Last summer, the BBC Trust published a review of the impartiality of its science coverage, including an independent report from professor Steve Jones and research from Imperial College’s Felicity Mellor. Along with Mary Hockaday, head of the BBC Newsroom, and David Shukman, BBC science editor, they discussed the findings of their research and whether BBC science reporting has changed as a result.
Steve Jones kicked off the session by praising the BBC’s “mostly excellent” science reporting, but that coverage needs to be ramped up to match public demand. He was critical of the BBC’s “addiction to false balance” – news reports tend to feature more than one voice, but Jones said “the appearance of disagreement is a mistake”. He cited the case in which Brian Cox described astrology as “a load of rubbish", prompting viewer backlash and leading to a BBC apology.
Felicity Mellor expanded on the idea of impartiality, pointing out the difference between providing balance and scrutinising the science behind the story. She stressed that journalists need to make audiences aware of the limitations of research, by providing “cautionary and critical views of science”. Her analysis of BBC news reports showed that such criticism was rare, with only one in three reports containing any hints of uncertainty.
Mellor’s research found that many BBC stories are based on press releases. While she accepted that this is a good way of finding research news, she warned that they leave “too much scope for PR activity to shape the way that science is reported”. She suggested making scientific papers mentioned in news reports available to the public; Jones agreed but noted that relationships with journals are at a “tipping point”.
Acknowledging it may be impractical, Mellor also proposed making peer review notes available to journalists to help them scrutinise research, a prospect which left science writer Ed Yong salivating on Twitter and to which Jones replied: “If you read some of the things I wrote on peer review reports, I’d end up in court”.
David Shukman was introduced as “the result of the report”, as his post of science editor was created as a result of the review. He described some of the problems involved in broadcasting “specialist news for a general audience”, including how to make science accessible without ‘dumbing down’. He aims to ensure that newsrooms understand the scientific method through new courses at the BBC College of Journalism. To ensure that journalists keep up-to-date with the latest research, Jones also recommended Web of Science, claiming it is the “key to science” and that “it will change your life”.
Mary Hockaday pointed out the “huge degree of interest” in science stories, explaining how the BBC’s strategy is to look further ahead to the “big stories”, following Jones’ claim that the “more exciting fields are being covered at the expense of real science”. Hockaday and Shukman discussed the BBC’s recent coverage of the field of synthetic biology, an area which progresses in small steps, meaning news outlets “wouldn’t normally pick up on it”. Her assertion that coverage should not ”just be about science, but scientists” struck a chord with the audience.
So has the review changed the future of science reporting at the BBC? As Shukman says, “It’s still early days, but we hope to cover more science stories, to become better at dealing with uncertainty and to give audiences a sense of new, uncovered fields”.
Siobhan Chan, UKCSJ student scholar