Reporting Climate Change

July 2013: There’s continues to be much debate about climate science in the media – most often by non-climate scientists – including contributions by the Mayor in a recent article “The weather prophets should be chucked in the deep end” (see here and here for details). More recently (14 July) an interview by journalist Andrew Neil with Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, on his BBC show The Sunday Politics, has reignited the debate on the media’s coverage, impartiality and bias on presenting climate change science to the public. Following the programme, there was much debate on statements made by Mr Neil during the show which resulted  in the following  communications: (Initial critique of Sunday Politics show; Andrew Neil response; response to that response!). Mr Davey and DECC have unusually decided to remain silent on the issue since the interview.

As this latest debate on climate science was initiated by a BBC show and Mr Neil’s response is posted on a BBC website, it’s worth looking again at the 2011 BBC Trust review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science which, amongst other issues, looked at the corporation’s reporting on climate change. The report was commissioned by the BBC Trust and undertaken by Professor Steve Jones of UCL.

The report interestingly mentions that the BBC has a Climate Change Steering Group [p36 and p67] and includes the following findings:

“A poll carried out by the Cardiff University Understanding Risk Group in early 2010 showed in contrast that one in seven among the British public said that the climate is not changing and one in five that any climate change was not due to human activity. Fewer than half considered that scientists agree that humans are causing climate change. The divergence between the views of professionals versus the public may be seen as evidence of a failure by the media to balance views of very different credibility. The BBC is just one voice but so many in Britain gain their understanding of science from its output that its approach to this question must be considered.

Much of it has been exemplary, with the investigations of Roger Harrabin, its Environment Analyst, in particular following every twist and turn in the argument. The BBC itself has accepted in an internal document that the balance of debate has changed. In an Impartiality Report submitted to the Trust in 2008 the Executive noted that: “The centre ground in climate science has shifted markedly. One main reason for the change in global opinion was last year’s resolution of the most fundamental questions in climate science by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s official climate change assessment forum. The IPCC concluded that it is beyond doubt that the climate is warming and more than 90% likely that this has been driven by human activity. Given the weight of opinion building up around the IPCC it makes sense for us to focus our coverage on the consensus that climate change is happening, is serious, but is manageable if tackled urgently…”

Prof Jones’ report goes on to say: “These are welcome words but it is not clear to me that they have percolated through the BBC. The presentational style of some coverage since that Impartiality Report has continued to suggest that a real scientific disagreement was present long after a consensus had been reached. Jeremy Vine’s introduction to a 2010 Panorama makes the point: “What’s up with the weather?”: “Does anyone believe the claims anymore?…A freezing winter and allegations that the scientists have misled us have set the experts at loggerheads”. That antagonistic statement is typical of how the agenda on climate change is sometimes set. It suggests that there are two equally valid points of view that must be sorted out – ten years after consensus had been reached that (whatever the cause) climate change is happening.”

“…The real discussion has moved on to what should be done to mitigate climate change. Its coverage has been impeded by the constant emphasis on an exhausted subject whose main attraction is that it can be presented as a confrontation.

“For at least three years, the climate change deniers have been marginal to the scientific debate but somehow they continued to find a place on the airwaves. Their ability so to do suggests that an over‐diligent search for due impartiality – or for a controversy – continue to hinder the objective reporting of a scientific story even when the internal statements of the BBC suggest that no controversy exists. There is a contrast between the clear demands for due impartiality in the BBC’s written guidelines and what sometimes emerges on air.

“The factual argument, even for activists, appears to be largely over but parts of the BBC are taking a long time to notice.The climate story has lessons about impartiality that could be useful in a wider context. It promotes the essential lesson that science is a process and not a result,that as information grow sits narrative can alter and, occasionally,may even change direction.Uncertainty is part of the system and often means that a discovery can be stated only in terms of probability.Unlike the deniers,scientists accept that they could be wrong. To do so is not to admit that they are dishonest. [pages 70-72]

It’s interesting to note that BBC Chairman Lord Patten reported to the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee only earlier this year that on climate change the BBC  hasn’t “always dealt with the issue as well as we could have done. For example, I will not mention the individuals, but one or two individuals have not been well treated on this issue in the past.” [Q133].

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