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BBC climate coverage is evolving, but too slowly

Posted on 12 September 2016 by dana1981

For years, the BBC has been criticised for the false balance of its climate change coverage. And for years, the BBC has apparently been doing “ongoing work” to fix it. So far, however, this ‘reform’ has been more like a triumph of the middling. Yes, the BBC may broadcast less outright misinformation, but as a scientist and a citizen, I still feel let down by its continually careless handling of climate denial - most recently two weeks ago. This nod to mediocrity is a disservice to science, to public trust, and to the biggest news story in the world. And it is a huge, missed opportunity.

As a young PhD graduate working on climate change solutions, I am confronted daily by a world where the warnings of science are undercut by Fox ‘News’ and its ilk. It is a very different world to the trustworthy BBC broadcasts of David Attenborough and the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures that I grew up with, which helped inspire me to become a scientist. But as a recent BBC News segment by Science Editor David Shukman sadly reminded me, those worlds can too easily collide.

Shukman’s broadcast was an interesting one. An important perspective on the “political battle over the future of fuel” in the swing state of Ohio, and its implications for U.S. energy policy. I transcribed it here. It was all pretty benign until, halfway through, something in Shukman’s narration caught my ear (emphasis mine):

The problem with coal comes when you burn it. It releases carbon dioxide, which is blamed for global warming. Donald Trump saysthat isn’t a problem. But Hillary Clinton says it is, and she’s offering a greener future instead ...

While the debate rages over whether climate change is a threat or not

Shukman’s accompanying BBC blog post beats the same drum, outlining the candidates’ “starkly different visions of global warming”:

The Democratic Party contender says she believes in the science of climate change. By contrast, the Republican candidate talks down the threat of rising temperatures.

As harmless as they sound, words like “blamed”, “debate”, and “believe” - without careful context - are the currency of public confusion. “Who, exactly, blames carbon dioxide for global warming?” we are forced to wonder. Clinton? Liberals? Scientists? And who disagrees? Trump? Other politicians? Some scientists too? Most importantly, who’s right in this blame game?

For the record, carbon dioxide is not “blamed” for global warming - it “causes” it. That is the unequivocal scientific consensus the world over.

Confusion, in turn, fosters doubt. And in the strategic words of Big Oil and Big Tobacco, “Doubt is our product.” Doubt promotes apathy. It demotes the importance of climate change to the electorate. It means we demand less of our leaders, and less of ourselves. And it is all that those who oppose action on climate change need to win.

The psychology of climate communication is of course not black-and-white, but as one peer-reviewed study summarised:

In short, people who believe that scientists disagree on global warming tend to feel less certain that global warming is occurring, and show less support for climate policy.

The BBC should know better, because over and over, it has been indicted for mistakes like this. In fact, Shukman’s position of Science Editor was created to address mistakes like this.

As a cross-party Science and Technology Committee investigation in 2014 put it,

This lack of distinction within BBC News between proven scientific facts and opinions or beliefs is problematic.

It was déjà vu of what the BBC’s own governing body had concluded three years earlier, and came just months before yet another critical BBC Trust review in 2014:

The BBC has a duty to reflect the weight of scientific agreement but it should also reflect the existence of critical views appropriately. Audiences should be able to understand from the context and clarity of the BBC’s output what weight to give to critical voices.

I couldn’t help but share my frustration that this is still happening:

Due respect, it's appalling to today see @BBCNews Science Ed@davidshukmanbbc indulge climate chg denial & a false sense of debate...(1/4)

To be clear, I am certain that Shukman intended nothing untoward with his report. It could easily be fixed. It is not the blatantegregious climate denial that ismostly in the BBC’s past. He kindly replied with an explanation:

Due respect, it's appalling to today see @BBCNews Science Ed@davidshukmanbbc indulge climate chg denial & a false sense of debate...(1/4)

@GeoffreySupran also with respect, I was referring to the opposing climate views ie debate of the two leading US presidential candidates

This is important journalism. I applaud Shukman for reflecting climate change as the electoral wedge issue it may be. He does an excellent job, in the BBC Trust’s words, of “reflect[ing] the existence of critical views”.

Sorely lacking from Shukman’s broadcast, however, are “the weight of scientific agreement” and “context and clarity of...what weight to give critical voices”. My point is that these subtleties of reporting matter too. They help make the difference between fair balance and false balance - a difference the BBC has struggled to respect. Repeated day after day, their additive creep must be guarded against to avoid the innocuous becoming the insidious.

The public absolutely deserve to hear the debate. But they also deserve to know that the debate is political, not scientific. They deserve to know that science-wise, one side is right and the other is wrong. They deserve to know that scientists unanimously agree that humans are causing climate change. And they deserve to know that President Trump would be the only leader in the world to oppose that consensus.

