- 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
Choosing Sources and Voices
By Yasmin Tayag / 2 minute read
Backing up facts with support from scientific experts is always a good idea, but not everyone gives the same credence to experts. Anthony Fauci is a highly credentialed public-health expert who leads the federal government’s Covid response, but he has been widely attacked by right-wing and fringe groups. For people in those camps, he is not a trusted source.
The messenger matters. People are likelier to trust those with whom they have something in common, says Emma Bloomfield of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, so it’s important to find sources that resonate with your audience. Katherine Hayhoe, a climate scientist who is also an evangelical Christian, is better positioned to persuade the religious right to take climate change seriously than is someone from outside that community. “She can talk to the in-group,” says Bloomfield. “If you come into situation and you have nothing in common with them, it’s going to decrease the likelihood that you’re going to be trusted.” The same thinking drove efforts by Black doctors and public-health experts to encourage vaccination among Black Americans with high rates of vaccine hesitancy in their communities. To raise Gen Z vaccination rates, the White House recruited the pop star Olivia Rodrigo. Those choices reflect the need for voices whom specific audiences can identify with, and the importance of having diversity in your sourcing.
Choosing sources with different backgrounds or areas of expertise can strengthen an argument against misinformation. “Show you have a consensus in a community,” says The Daily Beast‘s Neel Patel. “Illustrate that, despite all these people coming at this differently, they’re coming at a consensus as to why this is wrong information.” In The Atlantic’s profile of the anti-vaccination figure Robert Malone, multiple sources, including vaccine scientists, a cellular immunologist, consultants from the biotech industry, and Malone himself, paint a compelling picture of a talented scientist with troubling views.
Striving for balance by presenting a range of opinions is, of course, good journalistic practice. But when it comes to addressing misinformation, be careful about including the voices of people who believe in it. Take care to avoid presenting them as being on equal footing with actual experts. This happens often on live broadcasts, when a climate scientist is brought on to debate a climate-change denier. “If you set up this balance, it undermines the credibility in the science and its urgency,” says Bloomfield. While it makes for “great TV,” says John Cook of the Climate Change Communication Research Hub at Monash University, it inaccurately “conveys to the public that there’s a 50/50 debate.”
Newsrooms differ in their policies on publishing op-ed essays. While there’s no harm in providing a platform for various views, there is potential danger in giving one to people with harmful views informed by misinformation or conspiracy theories, especially when there is no factual counter-commentary. Editors should strongly push back against decisions to do so. Bisceglio’s policy at The Atlantic is to avoid publishing Q&As or op-eds by conspiracy theorists unless there’s a compelling reason — and unless proper context is provided. “We want to be able to hold them to account line by line, in terms of being able to add context around what they’re saying,” he says.