Drawing on a content analysis conducted as part of a BBC Trust review of the impartiality of the BBC’s coverage of science, this paper examines the extent to which the notion of impartial broadcasting applies to science coverage. In the UK, broadcasters are required to cover controversial issues in an impartial manner; the BBC goes further, applying due impartiality to all subjects. However, scientists and other commentators on the media coverage of science often claim that a special case should be made for science by exempting it from the need for balanced reporting. Quality in science journalism, the implication is, arises from the effective translation of scientific findings rather than from the mediation of science. Claims of this sort have become particularly prevalent in response to the media reporting of anthropogenic climate change, often making reference to analysis of journalistic balance by Max Boykoff (e.g., Boykoff and Boykoff, 2004; Boykoff, 2007).

Such arguments are based on two fundamental assumptions: firstly, that the source of news stories about science consists of statements of fact; and secondly, that the notion of impartiality can be reduced to the journalistic norm of balance. This paper will consider the relationship between balance and impartiality by critically examining reactions to the BBC impartiality review and the contrast between claims about the overuse of balance and the content analysis findings which showed a limited use of balance. The content analysis was based on eight weeks of BBC television and radio output in the summers of 2009 and 2010. I will argue that the case of global warming has served to focus attention on a narrow understanding of balance to the detriment of the central issue of independent journalism.

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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

Contested standards of quality in science broadcasting
Impartiality and balance at the bbc

Felicity Mellor   Imperial College London

Drawing on a content analysis conducted as part of a BBC Trust review of the impartiality of the BBC’s coverage of science, this paper examines the extent to which the notion of impartial broadcasting applies to science coverage. In the UK, broadcasters are required to cover controversial issues in an impartial manner; the BBC goes further, applying due impartiality to all subjects. However, scientists and other commentators on the media coverage of science often claim that a special case should be made for science by exempting it from the need for balanced reporting. Quality in science journalism, the implication is, arises from the effective translation of scientific findings rather than from the mediation of science. Claims of this sort have become particularly prevalent in response to the media reporting of anthropogenic climate change, often making reference to analysis of journalistic balance by Max Boykoff (e.g., Boykoff and Boykoff, 2004; Boykoff, 2007).

Such arguments are based on two fundamental assumptions: firstly, that the source of news stories about science consists of statements of fact; and secondly, that the notion of impartiality can be reduced to the journalistic norm of balance. This paper will consider the relationship between balance and impartiality by critically examining reactions to the BBC impartiality review and the contrast between claims about the overuse of balance and the content analysis findings which showed a limited use of balance. The content analysis was based on eight weeks of BBC television and radio output in the summers of 2009 and 2010. I will argue that the case of global warming has served to focus attention on a narrow understanding of balance to the detriment of the central issue of independent journalism.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.

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