Sep 10 2018

BBC and False Balance Revisited

In 2014 the BBC announced a policy change – that it would train its journalists to avoid false balance when reporting science news.  This was a welcome policy change, but apparently execution has not achieved the desired results. In a recent training brief the BBC admits it often gets its science reporting wrong, falling for false balance. This is especially true when reporting on climate change.

Balanced reporting simply refers to the journalistic standard of fairly and proportionately representing all sides in a legitimate debate. This strongly applies to political reporting, where there are often literally two sides, and neither side is objectively right or wrong. Even when one side has the better case, many news outlets take a neutral journalistic stance, simply reporting what each side claims. They relegate taking a side to the editorial and opinion pages, while sticking to the facts in their news pages.

False balance refers to the practice of reporting two or more sides to a controversy as if they are equivalent when they are objectively not. This mostly applies to science reporting, where opinion plays far less of a role than politics. The BBC affirmed in 2014 what critics of mainstream science reporting have been saying for decades – good science journalism does not present all sides in a balanced way, but rather reports different views in a proportional way, depending on the consensus of scientific opinion. That is a far more accurate way to report science news.

So, if 99.9% of geologists and other scientists accept the consensus interpretation of the scientific evidence that plate tectonics is the only valid scientific theory regarding the dynamics of the Earth’s crust, science journalists should not feel obligated to report on the alternate theory of the hollow Earthers every time they report on a related news item. They also do not have to mention, every time they show a NASA photo or video of a spherical Earth, that there are those who contend the Earth is actually flat.

Rather, they should strive to accurately represent the current consensus of scientific opinion. This means they need to understand what that consensus is, which requires at least basic scientific literacy. There may be contexts in which it is appropriate to report on minority opinions, or to report about fringe opinions, but they should not be presented as legitimate and balanced debates.

Unfortunately what we often get in mainstream news reports is even worse than false balance – the disproportionate showcasing of pseudoscience. This is because pseudoscience is sensational.The worst reporting, which is still common, presents fringe ideas without even bothering to point out that they are fringe. One notch up from that is token skepticism, in which a talking head briefly points out that the fringe science is nonsensical. Token skepticism is actually the worst, because it lends to the legitimacy of the fringe science to have a mainstream scientist commenting on it (but not enough to thoroughly put it in its place).

Then there is simply bad science reporting, which is reporting on mainstream science but gets it significantly wrong. The biggest mistake made here is in presenting new science without putting it into perspective, or misrepresenting the implications of new research.

False balance is perhaps, however, the most insidious bad science news reporting. With false balance journalists are often not reporting on rank pseudoscience, but simply elevating a minority or even fringe opinion as if it were equivalent to the mainstream consensus. This likely has the greatest potential to distort the public understanding of important science.

Worse still, the practice of false balance in science news reporting is easily manipulated by ideological groups. The BBC’s recent memo was dealing mainly with climate change, admitting that they often get the reporting wrong by giving false balance to climate change deniers with a political agenda. They state:

“Journalists need to be aware of the guest’s viewpoint and how to challenge it effectively. As with all topics, we must make clear to the audience which organisation the speaker represents, potentially how that group is funded and whether they are speaking with authority from a scientific perspective.”

They reference recent interview with climate change denier, Lord Lawson, which violated this standard. Lawson’s foundation does not disclose its funding, is not an authoritative scientific organization, and its views do not represent the mainstream of scientific opinion.

This is often a strategy applied by ideological groups – to cultivate a few personalities who can represent their viewpoint with apparent authority. They then make the rounds on media, countering scientists wherever they can. These fake authorities are often slick and charismatic, and are up against nerdy scientists who may have little media experience.

Part of the blame for this does rest on the scientific and academic communities. Scientists need more training in dealing with the media and the public, and those that are good at it should be encouraged. Science press releases need more input from the actual scientists, and need to avoid common pitfalls as well.

But a large part of the blame also rests on the media. They need to stop gullibly reporting pseudoscience as fluff pieces. They need to ditch token skepticism to make themselves feel better. And they need to work against false balance, as the BBC is doing.

All of this means having a staff of adequately trained science journalists and editors, and making sure all science reporting goes through them.

Bad, misleading, and deliberately manipulated science reports is also just one part of a larger problem – figuring out how to have quality control on the flow of information in the internet age. Some people take the position that there should be no filters, and we should let the free market of ideas sort everything out. While I agree with letting the free market of ideas work, the problem comes with equating having no standards or filters with free. That is naive.

The idea of a free market of ideas is that in the marketplace the best ideas will tend to win out over time. But a completely open space does not automatically result in a free marketplace where value is important. This is because any open space can be manipulated by those with resources and few morals. It is now very easy to spread false news, including fake science news. Messaging can also be optimized for emotional appeal, rather than quality of information. This is fine in the context of entertainment, but disastrous for important news.

Also, deception is extremely easy in an entirely open space. A free market requires some mechanism of transparency – and transparency can mean many things, not just disclosing funding sources. It can also mean fairly representing the consensus of scientific opinion. It also means that if an outlet carries an imprimatur of quality control, they actually have to have quality control.

The bottom line is that the current age requires much higher journalistic standards than I think we currently have. There are excellent outlets out there, but the baseline is simply not good enough. Ditching false balance, however, is a good start.

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