Saturday, 30 July 2011
Journalists (or most of them) wish to report what they see as the truth. If there are opposing views about some political or artistic issue, they may seek a balance by presenting an account that lies somewhere between the two extremes. This is not the same as impartiality, which involves a refusal to favour one point of view, particularly where politics is involved. In science reporting, though, balance and impartiality seem often to be conflated. When faced with strongly opposed views in a scientific discussion a journalist may not be certain of the facts presented by each side and may apply balance while describing it as impartiality – but if one proponent is presenting dubious evidence that claim is not justified.
As some within the world of broadcasting perhaps fail to realise, impartiality checks are built in to the scientific enterprise. The objectivity of researchers is judged as they undergo a series of painful processes from the successful grant application, to endless discussion within a group as to the validity of a result, to a journal’s peer review before a piece of work becomes public and then, quite often, to the presentation of contrary views in the scientific literature. Many of those put up in opposition to a scientist on the broadcast media have had, in contrast, no scrutiny at all of the claims they put forward. A certain amount of emphasis might be placed on the differential examination that the ideas of each party have undergone when considering the need for due impartiality. [BBC Trust review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science,July 2011]