world of science. Broadcasters too must play their part. And it is vital that science broadcasting is of the highest calibre.

It was because of this that the BBC Trust, which governs the BBC, decided last year to review the accuracy and impartiality of BBC science coverage. This work has been led by its Editorial Standards Committee, which I chair.  The Trust commissioned the eminent geneticist Professor Steve Jones to conduct an independent assessment of this coverage. His excellent work drew on his own expertise, the views of other scientists, relevant politicians and, of course, those involved in making BBC programmes. We also asked the Science Communication Group at Imperial College London to carry out complementary content analysis.

High standard

First it is important to emphasise that these reports found the standard of BBC science coverage to be very high overall. Professor Jones describes it as a ‘thriving’ BBC genre that ranks ‘head and shoulders’ above other broadcasters and is well respected within the profession. In particular, he draws attention to its ‘exemplary’ precision and accuracy.

The reports do show some areas for improvement, however. These include underdeveloped links between science programme makers across the BBC and a resulting failure fully to exploit in-house expertise. There is also a tendency to rely on too narrow a range of external information sources for stories.

False balance

Perhaps the greatest challenge to the BBC is the concern expressed about appropriate application of the BBC’s editorial guidelines on ‘due impartiality’ in science coverage. Professor Jones found that there is at times an ‘over-rigid’ application of the impartiality guidelines, which fails to draw sufficient distinction between well-established fact and opinion, leading to ‘false balance’ between the two. So, to take a controversial example, an item on global warming might pitch a scientist against a sceptic. This risks conveying the impression that they are equals in the debate, when the evidence overwhelmingly supports the scientist’s argument.

This does not mean that scientists should not be properly scrutinised. They, like everyone else, sometimes make mistakes and, in any case, well-founded scientific work will withstand this process. Equally, it may well be appropriate to include sceptical voices in coverage. But allotting ‘due weight’ to participants – and communicating this clearly to the audience – is essential. The same thinking applies in other areas, from MMR to homeopathy.

New strength and training

The Trust has now published the results of its review and approved a number of recommendations. These include appointing a Science Editor to BBC News. As with other specialist Editors – such as Nick Robinson, Stephanie Flanders and Robert Peston – this person will not only broadcast but also act as an internal and external ambassador for their specialism.

The Executive will also look to improve its science newsgathering and information sharing. In addition it will introduce a new training programme for journalists, and hold seminars, on impartiality as it applies to science.

The Trust has asked the Executive to report back in a year’s time on progress in implementing these recommendations.

Science is central to contemporary life, with everything from medical advances to nuclear power having the capacity to affect us all directly. BBC science coverage is in very good health but we must always strive to improve it. Our audiences – and the vital role of science in our lives – demand this. 

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Alison Hastings
Alison Hastings is chair of the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee
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