Six tips for reporting on controversial science

by KS Jayaraman
Oct 30, 2018 in Specialized Topics

Climate change, stem cell research, genetically-modified food: many science stories have a controversial angle to them. When you are preparing a story that may be controversial, consider the following tips.

  • Which controversies are worth pursuing? This decision must be reached judging by the impact your report is likely to make on society at large. This article discusses the issue in more detail.

  • What are the different perspectives on the controversy and who has rival views? You can find out by doing a thorough search of current scientific literature. Consult your sources and other scientists – preferably a rival group – to see who has differing or contrary opinions on the issue. Sort out who is credible and who is not.

  • Are you distorting the debate? Your job is to do a good story based on facts. Do not show bias. Distorted news reports, especially when covering health controversies, can generate false hopes or unwarranted fears.

  • Are you sensationalizing the story? Try to bring out the controversy without sensationalizing. A medical finding reported in a sensational way may create an unwarranted media frenzy. For example, the reporting on mad cow disease reached an absurd level of hysteria, with reporters emphasizing the scariest aspects of the story, driving the government to spend millions over an "infinitesimal threat," according to David Ropeik of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.

  • Are you exaggerating? Headlines and choice of words (for instance "tiff" instead of "fight") to describe different viewpoints are crucial as they can belittle or exaggerate the issue and accordingly condition the public's reaction to the dispute. For example, India's Sethusamudram ship channel project is now being treated by the general public as a political issue, though it started off as a scientific and environmental issue, because reporters kept quoting politicians.

  • Like five blind men describing an elephant, the same controversial issue may be viewed differently by academics, activists and, notably, by people directly involved in the controversy. Therefore, while covering a controversy, use the journalistic norm of balanced reporting. But make sure you give each viewpoint the weight it deserves.

You can read more about reporting on controversies in the online science journalism course of the World Federation of Science Journalists. All ten lessons are available for free in English, Arabic, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Turkish.