Concern over “fair and balanced” reporting on climate change

Dana Nuccitelli wrote an excellent blog for the Guardian on the false balance of reporting in the media.  His main concern is the BBC, globally recognised as one of the mainstays in even, unbiased reporting.  Nuccitelli presents a different picture and one that goes beyond British borders. His concern is that the BBC has decided to follow the Fox News model of “fair and balanced” reporting on global warming and climate change.  How climate change is discussed within the wider population has to be a concern for all of us.


Is the BBC becoming the UK version of Fox News on global warming?

False balance in media reporting on climate change is a big problem for one overarching reason: there is a huge gap between the 97 percent expert consensus on human-caused global warming, and the public perception that scientists are evenly divided on the subject.


This can undoubtedly be traced in large part to the media giving disproportionate coverage to the opposing fringe climate contrarian views. Research has shown that people who are unaware of the expert consensus are less likely to accept the science and less likely to support taking action to address the problem, so media false balance can be linked directly to our inability to solve the climate problem.

The BBC is one such culprit, having repeatedly given climate contrarians disproportionate air time on its programs. Frequent recent BBC guests include blogger Andrew Montford and politician and founder of the anti-climate policy think tank Global Warming Policy Foundation, Nigel Lawson. The former was recently interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Stephen Nolan show, together with climate scientist Paul Williams from the University of Reading. The latter was invited onto the BBC Radio 4 Today program alongside climate scientist Brian Hoskins from the Imperial College London and Royal Society.

As climate experts, Williams and Hoskins were excellent choices to discuss the subjects at hand – climate science, models, and the link between climate change and the extreme weather causing flooding in the UK. On the other hand, Montford and Lawson are not climate scientists, nor even scientists of any sort. Williams and Hoskins are entirely capable of discussing the knowns and uncertainties in their areas of expertise, which calls into question the BBC’s motives for inviting non-scientist climate contrarians onto the shows alongside these experts.

Whatever the reason, as could have been expected, both Montford and Lawson repeated several falsehoods on these shows. For example, Montford incorrectly claimed “we haven’t had any warming at all for the last two decades,” and Lawson made the same assertion for “the past 15, 16, 17 years.”

The data are easily checked using this tool; the best estimates in all available data sets show that global surface temperatures have warmed over the past 15, 16, 17, and 20 years. In fact, over the past two decades, we’ve seen over 0.3°C average global surface warming, according to the best estimates. On top of that, over 90 percent of global warming goes into the oceans, which have accumulated heat at a rate equivalent to 2 billion Hiroshima atomic bomb detonations during the period in question.

After receiving a figurative flood of listener complaints regarding the Lawson interview, the BBC Radio 4 Today program defended its practice of false balance, claiming,

    “we are satisfied that both this segment and our overall coverage is fair, balanced, and impartial.”

Perhaps the BBC is satisfied with becoming the UK equivalent of Fox News. However, the following exchange between BBC host Justin Webb and guests Brian Hoskins and Nigel Lawson illustrates the problem with this approach.

Justin Webb: So [the warming is] there somewhere?

Sir Brian Hoskins: Oh yes, it’s there in the oceans.

Lord Lawson: That is pure speculation.

Sir Brian Hoskins: No, it’s a measurement.

Lord Lawson: No, it’s not. It’s speculation.

Justin Webb: Well, it’s a combination of the two isn’t it? As this whole discussion is. Lord Lawson and Sir Brian Hoskins, thank you very much.

What a perfect example of “fair, balanced, and impartial” coverage! A climate expert states an empirical fact, a climate contrarian flatly denies this factual reality, and the BBC host declares that the truth must surely lie between fact and fiction.

The BBC isn’t the only purportedly unbiased media outlet to fall victim to false balance in its climate reporting. CNN has a tendency to use this same type of debate format when covering climate change. For example, CNN Crossfire recently invited David Kreutzer, an economist at the right-wing political think tank Heritage Institute, and League of Conservation Voters senior vice president Navin Nayak, who has a background in biology and environmental studies. Neither is a climate scientist, but most of the show was spent debating climate science (and debating it inaccurately).

