BBC's Science Coverage Policy

Oh my gosh, that title sounds so boring! I know, I'll do what I can to sex it up with lolcats!

Last month the BBC came out with a report regarding accuracy and impartiality in the coverage of science. The research done to see how the BBC was doing was conducted by Steve Jones, Professor Emeritus of Genetics at University College London and other content analysis by the Science Communication Group at Imperial College London.

Wait a sec. Why do we care, especially if we're not in Britain? The first reason is that news gets spread around and we all have access to BBC programming and content. I, for one, watch a lot of BBC America because I've found it to be better than a lot of the basic stations here in the US (especially the comedy). Also when I hear something going on in the world, the BBC is one news source I turn to when I want the facts without a lot of noticeable spin.

It seems that I'm not alone. From the findings in the report:
"For the purposes of this project science was defined to include not just natural sciences but also coverage of technology, medicine and the environment relating to the work of scientists."

The UK produces a tenth of the world’s scientific research (though it makes up just 1% of the global population) and is the largest research contributor after the US and Japan. A third of the UK’s GDP is produced by science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. There is a demonstrable
public appetite for more information about science, and its policy, social and ethical implications, and most people glean this information from the media. In Professor Jones’ view, the importance of science to the UK, the public’s interest in it, and the role of the BBC in “fostering a scientifically literate society” all underline the huge importance of the organisation’s science coverage.

...Professor Jones makes it clear that, overall, BBC science content is of a very high calibre, has improved over the past decade and outstrips that of other broadcasters both in the UK and internationally. It is commended by a number of external scientific bodies for its accuracy, diverse appeal and inclusion in a wide variety of programmes...

... the researchers found no significant factual inaccuracies in the coverage that they analysed. They also found science coverage spread across a wide range of BBC content, in both news and non-news and specialist and non-specialist output.

So the report found that generally the BBC is doing a good job and is better than most with science coverage. They found a few weaknesses, one of which is very interesting, mainly that they have been "over-rigid" on their impartiality and have given "undue attention to marginal opinion."

And isn't this a huge issue!? The BBC might be guilty of being over-rigid, but America excels at this. Usually the platform is full of fringe believers in one form of nonsense or another. Then there will be a lone scientist, doctor or skeptic who will get one brief moment to express some sense, after which he is usually dismissed, attacked and shouted down. The report usually ends on the True Believer and his touching anecdotal story, which is all anyone remembers.

This is so prolific and horrendous that I can't bear it anymore and find myself avoiding news channels and talk shows like the plague. The Daily Show is, of course, the best place to get news in the US. And what does that say?! PS,  all you liberal hippies, yuppies and commies out there, I know you think NPR is perfect and fantastic. (I'm just joking, chill out) It's probably the best, most balanced news in the US, actually. I can't say for sure because I don't listen anymore. So don't yell at me. I am speaking from what I know.

Now, back to this report on and from the BBC. Steve Jones suggests that achieving “equality of voice” may be resolved by the new 2010 Editorial Guidelines which incorporate consideration of “due weight” in relation to impartiality. A more common-sense approach to “due impartiality” would also help."

And here is what the BBC Trust has said on the matter. They support this change, to a degree:
Turning to the key issue of “due impartiality” in science coverage, the Trust agrees with Professor Jones that “there should be no attempt to give equal weight to opinion and to evidence” and notes that, although he identifies some weaknesses, Professor Jones believes the BBC has gone to efforts to find an appropriate balance in this area. It also supports the Executive’s observation that “due impartiality” should be applied in different ways depending upon the nature and context of a story. Appropriate, flexible use of these guidelines is essential and it is important to consider factors such as individual remit and audience as well as the distinction between well-established fact and opinion. In relation to the latter, programme makers must use their own, and draw on others’, scientific knowledge in making this distinction. They must also clearly communicate this distinction to the audience. A “false balance” (to use Professor Jones’ term) between well-established fact and opinion must be
avoided. This does not mean that critical opinion should be excluded. Nor does it mean that scientific research shouldn’t be properly scrutinised: as Professor Jones states “the expert is sometimes wrong” and robust research will stand up to this analysis. The

So they are going to have an online training course on impartiality, and they are going to hold a debate with scientists. I like that the rules are to be applied appropriately and are flexible, but hopefully that doesn't weaken them too much. I love that they must clearly tell the audience, so that it's obvious, what is fact and what is not. That's the best part.

This is a great step forward for the BBC, which was already doing pretty good. They seem interested in reporting science without emphasizing opinion.

Whereas here in the US, opinions and "feelings" are given much more credence than facts - an excruciating example is Jenny McCarthy and her "mommy" sense or whatever she calls it. Yes, I just threw up a little.

This leads me inevitably to my rant. Ok, what the hell do we have to do to get that kind of impartial, truly balanced, informed and accurate reporting here? And while of course I care most about science, how about across the board?

I remember back when I was young, news reporters were unbiased (as much as people can be) and didn't skew everything that their reports completely to either the conservative side or the liberal side. At least that's how it seemed to me, maybe I was too young to understand. Do you think any organizations over here will see what the BBC is doing and follow suit? Oh my! I think I just laughed myself into a coma!

Ok, I give up, end of rant. I am wishful thinking on a grand scale here, aren't I? Sigh...


  1. "Ok, what the hell do we have to do to get that kind of impartial, truly balanced, informed and accurate reporting here? And while of course I care most about science, how about across the board?"

    1. Reform the redistricting system in the US. Currently the US redistricting system is gerrymandered so that most seats are safe. This creates breeding grounds of radicalism, politically speaking.

    2. Atheist/Skeptic missionaries. The radically religious have safe havens in this country where they churn out ignorance and bigotry. We, as a community, should be sending people into these zones and locally organize atheists/skeptics.

    3. Reform education. I saw an intresting TED video about the Khan Academy and their in class tutoring method. The teacher aquires information on how well each student is learning and then pairs up more advanced students with those who are lagging behind.

    Those are my thoughts.

  2. Sigh, Andrew. Can't I just get out my chemistry set, create a new drug, and then add it to the water supply or something? :P
    Srsly, though, those are good steps.