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

18 thoughts on “An open letter to the BBC

  1. Rather unbelievably, I followed a Twitter exchange between Simon Lewis (who wrote a recent Nature commentary about the BBC) and Reiner Grundmann (Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Nottingham), in which Reiner ended up criticising Hoskins.

    1. Wow, I just went and had a look. I don’t know Reiner Grundmann but I gather he’s a contrarian to be supporting Lawson and criticising Hoskins.

      1. He’s associated with Hans von Storch and writes for the Die Klimazwiebel blog. I think he has a rather strange view about science communication which, as far as I can tell, one can summarise as “all opinions are valid and should be expressed”. Makes me think he doesn’t have much – if any – actual scientific experience.

  2. Rachel, an excellent letter and well-founded criticism. Can you imagine having an eminent climate scientist debating Tony Abbott on climate science? Would the BBC think it was ‘balanced’ to have a debate about the benefits of, say, exercise after heart surgery between a cardiologist and a politician (who only claim to fame is being a politician)? Absolutely nonsensical.

    1. I know, it’s ridiculous. I thought about mentioning that aspect too but decided the letter was getting too long and I wanted to just press the one point.

      I saw this good cartoon today which I think makes your point very well:

  3. “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

    Carl Sagan

  4. Great letter. Forecast the Facts highlighted a recent piece explaining why the LA Times did not publish letters arguing that Congress is exempting itself from Obamacare, Letters Editor Paul Thornton wrote the following:

    “Why? Simply put, this objection to the president’s healthcare law is based on a falsehood, and letters that have an untrue basis (for example, ones that say there’s no sign humans have caused climate change) do not get printed.”

    They say:”That is a pretty simple principle: letters that contain blatant falsehoods don’t get published. But the thing is, no newspaper has ever stated that policy about climate change denial—until now. Not surprisingly, right wing media outlets are already up in arms. Why? Because they are worried this trend will spread to the country’s other mainstream newspapers.”

    If only the US’s other leading newspapers—The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal—would follow suit.

    Forecast the Facts has been circulating petitions to those newspapers asking them to adopt the same policy. There petition to the Washington Post arrived the same day Krauthammer’s denial article, “The myth of ‘settled science,'” , was published and they have a fact check of his article : https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.forecastthefacts.org/images/Debunking_Krauthammer.pdf

    1. Thanks, JC Moore. This is becoming more and more common with some recent big name newspapers and online forums and blogs taking a tough line on climate science contrarians.

      SMH:

      Climate change deniers or sceptics are free to express opinions and political views on our page but not to misrepresent facts. This applies to all our contributors on any subject. On that basis, a letter that says, “there is no sign humans have caused climate change” would not make the grade for our page.

      Reddit

      About a year ago, we moderators became increasingly stringent with deniers. When a potentially controversial submission was posted, a warning would be issued stating the rules for comments (most importantly that your comment isn’t a conspiracy theory) and advising that further violations of the rules could result in the commenter being banned from the forum.

      I hope the wave continues.

  5. It’s a good letter. I expect somebody already a got a rocket over the matter, but it is always worth pressing the matter home.

    I rather suspect that the programme was the result of the cult of personality and/or getting noticed by being controversial. Either being an unsuitable and reckless approach to such a serious subject.

    1. Yes, you are right that somebody already got a rocket over the matter. I got an automated email reply from the BBC saying that they are receiving a large number of emails about the Lord Lawson interview.

      1. I noticed that. Because of your efforts, I sent them a letter as well as a complaint. Since all major scientific organizations agree with the consensus and none disagree, I pointed out that their fair and balanced coverage should have a 180 to 0 balance.

      2. I’m really pleased to hear that, JC Moore. I think the more letters the better so it’s nice to hear that so many members of the public feel so strongly about this.

  6. Rachel
    Your objection to Lawson is based on the ‘false balance’ hypothesis. You state, on its basis, and little other evidence in hand, that “gave [the BBC’s] audience the impression that the science is divided when in fact it is not”.

    Audience members are capable of deciding these things themselves. They can see where scientists and non-scientists come from. Audiences are not sheep. They are people like you and me.

    Lawson did no more than answer questions as they arose. The ‘heat going into oceans’ explanation was given as a consequence, remember, of none of it showing up in the surface record. Contrary to what you might claim, this ‘explanation’ is not accepted or proven.

    1. Shub,

      You say: “Audience members are capable of deciding these things themselves. They can see where scientists and non-scientists come from. ”

      The research paper I link to about media coverage and false balance says this is not the case:

      Readers in the balanced condition were less certain that vaccines
      did not cause autism and more likely to believe experts were divided
      on the issue. The relationship between exposure to balanced coverage and
      certainty was mediated by the belief that medical experts are divided about
      a potential autism-vaccine link.

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