Pat Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.” So how can the BBC avoid its damaging lapses, where the two get blurred?

Extrapolating from the “disappoint[ment]” of the Parliamentary committee chair, Andrew Miller, “that the BBC does not ensure all of its [programs] and presenters reflect the actual state of climate science in its output”, here’s one idea: The BBC could adopt a new reporting protocol, whereby whenever individuals express opinions on climate change of any kind, or perhaps whenever the subject arises at all, reporters must include a one-sentence summary of the scientific consensus in their story.

This (partial) solution would give journalists an uncontroversial way to apply the recommendation of Miller’s committee “to challenge statements that stray too far from science.” And empirical studies suggest that while this approach would not be enough to fully offset the crippling confusion caused by “falsely balanced” reporting, it would help. It wouldn’t be as funny as pitting 97 climate scientists against three climate deniers, but it would be practical.

There are plenty of examples of this strategy. In May, when the Washington Post reported Donald Trump’s dubious position(s) on climate change, it made sure to clarify, with citations, that,

There is a scientific consensus that humans are causing the planet to warm.

And last month, when Brian Cox was confronted by a climate denier on live television, he too left no room for confusion. There is “absolute, absolute consensus,” he underscored.

Click here to read the rest

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Comments 1 to 19:

  1. If anything, the BBC have been rabid AGW alarmists with a 'the debate is over' slant on most if not all is 'climate/weather' related coverage.' If anything, they are becomimg slightly more balanced than in the past and certainly in the piece you refer to. The BBC is supposed to be balanced in all things and if anything, this report represents that balance. CO2 driven climate change is 'Theory' not a fact, and theory with very little to back it up, so they cant say C02 'does' cause climate change, no matter how much youy scream 'unequivocal scientific consensus' and '97%' because there is none and for the sake of balance, the BBC have to report as such. They cannot present things as scientific fact, when there is 'no' scientific fact to back it up. 'Consensus' just doesnt cut it.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Pure undadulterated poppycock, i.e, sloganeering.

    Sloganeering is prohibited by the SkS Comments Policy.

    Please read the policy and adhere to it. If you do not, you will relinquish your privilege of posting comments on this site.

  2. I can only assume that ABloke writes frequently to the BBC complaining about the lack of coverage of phrenology, geocentrism, and hollow Earth theory, given his peculiar definition of "balance".  Or is it perhaps only the pseudoscience he adheres to that he thinks deserves to have its public plausibility boosted by inaccurate reporting by the BBC. 

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  3. To the moderators, I was surprised to see ABloke's comment get any positive thumbs on a reasonably educated forum.  I was especially surprised to see that he got it so quickly.  Consequently I ran a test and found I could give my own comment a thumbs up.  I ask that the moderators remove that thumbs up, which was only done as a test, and remove also ABloke's if it was similarly underserved.

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  4. ABloke. You haven't got a clue about the reality of the situation as you clearly don't know what you are talking about.

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  5. I think part of what Abloke said is worth discussing. He is putting down science consensus about a theory as being inferior to science facts. In my viw all science, whether observations, or theory, become accepted and established by consensus. 

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  6. Many media including the BBC do indeed have this fake balance issue. I see a similar thing in media in my country of New Zealand, where there is broadly a 50 / 50 split in certain specific media between warmist articles (for want of a better word) and sceptical articles. This may create an impression with some people that climate scientists are equally divided in their views, which is not the case. Over 90% of climate scientists agree we are warming the climate, according to several different carefully conducted polls.

    There seems little point having sceptical articles contesting generally well established elements of the science like "the greenhouse effect".

    For other sceptical articles that discuss something that is in genuine doubt, perhaps the BBC should have an advisory at the top or bottom of the article that reads basically something like this : “Advisory to readers : The BBC advises that the IPCC has determined we are warming the climate, and over 90% of climate scientists agree we are warming the climate, according to published polls (then a list of the polls).

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  7. Nate @5, in science, a consensus is commanded by observations.  There are significant social aspects involved in how that comes about but science is a self correcting enterprise in which what drives the corrections are a determination to ensure theory matches obvservations by altering the theory where the two differ.

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  8. nigelj @6, a lot that passes for climate denial consists of straighforward, and often ludicrous pseudo-science and/or conspiracy theories.  If we had a news media that actually took seriously their duty to inform, these would not be presented in news and current affairs shows, and only presented in documentaries that fisk them.  This is not different to who we would expect new media to treat numerology, astrology, 911 Trutherism and other various nonsenses given air by credulous people on the internet.   Scientifically, thes include opinions that:

    Humans are not the cause of the current rapid rise in CO2 levels;

    CO2 forcing is not in the order of 3 - 4 W/m^2 per doubling;

    The climate sensitivity per doubling is not greater than 1 C per doubling of CO2.

