A victory for the forces of public relations
Last week the BBC published an analysis of its science coverage during two four-week periods in 2009 and 2010. The broadcaster commissioned the study from the Science Communication Group at Imperial College London* as part of a series of reviews of impartiality.
The study concluded there was no evidence of significant factual inaccuracies in the coverage. What it did uncover, however, was that BBC journalism on the whole tended to celebrate discoveries rather than critique them, challenge them or report uncertainties in scientific findings. It also found that three out of four stories were based on press releases, and that if an expert was interviewed as part of a story, this would often be someone named on the press release: in other words someone unlikely to be critical.
The Imperial study also showed that BBC journalists seem to miss basic things in their reporting. For example, stories do not mention sources of research funding; and commentators are never drawn from those fields professionally trained to question and to challenge: such as philosophy, ethics or the law.
This is surely worrying. The Imperial team has confirmed that the BBC’s viewers, listeners and readers are getting a very misleading picture of what science is and how it is done. As every schoolchild knows, most of the macro-level questions in science are settled. However, there remains lively debate when it comes to the detail within specific scientific fields. Instead of reflecting that reality, the nation’s broadcaster seems to have become the department for public affairs for individual scientists who want to get noticed.
Having had advance warning of the report, the BBC’s management (known as the BBC Executive) has promised to change the way it organises its science coverage. But having examined the executive’s proposals we think that its recommendations will do very little to fill in the gaps identified in the Imperial report.
The proposals boil down to providing more opportunities for contact between scientists and the BBC’s staff, to be facilitated by a new science editor. Journalists will be exposed to more sources of information, such as commercial databases; they will be encouraged to attend more scientific conferences and use more journals; and extra seminars and forums will be laid on to help scientists and journalists interact.
Nowhere in the recommendations are there any measures to help or to encourage journalists to question, critique, or challenge what scientists are telling them. One group, however, will not be too concerned. The BBC’s proposals are likely to be welcomed by university PR offices. The whole point of university research communications is to ensure that a new discovery or novel finding is communicated in the media without being challenged or questioned.
The BBC’s proposals are bad news for the public’s understanding of science but more welcome for all those academics needing to show that their research is getting airtime in the media.
* Disclosure: Research Fortnight editor Ehsan Masood teaches on the science communication masters’ course at Imperial College, London.