- How Science Works
- Sources and Experts: Where to Find Them and How to Vet Them
- Making Sense of Science Stats
- Editing for Story
- Editing Controversial Science
- Holding Science to Account
- Covering Health Care
- Climate and the Environment
- Fact-Checking Science Journalism: How to Make Sure Your Stories Are True
Illustrating Complex Science Stories
- The Role of Visuals in Science Journalism
- The Process of Building Science-Centric Graphics
- Strategies for Using Visuals to Put Breaking Science in Context
- Special Considerations for Data Visualization
- Uncertainty and Misinformation
- Editorial Illustration, Photography, and Moving Images
- Additional Reading and Resources
- About the Author
- Social Media and Reader Engagement
- Popular Science
- Op-Eds and Essays
- About This Handbook
By Laura Helmuth / 4 minute read
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that public schools can’t teach creationism as science, creationists got creative. They renamed their belief system “intelligent design” and used the language of science to make it look like a legitimate field of study. The religiously conservative Discovery Institute created a “wedge document” that laid out a plan to make intelligent design an alternative to evolution that should be taught in science class. Their slogan appealed to people’s sense of fairness and good pedagogy: “Teach the controversy.”
Eventually the effort was shut down by the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District ruling, in which a federal judge (appointed by President George W. Bush) ruled that intelligent design was a religious belief, not a science.
But before that ruling, the intelligent-design movement manipulated journalism’s “show both sides” sense of fairness to amplify pseudoscience and fringe scientists who distorted the fossil record and made baseless claims. Journalists were trapped — the issue was playing out before school boards across the country, and they needed to cover it. But by mistakenly adhering to the “objective” language of standard news reporting, some journalists false-balanced evidence from physics, chemistry, paleontology, geology, and biology with disproven claims that the bacterial flagellum is so complicated that it must have been designed.
Some of the most insightful criticism of the case came from outside journalism. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster endorsed Kansas’ plan to teach alternatives to evolution, suggesting that teachers include their theory of pastafarianism. And a series of ”Teach the Controversy” T-shirts showed other theories that should be included in science class, such as alchemy, the idea that aliens built the pyramids, and that the earth is flat (which was funnier at the time than it is now that flat earthism is thriving).
Don’t assume the reader has been keeping up with the news or knows the background on the topic.Angela Fritz, general assignment editor, The Washington Post
Science bloggers were rightly outraged that creationism was being sold as science, and they wrote clearly about the errors and misinformation that were being presented as a serious controversy by traditional journalism. It was quite a learning experience, and the whole ordeal showed the power of humor, clear language, and righteous indignation to communicate about science.
As Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have shown in their book, Merchants of Doubt, many supposed controversies about science have been manufactured by people who stand to lose profit or prestige. Campaigns to obscure evidence about tobacco, DDT, and climate change cynically adopt the language and values of science and journalism. They turn the iterative, self-correcting nature of science into a reason not to trust any conclusions, and they weaponize journalists’ principles of fairness and questioning authority.
Science editors should be on the watch for such campaigns, and then be prepared to cover them appropriately and effectively. Rather than present the controversy as a question of “Which side is right?,” editors should make it clear that one side is casting doubt on the overwhelming evidence because it threatens that side’s organization or industry. You can use the controversy to get attention for the science, show how it’s being distorted, stand up for the truth, and help audiences understand why it all matters.
Journalism students are taught to present the evidence and let the readers come to their own conclusions. But journalists, and especially science journalists, are increasingly realizing that’s not enough. The evidence doesn’t always speak for itself, especially for complicated or frightening subjects.
For example, the antivaccine movement is a conspiracy theory based on debunked and fraudulent claims. Stories about the movement should say so prominently and make clear that antivax misinformation endanger people. In reporting on leaders of the movement, journalists can, for example, relevantly refer to Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as a prominent antivaccine conspiracy theorist rather than an environmental lawyer.
At the same time, Apoorva Mandavilli, a reporter at The New York Times and a former editor in chief of Spectrum, a website on autism research, advises journalists not to forget that “there is always a human element to people’s strongly held beliefs. Exploring a controversial theory’s roots can lead to interesting and powerful stories, or help to build narrative tension within a story.”
Tips for handling false controversies
- Clearly label falsehoods as such.
- Don’t cover a claim unless it’s already getting attention.
- Clearly describe the dangers of the false claim.
- Refer to proponents by their association to the false claim.
- Stand up for the truth.
An editor’s biggest job is to decide what’s worth covering, and that can be a tricky decision when it comes to false controversies. Famous people often share misinformation or disinformation, whether it’s about vaccines or coronavirus or a flat earth. If the statements aren’t getting a lot of attention already, don’t cover them, since debunking can draw attention to a false claim that otherwise would have faded away. (Editors don’t get enough credit in general for stopping bad stories.) When the false information can’t be ignored — if it is being used to guide policy decisions — it is crucial to note clearly that the claim is false and to cover the falsehood as prominently as the claim.
An editor’s second-biggest job is to write headlines. Those are the most important words in the story, and too often the only words an audience will see. For stories about false controversies — especially if they could have an impact on people’s health — the headline itself should say that a false claim is false. For example, when President Trump speculated that injecting bleach could protect people from the coronavirus, The Washington Post’s headline began: “Trump Floats Another Bogus Coronavirus Cure.”
It’s also important to recognize that your audiences aren’t necessarily paying as much attention to these issues as you are. As Angela Fritz, a Washington Post editor on the general-assignment desk who previously edited on the health-and-science desk, puts it, “Be clear about what the controversy is. Don’t assume the reader has been keeping up with the news or knows the background on the topic.”
Also be aware that writing about controversies takes extra effort. You and your reporters can and should expect blowback. “You do need to be realistic about whether you have the time to deal with a controversial topic,” says Torie Bosch, an editor at Future Tense. “It may end up requiring more-intensive fact-checking, legal resources, top edits from the top editors at the publication.”