Back to reporter school

One piece of good news, amid the gathering shadows of looming Supreme Court justices:

BBC journalists are being sent on courses to stop them inviting so many cranks onto programmes to air ‘marginal views’.

Yessssss. Should have been done long ago.

The BBC Trust on Thursday published a progress report into the corporation’s science coverage which was criticised in 2012 for giving too much air-time to critics who oppose non-contentious issues.

The report found that there was still an ‘over-rigid application of editorial guidelines on impartiality’ which sought to give the ‘other side’ of the argument, even if that viewpoint was widely dismissed.

Some 200 staff have already attended seminars and workshops and more will be invited on courses in the coming months to stop them giving ‘undue attention to marginal opinion.’

It’s odd that they couldn’t figure that out for themselves.

The Trust said that man-made climate change was one area where too much weight had been given to unqualified critics.

In April the BBC was accused of misleading viewers about climate change and creating ‘false balance’ by allowing unqualified sceptics to have too much air-time.

In a damning parliamentary report, the corporation was criticised for distorting the debate, with Radio 4’s Today and World at One programmes coming in for particular criticism.

The BBC’s determination to give a balanced view has seen it pit scientists arguing for climate change against far less qualified opponents such as Lord Lawson who heads a campaign group lobbying against the government’s climate change policies.

Andrew Montford, who runs the Bishop Hill climate sceptic blog, former children’s television presenter Johnny Ball and Bob Carter, a retired Australian geologist, are among the other climate sceptics that have appeared on the BBC.

The report highlighted World at One edition in September of a landmark UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) research project which found concluded with 95 per cent certainty that the climate is changing and that human activity is the main cause.

The programme’s producers tried more than a dozen qualified UK scientists to give an opposing view but could not find one willing to do so – so they went to Mr Carter in Australia.

Rather than letting the fact that they couldn’t find one tell them something – such as, that there’s an overwhelming consensus so opposing views are bound to come from people with an ax to grind.

Anyway, good that they’re going to learn better now.


  1. says

    marginal opinion

    Typical of the press, they got even that wrong. It’s not a question of opinion it’s a question of when belief collides with fact. That they mistake this for an issue of matters of opinion shows the degree to which post-modernist ideas permeate the media.

  2. says

    Well, except that many scientific differences are a matter of interpretation, and so of opinion in a way. It’s just that climate change has moved out of that category.

  3. zubanel says

    The brits are ahead of the Americans on this one. Wow. A press that subscribes to actual information. I thought I would never see that again.

  4. says

    BBC journalists are being sent on courses

    Idiot slapdown reeducation camps? While i suppose, while it is truly sad, that journalists may actually need education on this, I would rather hope these courses are a method of taking journalists aside, as such, to give them a stern talking-to about fake controversy journalism tactics.

  5. quixote says

    I’ve spent my life as a university bio prof, sometimes teaching non-majors courses. We’d get budding journalists and communications majors there. Some of them were very bright, but they all shared an abhorrence of science and math. Most would do the needful to get through the class, but you could just feel them brushing off the science cooties so they wouldn’t stick. (Yes, I tried my damndest to be interesting, unthreatening, etc., etc.)

    Anyway, the point I wanted to make is that the allergic reaction means many people trained for journalism really don’t know the first thing about science, including what constitutes the weight of the evidence in those disciplines. They have no intellectual tools to evaluate that.

    So I think the courses may actually work extremely well. Now the journalists will actually see a need to take some of this science stuff on board. They’ll be interested, they’re smart people, and they’ll get it. I’m very hopeful it could make a real change.

  6. palmettobug says

    As a scientist and son of a former old-school newspaper journalist, I think this is definitely a move in the right direction. Journalism needs this and many other fixes. The faux-balance fallacy is just part of the problem. Another problem is that journalists often try to bend every story and fact to fit a fairly small set of narratives (like, “X happens, scientists baffled”, etc.), and often end up telling a very misleading story, even when the reporter doesn’t have an axe to grind on a particular topic. I’v personally witnessed and have friends who have witnessed several events that were grossly distorted by the press, apparently to try to jazz up the story.

    For example, once I saw from a balcony a peaceful, singing candlelight vigil protest by a Jewish student group against a holocaust denier who was going to speak on campus. That group was lumped in with later protests by anarchist groups in the TV reportage. They were separate events.

