Thursday, 27 September 2007

Media and bad science #1 - correction

As a major news medium, the BBC has a vast influence on the dissemination and perceived validation of information. Like most media outlets, it makes mistakes. How good is it at correcting them?
      I've had mixed experiences. Generally the front-line 'techie' editors are excellent; I've had prompt corrections over things like the name of a mineral or an inaccurate explanation of the Space Shuttle reentry manoeuvre. I had a very prompt reply and cordial discussion with Nick Higham over my comments on his When science and journalism collide, which I recommend as an even-handed analysis of many of the issues that drive the divide between what scientists do and how the press reports it.
      However, my predominant impression is that over matters of science, the BBC has a deep resistance to correction. My particular idée fixe is its reportage of an alleged Three headed frog, a stupid story that persists on the BBC website after three years, despite my repeated attempts to draw their attention to my debunking of it as a simple case of multiple amplexus (i.e. frog mating grip). If any herpetologists are reading this and you agree with me, the complaints page is thisaway.

Another example was the saga of its coverage of the alternative medical technique of craniosacral therapy. In its original form in 2004 the text, by Jacqueline Young, stated "US osteopath William Garner Sutherland ... found that the cranial bones (the skull bones encasing the brain) weren't fused in adulthood, as was widely believed, but had a cycle of slight involuntary movement". This is nonsense: there is no evidence that cranial bones move, and practitioners don't even agree on what they feel when given the same patient (see Quackwatch and Bad Science). All I asked of them was that they report this is a belief rather than a fact.
      I complained in October 2004. After several months I was told the article's writer "was aware of the situation" and that the issue is being "debated by osteopaths in their professional journal. She is currently investigating and depending on her findings the article will be re-worded". After a year the article was changed to say "Sutherland believed that the cranial bones ... weren't fused in adulthood" but it was still biased by omission of counterevidence, unlike the Channel 4 counterpart.
      Finally, after a site overhaul in February 2007, they did something. Craniosacral therapy is now included under the Osteopathy section, which says "Practitioners claim to be able to feel the ebb and flow of this fluid, but sceptics reject this and say there's no good evidence for movement of the cranial bones after infancy". Credit where it's due: that's all I asked. But it shouldn't take three years to get it done.

At the time, as a wider issue, I commented on the BBC website's whole coverage of complementary medicine (again, in contrast to Channel 4). You can read the full details here, but the gist is that I argued that the whole section - for failing to offer the context of mainstream opinion - was in breach of its then Producer's Guidelines on impartiality, which stated "Due impartiality lies at the heart of the BBC. It is a core value and no area of programming is exempt from it".
      The thrust of the Complaints Unit's reply was that it was outside their remit, unless there was a case to be argued for irresponsibility or potential harm. This, they said, is because the BBC's duty of due impartiality only applies to "matters of public policy or of political and industrial controversy". This seemed bizarre, and I queried it. Didn't their guideline say "no area of programming is exempt"? But no, they replied, the duty of due impartiality "applies to all areas only in the sense that no area of programming is exempt from it when dealing with matters where due impartiality is required"! This duty derives, they said, from section 5 of the Agreement associated with the BBC Charter.
      In short, despite apparent stated commitment to overall impartiality, the small print is that it applies selectively and that there is nothing you can actually hold them to to enforce it outside that selective area.

As I described in 2005 - OK to promote vegetables via nonsense? - I had similar problems with Ofcom, the UK independent regulator for telecommunications. Having noticed in their archives a failed Accuracy complaint ("not in breach/out of remit") about Gillian McKeith's You are What You Eat, I asked if any part of their Code covered scientific inaccuracies in such programmes. No, they said. Viewers being 'misled' is in their brief where it relates to advertising or news bulletins, but "In matters of science it is invariably the case that there are a range of views on any number of issues ... Ofcom's primary concern as a regulator is not for scientific accuracy in the face of alternate views, but rather that care has been taken by the broadcaster to avoid harm". Here are the Harm and Offence and Due Impartiality and Due Accuracy and Undue Prominence of Views and Opinions sections of their Broadcasting Code, you find there is nothing enforcing accuracy, and impartiality only applies to "matters of political or industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy".
      To sum up, if you see bad science aired on UK television, you will run into serious difficulties in getting complaints to stick if you're arguing faults of accuracy or balance. You need to argue harm.

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