The BBC, ‘bebee’ or ‘Auntie’ as some Brits call it, that symbol of British broadcasting will be 92 years old this October, but these days it is showing the energy, courage, and guts of a fearless teenager as it sets an example of what it is to practice professional, responsible, impartial, and excellent public service broadcasting.
What the BBC is doing in its reporting of science, and more specifically of climate change, is nothing less than setting a new paradigm of excellence in, and higher standard of, broadcasting the news and reporting about science and climate change issues.
The BBC Trust [BBC Trust], guardian of the public interest in the BBC and its governing body, commissioned Professor Steve Jones of Imperial College London to conduct an independent review of impartiality and accuracy in the BBC’s coverage of science. This study [BBCscience_impartiality] was requested in the context of assessing how well the BBC was fulfilling its mission to inform, educate and entertain and more specifically its duty to contribute to scientific literacy among the public
Based on findings from the study the BBC reached truly cutting-edge, advanced, even revolutionary, conclusions [BBCrust_conclusions 2014]
- “It is a fallacy to conclude both sides of an argument have equal value”
- “No attempt to give equal weight to opinion and to evidence”
- “The false balance between fact and opinion must be avoided”
In turn, these and other findings have resulted in a new BBC policy related to its coverage of science news and issues. This new policy requires that BBC staff must pursue accuracy, impartiality and ‘due weight‘ in covering scientific issues.
The significance of this new policy is evident when one considers reporting on climate change. Before this policy was instituted BBC staff sought impartiality by giving equal time to both sides of the issue, for example when reporting on scientific findings giving evidence of human contribution to global warming. As in turns out, under that model a report on human caused climate change gave equal time to a scientist presenting scientific facts, supported by 97% of the world’s scientific community, and to a climate change denier expressing an unsubstantiated opinion.
What the BBC was doing was achieving a ‘false balance’ between well established scientific fact and the opinion of a denier of science. Clearly this undermined the BBC’s pursuit of accuracy in its reporting.
The BBC could have solved this false balance issue by covering the same topic of human-caused climate change, by having 97 scientists on one side and three climate-change deniers on the other, and then giving each one an equal amount of time to present theirs facts or opinions. Clearly, this approach is not practical from a broadcasting point of view.
The solution comes with the BBC requiring its staff to add the component of ‘due weight’ to accuracy and impartiality when covering this or any other climate-change, or scientific issue. In the example given before, such due weight is achieved by the BBC’s reporter clearly informing the public that 97% of the scientific community support the facts being presented, while only 3% support the unsubstantiated opposing opinion.
In establishing this new policy the BBC has considerably raised the bar for excellence in covering the topic of climate change and other science topics. It is clear that BBC staff will have to dig deeper and work harder to be able to report science news including the new requirement of due weight for both sides of an issue,
It is clear that it takes abundant courage and guts, or in the words of a former USA Secretary of State : “cojones”, not to mention foresight and honesty, to do what the BBC has done in establishing this policy of accuracy, impartiality, and due weight in science coverage.
On the opposite side of this refreshing news, here in the United States we still have to suffer the tendentious propaganda, spewed by broadcasting media paid by special interests, consisting on unsupported biased opinions. Oh, if only these outlets could have the courage to attempt accuracy and impartiality only, and to honestly try to inform and educate the public rather than indoctrinate and misinform.
What a brave lesson from a 92-year old Auntie Bebee. Well done indeed! Bravo BBC!
It is as my good friend Caroline Lewis, Founder and Executive Director of The CLEO Institute once said..”yes I’ll debate a climate change denier on ‘equal’ terms when you give me 97% of the available time”..as this is the only way you can accurately reflect the consensus that exists in the scientific community. Now the BBC is echoing that comment.
Fabulous, well written perspective. So true.