By a Newsnet reporter
An academic has hit back at BBC Scotland Chiefs after his research into TV news reporting of the independence referendum was dismissed by the corporation as being of “questionable legitimacy”.
Dr John Robertson, an academic based at the University of the West of Scotland, has insisted the year-long study that found both BBC Scotland and STV had favoured the No campaign in TV news coverage, had used the most robust methodology available.
In a statement issued on Monday, the academic defended his research and said: “The methodology adopted is of the most robust form and compares very favourably with that employed in reports commonly presented on TV.”
Dr Robertson also revealed that the study had been commended by another academic publication body for its impartiality, which the University of Edinburgh’s Political journal Scottish Affairs described as “admirable”.
He added: “The research is not based on a small sample, as is common in surveys often reported on TV without critique but is based on one whole year and every evening from 6-7 pm on two channels.”
The row centres on a study carried out by the academic which analysed evening news reports from BBC Scotland and STV from September 2012 to September 2013. The findings revealed that both broadcasters had favoured the anti-independence campaign in several key categories by a ratio of three to two.
According to the study, Reporting Scotland was considered to have shown 262 news items that were favourable for the No campaign but just 171 favourable for the Yes campaign. The numbers for the STV evening news programme were 255 to 172 respectively.
The study also found that ‘personalising’ independence arguments as being the wishes of Alex Salmond appeared 35 times on BBC and 34 times on ITV, with no such personalisation of any of the No campaign’s arguments.
Furthermore, the study showed that statements which made use of academic, scientific or ‘independent’ evidence favoured the No campaign by 22 to 4 on BBC Scotland and by 20 to 7 on STV.
Following publication of the report, STV challenged its findings and denied favouring one side over the other.
However BBC Scotland went further and contacted the academic directly. An email sent by BBC Scotland Head of Public Policy & Corporate Affairs, Ian Small, called into question the credibility of the survey, and informed the academic that BBC Scotland had “serious concerns with the methodology applied” as well as the “factual accuracy” of the report’s conclusions.
Responding to BBC suggestions his report contained conclusions that were factually inaccurate, Dr Robertson said:
“The coding which led to the evidence of bias emerged from a grounded theory/phenomenological approach which allows the data to speak. The final coding is the product of two phases, through all the data, of coding by the lead researcher and subsequent moderation by three others (recently retired staff and PhD students).”
Explaining that some news reports which could have been deemed beneficial to the No campaign were categorised as general, due to the subtle nature of language, he added:
“The first phase resulted in evidence of bias more damaging to the BBC and STV. In the second phase, the lead researcher allocated statements with more subtle or nuanced undermining of the Yes campaign to the general or descriptive category.”
In a swipe at the refusal of the broadcaster to highlight the existence of the report on any of its news programmes, Dr Robertson said:
“I still await a ‘robust rebuttal’, from the BBC, of a report they have not admitted exists other than briefly on Radio Scotland, with genuine excitement.”
The report has received widespread coverage on social media and other online outlets with pro-independence supporters citing it as evidence backing their long held belief that a pro-Union imbalance exists within the Scottish media – in particular the BBC.
However there has been no mention of the study from traditional media outlets.
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