More Whinging about the BBC

March 19, 2008 at 12:33 pm (Alternative Medicine, Bad Science, Media, Remedies) (, , , , , , , )

Following on from my whining and moaning about the BBC not giving details of a paper on a pentaherbs formulation for eczema, I sent an email. I complained that there had been at least two health/science stories recently that were so devoid of detail it was difficult to track down the papers that the news reports had been based on (“I’ve been unimpressed with recent coverage of science/health stories – particularly the lack of detail. For example, failing to include the study author’s name”). I also complained about the selective reporting of positive findings and the omission of any negative findings in the BBC report on herbs for eczema (“Initially, I was disappointed by the lack of detail in your report. On reading the original papers, I was further disappointed by the selective reporting of the papers by the BBC”). The Health Editor of the BBC website replied:

Many thanks for your message. As the is site intended for lay readers, it is our editorial policy not to give specific references to pieces in journals, as is the practice in national newspapers.  In both instances the name of the journal and research institution is featured prominently in the story.  In addition, we provide web links to the relevant journals.

I replied to the BBC’s email as follows:

Thanks for your response. I still feel it would be helpful (even to lay readers such as myself) if details such as the author’s name were given, as this makes it easier to search for the paper(s) that a news story is based on. A proper reference to the paper in question would be even better.

Can I also ask why the BBC reported on the positive findings of the papers (the improvement in ‘quality of life’ and the reduced use of medication), but ignored the negative aspects (the increased risk of adverse events in the TCHM group and the greater improvement in SCORAD scores in the placebo group)?

As somebody has pointed out to me, references provide a way of instantly checking the facts behind a story. It feels patronising to effectively be told that lay readers don’t need references / can’t understand academic papers and, given the BBC’s recent reporting of academic papers, I don’t think that the BBC are best placed to decide who can or cannot understand a scientific paper.

I’d like the BBC to include proper references to the academic papers they report on. Failing that, brief details such as the author’s name would at least give us a clue. Lay reader or not, if I can’t be trusted with details of the original paper then how can I see if a report is accurate? It does seem to me to be a very patronising attitude, “our reporters read the papers – so you don’t have to”. I hope I’m being over-sensitive and this is not actually the BBC’s intention.



  1. JQH said,

    Definitely patronising of the BBC. They obviously have yet to lose the attitude that we plebs should be grateful for the intellectual crumbs they care to cast in our direction.

    Also reminds me of a Government reason in the 80s for not releasing data on the chemical composition of tobacco smoke:-

    “It cannot be understood by the average person”

  2. Martin said,

    Funnily enough I was going to do a post on this very story, but you beat me to it.

    You’re right that the quality of BBC science reporting seems to have declined massively in recent years. All that the science editors seem to do now is pass on press releases, with no additional commentary other than the addition of the prefix “Scientists/Doctors/Experts say…” The only time they deviate from this is in the major issues, such as MMR, where the editors are forced to come in and take a line.

    The worst part is that they sometimes edit stories for simplicity, and as a result get the facts completely factually wrong. I’ve written to them several times in the last couple of years on this matter.

    Incidentally, I noticed you’re being aggregated at – how did you manage to get on there? I looked around for a way to contact them of add, but I couldn’t find anything.

  3. manigen said,

    Now now, jdc. Fancy questioning the BBC? Surely they know best and you shouldn’t worry your pretty little head about it.

    Martin, you should go ask in the forums at There’s a thread there where you can ask to be put on the roll.

  4. PJ said,

    Bah, that failed.

    Shorter PJ: They’re all stupid workshy bastards who would be out of a job without embargoed press releases to crib their articles from. Letting us read the papers makes them superfluous and highlights their complete lack of qualifications to write on science/health stories.

  5. badchemist said,

    I got exactly the same response when I emailed them about a different story. The stupid thing is all they need to do is add in an extra link to the DOI, or even just put the number at the bottom. This would confuse the average reader no more than their inadequate reporting or all of the bloody buttons for facebook, stumbleupon etc.

    The only reason they can really have for not putting it on is one one already mentioned by PJ. If they made it easy for those who understand the papers to find the original article they’d be inundated by emails from people pointing out the glaring errors. The powers that be may then realise that most of their staff are crap at their jobs and should be replaced with someone who has at least a small quantity of knowledge of the area on which they are reporting. i.e. people who would bother to look at the original research rather than reproducing verbatim the press release.

  6. gimpy said,

    Hmm I’ve had a bit of success recently with compelling the BBC to correct grossly inaccurate science articles (and a history one too) and I’ve never found them to be less than courteous when replying. Perhaps because I always sign my emails Dr Gimpy, maybe you should try that too, if it works for McKeith……….

    Anyway, can you keep us updated on the response to your response?

  7. jdc325 said,

    They’re quick – they’ve come back to me already. It’s only a one-line email but they do include the full references to the two pentaherb studies :)

    I take your point regarding precise citations – this has been a subject of some discussion here in the past, and doubtless needs to be again.

    I hope they will have this discussion. I think adding citations would help all those who wish to read the original research and I think Bad Chemist is right in saying that adding a link to the paper would be no more confusing than all the gubbins they already include on their webpages – I can’t think of any good reason why the BBC shouldn’t add citations.

    Thanks for your comments everyone.

  8. gimpy said,

    ooo I might right in saying it would be a splendid idea to introduce journal links

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