The BBC is to revamp its science coverage after an independent review highlighted weaknesses and concluded that journalists boosted the apparent controversy of scientific news stories such as climate change, GM crops and the MMR vaccine by giving too much weight to fringe scientific viewpoints.
The wide-ranging review found the network's science reporting was generally of high quality, and praised the BBC for its breadth, depth and accuracy, but urged the broadcaster to tackle several areas of concern.
Commissioned last year to assess impartiality and accuracy in BBC science coverage across television, radio and the internet, the review said the network was at times so determined to be impartial that it put fringe views on a par with well-established fact: a strategy that made some scientific debates appear more controversial than they were.
The criticism was particularly relevant to stories on issues such as global warming, GM and the MMR vaccine, where minority views were sometimes given equal weighting to broad scientific consensus, creating what the report describes as "false balance".
The review comprised an independent report by Professor Steve Jones, emeritus professor of genetics at University College London, and an in-depth analysis by researchers at Imperial College London of science coverage across the BBC in May, June and July of 2009 and 2010.
In his report, Jones lamented the narrow range of sources that reporters used for stories, poor communication between journalists in different parts of the organisation, and a lack of knowledge of the breadth of science.
"The most important aspect is a vote of confidence in what BBC science is doing. It is head and shoulders above other broadcasters. As always, though, there is a but," Jones told reporters on Wednesday.
Jones likened the BBC's approach to oppositional debates to asking a mathematician and maverick biologist what two plus two equals. When the mathematician says four and the maverick says five, the public are left to conclude the answer is somewhere in between.
The report will disappoint some climate change sceptics who hoped it would find the BBC at fault for promoting a green agenda. "There is a consensus in the scientific community that anthropogenic climate change exists," Jones said. By failing to move the debate on, the BBC was missing other stories, he added.