BBC Science Journalism Review

September 19, 2010 at 6:37 pm (Media)

David Colquhoun has posted something on the BBC’s announcement of a report on the impartiality of science journalism on the BBC. I’ve sent them my twopence-worth.

I believe that two issues which (among others) should be addressed in the forthcoming review of impartiality and accuracy in the BBC’s coverage of science are (a) linking to original sources and (b) balance.

References provide a way of instantly checking the facts behind a story. The BBC have previously informed me that “As the is site intended for lay readers, it is our editorial policy not to give specific references to pieces in journals”. The implication seems to be that lay readers either don’t need references or can’t understand academic papers. This is a position with which I would strongly disagree. Given the ease with which sources can be linked to in online stories, the failure to link to original sources in such reports represents a real wasted opportunity.

It was also pointed out to me that the BBC’s policy was in line with the practice in national newspapers. Rather than aiming to be on the same level as the Daily Mail, perhaps the BBC should aim higher and use the New York Times as a role model?

With regards the need for “balance” in reporting: too often, minority views that are not supported by the available evidence are given undue prominence. I can recall seeing examples of this in the BBC’s online reporting of news on vaccination, with the opinions of fringe groups seemingly accorded the same importance as the established facts on vaccination. Professor David Colquhoun provides an example of a Radio 4 phone-in that was skewed in favour of the views of an advocate of alternative medicine here: You and Yours.


I had a bit of a whinge about this a couple of years ago. Here’s what I wrote at the time: Linky McLink.


  1. jdc325 said,

    I’ve had an auto-reply message from the BBC. The header makes it clear it is automated: “Trust Science (Auto Reply Message)”, which made the first line of the email mildly amusing.

    Thank you very much for your email and your contribution to the BBC Trust’s Impartiality Review of Science Coverage which I’ve read with interest.

    Unless their email system has gained sentience…

  2. Tweets that mention BBC Science Journalism Review « Stuff And Nonsense -- said,

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mel B and Press Not Sorry, Alan Henness. Alan Henness said: RT @jdc325: Blogpost: giving the BBC my twopence-worth re science journalism review #BBCsci […]

  3. jdc325 said,

    Mr Jobbins on BBC linking to original research in online reports: linky. It’s good that they do this occasionally, but it needs to be done consistently.

  4. Neuroskeptic said,

    Personally I find the whole question extremely weird.

    The problem with science journalism (at the BBC, or elsewhere) was never that it’s not impartial enough. It’s that it’s just crap. Indeed, even a partial reporter would probably be able to do better than most existing impartial science journalism, because to be partial you need to know something about the subject!

    Asking whether the BBC is impartial makes sense when it comes to coverage of politics, and (maybe) general news in so far as it bears on politics. But it’s completely missing the point to ask it about science journalism.

  5. Martin said,

    I’m definitely with you on the links to sources. Otherwise we continue the semi-myth of ‘informed expert/priest’ vs ‘ignorant public/laymen’; there are plenty of people who can do informed investigations.

    Not so much with you on impartiality. If the readers are split between homeopaths and proved medicine users, for example, then impartiality requires both given reasonably similar time to make their case. The BBC has neither expertise, remit nor funds to evaluate correctness; what it does is provide a platform for people to present evidence and argument for their correctness and/or trustworthiness.

  6. BBC’s (Im)partial Science Reporting « SoftestPawn’s Weblog said,

    […] when it comes to science topics. Because that’s really not good scientific practice. From Stuff and Nonsense &  DC’s Improbable Science, although the review started back in March. A cutdown […]

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