Science, politics and storytelling

Polar ice core drilling, photo: Mark Brandon, The Open University

photo: Mark Brandon, The Open University

The BBC Trust has just published its review of impartiality and accuracy in BBC coverage of science. Plenty of interest in it, and I read it as a very decent end of term report for BBC News and Vision the fairly modest media coverage fixates on the minor criticisms. BBC made major investments, and have stuck their necks out, with e.g. the Year of Science in 2010, and Bang Goes the Theory (a BBC/Open University co-pro – hooray). They deserve a pat on the back.

If I’ve got a criticism its that too often the media in general box off some topics as ‘science’ when in fact the core of a particular debate has shifted messily over into political and ethical questions. They don’t necessarily stop being ‘science’ or ‘technology’ topics but we need to become more comfortable with the fact that those words don’t have tidy boundaries. There was a hilarious radio 4 Today programme exchange a year or two back between Bob May (former UK govt chief scientist) and John Sauven (head of UK greenpeace) where both behaved like shocked maiden aunts at the thought that environmental NGOs are involved in political or ethical as much as scientific questions.

So if the BBC appoint a science editor how will news managers direct traffic in relation to some of these contentious stories (e.g. in life sciences or geoengineering) between the science editor’s desk and say, politics, business or world affairs eds? The environment specialists, e.g. Richard Black, Roger Harrabin and David Shukman have become pretty adept at acknowledging the hazards and moving safely across the science-politics-ethics territory and are probably a good place to go for advice when working these questions out. But if they find space for a science editor to join the arts editor might it be time to recognise the need also for a philosophy editor? (I nominate my pioneering digital scholarship colleague Nigel Warburton @philosophybites)

You can get a bit more of a sense of my argument on media and environment from the International Broadcasting Trust’s submission to the review – I contributed to the drafting this time last year. Some of these points will also appear in a journal article I’m working on currently on climate change on TV. Here are the summary and recommendations:

Submission by the International Broadcasting Trust to the BBC Trust’s
Science Impartiality review
Covering science in general and climate change in particular, in an impartial
way, presents major challenges. There are signs that various factors, including
newspaper coverage of ‘Climategate’, pressure from the blogosphere and a
shifting mood amongst a significant minority of the public (an increase of
around 10% in the number who don’t believe humans are responsible or don’t
believe that climate change is happening over 12 months), as well as a sense
of boredom with the topic within the media, has influenced editorial and
journalistic framings of the issue over the last six months.
In this paper we look in detail at the way in which climate change has been
reported across the BBC and we make a series of practical proposals which we
believe could not only enhance the BBC’s coverage but offer new
opportunities for innovation. We have eight specific recommendations:
1. Journalists and programme makers should resist ‘debate’ framings –
putting up opposing ‘pro’ and ‘sceptic’ climate change science opinion
– that carry with them the implication of a balanced debate between
equally informed players.
2. The BBC should recognise that the most appropriate way to represent
climate change science is to work harder to communicate that science
is a process not a result.
3. Broadcasters should support their work by fully referencing academic
sources where they make claims about climate science.
4. Programme makers should be more self-critical about their tendency to
seek to ‘ventriloquize’ public feeling, including feelings of scepticism,
and to work harder to represent the best available knowledge rather
than ill informed opinion.
5. There is an urgent need to improve the quality of debate on the
political, ethical and cultural dimensions of climate change and how to
prepare to adapt to and mitigate the threat of climate change. The BBC
should invest in identifying and encouraging new voices within this
broad field.
6. Storytelling about climate change needs to acknowledge the uneven
geography and time scales of impacts of climate change adaptation
and mitigation.
7. Staff should be encouraged and supported to create time for direct
contact with specialists outside the context of programme making, and
time for research and reflection within production to support the
development of more ‘process’ rather than ‘result’ based accounts of
science and technology.
8. The research and policy communities surrounding climate change need
to invest more effort in understanding media decision-making, their
own role within media framing of issues such as climate change and
reflect hard on what they can do to promote more effective accounts of
their findings.

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