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Science in the media ‘almost always biased’, finds poll

By James Dacey

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Here in the UK over the past few weeks the media have been going through a spell of reflection, following revelation after revelation about phone hacking at the now defunct weekly newspaper, News of the World. So the time seemed ripe to use our weekly Facebook poll to ask readers a question relating to the media and our particular patch of the media landscape: science. We asked:

On the whole, how do you find the media’s coverage of science?

Occasionally biased
Frequently biased
Almost always biased

And it seems that the majority of respondents take a pretty bleak view of the media in terms of their scientific balance. 59% of respondents feel that the media are almost always biased in their handling of science stories. 29% believe that the media are frequently biased and 12% said that they are occasionally biased. Not a single person felt that the media are never biased in covering science.

One responder who voted for almost always biased, Liam Cresswell, believes that the problem could be related to the culture and hierarchies among media outlets. He commented that, “While there are a small number of decent science journalists: as soon as anything that is deemed major comes up, said science journalists are undermined (by their news establishment) and a generic, high profile, news journalist is put in control of the story.”

Another respondent who cast his vote in the same way, Nigel Deacon, singles out climate science as an area in which the media are particularly bad. “The mainstream media’s coverage of climate science seems to be aimed, in the main, at a juvenile or uninformed audience,” he said. “To read anything approaching a reasoned discussion, one has to go to the Internet. The BBC’s bias is particularly obvious.”

The question that we posed to readers was inspired by a recently published review of the BBC’s science coverage. This concluded, for the large part, that the corporation’s content is accurate and impartial. The findings, published by the BBC Trust, consisted of an independent report from geneticist and popular-science author Steve Jones and a content analysis carried out by Imperial College London.

Jones did, however, warn of instances where scientific debates have been misrepresented in an attempt to create balance or conflict. He refers to climate research as a subject that has only a minor presence in the science literature as a whole, but is heavily overÔÇÉrepresented in news coverage.

In specific reference to man-made climate change, Jones warns that an “over-rigid” application of the corporation’s editorial guidelines on impartiality has created a false debate. This, he concludes, fails to take into account what he regards as the “non-contentious” nature of some stories and the need to avoid giving “undue attention to marginal opinion”. Though he did suggest that the problem could be resolved in part by new BBC guidelines, published in 2010, that incorporate consideration of “due weight” in relation to impartiality.

Thank you for taking part in the poll and for taking the time to provide comments. Check our Facebook page tomorrow for a poll relating to physics careers.

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