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A quick audit of 'due weight' in the BBC's coverage of climate science

  • 29 Nov 2012, 14:18
  • Carbon Brief Staff

The BBC Trust has commended the corporation for making "significant progress" in improving coverage of scientific issues including climate change. We examine the trust's claim that a key recommendation not to give equal weight to evidence and opinion is now "already a factor" in planning its output. 

Yesterday's BBC Trust report follows a review of the corporation's science coverage published just over two years ago. That review, written by Professor Steve Jones of University College London, contained a section on climate change suggesting that the BBC's coverage of the issue is a "microcosm of false balance" - where fringe scientific views are given equal weight to mainstream scientific opinion.

In particular, Jones highlighted examples from BBC reporting giving the impression that there are "two equally valid points of view that must be sorted out" over whether climate change is happening - despite the scientific evidence being, as he put it, "overwhelming".

Jones proposed that in reporting science the BBC needs to achieve "due weight" or "due impartiality" in its reporting. This means conveying to audiences where the weight of scientific opinion lies, while retaining space for discussing scientific disagreement.

'Significant progress'

The BBC Trust said yesterday:

"The Trust commends the Executive for the significant progress which has made since publication of the Review in 2011. It is apparent that the Review has had an impact on output and is likely to continue to do so."

It highlights a series of steps the corporation has taken to that end. These include the appointment of new Science Editor David Shukman, the creation of something called the 'pan-BBC Science Forum', which has strategic oversight of science coverage, and a science training programme for editors.

Of particular note is a section discussing primate research, which is offered as evidence that 'due weight' is doing well at the BBC:

"Professor Jones's recommendations on 'due weight' are already a factor in day-to-day decision-making.  For example, shortly after publication of the review, in July 2011, Newsnight's Science Editor reported on primate research.  For the live studio element she suggested that the programme should run a discussion between two scientific perspectives on the issue, instead of the  traditional "pro" and "anti" discussion."

Testing the premise

The primate example indicates some progress. But this approach has been lacking in some of the corporation's coverage of climate science.

Since the review was published, the BBC has produced some cracking climate science reporting. David Attenborough's Frozen Planet series stands out in particular. We have noted a series of examples where exactly the model of "pro" and "anti" discussion warned about here has been adopted in discussing climate change, however. In these instances this kind of argument has crowded out more substantive scientific discussion. Here are some examples:

On the Daily Politics show in June, Telegraph blogger James Delingpole came on to debate with Andrew Pendleton, Head of Campaigns at Friends of the Earth UK over whether global temperature rise has stopped. The segment, and a follow up discussion on presenter Andrew Neil's blog, meant the question of how temperature rise is occurring appeared as a debate between climate skeptics and believers, not an area where there is broad scientific agreement.

Radio 5's Your Call breakfast show in July asked: "Is the washout summer proof of climate change?", before inviting climate skeptic and green campaigners to debate whether a wet summer was "caused" by climate change. In our experience scientists would take issue with this question as being too simplistic. To further confuse the issue, as part of the discussion, the presenter also introduced the fringe idea that climate change is the result of sunspots.

A couple of days later, Today Programme presenter John Humphrys interviewed climate scientist Ralph Cicerone on the Today programme.Humphrys suggested that climate change may not be a problem because the climate is always changing, that there was a "great ice age in this country a few centuries ago", that climate change may just be a local phenomenon, and put to Cicerone that you "can't prove" that "carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is responsible for global warming". Aggressive interviewing, perhaps, but hardly conveying a due weight sense of where scientific opinion lies.

Then in September, Newsnight kicked off a debate about Arctic sea ice melt with a (well done) package discussing the scientific views of sea ice specialist Peter Wadhams. It rather undid the good work, however, with a debate pitting two politicians - skeptic Tory MP Peter Lilley and Green Party leader Natalie Bennett - against each other. Lilley and Bennett had apparently been booked to discuss government policies rather than climate science, but inevitably they ended up discussing the science of climate change, with very confusing  results.

Work to do

These are just a few examples over a six month period and should be taken in the context of the BBC's wider output. But they do appear to demonstrate that the BBC has not rolled out Jones's recommendations consistently when it comes to climate science.

The basics of climate science are well-established, but there are still plenty of active debates beyond those foundations within the scientific community - and presumably there always will be. It seems to us that scientists are increasingly willing and eager to discuss how thinking on climate science is developing, the well-understood conclusions of their work, and the uncertainties that remain.

Continuing to get skeptic and green campaigners to debate climate science is stifling the opportunity for the BBC to give the public an understanding of where the real scientific debates lie. What goes for primate research should go for climate science as well.

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