As another example, after the USA Today editorial team wrote a straightforward editorial simply pointing out that cold winter weather in some areas doesn’t disprove global warming, they then felt the need to solicit an “opposing view.” They had to settle for a non-scientist from the right-wing think tank Heartland Institute, probably because they couldn’t find a scientist anywhere who would take the absurd opposing view.

The Washington Post also just published a Charles Krauthammer opinion piece (another non-scientist) leading off by saying “I’m not a global warming denier,” followed by denying so many basic climate science facts, climate scientist Michael Mann made a drinking game out of it, and one of the paper’s own editorial writers was forced to debunk it. The Sunday news shows haven’t been any better, likewise treating climate science in the same manner as they would a political debate.

Recently, Juan Cole published a nice piece of satire entitled “Bill Nye Science Guy to Debate GOP Rep Gohmert on Gravity.” I had to click the link to verify that it was a satirical story; with all of these media outlets inviting contrarian non-scientist opinions climate science, one can only wonder if evolution and gravity will be the next topics of these “debates.”

Unfortunately, the BBC has habitually undervalued expert input from scientists and academics. In an essay to be published next month, Professor Lewis of Cardiff University notes that the BBC relies heavily on sources from politics and business like Nigel Lawson, and relatively infrequently on academics and scientists.

    “A 2007 study, for example, found that around half of those sources used on BBC news were from just four professions: the worlds of politics, business, law and order and the news media. By contrast, the main knowledge-based professions and civic voices (from the academy, medicine, science and technology, thinks tanks, government/public agencies and NGOs) made up, between them, only 10 per cent of all sources.

    This concentration was confirmed by the recent BBC Trust review of television news, which suggested that the dominance of these four groups as news sources has increased over the last five years.”

Likewise the independent Review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science written by Professor Steve Jones in 2011 concluded,

    “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 … There is a contrast between the clear demands for due impartiality in the BBC’s written guidelines and what sometimes emerges on air.”

However, David Jordan, head of BBC editorial standards, told Members of Parliament that the network rejected Jones’ recommendation that they avoid false balance in their climate reporting.

The problem is that science isn’t a matter of opinion. It’s not like politics, where any topic of discussion can be debated by anybody with contrary views. Airing fictions to offset facts is not impartial, fair, or balanced. Nor is interviewing non-experts just because they hold contrary views that deny scientific realities.

There’s a big difference between actual balance and false balance. Discussing climate policy is another matter, where all opinions should be welcome. But creating a faux scientific debate misinforms listeners and does them a disservice.

We’re in the midst of an epidemic of false balance on climate change in the mainstream media, with the BBC as one of its main victims. The question before us now is whether the BBC and these other media outlets will remain “satisfied” treating climate science like politics, where all opinions are given equal weight regardless of their factual accuracy. Or perhaps viewers will be dissatisfied that the BBC is employing the same science reporting strategies as Fox News, and turn elsewhere to find genuinely balanced reporting.

4 thoughts on “Concern over “fair and balanced” reporting on climate change

  1. I have sp,en to several BBC environment correspondents about this absurd need to ” balance ” views that are broadcast. One of the reasons that BBC reporters are scared of unequivocally reporting the threat of climate change is the knowledge that, if they do so, they will be inundated with complaints by the climate change deniers. Their bosses then demand that they spend a lot of time responding to the most idiotic of complaints, and justifying why their statements are not ” balanced.” All of which makes it so much easier simply to give the deniers the broadcasting attention they seek.

    1. Thanks. This gives some “insight” into why they do it, but look at the exchange with Justin Webb. To say that the truth must be somewhere in between is crazy. It would be better to just thank the two guests and leave it at that. But it would also be better to have a “sceptical” scientist included rather than a denier who is basing it on opinion.

    2. Ahhh! So that is why the BBC has over 80 employees earning more than £150k per annum.

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