A recent piece in the Guardian has criticised the BBC over its coverage of climate change issues, and in particular the release of the latest IPCC report. In the interests of so-called "editorial balance", there has a tendency to include non-specialists, so-called 'climate deniers' (not a term I'm particularly fond of, given its connotations, despite being a 'climate-believer' myself).
It was a complaint that immediately stuck me as ironic coming from the Guardian, given much of its recent reporting about shale gas. Particular Guardian highlights include letting Lucy Mangan, a lifestyle columnist, free reign make up whatever she liked about shale development, including, my particular favourite, the claim that the UK has no history of onshore operations, which must have come as a surprise to the operators of Wytch Farm (the largest onshore field in the EU) and the other 40 or so existing onshore oil and gas fields.
Similarly flawed was their piece accusing an operator of gagging a family claiming that their water had been impacted by drilling, while failing to mention that the Pennsylvania DEP had been in to test the water, and had found no evidence of any drilling-related contamination.
Meanwhile Andrew Rawnsley felt sufficiently geologically-qualified to claim that UK shales were unlikely to be profitable because they were "typically among the thinnest" of Europe, when in fact at over 6,000 feet the Bowland shale is probably the thickest shale deposit found anywhere to date.
These are the headline mistakes, but of course every piece on shale must be accompanied by a statement from a protest group detailing imminent environmental catastrophe, without ever being asked to provide any evidence or justification of any kind. Certainly there's been no attempt to highlight the difference between ill-informed shale hype (and there is plenty of this from both sides of the debate) and expert scientific opinion as expressed, for example, by the Royal Society report, by the BGS, or perhaps even from John Hanger, one-time Pennsylvania environmental chief (whose 'Facts of the Day' blog is well worth a read).
There are many areas of modern life where science intersects with social and political viewpoints (global warming, GM food, nuclear power, vaccinations, creationism, all spring to mind). At this point I want to move my discussion away from shale gas specifically to treat the subject of expert representation in the media more generally.
With unsurprising regularity, wherever the science agrees with a particular viewpoint you'll see protagonists urging: "let the scientists speak - don't let the unscientific opponents be given equal footing to the actual experts", only to find that when the boot is on the other foot over a different issue, suddenly having balance in the debate is crucial: interested parties, even if not experts, should be given a platform to express their views.
I'm not sure where I stand on this issue. On the one hand, the scientist in me feels that on every issue we should ensure that it is the experts that are given prime time in the debate, and that editors/producers must make sure to differentiate what is evidence based from what is (socio-)politically motivated. We can see direct examples where the failure to do so leads directly to harm (the MMR scare and resulting South Wales measles outbreak springs most immediately to mind).
Sadly however, I suspect that many editors lack the expertise needed to do this, having neither the ability nor inclination to cross-examine their sources to differentiate expertise from BS. Moreover, we should not be insensitive to the fact that many of these issues provoke very strong emotions some sections of the non-expert general public, who will come to be represented by partisan organisations and spokespeople. Is there a case to be made that, if a certain view is held by a significant portion of the population, then it is right that the media provide air-time to that view-point, even if misinformed?
For me it's a difficult question, a difficult balance to be found. Comments and thoughts welcome in the comment section as always.