August 15, 2017, by Brigitte Nerlich

False balance

Last week an appearance by Lord Lawson on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme caused somewhat of a stir. This was not the first time this had happened. The same happened in 2014. In both instances the BBC invited Lord Lawson to talk about climate change. In both cases this was greeted with a chorus of ‘false balance’ in tweets, in news articles, on blogs etc. The reason is that Lord Lawson is the head of the Global Warming Policy Foundation and contests mainstream climate science. In last week’s case he was interviewed in order to ‘counterbalance’, it seems, an earlier interview with Al Gore, who had talked about his new film An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. (The whole broadcast is here)

The most retweeted tweet on the matter came from physicist and science communicator Jim Al-Khalili who tweeted on 10 August: “For @BBCr4today to bring on Lord Lawson ‘in the name of balance’ on climate change is both ignorant and irresponsible. Shame on you”. This tweet was retweeted 2796 times. Jim later elaborated on the issue on BuzzFeed where he was joined by Brian Cox and others.

Below you can find a little graph illustrating the Lord Lawson twitter storm (from Keyhole, which I have never used before, but it was free; based on using ‘Lord Lawson’ as a search term’).

The things that Lord Lawson said about various issues related to climate change were fact-checked by Carbon Brief and found wanting. “A few days later, the Global Warming Policy Forum, the official lobbying arm of Lord Lawson’s Foundation, admitted on Twitter that he had based his incorrect statement about global temperature on an ‘erroneous’ graph” (see here). Despite all this and the general outcry by experts and scientists, the BBC defended its decision to invite Lord Lawson and issued a statement that said: “The BBC’s role is to hear different views so listeners are informed about all sides of debate and we are required to ensure controversial subjects are treated with due impartiality.” It included Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement in such ‘different’ views.

Here are some of the keywords surrounding my search term ‘Lord Lawson’:

False balance and climate change communication

False balance is a topic that has been widely discussed by climate change communicators and, I should stress, the BBC for some time, and is, of course, a live issue with respect to discussions of journalistic norms, in particular the norms of ‘objectivity’, ‘accuracy’ and ‘impartiality’.

The issue began to emerge as a topic in climate change/global warming debates as early as the 1997 Kyoto protocol. In 1998 Ross Gelbspan pointed out: ‘‘The professional canon of journalistic fairness requires reporters who write about a controversy to present competing points of view. When the issue is of a political or social nature, fairness—presenting the most compelling arguments of both sides with equal weight—is a fundamental check on biased reporting. But this canon causes problems when it is applied to issues of science. It seems to demand that journalists present competing points of views on a scientific question as though they had equal scientific weight, when actually they do not’’. (Gelbspan, 1998, pp. 57–58)

As reported by FAIR, a media watchdog, some years later, Jules and Max Boykoff went on to test Gelbspan’s hypothesis empirically. They “focused on the human contribution to global warming (known in science as ‘anthropogenic global warming’).” They presented their study called “Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the U.S. Prestige Press” at the 2002 Conference on the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change in Berlin and published it in the July 2004 issue of the journal Global Environmental Change. They “analyzed articles about human contributions to global warming that appeared between 1988 and 2002 in the U.S. prestige press: the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal.”

This article on balance as bias stimulated a lot of discussion on the topic of false balance between 2004 and now. In January this year Michael Brüggemann and Sven Engesser, for example, published an article entitled “Beyond false balance: How interpretive journalism shapes coverage of climate change” which struck a rather optimistic note.

In March 2017 Declan Fahy, an expert on media communication, published a handy guide to all the research into false balance undertaken so far in an article entitled “Defining objectivity, false balance, and advocacy in news coverage of climate change” and published in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia on Climate Science (He previously wrote various shorter pieces, including one called “A farewell to balance”, 2014).

In the following, I want to briefly highlight some of what Fahy has to say about false balance. As he points out, false balance has generally declined in mainstream reporting. However, there still are problems with false balance in climate change reporting.

As already indicated above, the concept of false balance is “tied most closely to the scholarship of environmental studies researcher Maxwell Boykoff. Its first major articulation came in 2004, when he published with Jules Boykoff a content analysis that examined how four elite American newspapers had covered climate change between 1988 and 2002. […] Journalists, the authors concluded (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2004), reported climate change using routines of balance. Balance introduced a false equivalence into coverage. Balance created bias.”

Fahy also points out that Max Boykoff revisited the issue some years later and “concluded that, from 1990 to 2002, newspapers had covered human-induced climate change not as consensus, but as conflict. A similar pattern occurred in television coverage from 1995 to 2004. The scientific evidence supporting human-induced climate change became more definite and persuasive throughout the 1990s. But because of this mismatch between scientific evidence and newspaper coverage, Boykoff concluded (2011, p. 129) that the period from the mid-1990s to approximately 2004 in the United States was a ‘lost decade’ of climate coverage.”

I suppose that one can also call the decade between 2007 and 2017 a lost decade of climate coverage, and a decade that has done nothing much to dispel the lure of false balance in climate change coverage, despite all the research that has been carried out.

False balance and the BBC

Towards the beginning of that decade, the BBC itself began to think about the issue of false balance, false equivalence and false weight of evidence. In 2010 the BBC Trust launched a review of the impartiality and accuracy of BBC science coverage. As Fahy points out: “Part of the public service broadcaster’s historical mission has been to ensure its news and current affairs outputs treat controversial subjects impartially. The concept was codified as granting ‘equality of voice’ to various participants in a controversy. But for the renowned evolutionist and science writer Steve Jones, this principle presented problems for science and climate coverage. In a 2011 review of the BBC’s science coverage, the professor at University College London praised the organization’s output overall, but raised the issue of false equivalence in climate coverage. He wrote (Jones, 2011, p. 16): ‘Attempts to give a place to anyone, however unqualified, who claims interest can make for false balance: to free publicity to marginal opinions and not to impartiality, but its opposite.’”

Lessons learned?

This lesson from 2011 seems not to have been learned…. I shall close with a quote from Lord Rees, Astronomer Royal and former President of the Royal Society, who said in 2001, a decade before the BBC report: “The hardest type of situation to convey honestly is where there’s a strong consensus, but some dissent. Noisy controversy doesn’t always signify evenly balanced arguments. Pioneering scientists have often, as everyone knows, had a tough time gaining a hearing. Conversely, controversy (and a scepticism of orthodoxy) has such public appeal, and confrontations make such lively broadcasts, that dissident … scientists get exaggerated attention.” (Martin Rees, 2001; unfortunately the webpage is now defunct)

It’s sad to think that sixteen years later we are still grappling with the same issues.

PS Insightful blog post by Helen Jackson on this issue here

Posted in Climate ChangeClimate PoliticsUncategorized