One aspect of journalism that has led to a sense of entitlement among the public, and certainly those who have dissenting opinions, is the idea of 'balance' in media coverage. That is, showing both sides.
While balance is certainly fair, is it accurate and is it doing a service to the reader? Are anti-GMO activists as legitimate as all of the scientists in the field? Are anti-vaccine activists as legitimate as all of medicine? How about homeopathy proponents?
How about climate change?
The BBC, unlike American news, is government run. Everything in the UK is government run. You don't have President Obama approving the appointment of an archbishop for Minnesota, for example, but in England even the Church is government run. The governing body of the BBC has urged it to give less coverage to opponents of the 'majority consensus' in its programs because it implies 'false balance', they said. And in a sense they are right about reminding people that balance is not always better. Far too often, journalists either have to really hunt for a contrarian view in science or the journalists become activists themselves and fall in love with the concept of the 'oppressed underdog' the mean old Big Science establishment is suppressing. On the other side, though, you have science cheerleaders who lovingly coo over media talking points produced by the IPCC and print them as fact, which is no great service to the publc either.
It's outside the scope of this piece, but climate change did more to kill science journalism than the Internet has because of those twin issues.
The BBC report, unsurprisingly, did not find bias in BBC coverage. Regardless, Tory Chancellor Lord Lawson, chairman of the skeptical Global Warming Policy Foundation said,“The idea that because scientific opinion falls largely on one side you can’t have a debate is outrageous. Because there’s a strong majority in basic science doesn’t mean the issue is off the table, yet the BBC says it should be.”
He is certainly putting his own spin on the issue and it seems like a rather weak argument. What is the line between giving unfair coverage to the fringe and reporting legitimate science issues? I am not talking policy, that is outside the scope of this article, I mean the science facts. Even skeptics like Lord Lawson concede carbon dioxide levels are rising and leading to global warming, he simply objects to its extent and effect.
That's an awfully subtle distinction to make and then insist on equal time in the media. Should there be a standard disclaimer in atmospheric science articles, like 'some skeptics concede that greenhouse gases result in global warming but are not convinced about some projections of extent and effect'? That's a lot of room to take up in a 400- word article.
Like me, Dr. David Whitehouse, a former BBC science correspondent, says the BBC is muddying the water for science journalism by issuing edicts rather than letting journalists do their jobs. He says they are “grouping sceptics with deniers” and eliminating valid science in the process. "A sceptic is not a denier, all good scientists should be sceptics. The BBC has got itself into a complete muddle," he told the Daily Express.
Look, I think most, skeptics or not, with any knowledge of physics recognizes that warming is going to happen if we keep belching gases into our atmosphere. In that sense, I would agree that it's time to move on to how to deal with the problem and not spend time on if there is a problem. Pollution is bad.
But, as I have said too many times to count, journalists should be asking the awkward questions and a government body telling them not to do that feels vaguely wrong. For journalists to play along with self-censorship or even engaging in advocacy, the way far too many did last decade, is downright unethical.
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