Science journalists are full of crap

A review by a professor on behalf of the BBC Trust has looked at the organisation’s coverage of science and found it wanting.

Professor Steve Jones, head of content research at Imperial College London, believes that the BBC takes an over rigid view of scientific coverage and “gives undue attention to marginal opinion”. Examples include climate change and the safety of the MMR vaccine.  There’s also too narrow a range of sources for stories and a tendency to react rather than be proactive, Jones said. There’s too many stories from the South East, too few women presenting scientific programmes.

But Connie St Louis, director of City University’s science journalism courses,  speaking on this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme, said that one of the problems with the reporting of science is too much prominence to one scientist, making them a little like a priesthood. “There’s not enough scrutiny,” she said.  “On no other subject would we have scientists getting away with the statements they make. Whilst there is dissent, very little of that is seen. There are lots of papers that find nothing.”

Lord May, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government agreed the BBC was high quality but well intended and rigid application of guidelines on impartiality give equal weight to opinion rather than sticking to science, too much coverage of astronomy, anthropology, geosciences, ecology and evolution.

We wonder if these learned folk understand how a news desk works. Lots of science coverage comes from Eurakalert, and lots when a news editor screams at a reporter, “There’s coverage about such and such on Google News. We’d better do a story about how many angels dance on the head of a pin.”  BBC hacks are also subject to such pressures.

Nature abhors a void – and news editors abhor blank spaces. If there’s space, it has to be filled.  University public relation types will, we’ve seen many times, re-release press blurbs, sometimes months after the first release.

Jones, in the report, calls for a BBC science editor to be appointed, and a science board.