BBC Finally Dumps “False Balance” in Climate Change Reporting
The BBC has had some disappointing run-ins of late with climate change denial, but the folks in charge of this esteemed institution are making some changes.
Last April, the BBC came under fire from members of Parliament for being uncritical of climate change deniers and giving unqualified “experts” equal airtime as actual, qualified climate scientists. In February, Lord Lawson, a former chancellor and chair of the climate change denial think tank the Global Warming Policy Foundation, was given equal time with climatologist Professor Sir Brian Hoskins on a Today program debate. In addition, the BBC was criticized for giving climate change deniers too much weight when covering the latest UN report on climate change.
A report issued by the science and technology select committee stated that:
“Some editors appear to be particularly poor at determining the level of scientific expertise of contributors in debates, putting up lobbyists against top scientists as though their arguments on the science carry equal weight … Lobbying groups and other interested parties should be heard on the issue, [but] the BBC should be clear on the role of its interviewees and should not treat lobbying groups as disinterested experts.”
Dear BBC editors, you are terrible at your job. Be better. Love, Parliament. Ouch.
That’ll certainly bruise an ego, but the BBC didn’t crouch in a defensive position. Last week the BBC Trust published their own report and determined that, yes, they were giving too much deference to climate change denial and no, they aren’t going to anymore.
Or, as the Telegraph put it: “BBC journalists are being sent on courses to stop them inviting so many cranks onto programmes to air ‘marginal views.’”
The Trust’s report was meant to determine whether the BBC’s science reporting was remaining neutral on critical issues. However, it found that, when it comes to science reporting, more opinions doesn’t necessarily equal quality journalism:
The BBC Trust’s report was designed to assess the network’s impartiality in science coverage, in other words, whether it is staying neutral on critical issues. In order to be neutral when covering science, however, the BBC noted it needs to avoid “false balance,” a fallacy that occurs when two sides of an argument are assumed to have equal value.
“Science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views but depends on the varying degree of prominence such views should be given,” the report said.
This doesn’t mean that climate change denial will be completely excluded from reporting. The report also emphasized that science should still be scrutinized, but that journalists need to weigh the scientific evidence so their audience comes away with an accurate picture.
False balance is something that U.S. news outlets are very familiar with. In a 2013 report, Media Matters found that half of print outlets used false balance in their reporting of man-made climate change, and CBS gave climate change doubters six times the representation they have in the scientific community.
However, at least some print publications are coming around, albeit slowly. The Los Angeles Times has a policy against running letters to the editor that deny the existence of human-caused climate change. Other newspapers won’t allow letters that are factually inaccurate. NPR has made a serious attempt to avoid this pitfall as well (although PBS could use a lesson in avoiding false balance).
It is clear, though, that we have a long way to go. The climate is changing whether we know about it or not, but at least some news outlets are trying to give it to us straight.
Photo Credit: Dan Tayler via Flickr