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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 March, 2005, 09:24 GMT
Fair comment or no comment?

By Evan Davis
BBC Economics Editor

Cut the comment, just report the facts. That's the view of some audience members who complain about correspondents putting personal spin on stories. But, as Evan Davis explains, there's a fine line between analysis and bias.

Jeff Randall and Evan Davis
Do you really want Jeff Randall to report a British Airways profit figure, without "commenting" on whether that is good or bad?
Evan Davis

One of the biggest surprises I had when I entered journalism was discovering that, contrary to everything I had ever supposed, it is not the case that "comment is free, and facts are sacred".

My predecessor Peter Jay was fond of reminding me that in economics (and in many other areas too), facts are scattered all over the place.

Far from being precious nuggets of valuable information to be cherished, most facts are left discarded and unused.

There are statistics released every day, statements about the economy from important people, reports by eminent think tanks... there is a cacophony of facts.

In the last eight days for example, the Office for National Statistics has published eight statistical press releases:

  • Output and employment in the construction industry

  • Wide regional variation in alcohol-related death rates

  • Poultry and poultry meat statistics notice

  • Mushroom production and sales survey 2003

  • UK official holdings of international reserves Feb 2005

  • Northern Ireland waiting lists at end of Dec 2004

  • Government deficit and debt under the Maastricht Treaty

  • Revisions to Public Sector Finances - road maintenance and repair

Which one should make news? Which ones should I even bother to read?

Would BBC journalism be more useful or more impartial if we simply stuck to facts?...Of course not
Evan Davis

As it happens, for me the most important one was the last.

It sounds as boring as the rest, involving a revision to government accounting practice.

Yet this apparently technical matter makes it easier for Gordon Brown to meet his self-imposed fiscal rules and could allow him to make tax cuts of a few billion pounds in the budget.

It is certainly convenient for him that these technical revisions to accounting practice should be made ahead of a pre-election budget.

Noise of data

So, would it be biased of me to select and report that one press release, while skipping mushroom production?

Or would that simply be a case of me making a sensible judgement as to what is interesting and what is not?

Would it be biased of me to point out the convenience of the timing for the Chancellor? Or would it be remiss of me not to?

Good reporting is not about broadcasting the noise of data on to the public.

It is about making judgements as to the significance of the available facts, and the pattern that fits them together.

Is the bulk of BBC output motivated by a desire to campaign and persuade? No, most certainly not
Evan Davis

While audiences yearn for journalism that is impartial and factual, which impartial journalist's selection of the facts do they want?

The one who picks the statistics to show taxes have gone up? Or the one who selects a statistic to show they have gone down? You can certainly find both.

Do you really want Jeff Randall to report a British Airways profit figure, without "commenting" on whether that is good or bad? Or without a "comment" on why it is up or down?

Merely to report the figure would be of no use at all, leaving the vast bulk of viewers in the dark as to what the figure means.

You might say that rather than BBC journalists making comments of this kind, they should report the comments of outside experts.

But this does not solve the problem, it simply hides it behind a decision as to who we select to comment, and whether that person is themself biased or not in some way.

And if that person is not biased, why doesn't the BBC take them on to the staff to make these comments more often?

Hidden judgements

Journalists make judgements all the time.

In politics, diplomacy, economics, business, and social affairs the BBC's strength has to be in interpreting data, as the public would not tolerate us simply reporting it.

And reporting it would itself involve hidden judgements about what we report.

However, for a licence fee funded organisation, this does impose special responsibilities.

There is inevitably a fine line between applying our best judgement to a story, and giving a biased account of it based on our personal view.

And journalists at the BBC have to ensure they avoid overstepping that line.

I have yet to meet a BBC journalist... who thinks their job is to only give one point of view
Evan Davis

Usually (but I stress not always) the best practice is to give an interpretation to a story that conforms to a few simple criteria:

  • It should not be partisan on an issue that divides the public. (Note, you can be as biased as you like on an issue that does not divide the public: we have relatively few complaints about biased reporting of the national sports teams).

