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BBC science coverage: researcher involved in Imperial analysis shares her thoughts

BBC science coverage: researcher involved in Imperial analysis shares her thoughts

Dr Felicity Mellor talks about the recent review of impartiality and accuracy in the BBC's treatment of science - News

Friday 22 July 2011

Even the most enthusiastic news junkie might balk at working their way through 9,000 items of BBC news and other factual programming, but that's what a group of alumni from the Science Communication and Science Media Production MSc courses at Imperial College London did last year, as part of an analysis of the BBC's treatment of science.

They were contributing to an independent review of impartiality and accuracy in the BBC's science coverage, commissioned by the BBC Trust. Published this week, it shines a spotlight on the BBC's treatment of science across its TV, radio and online outlets.

Content analysis of BBC’s science coverage – some key findings

  • One in four BBC news programmes included at least one science item
  • Science coverage is spread over a wide range of BBC content
  • There were no significant factual inaccuracies in news or non-news coverage
  • Nearly half of sampled science items on BBC broadcast news programmes were about new research
  • Interviewees in science news and non-news science strands were predominantly male scientists at English universities
  • 1/3 of science news items include comments from more than one contributor, in addition to the journalist or presenter
  • Only a minority of contributors make cautionary comments about scientific claims
  • 3/4 of broadcast news items about research concerned stories where the source institution issued a press release
  • Only 1/8 of broadcast news items about research and 2/5 of online news items about research included comment from scientists unconnected to the research

Imperial on the BBC

  • Imperial was the third most frequently represented institution in BBC news coverage of science
  • Imperial was the fourth most frequently represented in non-news programming, with the College's experts appearing in 22 of the 314 programmes sampled

Alongside an in-depth content analysis carried out by Imperial's Science Communication Group over two separate periods in 2009 and 2010, the review contained an independent report from Professor Steve Jones, Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London.

Imperial's contribution to the review was led by Dr Felicity Mellor, working with Dr Stephen Webster and Dr Alice Bell. Laura Gallagher talked to Dr Mellor to hear her take on the group's research and what she thinks it reveals about how the BBC deals with science stories.

Your analysis looked at thousands of items on TV, radio and the BBC news website. How long did it take to sift through all that information?

We had a team of six coders working on the project for about two months, categorising different types of content. There was a huge amount of material that the team had to wade through to find mentions of science. Even so, we found that about a quarter of BBC news programmes included a science item.

Did you find anything surprising?

There was nothing particularly unexpected. There were lots of science programmes of many different sorts and we didn't find any gross inaccuracies in terms of the factual content. The review means we're able to move beyond the anecdotal nature of most commentary around the media coverage of science. Scientists often pick out bad examples of science reporting and then generalise to conclude that the media coverage of science is inaccurate. Our findings show that, for the BBC at least, any problems are to do with more subtle questions about how precisely a story is treated.

Is there any particular issue raised in your analysis that you think the BBC should address?

One thing that's very striking is that there’s a real lack of questioning of claims about science, even though that is an essential feature of science itself. There is often a lack of different voices around a story, so you'll hear the academic who's conducted the research being interviewed and that's all. In the majority of reports, there's no-one to provide a balancing viewpoint.

Where there is an alternative voice it tends to come from someone who is challenging the broad values surrounding the field, rather than exploring elements of a particular study. So for example in a story about genetically modified monkeys, some television reports included comment from anti-vivisectionists but not from any scientists discussing the limitations of the work.

This is tied in with the PR culture – journalists are largely depending on press releases. Stories about scientific research on the BBC are almost all associated with PR activity. This isn't unique to the BBC, and the BBC journalists do rework the PR material, but they don't often move beyond the framing provided within it. Ideally, journalists would be asking what is missing from the press release – what assumptions is the work based on, what gaps are there in the evidence, what is the wider context of the resesarch? They should be taking an investigative approach rather than a promotional one.

Did you find that this pattern was the same across radio, TV and online news?

In its broadcast stories the BBC has to have interviewees, so in these items journalists do ask questions about the science but they still aren't really reframing the stories. For example, we found a story on Radio 4's Today programme about a new and easy to administer test for dementia. The presenters had some fun with it by having a go at doing the test themselves and they talked to the scientists involved. However, they failed to ask how many false positives there were – and it turns out there were lots.

Not to ask this question is an obvious omission and in general this lack of scrutiny leads to a feeling that science is about producing certainty. That means that when science is invoked in policy making or in complex social situations, when uncertainty is always a factor, it's then difficult to have an intelligent public discussion. If there's a perception that science is about discovering absolute facts, then when scientists can't give a definitive answer or solution, people can think it's because the scientists have made mistakes or have failed.

Is there anything else that you think the BBC should consider?

Reports rarely mention who the funder of a piece of research is, but we know that public trust in scientists differs depending on where they're getting their funding from. By not providing information about funders, we’re depriving audiences of one of the ways in which they can weigh up the claims being made. This information might be difficult to include in broadcast news, but there is no reason why it shouldn't be included in online reports.

The diversity of formats for science on the BBC is unique among broadcasters and I'm sure this will continue to be a notable strength of the Corporation's output. Although their journalists don’t always ask the tough questions, they do succeed in presenting stories about a range of different aspects of science in ways that are accessible and engaging for a wide audience, and that is no mean feat.


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