Reporters for BBC News are being directed to significantly curb the amount of air time they give to people with anti-science viewpoints — including people who deny climate change exists — in order to improve the accuracy and fairness of the network’s news coverage, according to a report released by the BBC’s governing body on Thursday.
The BBC Trust’s report was designed to assess the network’s impartiality in science coverage, in other words, whether it is staying neutral on critical issues. In order to be neutral when covering science, however, the BBC noted it needs to avoid “false balance,” a fallacy that occurs when two sides of an argument are assumed to have equal value.
“Science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views but depends on the varying degree of prominence such views should be given,” the report said.
The type of “false balance” news segment that the BBC is now actively trying to avoid is one that is fairly common in American network news’ climate change coverage. It involves putting one person who is well-versed on climate science next to a person who denies climate science, and having them debate.
Editorially, this type of debate makes the network look like it’s being balanced, giving equal opportunity to opposite viewpoints. However, because 95 to 97 percent of climate scientists agree that man-made greenhouse gas emissions are causing the planet to warm, that balance is false, giving disproportionate time to a viewpoint that is widely rejected in the scientific community.
In order to have a truly balanced and statistically representative debate about climate change, television news networks would have to pit 97 climate scientists against three climate deniers. Because that likely wouldn’t work very well, the BBC is favoring an approach that instead severely limits the amount of air time climate deniers are given.
So far, the report said, approximately 200 staff members have attended seminars and workshops aimed at improving the balance of their science coverage.
The BBC Trust’s report did note that climate deniers wouldn’t be completely excluded from the conversation. “The Trust also would like to reiterate that … ‘this does not mean that critical opinion should be excluded. Nor does it mean that scientific research shouldn’t be properly scrutinized,’” the report said. “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.”
But despite the BBC’s pledge to have their reporters avoid false balance in climate change coverage, false balance is still a widespread phenomenon across prominent American news platforms. According to a 2013 report from Media Matters on the issue, half of print outlets used false balance to debate the existence of global warming. When covering the U.N.’s landmark climate change report that year, CBS News gave climate deniers more than six times their representation in the scientific community, and 69 percent of guests on Fox News cast doubt on the science.
The obvious effect of this is that viewers are being misled about the reality of climate change and the urgency that comes with it. But the other effect is that viewers wind up not caring about climate change altogether.
“In the case of people who watch cable news, we’ve been so conditioned to favor a sense of certainty,” Dr. Stephen Reese, author of a 2008 white paper on how people make judgments about journalistic balance, told ThinkProgress in May. “We want to have our beliefs upheld. So when you introduce [climate change] as a political issue up for debate, it’s just, ‘well okay, there they go again,’ — just dismiss it as hopelessly polarized.”
When news outlets introduce false balance into its climate change stories, its audience then thinks those stories are less pressing than they actually are, a factor which contributes to uncertainty surrounding the issue and, ultimately, apathy. A 2009 study from the American Psychological Association confirmed this, noting that “perceived or real uncertainty” on climate change can lead to both “systematic underestimation of risk” and “sufficient reason to act in self interest over that of the environment.”