I’m joining Peter Griffin in voicing surprise and dismay at the New Zealand Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) response to a complaint over a factual error–acknowledged by the broadcaster as wrong–as immaterial in reporting a science item. Peter has the full story; I’m not going to repeat it here. Readers will also want to read media commentator Brian Edward’s article and the comments in response to it.
What I’d like to do is quickly look at the BSA ruling, which I find instructive.
The news item reported a 10 year-old Canadian girl’s discovery of a supernova approximately 240 million light years away as being only 240 light years away. The BSA notes that TVNZ accepted their error but also rejected it as unimportant in the context of the story,
Furthermore, we consider that Mr McDonald’s complaint was dealt with adequately and appropriately by the broadcaster, which accepted that the figure was incorrect, but explained that it was not material to the item.
The key point is that the broadcaster rejects it as not important, arguing that they were presenting a general human interest event – but even there they describe it terms of a science achievement: ’[…] the item, which focused on the discovery of the supernova by a 10-year-old girl.’
The broadcaster’s response feels a little disingenuous to me. Their story features an achievement but they have, in part, inaccurately represented the achievement. (One thing that would be useful is some idea of how difficult, or not, it is to observe an event that far away using modest amateur equipment.)
A bigger problem is lurking – general standards of reporting science news, and what is acceptable.
Further down in the BSA ruling this line complains that Mr McDonald is ‘asking for too much’ -
Mr McDonald wishes to apply standards of scientific or mathematical accuracy where these are not required.
Let me see if I understand this.
The broadcaster reports a science event, but wishes to not be held to the standards expected of a science event? More fully, when their error is pointed out, they argue that inaccuracy is ‘immaterial’, and the BSA supports this?
If you are to report on a science event, the basic facts have to be accurate, surely? Isn’t that part of the territory? Read the rest of this entry »