One of the most common complaints lodged against journalists these days is the notion of “false balance”. Journalists, so the critics say, too often present fringe scientists in a misguided effort to balance stories about genuine science. Or it can mean “balancing” experts against people who don’t know what they’re talking about, Last week the body that oversees the BBC reported that the problem persists in BBC science coverage – in particular, coverage of climate change.
False balance seems more likely to plague broadcast coverage of science than print. Print reporters sometimes get the chance to evaluate claims from sources before they get into print. But false balance can trip up any reporter when there isn’t time to fully investigate a story. Often stories end up with a he-said-she said structure even though both sides can’t possibly be right.
The best way to avoid false balance is dogged research, fact checking and adequate time devoted to vetting the credentials and sniffing out conflicts of interest that might color statements sources make. And in interviews, a good reporter should force subjects to be specific. Don’t let them get away with vague, fuzzy statements, contradictions, or sweeping conclusions beyond what’s supported by evidence.
This latest report is an update on a similar one, issued in 2011. The BBC Trust commissioned genetics professor Steve Jones of University College London and a UCL science communication group. The introduction lays out the most serious complaint:
The coverage of science by the BBC continues to be a hotly debated issue. One of the key findings of the report which still resonates today is that there is at times an:
“… ‘over-rigid’(as Professor Jones describedit) application of the Editorial Guidelines on impartiality in relation to science coverage, which fails to take into account what he regards as the ‘non-contentious’nature of some stories and the need to avoid giving ‘undue attention to marginal opinion’. Professor Jones cites … the existence of man-made climate change as [an] example of this point.”
This is a matter of training and ongoing shared editorial judgement. The Trust notes that seminars continue to take place and that nearly 200 senior staff have attended workshops which set out that impartiality in science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views, but depends on the varying degree of prominence (due weight) such views should be given.
It’s one thing to let various factions express perspectives and feelings, but it’s never good journalistic practice to allow sources to mislead readers or to present questionable information unchallenged.
The report suggests making more use of specialized science reporters. That can’t hurt.
Several news outlets covered the BBC Trust report.
At the Telegraph, Sarah Knapton summed up the situation in a story under the headline, BBC staff told to stop inviting cranks on to science programmes. This story was the only I could find that named specific guests on specific BBC shows:
In April the BBC was accused of misleading viewers about climate change and creating ‘false balance’ by allowing unqualified sceptics to have too much air-time.
In a damning parliamentary report, the corporation was criticised for distorting the debate, with Radio 4’s Today and World at One programmes coming in for particular criticism.
The BBC’s determination to give a balanced view has seen it pit scientists arguing for climate change against far less qualified opponents such as Lord Lawson who heads a campaign group lobbying against the government’s climate change policies.
Andrew Montford, who runs the Bishop Hill climate sceptic blog, former children’s television presenter Johnny Ball and Bob Carter, a retired Australian geologist, are among the other climate sceptics that have appeared on the BBC.
In the Los Angeles Times, Patt Morrison preferred the term “fringies” to “cranks,” in BBC told that science fringies belong in the audience, not on the air
At CBS News.com, Eliene Augenbraun wrote on the report in BBC tries to improve climate for climate coverage
In a piece of commentary for USA Today, Rieder: The danger of false balance in journalism, Rem Rieder starts with that old bit of wisdom about facts and opinions:
The late Democratic senator and all-around sage Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it best: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
No matter what the news media’s many critics believe, most journalists endeavor to be fair, to give both sides rather than choose sides. In that effort, there’s a tendency to print what someone says, print what the other side says and call it a day.
This may be true for general assignment reporters but not for responsible science specialists equipped to evaluate statements. Evaluating claims is our job.
The trouble is, there isn’t always equal merit on both sides. So, in instances where one side is largely fact-based, and the other is spouting obvious nonsense, treating both sides equally isn’t balanced. It’s misleading.
This is just common sense.
Often journalists are reluctant to state the conclusions that stem from their reporting, out of the concern that they will appear partisan or biased. But just laying out both positions without going further in an effort to establish the truth can create the false balance that the BBC Trust is so worried about. And that doesn’t do much good for the readers and the viewers.
The trick here is to learn to distinguish the conclusions of your reporting from your own personal opinions and biases. – by Faye Flam