    Part of the problem might also be the overlap between journalism and PR that I’ve observed. Reporters becoming PR spokespeople, and vice-versa. Often trained in programs that treat journalism and PR as if they were pretty much the same thing. Not enough emphasis on ethics. They also tend to get too chummy with the rich and powerful in order to get “access”.

  7. Maureen Brian says

    Set up as a public service broadcaster, the BBC has always been proud of its “balance” and of telling both sides of any story. The thing is that it lacks a critical mass of the scientifically literate and has lost the ability to spot the moment when an idea shifts from a subject for heated discussion to a consensus under attack from the rabidly under-informed.

    I imagine David Attenborough, when in post , did a fair amount of course correction and internal training. Back to reporter school is the next best thing. Remember that we get a hell of a lot of good science from the BBC produced by people who understand it. The problem lies with the news teams and politically trained comment people.

    This is a work in progress, though, and now we have to teach them to correct for class, gender and ethnicity bias – also rampant – though it is being worked on both inside the Beeb and by the Select Committee. Tune in again sometime to see how far they’ve got.

  8. jesse says

    Working journalist here.

    I’ll say this kind of stuff is needed because, as quixote noted, the issue is really that a lot of communications people don’t do science in their coursework, except for the minimum.

    More to the point, the allergy to science starts earlier than university, usually, and comes from the fact that in the US the requirements for high school historically went: 4 years of English, 3 history, 2 math and 2 science as the minimum to graduate. This has changed a bit, but it reflects some rather old-fashioned needs. (It used to be that a lot of engineering-related stuff got covered in shop, before those classes turned into dumping grounds). Most communications majors weren’t interested in science to begin with.

    Anyhow, the requirements for journalists were historically to do with how to find information. I know that sounds odd in the Internet age, but we learned a lot about what documents to go for and where to get them, how to file a FOIA req and who to ask and how to parse stuff in situations where you have to assume that everyone is lying to you or is telling you something for self-interested reasons. (Also, most of the good stuff isn’t online).

    But finding information is one thing; knowing what to do with it is another. That’s a tougher skill to teach and learn. (And it’s why I and other old-er school people resist certain technologies a bit. Knowledge, information and wisdom are not synonyms).

    This is some of the source of the false balance problem. I mentioned this once to a gathering of science writers — I asked how many people had ever covered other beats. Most had not. I told them that the big difference in reporting on science, and why I like it, is I no longer have to assume that everyone is a liar. In politics or covering cops that’s a kind of undercurrent you have to deal with. (A sense of humor about it helps, but if you ever wondered why many of us sound jaded, this is why). Most reporters for big mainstream outlets are generalists, and you get told “Hey, cover this!” and you say “You know, I don’t know anything about…” and you get told “DO it.”

    So when you come at it after covering stuff in which there is no peer review, where all you have is say, a budget document and three politicians all telling you it means different things, or when you cover cops and have to assume that nobody is telling you the truth, that infects what you do when you cover the sciences. I am not saying we assume scientists are liars (consciously, anyway) — just that you get used to certain forms and mental habits out of necessity even when they aren’t applicable to some situations.

    I have a science background, so I was able to get away from that a bit. But more than one editor told me to get “an opposing view” on some stories. I had to explain that no, science doesn’t work that way…

    On the bright side most reporters do this because we love learning, which is why people with no knowledge are willing to tackle writing about something. There’s not many other jobs where you can say you know something now that you didn’t earlier in the day. And you get to tell everyone about it. So this is a group that will be very receptive I think.

    Learning how science actually works is a big step in the right direction. Many reporters don’t, or have only a cursory knowledge. So kudos to the BBC.

  9. Kevin Kehres says

    @9: You’re right — it does start early.

    When I was a senior in high school, I could either take the journalism class (elective) or the AP physics class. I had already passed AP chemistry as a junior. I chose journalism — which led to my careers. But the physics sure would have come in handy later on.

    It’s like educators think students have either a humanities brain or a science brain.

  10. Shatterface says

    I think the ‘science news’ problem largely down to the ‘news’ bit rather than ‘science’ because the same faux-balance afflicts political coverage too.

    Much as I enjoyed Cosmos recently the BBC does that kind of thing quite regularly, not just once a generation.

  11. says

    The brits are ahead of the Americans on this one. Wow. A press that subscribes to actual information. I thought I would never see that again.

    So much for the idea that privately-owned corporate media are better sources of information than big government-owned outlets. When it comes to quality and honesty of news, US capitalist media can’t even compete with a Muslim feudal lord on the other side of the planet. Pretty fucking sad for the country that invented the Internet.


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