- 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
- About This Handbook
By Laura Helmuth / 4 minute read
Editing stories about legitimate scientific controversies is fun. This is what a lot of people get into the business for: a robust debate about the nature of reality, new discoveries, and how we know what we know.
Some debates are around big questions: How did life evolve? Was the world dominated by RNA before we DNA-written creatures could emerge? Is our universe just one timeline in an endless multiverse? Was the earth once covered pole-to-pole in ice? Will the Yellowstone supervolcano ever erupt again?
Stories about those subjects tend to work best if they use some of the classic science-writing techniques described in other chapters here: Bring in the right experts, explain their evidence and their statistics, use multimedia to depict mind-boggling concepts, convey a sense of wonder and awe and exploration.
Other controversies mix science and ethics: Can and should we genetically engineer human embryos to eliminate disease genes? Can and should we use geoengineering to prevent the worst consequences of climate change? What is the value of animal research, and how can it be more humane? And the big one, always: Who should decide?
Avoid Ping-Pong.… That can be dizzying and disorienting for the reader.Tim Appenzeller, news editor, Science
These controversies require careful editing that brings in the best evidence for all sides, the most trustworthy ethics experts, the concerns of nonexperts, and more humility than some editors (speaking for myself here) might bring to other subjects.
Editors should also focus on the story’s structure, says Tim Appenzeller, news editor at Science. “Avoid Ping-Pong. When sources differ, it can be easy to write the story as an extended back and forth — criticism, response, criticism, response. That can be dizzying and disorienting for the reader. Instead, after signaling to readers that there is controversy, it’s often better to present one side’s case in full, then get into the criticisms.”
Presenting these subjects as controversies invites readers to engage with the science. This framing can help audiences understand that there is a lot at stake, that there are smart and passionate people on different sides, and that readers should be part of the decision-making process.
You might also find that some sources might not be comfortable going on the record when it comes to scientific controversies. Evelyn Strauss, a freelance writer who was senior news editor of the former “Science of Aging Knowledge Environment” section of Science, suggests reminding sources of the public service they perform by speaking up.
“The key is to convey the truth that she is contributing positively to her field,” and that “if she stays mum, she’s contributing negatively,” Strauss says. Remind sources that there are probably peers who agree and would appreciate the source’s willingness to speak up and articulate this line of reasoning.
A dual profile can be an effective technique for humanizing a science debate and making it comprehensible. The proponents can represent the different sides of an issue and show why they matter so much to some people. As with any profile subject, be sure to vet these people, because profiling them can boost their careers and give them a lot of power. Screen out people who are jerks on Twitter; listen for whisper networks that someone is a bully or harasser; have your reporter talk with a lot of people in the field, including former students, to make sure the profile subjects are trusted and respected. Give consideration to the diversity of the people you profile. The person you’re considering elevating as an important voice in a debate may be charming to deans but abusive to graduate students.
Some science controversies are about enduring questions that will outlast any of our careers. Other controversies persist but really ought to go away. The ones of this kind that you’ll encounter most often will probably come from nutrition science.
There’s a perverse incentive to cover studies about the effects of various foods on health. People read the heck out of stories about red wine, chocolate, coffee, eggs, and other familiar foods, especially if the stories say our favorite foods are good for us. But nutrition research is really hard, and a lot of what’s published in the literature turns out to be spurious correlations. The more we publish simplistic stories that merely reverse the advice in the previous simplistic stories, the less likely readers are to believe them.
Rather than publish stories based on single studies that support one side or the other, it can be effective to cover a heavily studied area of nutrition research with a variant of a controversy story. One approach is “It’s not really a controversy.” For example, some scientists argue that coffee is healthful, and others say it’s dangerous, which sounds like a classic controversy. But they’re both wrong, because if there were a big effect, it would be clear by now.
Nutrition research is really hard, and a lot of what’s published in the research literature turns out to be spurious correlations.
Another variant is the “controversy settled” approach. For example, largely on the basis of animal studies, some scientists say red wine can prolong life, a claim that has spread through pop culture. But other scientists have since gathered a lot more evidence that even small amounts of alcohol decrease lifespan (I’m so sorry). In this case, it’s a controversy that got a lot of attention at first but has since been resolved.
Whenever you cover a science controversy, be aware of whom the controversial science could help or harm, and put the human consequences at the center of your editing decisions. This is important for technology stories, which often focus on how well a new device or algorithm works rather than on how it will be used on real people. Artificial intelligence may seem objective, but it’s based on human intelligence at every stage of development, with all the racism and sexism and other biases baked in.
And wherever possible, expose the politicization and false controversies about what should be evidence-based decisions. Broadening access to health care in the U.S. is a political debate, yes, but it means the difference between life and death. Trumped-up controversies about where the novel coronavirus originated have fueled racism and given cover to politicians who withdrew funding for international collaborations with China. And for the most important issue of our lifetimes, climate change, the science is not truly controversial, and neither is the need for fundamental change to slow down the catastrophe.