  • It should give due weight to the body of expert opinion on the subject (we don't want the idiosyncratic rantings of a particular correspondent).

  • It should be clear in a report (by the tone, and the form of coverage) whether the reporter is giving a fact, an impression, an obvious interpretation or a personal hypothesis.

Above all, journalists should usually avoid drawing conclusions from their interpretation: how ever useful the audience might find Jeff Randall's interpretation of British Airways results, the BBC would not encourage him to draw an inference about whether they should buy or sell shares in the company.

Similarly, if we were to give an interpretation of the complicated data on child poverty, we should probably avoid drawing the conclusion that "more needs to be done".

Overstepping the mark

Once the story is told, the conclusion should be left to the viewer (Although the difference between the conclusion and the interpretation is hard to define: it would after all be reasonable to say that "more needs to be done if the government is to meet its child poverty targets").

Do we sometimes get overstep the mark? Undoubtedly.

Do some reporters approach stories with particularly defined values or prejudices? Almost certainly.

But is the bulk of BBC output motivated by a desire to campaign and persuade? No, most certainly not.

I have yet to meet a BBC journalist who can only see one side of an argument, or who thinks their job is to only give on point of view.

Would BBC journalism be more useful or more impartial if we simply stuck to facts? Or if we only allowed ourselves to draw the most anodyne of interpretations? Of course not (That's not a fact, but it is my strong interpretation).

Your comments

We are entitled to expect them to justify these selections from time to time, but if we don't like what we hear, we can always buy another paper or switch channels. If the choices and views seem especially biased then we might complain that journalists are taking advantage of their positions of power - at which point we might call them unprofessional. BBC journalists are excellent overall, and I'd prefer to hear quality commentary and risk the odd individual slip (that includes Nick Gilligan, by the way). The main criticism is surely that like all journalists they tend to oversimplify in an attempt to keep public attention.
G Lawrie, Edinburgh, Scotland

I believe journalists ought to report more than just the facts, essentially so that viewers can make informed decisions. In today's media obsessed world of news and information, we all need to able to think, preferably for ourselves and in order to think we need to be able to form opinions. On the other hand, if information was just spooned out then I wouldn't mind looking at the news ratings of the BBC rapidly falling. Opinions are needed to make the news human not mechanical.
Khuram Zaman, Birmingham UK

Your article describes how it should be done, and on balance, seems to be done most of the time. But there are many, many examples of poor and heavily commented news reporting on both the website and the radio (with the exception of the World Service). Commercial journalists try to generate controversy. My view is that the BBC is wrong to join in. It is not a commercial organisation and should not feel the need to make controversial stories to get visitors to read them. I do not buy newspapers anymore because I'm bored of having to filter the bias out. More and more, I'm having to start filtering BBC news. The trouble is, I can't opt not to pay for it. For the record, I'm a huge fan of the BBC (really) and completely in favour of the licence fee as things stand at the moment. But if, in the end, the BBC wants to acts like a commercial media outlet, I think it should be funded in the same way as a commercial media outlet.
Paul Najman, London, UK

I was interested to read your article, and as a research scientist I am familiar with the philosophical aspect of obtaining and reporting facts. Although I can understand the reasoning behind writing such an article, and think that it is a good thing to do, I wonder whether such concerns about information dissemination are redundant.

On the surface one never wishes to bias one's reports, because the general perception is that when one introduces "opinion" the facts become less independently true. However, the facts recounted by any given person are the facts as they appear to them, and therefore there is immediately "opinion". Firstly in the selection of reports to make, and secondly in the making of the report itself.

In crude terms, every day we all have experiences, but when our nearest and dearest ask us "So what happened to you today?" and we say "Oh well, not so much", is the opinion in reporting of events or facts any less serious than in selection of the events to report in the news of the day? I don't think it is - I think it is merely a consequence of accumulating facts, and having to find somebody nice looking enough to present it. Thanks for your attention, and keep up the good work!
Mat Sumner, Saint Louis, France


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