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Letter to BBC News

This is a draft of a letter I plan to send to BBC News tommorow, comments & corrections are welcome.

I am generally impressed by the quality, balance and factual accuracy of your reporting. Occasional mistakes, oversimplification of technical matters and questions of the prominence given to certain items can usually be overlooked, as they are not representative of the BBC's output. But there is a certain style of journalism which I must comment on. That is, producing a "he said, she said" report. This style of report can be effective and informative if done well, with intelligent advocates capable of discussing a topic, giving us an idea of issues involved. Often, this can give us a balanced report of different people's opinions, which as a public service body you obviously strive to achieve.

However, this style of journalism can fail. Examples of this include when one or more of the advocates are uneducated with regards to the issues, another is when the "debate" is obvious slanted. Two reports from the past week, firstly Baroness Finlay discussing the case of Terri Schiavo on Friday's Today Programme, and secondly the Online report "Would you Adam and Eve it?" (link), also from Friday, suffer from these failings.

In the Today report Baroness Finlay argued that Terri Schiavo had not been in a Persistent Vegetative State. Finlay based this claim on a diagnosis she made from several seconds of news video, viewed thousands of miles away, showing Schiavo making basic facial reflexes. Finlay's diagnosis was in contradiction to the diagnoses made by eight expert doctors and neuroscientists, made after several hours of direct observation, and two conclusive brain scans. Reporting what Finlay said in the way that it was, is not balanced. It gives massively unrepresentative time to a minority opinion against that of the medical consensus which has been achieved using a far higher degree of empirical accuracy.

The report "Would You Adam and Eve it?" cannot be considered anything other than a substantial failure. In this report it appears instead of simply reporting the consensus of qualified scientists and teachers, the BBC has actively searched for an alternative in order to create "balance". This alternative can only come from a members of a tiny, extremist, and fundamentalist fringe. One of whom apparently knowingly lied in the reported comments. This goes uncriticised. The appearence given, therefore, is of an attempt to appease religious extremists, such as "Christian Voice", another tiny minority group which has recently been given unrepresentative time in "he said, she said" reporting. Some critical readers (as shown in the comments beneath the item) could consider the report balanced only because the non-sequiturs and fallacies of Monty White are sufficiently transparent to see that he is an representative only of the deliberate misperception of evolution by a tiny extremist minority of Christians. Yet if this is so, it represents nothing other than a massive failure to the general readership of BBC Online of whom such specific critical positions cannot be assumed. For them, this article will have failed because it has tried too hard to be "balanced", and has therefore given undue weight to extremist views.

Thanks to Maria and John for suggesting improvements.

PS: anybody else who wants to add their name to the letter should leave a comment or email me.

Keywords: April 2005, journalism, BBC, BBC News, Christian Voice, Terri Schiavo, science, enlightenment, medicine, creationism, evolution, current affairs,

Edit | Delete | Comment on this (5) | Last edited Tue 12 Apr, 2005, 23:05:36 | Viewed 17105 times.


From: Joe D (


Homepage: steinsky.me.uk

P.S., Paul Myers takes down the BBC article over at Pharyngula.

Posted at 2005-04-06 20:12 BST

From: PZ Myers (


Homepage: pharyngula.org

Good letter, sign me up!

Posted at 2005-04-07 04:13 BST

From: Ian Darling (


Homepage: www.pure-virtual.org/ian

I'm no PZ (or even a biologist :-), but you can stick me on there too if you want. You may even want to refer to PZs blog entry (and any others lying around, and the TO thread) in a postscript

Posted at 2005-04-07 07:44 BST

From: Republ;ic of Palau (


Homepage: takeitasredd.blogspot.com

Sign me up too ( not that my sig would lend much weight, but still). Also something to add is the fact that in that report, IIRC, they also quoted Randall Terry extensively, without any reference at all to his violent antecedents in the anti-abortion movement, thus giving his comments a spurious legitimacy. I expect better from the BBC.

Posted at 2005-04-07 11:54 BST

From: Joe D (


Homepage: steinsky.me.uk

This was sent to BBC News Online and the Today Programme yesterday evening.

Posted at 2005-04-09 18:35 BST

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