Picking apart the media

August 3, 2011 at 8:32 am | Posted in Editorial Comment | Leave a comment
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As News International continues to self destruct in the midst of editorial practices that would make Dr Evil blush, all eyes are once again on the media – and for scientists at least our incredulous gaze is being drawn toward the BBC.

Back at the beginning of 2010 the BBC Trust decided to review the accuracy and impartiality of the BBC’s science coverage. This, only the third ever such review, came about largely due to the Beeb’s reportage of climate issues. Climate change sceptics were up in arms over the fact that information on the now infamous Climate Gate appeared to have been leaked to the BBC months before it was reported. The fact that it wasn’t immediately splashed all over the News at 10 seems to have led some to cry foul and pin labels of ‘institutional bias’ on the Beeb. And it was a label that the Trust took seriously – for the review was to be carried out by none other than genetics superstar Professor Steve Jones, and he was asked specifically to look at accuracy and impartiality.

And what of his findings? Well, in a nut shell, the Beeb appears on the whole to be accurate – on the thorny issue of impartiality however, Professor Jones has a problem and I suspect it is not the problem that the sceptics who were largely responsible for the report thought he would find. You see, Jones thinks that when it comes to science coverage, the BBC can be guilty of overplaying the impartial card.

Indeed, he suggests that at times the over-rigid application of the editorial guidelines on impartiality fail to take into account the non-contentious nature of some stories. He even goes so far as to point out the need to avoid giving “undue attention to marginal opinion”.

Clearly not something the sceptics wanted to hear. It is clear the BBC is being held accountable to higher standards than the average media outlet, but of course that is absolutely correct and proper. It is our national broadcaster – and should be a bastion of openness and impartiality – especially when it comes to science.

However, I do hope that the BBC heeds Professor Jones’ words, and in their efforts to be impartial they don’t tip the balance too far and give a voice those who really don’t deserve one. Any science journalist worth their salt needs to apply some kind of critical filter to the work and people upon which they are reporting – being passively impartial and giving all and sundry the same amount of credence is, I would argue, less helpful than applying an experienced and knowledgeable appraisal of who has said what.

After all ­­– if done correctly, nothing is more impartial than science itself. A fact has no bias – let us hope that the media at large get used to giving them the respect they deserve.

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