An open letter to the BBC

I have finally got around to writing my letter to the BBC to complain about their coverage of climate change. Here it is below for all to read. If anyone would like to copy it in part or full for the purposes of emailing the BBC as well, then please be my guest. The email address to write to is: todaycomplaints@bbc.co.uk

To whom it may concern,

I am writing to complain about the recent reporting of climate science by the BBC. Your organisation has a grand history of over 90 years of news reporting and an international reputation for quality journalism and so I want to encourage the BBC to reflect on their recent coverage of climate change.

On the 13th February 2014, Sir Brian Hoskins and Lord Nigel Lawson both appeared on the Today Program to discuss floods in relation to climate science. Presumably the BBC wished to provide balance by presenting opposing views, but I want to argue that this was false balance. The BBC gave equal weighting to a politician – whose views are not supported by the majority of evidence – and a climatologist whose views are supported by the majority of evidence. This gave your audience the impression that the science is divided when in fact it is not.

The science behind climate change is very strong. Recent research found that 97% of scientists accept the consensus that climate change is real and that humans are to blame. This is further supported by scientific societies and academies throughout the world including the following:

American Association for the Advancement of Science
American Geophysical Union
American Meteorological Society
American Physical Society
The Geological Society of America
US National Academies of Science
Royal Society of Canada
Chinese Academy of Sciences
Indian National Academy
Science Council of Japan
Russian Academy of Sciences
Royal Society, United Kingdom
Académie des Sciences, France
Accademia dei Lincei, Italy
Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina, Germany

The recently released IPCC report finds:

It is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together. The best estimate of the human-induced contribution to warming is similar to the observed warming over this period.

The Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences have also just released a joint statement in which they say:

Climate change is one of the defining issues of our time. It is now more certain than ever, based on many lines of evidence, that humans are changing Earth’s climate. The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, accompanied by sea-level rise, a strong decline in Arctic sea ice, and other climate-related changes.

Given our current understanding of the science, I think it is unethical for the BBC to present this subject without making clear where the balance of evidence lies. Journalists are bound by a code of ethics which to my understanding is to report truthfully, accurately and objectively. Giving equal weighting to a view which is not supported by the majority of evidence is not accurate.

This false balance was the subject of a paper on media reporting of vaccinations called Heightening Uncertainty Around Certain Science. The authors write:

While balance is considered a prominent journalistic norm, “false balance” occurs when a perspective supported by an overwhelming amount of evidence is presented alongside others with less/
no support and context—where the strength of evidence lies—is excluded. As a result, false balance may give the erroneous impression of scientific uncertainty about evidence for or against risk.

They found that this false balance created the perception of uncertainty around the science and so became an obstacle for effective communication from health professionals. It’s my view that the same problem arises in media reporting of climate science, as in the BBC interview between Sir Brian Hoskins and Lord Nigel Lawson.

I hope that you will look into this issue seriously and consider providing a more accurate picture of the science in the future.

Yours sincerely,
Rachel Martin

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