Thursday 27th October 2016                 Change text size:

Climate change coverage: what the BBC can learn from MMR

Photo: Brian Hoskins via Free Images

In 1998, the now-discredited surgeon and medical researcher Andrew Wakefield published a paper that suggested there was a causal link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine given to most young children and the appearance of autism.

Though Wakefield’s findings were “badly written”, “dishonest” and near-unanimously rejected by the scientific community, with study after study failing to find any evidence to support his hypothesis, MMR became a major health scare. 

It has been suggested that responsibility for this lies not with Wakefield, but with the media.

In his critically-acclaimed 2008 book Bad Science, science writer Dr Ben Goldacre says, “The blame [for the MMR scare] lies […] with the hundreds of journalists, columnists, editors and executives who drove the story cynically, irrationally, and wilfully onto the front pages for nine solid years.”

Those journalists, columnists, editors and executives did this principally through the selection of their sources. A 2007 study analysing coverage from all mediums found that though they were the most quoted group, only 24% of sources on MMR were doctors.

Politicians, parents and anti-vaccine pressure groups were often presented on an equal footing, their opinions given the same weight as those of experts.

Of course, the vast majority of these voices will not have been intending to mislead the public. Many would have been earnestly concerned, angry or confused. But their positioning against science in the media’s narrative allowed a misrepresentation of the facts.

Goldacre argues this kind of reporting “contributed to a pervasive sense that scientific advice is somehow arbitrary, and predicted upon a social role – the ‘expert’ – rather than empirical evidence”.

My younger brother Alex, an aloof, gentle, unreasonably tall Manchester United fan with an encyclopaedic knowledge of each week’s TV listings, is autistic.

When the national news picked up Wakefield’s study years later, my parents, like many more around the world, believed that the MMR vaccine was responsible for their child’s disability.

Aside from the less tangible, emotional impacts, Wakefield’s fraudulent study had a lot to answer for. 

Between 2002 and 2003, only 82% of children under the age of two received the MMR jab, compared to 92% in 1995 to 1996. As uptake of the vaccine dropped, outbreaks of measles and mumps increased. 

To compare this to climate change is most definitely to compare apples and oranges. But there is a parallel to be made here. The effects of undue, distorted balance are severe.

The consequences of runaway climate change will be far greater than measles. They will be devastating. Lives, economic output, even entire cities may be lost.

Without pressure from voters, politicians can easily push questions of climate change down the policy agenda due to its distant, abstract nature.

With so much at stake, the mainstream media has a responsibility to portray the risks of our unsustainable path accurately. Sadly, they are not.

When it comes to climate science, the most reputable institutions are still making the same mistakes that so many did with MMR.

As the parliamentary science and technology committee complained last week, BBC News is still presenting the arguments of climate scientists and less informed and often self-interested commentators with equal weight.

The most recent example of this was a debate between scientist Brain Hoskins and the notoriously climate sceptic politician Lord Lawson on Radio 4’s Today programme in February.

Last week, the author of a 2011 BBC Trust report on impartiality and science coverage also accused BBC News of “sticking two fingers up at BBC management’” by failing to act on his findings.

As 97% of scientists are confident human actions are driving climate change – a similar degree of certainty as that in the link between smoking and cancer – it is reasonable to wonder why the BBC does not invite tobacco lobbyists to its health reporting. 

Appropriate balance in this case would be pitching Lord Lawson against 32 climate scientists – perhaps the only way science will ever manage to keep the former chancellor quiet.

In an insightful TED talk, the award-winning filmmaker David Puttnam, now a member of the House of Lords, asked if the media has a duty of care. The answer, to summarise, is yes. 

Of course, the BBC is not the only institution to make these mistakes, but evidence presented to the science committee by the Glasgow University Media Group suggested that audiences trust the BBC more than any other news outlet. As a state-funded broadcaster, the BBC has a greater duty of care than most.  

It has a duty of care to present an informed, precise picture of the evidence to its audience. Climate change should be scrutinised, but by science, not by a jury of deniers and lobbyists.

While the media failed with MMR, in the area of health scares the media is on the whole far more responsible than it was at the turn of the century. There were many signs that bruised journalists and editors had learned from the post-MMR fallout.

Science correspondents and editors became a more common feature of Fleet Street, and relations between journalists and scientists improved with the rise of organisations such as the Science Media Centre. Later vaccination scares, such as human papillomavirus (HPV), were reported thoughtfully. 

To realise the responsibilities it holds to its audience, the BBC must transfer such lessons to its reporting of climate science.

Photo: Brian Hoskins via Free Images

Further reading:

Government and BBC failing to communicate climate change, say MPs

The IPCC’s stark warning: no nation will be untouched by climate change

Climate change denial should be considered ‘criminally negligent’

BBC criticised over lack of scientists on Question Time

Sir Mark Walport: scientists must better communicate the disruption of our climate

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