Dear BBC: balance isn't everything
By Mark Henderson
At the end of September 2009, a 14-year-old girl collapsed and died at her school in Coventry. Natalie Morton, an autopsy showed, was killed by a large chest tumour that had not previously been detected.
The tragedy, however, captured the headlines for a different reason: on the day of her collapse, she had been given the human papilloma virus vaccine to protect her against cervical cancer. Much of the media played up the link, describing Natalie as a “cancer jab victim” — even though the vaccine was rapidly revealed to have been irrelevant to her death.
A few days later the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 addressed the case with a discussion involving Adam Finn, a vaccine expert, and Richard Halvorsen, a GP who is well known as an immunisation sceptic. It was an encounter that demonstrated much that is worst about media coverage of science, and the BBC’s in particular.
Though it was already known that the Cervarix jab had had nothing to do with the tragedy, Halvorsen was given a platform to claim that “the vaccine has to be a suspect . . . and to think otherwise would be unreasonable”. He was allowed to prolong a groundless scare in the name of lively debate and balanced coverage that allows both sides to have their say.
This approach was of a kind for which the BBC has plenty of form, and came immediately to mind when the BBC Trust announced last month that it is to review the accuracy and impartiality of the corporation’s science coverage.
The inquiry has unnerved many scientists: it has been interpreted widely as a reaction to complaints by global-warming deniers that their minority viewpoint has not been given a fair hearing. Yet the case can and should be made that current BBC practice gives such contrarian positions more airtime than they deserve, not less. If science can get its arguments right, the review could be a great opportunity to change the way it is communicated and reported for the better.
The BBC Charter enshrines its responsibility to be impartial, and in many walks of life that is quite easily achieved. If a government minister is interviewed, the Shadow spokesman can be given equal time to make his or her case. A complaint from a consumer group about a faulty product can be put to its manufacturer for comment.
These simple formulae for achieving impartiality, however, are often inappropriate for science. By making a fetish of balance, and insisting too rigidly that both sides of a story are told, it becomes very easy to mislead.
In science, opposing views do not always have equal merit. One side of an argument is often well supported by peer-reviewed evidence, while the other has little or no such backing. It might be balanced to accord similar status to each position, and always to allow both the right of reply. But it isn’t necessarily fair.
As the science writer Chris Mooney puts it: “The journalistic norm of ‘balance’ has no parallel in the scientific world, and, when artificially grafted on to that world, can lead reporters to distort or misrepresent what’s known, to create controversies where none actually exist, or to fall prey to the ploys of interest groups who demand equal treatment for their ‘scientific’ claims.”
Another vaccine, MMR, is perhaps the best example of such a phoney controversy. Much of the media, including the BBC, covered claims that the jab can cause autism as if all opinions on the subject had equivalent value, pitting the opponents and defenders of MMR head-to-head. The impression given was of genuine dissension between experts, and this left many parents confused about whom to believe.
Yet the true position was and remains that hardly any doctors or scientists think MMR is dangerous, because research overwhelmingly indicates that it is not. False balance manufactured a row that damaged public health. In 1998, the year when the MMR scare first surfaced, there were 56 cases of measles in England and Wales. In 2008, after immunisation rates had plunged, the tally stood at 1,348.
Of course science should not be above criticism, and there are times when alternative viewpoints add important value to public discourse. Ethical objections to embryo and animal experiments, for example, deserve to be heard. The he-said-she-said approach to impartiality, however, can distort even these debates. Embryo rights campaigners, for instance, are invited to question not only the morality of stem-cell research, on which they are as qualified to speak, but also its usefulness, on which they are not.
It is critical that the BBC Trust hears this — and not just for the sake of science on the BBC. Cardiff University academics found last month that the BBC’s 30 science journalists account for more than a third of the science specialists in the UK media. The reach of the BBC means it has considerable influence over the way all of us encounter and engage with science.
What scientists should be calling for is a broader sense of impartiality, founded not on knee-jerk “balance” but on critical appraisal of competing claims. The goal should be not to seek out contrary views for their own sake, but to include those that are robust and relevant. That means acknowledging the uncertainties inherent in science and reflecting reasonable dissent from the mainstream. But it also means showing proper scepticism towards arguments that are lacking in evidence, scientifically implausible or plain wrong.
Everybody has the right to an opinion about science, but some of those opinions are more equal than others.
In : Science
Tags: science balance media
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