    Of more interest are theories that the climate sensitivity is in the range of 1-3 C, which are not excluded by the IPCC.  Likewise, for theories that increased global temperatures will be net beneficial up to about 2 C.  Neither of these possibilities are excluded by the IPCC, given that they represent the lower half of the uncertainty range of IPCC estimates.  The question that should be raised is why the proponents of these views are so much more certain about their conclusions; particularly given that they typically exclude large parts of the relevant evidence.  In short, if those opinions are to be reasonably discussed, the framing should be an attempt to allow them to defend themselves against a charge of convenient dogmatism.

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  9. I am an Australian physical scientist who has followed the debate about climate change due to emissions of industrial operations for decades. There is very little uncertainty about the hypothesis that irreversible atmospheric climate disruption and ocean acidification and warming is occurring. Comprehensive  atmospheric and ocean measurements have backed the arguments of climatologists. The emerging global policies to reduce emissions can only slightly slow down this damaging process even if it these policies can be implemted as rapidly as physically possible. More emphasis should be placed on measures to adapt to the consequences, such as sea level rise, more severe storms, more droughts and more floods.

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  10. denisaf@9 said: "policies to reduce emissions can only slightly slow down this damaging process".  If we managed to hold CO2 at today's 400ppm, by end of century the rise would be 2 C.  If instead we get to 560ppm (BAU out to 2050), the rise will be 3 C.  But that's the expected mean: there's a one-in-six chance the rise (after 560ppm) will be 4.5 C or higher.  A 'roll of the dice' of a global extinction event, if we let CO2 get to 560ppm.  So, depending on your tolerance for risk, 'policies to reduce emissions' seem prudent, to me.

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  11. Tom #7,

    Agreed, theory often needs to be adjusted or thrown out. But often observations or analysis are wrong or incomplete-throwing out theory that has other supporting evidence can be premature. Example: a recent observation of faster than light particles (neutrinos). Most sensible people took a wait and see attitude rather than throw out relativity, and were proven wise-the experimenters made a mistake.

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  12. Tom Curtis @ 8

    All true enough. Many sceptical claims are simply outrageous, yet the media let them go uncontested. This is wrong, wrong and wrong.

    I gather you are suggesting the media treat climate science somewhat like a Richard Attenborough documentary, and that both sides of the debate are presented, before reaching a conclusion on the more convincing side of the debate (The IPCC position). Climate sceptics would have a chance to explain exactly why they believe climate sensitivity is low, given that most science suggests climate sensitivity is medium to high. Their response would in turn be examined.

    This is my kind of television or writing. It absolutely takes things apart in a rational way. In fact a chap named Gareth Morgan has written a book on climate change called "Poles Apart" where he devotes several chapters to the mainstream IPCC position, and then a couple of good chapters on the sceptical position, - and treats this fairly. Gareth then evaluates everything and explains why he thinks the sceptical position is weak.

    Gareth is actually an economist in New Zealand, but also an environmentalist, multi millionaire and he employed teams of scientists from both sides of the debate for his book and gave them ample input. I have no connection with the guy, I just mention it as a very balanced account of the whole issue, and a very good read as an introduction to climate change for the general reader.

    The trouble is books or media documentaries like this are sophisticated and "nuanced" and may not get the huge crowds, so private sector media aren’t interested. The media have descended into sound bites and desperate attempts to be "noticed" and inflammatory. However I believe the BBC certainly has a duty to treat climate science is this doucumentary way, and it can be made really interesting with some effort. 

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  13. nigelj @12, I would certainly suggest the media treat the public climate science debate like that, whilst also making it very clear what passes as the public debate bears no ressemblance to the actual scientific debates in climate science.  Of course, I would also allow simple reporting of the science without bringing in what are clearly minority (in the scientific community) and poorly supported views.  I think we should expect nothing less than that standard from public broadcasters including the BBC (and the ABC in Australia).

    I also think that reasonably we can go further without risk of violating freedom of speech.  As a first step, it should be incumbent on media, by law, to indicate the primary funding source of their sources.  So, if they use Joe Bast as a source on the climate change debate, they should introduce him as, "Joe Bast from the fossil fuel funded lobbying organization, the Heritage Foundation".  Second, I think any media report claiming to be news or current affairs should meet minimal standards of balance and integrity of the views expressed to be able to make that claim (with a disclaimer that they do not purport to meet those standards if they are unwilling to do so) as a matter of truth in advertising.  Further, the special protections journalists recieve in some countries (and ought to recieve) such as the right to protect sources, and a higher standard of proof in defamation proceedings against them should be conditional on their conspicuously attempting to meet those standards of balance and integrity.

