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Review of BBC Science Coverage Finds Room for Improvement

More than a year after the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Trust announced it would conduct a major evaluation of the BBC's science coverage, the resulting review has concluded that accuracy needs to more often trump the desire for impartiality in BBC's presentations on controversial issues such as climate change, genetically modified crops, and possible links between vaccines and autism. The BBC, the report released today said, could do a better job of representing scientific consensus versus fringe views in appropriate proportions. But overall, the report's author, geneticist Steve Jones of University College London concluded, both the quality and quantity of BBC's science coverage are as good, if not better, than most public news media outlets.

After the BBC Trust asked Jones to conduct the independent review, he worked with the Science Communication Group at Imperial College London to perform a content analysis of 8 weeks of BBC science coverage across its many TV, radio, and online outlets. Jones also conducted interviews with scientists, reporters, and communications experts, ultimately identifying a few areas in which the BBC could improve its science coverage, such as strengthening its science contacts, incorporating more discussion between the science desk and other departments, and covering science more proactively rather than relying on press releases for stories. BBC's executives have already acknowledged the report's findings and committed to enact one of its most tangible recommendations: appointing a fulltime science news editor.

The BBC's coverage of climate change, currently one of the most politically charged scientific issues worldwide, featured front and center in the new review. While most of the BBC's dedicated science coverage of climate change was excellent, the topic's coverage by BBC's non-science journalists too often held to a rigid view of "due impartiality" and gave "fringe views" too loud a voice, the report concluded.

Robert Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science, concurs with Jones's assessment, contending that BBC political or economic reporters often fail to take sources to task for misrepresenting, for instance, the amount of money climate change policies would add to fuel bills."I think BBC needs to recognize that they're falling short and … improve that."

But Roger Pielke Jr. of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research in Boulder, Colorado, who has performed studies of broader media coverage of climate change, was critical of the report, noting its reliance on one author. Pielke adds that the review misses an important point: "When BBC says they're covering science, they never say what that actually means," he says. "The reason the media is covering [both sides of climate change] is not because it's interesting science, but because politicians are debating it." He adds, "The main issue here, how to do good reporting in context of highly politicized issues, goes well beyond science."

Pielke says that the mediascape as a whole does a good job of reporting climate science, but at the same time he questions how much journalists should be expected to be gate keepers of science, particularly when a high-profile politician or scientist makes a public claim. "Is it better to have it out there and debated, so people like Bob Ward can critique it, or do we want the media acting as a filter for what the public can hear?" The bottom line, he says, is that the BBC and media in general "has done a good job on horribly complex, very political topics," he says.

Skeptics of a scientific consensus shouldn't be banned from media coverage, or their views and ideas not reported, says Ward. "But the reasons for [including them] should be driven by what's in the public interest. It's not about being fair to the person you interview, it's about giving the public a true and accurate story." Unlike art or humanities, where opinions are taken into account, he adds, "that doesn't apply to everything in science: some things are demonstrably false."

Bud Ward, editor of The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media, would like to see a similar report for the closest U.S. equivalents of BBC: PBS, National Public Radio, and other federally-sponsored media outlets. But he agrees that the line between science debate and political debate is often a difficult one for nonspecialist journalists to parse.

The BBC's executive department will issue its own follow-up evaluation in 2012.

*This article has been corrected. Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media, not the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication . A quote that should have been attributed to Roger Pielke was accidentally attributed to Bud Ward. ScienceInsider sincerely regrets the errors.