- 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
Red Flags, Checklists, and Best Practices
For any science story, but especially for controversial subjects, beware of hype.
Watch out for red-flag words in press releases or an expert’s self-appraisal of their research: revolutionary, game-changing, breakthrough. If a reporter turns in a story with such language, make sure it’s in a quote from an independent outside source and not from the researcher who did the work. If it’s the reporter’s own words, make sure the research and the context and outside sources can justify the strong language.
Beware of the tempting trope of an outsider who claims to have a revolutionary new understanding or a fix for some disease or problem but is being thwarted by the establishment. Sometimes this is true: The theory of plate tectonics was rejected by most geologists at first, and Galileo was convicted of heresy for saying the Earth moves around the Sun. But as his biographer Mario Livio says, “Galileo wasn’t right because he was an outsider — he was right because he was right.” It takes a lot of evidence to overthrow the scientific consensus.
Beware of top editors trying to frame false controversies as debates. Many publications are run by people trained in political reporting, in which the formula is that every policy story should present the best case from each of two sides. You may have to explicitly address this expectation and say clearly: This isn’t a debate story. This is an accountability story about misinformation.
Galileo wasn’t right because he was an outsider — he was right because he was right.Mario Livio, Galileo biographer
Make sure the story format is appropriate. Do not publish an opinion piece (which can’t be debunked within the article) by a conspiracy theorist. Don’t do a Q&A with someone who spreads false information, unless you’re prepared to challenge every statement.
Photos and graphics have disproportionate power in stories about controversies, so be selective with them. Don’t use photos of screaming babies cowering from needles if you’re covering a measles epidemic; that’s a trope of the antivaccine movement. For stories about the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, avoid photos of crowded markets that implicitly blame Chinese people, “othering” them because of where some shop for groceries. If you’re covering the controversy over the usefulness of the Body Mass Index as a marker of health and you use images of overweight people, show them at normal activities rather than use cropped images that show their midsections but not their faces and perpetuate a blame-and-shame approach to weight management.
Encourage your reporters to be skeptical about surprising or miraculous findings. Scientists make mistakes, and some scientists make things up. A lot of exciting findings can’t be replicated, whether because of errors or statistical flukes. Just because a paper was published in Science or Nature doesn’t mean it’s true.
Make sure the research you’re covering was properly vetted. Anybody can call a press conference, which is how cold fusion was announced to the world in 1989. This was a classic outsider narrative: two physicists claimed they could create safe and cheap energy under simple lab conditions, and they got a lot of attention from credulous mainstream media before the claim was debunked.
Articles published on preprint servers before they’ve gone through peer review and been published in a scientific journal require an extra-extra level of scrutiny. Even if a study is peer-reviewed, have your reporters conduct their own peer review and run it by additional outside experts.
Check social media for responses. Twitter is an early warning sign that a publication was hyped, insufficiently peer-reviewed, or absurd. When Science published a controversial paper claiming that some microbes can replace phosphorous in their DNA with arsenic, experts immediately debunked the claim on social media.
Does the story accurately and fairly represent all sides? If it’s a genuine controversy, you want each side to present its best case. If it’s a false controversy, you want to be accurate but make clear which side is supported by evidence and which one is endorsing debunked or discredited or conspiratorial ideas.
Consult the lawyers. Assume that any critical story will be met with legal threats. Lawyers can help you solidify it and protect your publication from lawsuits. Typically, you should bring the lawyers in after the story has been through the first round of edits but well before publication time.
Readers should spend their attention understanding the science, the stakes, and the conflict rather than parsing elaborate language.
Have you given everyone a chance to respond to criticism? If the story is breaking news about a media-savvy institution, like the federal government or a large company, you would typically give it until the end of the day to reply with a comment. If it’s a longer-term project or involves less media-savvy groups, you might want to give 24 hours. If you don’t get a response, say explicitly in the story that you sought comment to show you’re doing your due diligence.
Use simple language when publishing stories about complicated controversies. Readers should spend their attention understanding the science, the stakes, and the conflict rather than parsing elaborate language.
It’s not aliens. Whenever there’s an unusual signal from a distant spot in the universe or an asteroid hurtling through our solar system, somebody raises the possibility that it’s a sign of aliens. It’s not, even if a Harvard professor says it might be.
It’s not faster than the speed of light. If a team of physicists claim that they’ve detected particles traveling faster than the speed of light, it’s a calibration error, not a fundamental upheaval of physics.
It’s not a miracle cure for cancer, dementia, heart disease, or schizophrenia. Be especially clear that a new treatment isn’t a miracle cure if the research is on mice. Lots of treatments that work in animal models of disease fail in humans, and most publications, in most cases, should not cover this stage of medical research. If there is an interesting controversy about a basic biological question, frame it as a search for understanding rather than an imminent cure, to avoid raising false hope.
And after a story appears, “be ready for sources to complain that the other side is wrong and you should not have quoted them,” says Tim Appenzeller, news editor at Science. “Scientists sometimes have a hard time accepting that reasonable people can differ.”