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  14. Tom Curtis@13

    Yes those seem like sensible media guidelines. I believe freedom of speech is very important, but is only the right to have an opinion without being censored (especially by government), or being assaulted. It is not a right to swear in public, tell lies without consequences, or to promote violence. For example we have defamation suits, and laws against inciting violence.

    The media have a special responsibility for what they say as they have such a wide readership and thus influence. They should of course be free to write whatever opinion they want in general principle, but the media should adhere to some basic standards and face censure if they don’t. Many media have codes of practice, but some are only voluntary in my country.

    For example the media should take all practical steps to ensure articles are honest, and not misleading, and that claims about research are backed up with sources stated. If the media claim they dont have the expertise to discern whether an opinion article by a guest writer is misleading or not, they should at least publish a contrary point of view for balance, and on the same page on the same day.

    However regarding climate change, I think opinion articles by so called sceptics have little value unless its an area of some remaining genuine debate like climate sensitivity. Sceptical opinions should mostly be covered in wider documentary style articles on climate change, that include both the IPCC position and sceptical views (robust points of view rather than the flakey stuff), and in a way that hides nothing and puts all claims in proper context. All the climate sceptical claims I have ever seen fall over once you look at the full context.

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  15. Personally, I would be fairly happy if they just made this one simple change:

    " It releases carbon dioxide, which is blamed for global warming because it readily absorbs infrared heat energy."

    That way the reader does't just write-off the statement as, oh well, some blame CO2 and some don't. The reader understands immediately that there is an established physical link between CO2 and heat. If it absorbs heat, then even the most casual reader can see right away that it is entirely reasonable to expect CO2 to cause warming.

    It also makes the reader question; if it absorbs heat then why does Trump think it doesn't cause warming? It puts the doubt on Trump's (and the other deniers) position, since they offer no explaination as why something that absorbs heat would not have the obvious effect of causing heating.

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  16. In fairness to BBC, what needs to be considered is that the BBC is constrained by charter to present news with impartiality, and the examples above by Dana181 all appear to be in compliance with the charter. The BBC is not offering 'opinion' here but rather is presenting 'news'. 

    If Dana is arguing that the BBC should be an arbiter or censor of news, it would likely be in violation of the charter.   

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  17. Art Vandelay: 

    Pronouncements of psuedo-science poppycock by climate science deniers does not constitute news! 

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  18. Art vandelay @16, the requirement to be impartial is not to be found in the BBC Charter.  Rather it is to be found in the editorial standards, which state, in part:

    "1.2.2 Truth and Accuracy

    We seek to establish the truth of what has happened and are committed to achieving due accuracy in all our output. Accuracy is not simply a matter of getting facts right; when necessary, we will weigh relevant facts and information to get at the truth. Our output, as appropriate to its subject and nature, will be well sourced, based on sound evidence, thoroughly tested and presented in clear, precise language. We will strive to be honest and open about what we don't know and avoid unfounded speculation.

    1.2.3 Impartiality

    Impartiality lies at the core of the BBC's commitment to its audiences. We will apply due impartiality to all our subject matter and will reflect a breadth and diversity of opinion across our output as a whole, over an appropriate period, so that no significant strand of thought is knowingly unreflected or under-represented. We will be fair and open-minded when examining evidence and weighing material facts."

    Ergo the requirement to be impartial does not supercede the requirement to by truthful and accurate.  Nor do they even conflict, given that to be impartial means to be unswayed by partisan positions, not to have a position intermediate between whatever partisan positions are dominating the current discourse.

    Given that, and given the clear contradiction between Trump's position and the science, Trump's position cannot be truthfully and accurately described unless the clearly relevant fact that it is in clear contradiction of the science is also mentioned.  Nor would it be partisan to do so.  The requirement is to state the facts regardless of whether or not they are helpful or harmful to the positions of particular parties.  To not state the facts because they would be harmful to the position of a particular party is in fact not to be impartial, but to become partisan by default.

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  19. Tom Curtis @18, "Ergo the requirement to be impartial does not supercede the requirement to by truthful and accurate."

    News isn't the same thing as an editorial, which is a considered opinion.  Shukman's corresponsence article (as linked by Dana)  is a news story, not an editorial, so if he's reporting as news what someone has said then he's definitely not obligated  to pass judgement, and indeed it would be in violation of BBC standards to do so.


    News in whatever form must be treated with due impartiality, giving due weight to events, opinion and main strands of argument. The approach and tone of news stories must always reflect our editorial values, including our commitment to impartiality.

    There is however plenty of scope to fully scrutinise  Trump's views on climate and coal etc through editorials, so I don't personally see this as an obstacle to the preservation of truth and dissemination of facts. 

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