A British professor gives BBC high marks for quality of its science and climate change coverage but suggests a less rigorous approach to ‘due impartiality’ when the scientific evidence and facts are abundantly clear.

An academic’s in-depth review of the “impartiality and accuracy” of BBC’s coverage of science, with a significant emphasis on coverage of climate science, gives the British broadcasting giant high grades for “its breadth and depth, its professionalism, and its clear, accurate and impartial manner.”

That’s not to say there is no room for improvement, emeritus University College London Professor Steven Jones reported, pointing to “too many news items emerge from press releases” or from a small set of scientific journals.

On the “central element” of impartiality in its news coverage, an issue no doubt of most interest to climate “skeptics” in the U.K. and elsewhere, Jones’ assessment is unlikely to square well with those arguing BBC programming needs to move toward more coverage of the skeptics’ viewpoint.

“There can be an over-confrontational tone to science news,” he wrote. “Equality of voice calls for a match of scientists not with politicians or activists, but with those qualified to take a knowledgeable, albeit perhaps divergent, view of research. Attempts to give a place to anyone, however unqualified, who claims interest can make for false balance.” He recommended BBC take “a less rigid view of ‘due impartiality’ as it applies to science (in practice and not just in its guidelines) and take[s] into the non-contentious nature of some material and the need to avoid giving undue attention to marginal opinion.”

Jones wrote in his year-long review of BBC’s science coverage of “widespread concern that its reporting of science sometimes gives an unbalanced view of particular issues because of its insistence on bringing in dissident voices into what are in effect settled debates …. In science writing … balance and impartiality seem often to be conflated.”

Contrasting coverage of scientific research and evidence with that of some spokespersons challenging those views, Jones wrote that “many of those put up in opposition to a scientist on the broadcast media have had, in contrast, no scrutiny at all of the claims they put forward.”

“Mathematician discovers that 2 + 2 = 4; spokesperson for Duodecimal Liberation Front insists that 2 + 2 = 5, presenter sums up that 2 + 2 = something like 4.5 but the debate goes on.” From the Jones report on BBC science coverage

Specifically addressing BBC climate science coverage, Jones wrote that the issue exemplifies the “false balance” problem, sometimes using biting language:

  • He said “some (but not all)” of those suggesting global warming is a myth”practice denialism: the use of rhetoric to give the appearance of debate. This is not skepticism, for a skeptic is willing to change his or her mind when provided with evidence. A denialist is not.”
  • He said BBC “still gives space” to prominent British climate science “skeptics” who he characterized as “marginal to the scientific debate but somehow they continue to find a place on the airwaves. Their ability so to do suggests that an over-diligent search for due impartiality — or for a controversy — continue to hinder the objective reporting of a scientific story.”

Responding to the Jones report, the BBC Trust, to which the report was submitted, said it was pleased with the report’s characterization of its science coverage as being “exemplary” in precision and clarity. It agreed BBC should broaden its range of news sources for science stories and said BBC will appoint a science editor to oversee science news coverage and will try to strengthen its contacts with the scientific community. It said it will monitor its progress in improving its science coverage quarterly and report back in a year on the impacts of changes it makes.

The full report makes for valuable reading for U.S. news media ombudsmen and for journalism and climate science policy academics and also for science reporters and editors.