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BBC gives too much weight to minority scientific views

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BBC sign at Television Centre

© Rex Features

The BBC has agreed to revamp its science coverage after an independent review highlighted that journalists sometimes gave too much weight to fringe views on stories such as climate change and GM crops.

The review, commissioned by the BBC Trust last year, found that the corporation's reporting of science stories was generally "high quality…clear, accurate and impartial".

However, it also noted several areas of concern, including that the corporation was at times so intent on being impartial that it put minority views on the same level as established scientific fact.

The report said that on contentious issues such as global warming, GM Foods and the MMR vaccine this can lead to "false balance", meaning viewers might "perceive an issue to be more controversial than it actually is".

The review, conducted by Steve Jones, emeritus professor of genetics at University College London, said that the BBC should provide a platform for opposing views to the scientific consensus, but these must be "properly scrutinised" and the corporation must "clearly communicate the degree of credibility that the view carries".

The BBC Executive has agreed to establish a new training programme for journalists on impartiality in its science coverage, and will run seminars to debate pressing issues.

Studying the BBC's science coverage in May, June and July of 2009 and 2010, professor Jones found that one in four broadcasts of news items was science related, with particular strengths in Radio 4's Today programme and BBC One's Panorama.

However, the professor criticised the "narrow" range of sources used by the BBC for stories, and said that journalists were "overly reliant" on press releases for information.

He also found that a "disproportionate" number of science stories were presented by men or featured men as contributors, while too many focused on the south east of England.

The BBC has agreed to appoint a dedicated science editor for BBC News who will "have responsibility for oversight of the weight of BBC coverage given to different areas".

Alison Hastings, chair of the Trust's Editorial Standards Committee, said that professor Jones's report is a "vote of confidence" for the BBC's coverage of science, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.

"Without in any way compromising journalistic rigour and scrutiny, the BBC must take extra care to be duly impartial when covering science so that the audience are clear about the difference between established facts and opinions," said Hastings.

"The new science editor will join other editors to become a figurehead and an ambassador for their specialism, and the BBC will also look at making adjustments to its newsgathering and information sharing in order to further improve its coverage."

Lord Patten, the BBC Trust chairman, added: "The UK's science industry delivers significant economic value to our country. The public's interest in science continues to grow, and levels of scientific literacy are improving as a result.

"There are some issues which will inevitably attract controversy, and reflecting scientific debate while making output accessible and appealing to audiences is a difficult balancing act.

"While there are areas for improvement, professor Steve Jones's comprehensive report shows the BBC is able to achieve this balance, and I'm delighted to note Sir David Attenborough's view that the BBC's science programming is head and shoulders above any other broadcaster."

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