- 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 / 3 minute read
Every policy story should also be a science story. What is the evidence for or against a proposed policy? Teaming up science journalists with reporters and editors who cover policy can make your publication’s coverage richer, more accurate, and more relevant — especially if you can help distinguish among false controversies, science controversies, and policy controversies.
In many policy debates, there is clear scientific evidence for one side or the other. Sarah Zielinski is an editor at Science News for Students, a site “dedicated to providing age-appropriate science news to learners, parents, and educators.” She warns editors that when they are assigning a story in a controversial area, they should do their research. “Know what you’re getting yourself and your writer into. Identify potential pitfalls early on — and strategies for dealing with them.” And then be sure to “ground your story in science. It’s harder for readers to complain when you’ve got data to back up your points.”
For example, gun ownership is a charged subject. And while the National Rifle Association can claim that people should buy guns for their own protection, the evidence is overwhelming that gun owners are more likely than people who don’t own guns to die of gun accidents, accidentally kill a family member, or intentionally kill themselves with their weapon. The science is clear, and science editors can help use it to inform urgent policy coverage about gun laws.
The evidence that fluoridated water is safe and prevents cavities is abundant and has been replicated in municipalities around the world. When a city votes on whether to fluoridate its water supply, the coverage should prominently feature the fact that there is no scientific controversy — one side has science to back up its advice to fluoridate, and the other has misinformation that endangers public health.
Ground your story in science. It’s harder for readers to complain when you’ve got data to back up your points.Sarah Zielinski, editor, Science News for Students
Debates about abortion policy are full of false claims about health and science, and editors should make sure their coverage presents the evidence and not just the advocacy. Women who have abortions are highly unlikely to regret their choice, for example, and the procedure does not increase their risk of mental illness or breast cancer. Reporters naturally pick up on the terminology and framing they hear from the people they interview. As an editor, you can flag loaded terms and ask for more specific, neutral, or scientifically accurate language. For instance, an “unborn baby” is an embryo or a fetus. A “heartbeat” in a fetus at six weeks of gestation isn’t like a baby’s heartbeat; it is medically known as fetal pole cardiac activity. Avoid the term “pro-life,” because it implies that the other side doesn’t like life. Instead, specify the policy positions: A politician or organization supports abortion rights or opposes abortion rights.
Genetic engineering, too, is loaded with loaded words, like “Frankenfoods” or the claim that scientists are playing with nature. There is no evidence that eating genetically modified foods is dangerous. There is scientific debate about how various GMOs can be used to help or harm the environment. Coverage of policy debates about how and whether to label genetically modified products should flag false health claims, show who benefits from them, and explain what is and isn’t known.
Science journalism is some of the best protection people have against health scams. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration and medical-licensing organizations have been ineffective against those who use the language of clinical trials and experimental medicine to promise miracle cures. More than a thousand “stem cell” clinics claim to cure arthritis, macular degeneration, lung disease, neurological disorders, and other conditions by taking people’s fat cells, spinning them to isolate supposed stem cells, and then re-injecting them.
The policy controversies lie in how aggressively the FDA should crack down on unproven treatments, whether medical boards should penalize members for false claims, and whether desperate patients should have a “right” to try unproven remedies. Those are legitimate debates, but coverage should make clear that those providers have no evidence for their treatments and have harmed people.
When you’re editing stories about controversial health claims, beware that people whose fortunes rely on misinformation, hope, and desperation tend to be litigious. When you’re covering the overblown marketing claims of nutritional supplements or safety problems with clinics promoting unproven treatments, for example, bring the lawyers in early and often. Focusing on science can protect you from libel claims. So can showing your work. Many articles taking on false or controversial claims now include a “how we did it” section up high that lists the number of sources, why some of them were anonymous, what documents were uncovered in the reporting, and which points were confirmed by the subject of the story.