Update to my post on climate change media coverage viewed from outside the policy bubble

Credit: Skeptical Science http://www.skepticalscience.com

As a coda to my piece on my frustrations with climate change media coverage  I was as good as my word and complained to the BBC last week when I heard (not for the first time) a Today programme presenter being dismissive about whether climate change was or wasn’t happening.

I received a response stating:

In general, the BBC is committed to impartial and balanced coverage when it comes to this issue. There is broad scientific agreement on the issue of climate change and we reflect this accordingly; however, we do aim to ensure that we also offer time to the dissenting voices.

Flagship BBC programmes such as Newsnight, Today and our network news bulletins on BBC One have all included contributions from those who challenge the general scientific consensus recently and we will continue to offer time to such views on occasion.

So, essentially the BBC accepts the scientific consensus (remember, that’s 97% of climate scientists) but thinks its ok to regularly broadcast those who oppose it. Really? That’s pretty astounding and pretty irresponsible. I made my complaint to the BBC on the basis of standards of journalism, not bias. Reporters should not be randomly questioning accepted science when they are not qualified to do so. And I really don’t want to hear non-experts who don’t understand the science pitted against each other in bizarre and nonsensical debates (for example this rather embarrassing effort with two non-scientists brought on to talk about arctic sea ice shrinkage on Newsnight).

In general the BBC’s coverage on climate can be quite good, but it’s really let down by incidents such as these. This isn’t about censorship or stifling debate, it’s about ensuring accurate coverage of evidence by those who are qualified to do it. I’m not suggesting climate scientists shouldn’t be subject to scrutiny and rigour, but allowing non-experts to make inaccurate and misleading claims and giving them the same weight as experts standing on a whole body of peer reviewed science is somewhat farcical.

A review of BBC reporting on science reached a similar conclusions stating: Programme makers must make a distinction between well-established fact and opinion in science coverage and ensure the distinction is clear to the audience.

The BBC also sent me a link to this blog  which confusingly defends the scientific consensus, then says the BBC, and Newsnight in particular, should be standing against ‘group think’ and thus also broadcasting dissent.

It states that the BBC’s job is not to save the planet. I don’t agree, but even so surely it is not the BBC’s job to help fuel the destruction of the planet by broadcasting factual inaccuracy that contributes to public misunderstanding about climate change. That’s not public service broadcasting.

Finally, my apologies for not posting on UK climate policy as promised – will do so when I’m back in the office in a few weeks time.



  1. 97% of scientists… well its a little more complicated than that.. 😉


    • Sara Shaw says:

      Just for information the above link goes to a climate sceptic website. Please see http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus-intermediate.htm for futher information about the scientific consensus.

      • As I am the author of the article in that Watts Up With That link, I didn’t realise it needed a ‘health’ warning! 😉

        The thing is, I do not think even Skeptical Science has ever read the original source material for Doran paper that the 97% figure is cited from (the MSc thesis – The Consensus of the Consensus) and to be fair to them, the thesis was only put online last yr.

        And the other most often cited survey (Anderegg) as you can see if you follow the link, received a large amount of criticism, from a very authoritative sources, not least of which, Dr Eric Steig of Realclimate (all links to source material are cited)

        The author of the ‘97%’ survey (cited by Doran/Zimmeramn) writes in the paper that Doran cites said the following are completing the survey and her thesis:

        “This entire process has been an exercise in re-educating myself about the climate debate and, in the process, I can honestly say that I have heard very convincing arguments from all the different sides, and I think I’m actually more neutral on the issue now than I was before I started this project. There is so much gray area when you begin to mix science and politics, environmental issues and social issues, calculated rational thinking with emotions, etc.” – M Zimmermann

        If I may suggest this blogs references to ‘deniers’ is rather offensive, for a number of reasons and I might ask you to consider its use. ie Leo Hickman sent me a copy of the Guardian’s style guide, which explains why.


        And at the time James Randerson (Guardian Environment editor) discussed this with Anthony Watts (Watts Up With That)

  2. I did a similar complain to the BBC about very poor coverage of climate science in the Daily Politics Show. The first answer I got was the kind of formulaic response you got above. I suggest you respond that the response received was unsatisfactory, as it forces the BBC to look into the issue in more depth and raises the level of complaint. Here are some excerpts from the second answer I received: also not very satisfactory, but it did get the BBC to raise the issue with the editor of the Daily Politics.

    “In particular you make the point that the discussion gave equal weighting to mainstream scientific analysis alongside a climate sceptic point of view, which you describe as running counter to the BBC Trust’s conclusion ‘that there is a is an agreed fact base about climate science’ and that ‘this should be reflected in reporting’.

    “The conclusion you refer to relates to the BBC Trust’s decision to commission Professor Steve Jones to give an independent assessment of the BBC’s reporting of science. The assessment was published in July 2011 as a ‘Review of Impartiality and Accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science’.

    “I note that you specifically quote from a section of its findings that was included in Fran Unsworth’s blog and which explained how:

    “”Professor Jones found that the coverage [BBC’s science reporting] could be improved in some significant respects, a view endorsed by the Trust… The report also says we should make sure that we achieve the right balance between well-established scientific fact and opinion. Otherwise, Professor Jones argues, there is a danger of the BBC giving undue prominence to critics on the fringes of what is actually a settled scientific debate.”

    “While I appreciate that this has led you to question the inclusion of a sceptical point of view in this instance, it’s important to make clear that the Professor Steve Jones report did not in itself recommend an outright prohibition on hearing from sceptics of man-made climate change theory.”

    “On the contrary, given the weight of scientific opinion, the challenge for us is to strike the right balance between mainstream science and sceptics since, as you point out, to give them equal weight would imply that the argument is evenly balanced.

    “The context that underpins the application of our editorial guidelines in respect of climate change takes account of the biggest peer-reviewed process in history, the IPCC, which concluded with certainty of more than 90% that climate change was primarily driven by humans. This has informed our coverage. And BBC News currently takes the view that our reporting needs to be calibrated to take into account the scientific consensus that global warming is man-made.

    “However this does not mean that we won’t occasionally hear from sceptical voices and the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines, issued to all editorial staff, state:

    “”Impartiality does not necessarily require the range of perspectives or opinions to be covered in equal proportions either across our output as a whole, or within a single programme, web page or item. Instead, we should seek to achieve ‘due weight’. For example, minority views should not necessarily be given equal weight to the prevailing consensus. Nevertheless, the omission of an important perspective, in a particular context, may jeopardise perceptions of the BBC’s impartiality. Decisions over whether to include or omit perspectives should be reasonable and carefully reached, with consistently applied editorial judgement across an appropriate range of output.”

  3. Sara Shaw says:

    Just to note that I am now on holiday (in the UK but without Internet access) so won’t be able to approve/moderate any comments until 18 October – apologies.

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