BBC rethinks airtime given to climate sceptics … finally

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 7 July 2014 15:40 GMT

Environmental activists bury their heads in the sand on Durban's beachfront, December 2, 2011. The demostration aimed to highlight nations failing to act effectively to prevent climate change. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

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With most scientists agreed on man-made climate change, the effort to give equal weight to both views is misleading – BBC Trust report

How do you provide a balanced journalistic view of a contentious issue like climate change? Mainstream media – including the BBC, Britain’s public broadcaster - have long done it by calling up one climate scientist and one person who thinks climate change is bunk and letting them slug it out on air.

No more. With better than 96 percent of scientists agreed that man-made climate change is happening and that it’s a problem, that effort to “balance” the news by giving equal weight to both views is giving “marginal” views too much time and is essentially misleading and inaccurate, the BBC Trust, which oversees the broadcaster, said in a new report.

“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 noted.

Just how out-of-balance journalistically “balanced” coverage of climate change has become hasn’t escaped the notice of U.S. late-night talk show host John Oliver. In a May episode of ‘Last Week Tonight’, he set out to host a “statistically representative climate change debate” by inviting onstage actors representing four climate change skeptics – and 96 scientists, most in white lab coats. You can imagine which side’s voices were better heard.

“You don’t need people’s opinions on a fact,” Oliver noted. “The debate on climate change should not be whether or not it exists. It’s what we should do about it.”

So how is the BBC addressing the thorny climate change balance problem? In recent years close to 200 senior members of the staff got added training on how to better apply the broadcaster’s “impartiality” rule when it comes to science, particularly climate change, the BBC Trust report said.

“This does not mean that critical opinion should be excluded. Nor does it mean that scientific research shouldn’t be properly scrutinised,” the report emphasised. But “audiences should be able to understand….what weight to give to critical voices.”

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