Science reporting – accuracy does not matter?

By Grant Jacobs 17/08/2011

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?There’s no two ways the complaint is fussing for accuracy, but then this is a science event and reporting is about reporting accurately.

A danger here is this ruling can be read more widely allowing very poor standards of science reporting, if not reporting in general. Reasonable ’scientific or mathematical accuracy’ will always be required in science stories.

As others have pointed out, the BSA’s fining Mr McDonald is over his past complaints continuing into the future,

We have allowed him some consideration in the past and with considerable reservations will do so again on this occasion. We will not impose a costs order against Mr McDonald in this instance, but we signal very clearly that this leniency is unlikely to be repeated.

This might be seen to be silencing critics and corrections (not to mention accepting a low standard for science reporting). As Brian Edward wrote,

Like all deterrent sentences it finds its justification not in what the accused person has done in this case, but in what he or other offenders might do in future. The warning is for you and me as well as Mr McDonald.

I have a feeling this might encourage more complaints to be filed, perhaps even a whole lot more. Certainly it’s got me thinking that I will. If the broadcasters don’t accept these complaints of inaccuracy as being relevant to the item, then the BSA has just created a whole lot more work for themselves – what their ruling seems to want to discourage.

The seeming lack of good editorial filtering of this sort of error prior to going to air / print is something that bugs me. Where are the fact checkers or editors on this?

Perhaps the BSA isn’t an appropriate vehicle for this type of complaint. If so, fair enough – but what other independent means of filing these are available?

Brian Edwards suggests,

Okay … here’s what One News should do. Respond promptly to, and actively encourage, crowd-sourced corrections.

I can imagine going a step further, creating a New Zealand media counterpart to Ivan Oransky’s Retraction Watch and Embargo Watch websites – or just filing the errors to us at sciblogs, as Peter suggested.

Other articles on Code for life:

Media thought: Ask what is known, not the expert’s opinion

XMRV prompts media thought: ask for the ’state of play’

Fact or fallacy, a survey of immunisation statements in the print media

When the abstract or conclusions aren’t accurate or enough

Banished from science writing. Words, that is.

The first science films

0 Responses to “Science reporting – accuracy does not matter?”

  • I think it’s great that we have fines for pedantry.

    Surely people realise that the news is entertainment, like The Simpsons or Strictly Come Dancing. I bet this guy has also (amongst his many complaints, which is how he got fined) moaned that the depiction of plutonium in the Simpsons is inaccurate (it doesn’t actually glow), or that the characters in cowboy films fire off more bullets than can reasonably be contained in a revolver.

    If you want accurate information, sell your telly and spend the money on books from the library.

  • I take your point richdrich, but this was a prime time news report not an episode of The Simpsons. What the BSA is essentially saying is don’t bothger us if the facts are wrong, accuracy alone isn’t enough for us to get involved, they have to be guilty of some greater sin like “lack of balance”. No wonder the news is so pock-marked with factual errors, the watchdog has given up…

  • From Peter’s post:
    “The problem is, this was not the story to slam McDonald over, because TVNZ clearly breached the standard of accuracy, got its facts wrong and misled the public as to the distance between the Earth and the newly discovered supernova.”

    A complaint over scientific accuracy in the Simpsons would have been the ideal place to fine McDonald if he was being a pain in the BSA’s proverbial behind.
    Even though anyone who pays attention can write the News off as entertainment, that’s not what it sets out to be. Theoretically, the News media purports to be an information distribution service and as such should be called up on factual errors.

  • richdrich,

    Have to agree with Peter & Ben: New items should be accurate.

    Artistic license (examples of which you give) are to be expected in the likes of The Simpsons and westerns, but artistic license is a different thing to inaccurate reporting.

    Brian Edwards wrote “when he complains that a broadcast statement is inaccurate, he is, as far as I can see, almost invariably correct.” I presume by a ‘broadcast statement’, Edwards means news bulletins rather than other kinds of shows. You’d want to check if any of his complaints over accuracy have been about fictional shows.

    A (very!) hasty look on the BSA site suggests he objects either to inaccurate statements in news items, or to ‘good taste and decency’ or privacy in a wider range of shows. I didn’t see any examples of him objecting to accuracy in fictional shows.

  • I have just paid Don’s costs to TVNZ today. Also I said to TVNZ that I will be noting errors in accuracy and fact and sending in complaints about them.

    Hopefully we might change a few attitudes………

  • richdrich

    Surely people realise that the news is entertainment

    Seriously, you think news is entertainment?

    The news is the way we find out what is going on in the world. hardly something I want reporters to use artistic licence with (it is hard enough filtering out their various biases).
    Books are hardly a viable option for current news. Though I agree they are often more entertaining than some of the programmes currently served up as entertainment or education on TV

  • Ross,

    I have just paid Don’s costs to TVNZ today.

    Good to hear – at least the practical aspect is covered, even if the underlying issue stands.

    PS: I like the penguin avatar!

  • Thank you. Ross M? Peter Griffin, and Grant Jacobs, I suspect. Should I report more BSA complaints? I’ve just joined this site. But I’m moving out of a 26 yr bedsitting room tenancy this weekend. UPHEAVAL ^ squared. Don’t know how to View my PROFILE? There might be a new Guinness record for TVNZ RadioNZ complainer. 18/8/2011.

  • I recalled TV3 made an error during prime time Campbell Live about 2 or 3 years ago. Their reporter described quantum teleportation as teleported mass, ie, mass disappears from point A and being instantaneously teleported into a different spatial point B to be reassembled there, which is not the case. There is no mass transfer in quantum teleportation.

    I sent an email to the TV3 Cambell Live feedback and hoped that they would have corrected that misreporting the next night (or any other nights during that week), but it wasn’t.