Module 4 – Reporting politicised science

Coal seam gas fracking, climate change, vaccinations …

Look at the following 5-minute videos that includes interview excerpts with leading journalists, Graham Readfearn, independent journalist and blogger, and Natalie Bochenski, a senior Brisbane journalist currently working with Queensland Times.

It may be difficult not to report on political aspects of a science story when it is a politicised issue. Notable examples in Australia include: coal seam gas fracking, climate change and vaccinations.

Carefully think about a politicised science issue in light of who has politicised the issue, and to what end—for money, power, opinion…

6 questions to consider when reporting on controversy

  1. Which controversies are worth pursuing?
  2. What are the different perspectives?
  3. Are you distorting the debate?
  4. Are you sensationalising the story?
  5. Are you exaggerating?
  6. Are you giving the story balance?

To assess a source—whether that is a scientist, dissenting view, or institution—you can ask yourself these questions:

  • Are they politically aligned?
    • Explicitly or otherwise (i.e. through hiring practices)
    • Where does their money come from?
    • Could this have an effect on their opinions?
  • Do they have other vested interests in a particular viewpoint (i.e. not based in peer-supported research)?
  • Is there a clear scientific methodology they use to arrive at their conclusion?

3 questions to consider about sources

  1. Does your expert have a scientific background that is relevant to the area they are weighing in on?
  2. Do they have established credentials? An active research career? What is their reputation among fellow scientists?
  3. Can you uncover any conflicts of interest or ties to an outside organisation that may unduly influence the expert’s views?

Avoiding the main issues

For politicised or highly controversial science issues, beware of these four main issues in your reporting:

  • sensationalism
  • technical accuracy (e.g. risk terminology, field-specific terminology)
  • false balance (credibility and variety of sources)
  • your own biases

You can also ask yourself the following questions to help steer you:

  • Is the issue controversial? Is it worth pursuing?
  • Who has different views on the controversy, and who is credible?
  • Does your report distort, sensationalise or exaggerate the story?
  • Can you create balance by bringing in multiple sources?

Guidelines for reporters

After the Leveson inquiry in the UK, the following guidelines were proposed to help journalists in reporting on science and health stories responsibly (adapted from UK Science Media Centre):

  • State the source of the story—e.g. interview, conference, journal article, a survey from a charity or trade body, etc.—ideally with enough information for the audience to look it up or a hyperlink.
  • Specify the size and nature of the study—e.g. who/what were the subjects, how long did it last, what was tested or was it an observation? If space, mention the major limitations.
  • When reporting a link between two things, indicate whether or not there is evidence that one causes the other.
  • Give a sense of the stage of the research—e.g. cells in a laboratory or trials in humans—and a realistic time frame for any new treatment or technology.
  • On health risks, include the absolute risk whenever it is available in the press release or the research paper—i.e. if ‘cupcakes double cancer risk’ state the outright risk of that cancer, with and without cupcakes.
  • Especially on a story with public health implications, try to frame a new finding in the context of other evidence—e.g. does it reinforce or conflict with previous studies? If it attracts serious scientific concerns, they should not be ignored.
  • If space, quote both the researchers themselves and external sources with appropriate expertise. Be wary of scientists and press releases over-claiming for studies.
  • Distinguish between findings and interpretation or extrapolation; don’t suggest health advice if none has been offered.
  • Remember patients: don’t call something a ‘cure’ that is not a cure.
  • Headlines should not mislead an audience about a story’s contents and quotation marks should not be used to dress up overstatement.

Communicating ‘uncertain’ technical information—extra tips

  1. Find out what people want to know. What you think is important and what others think is important may differ greatly. While it is important to communicate information you consider critical, you need to consider the concerns of involved, affected or interested groups.
  2. Acknowledge uncertainties. This will help your long-term credibility and help to educate people about the nature of scientific research.
  3. Put information into perspective. It is important not to raise expectations beyond what can be delivered, and to not minimise risks. People need enough information to feel confident in making their own decisions.
  4. Take care when simplifying information. Maintain a fine balance between providing too much complex information and too little.

Preparing for a potentially controversial interview

  • Research as much as you can about the interviewee.
  • Consider the medium you’re interviewing for (newspaper, magazine, TV, radio, internet).
  • Consider the audience for the finished product: what do they want to know about this person and topic?
  • Think about the interviewee: will they be evasive, nervous, shy, busy or distracted, too technical? How will you deal with them?

Accurate + interesting reporting

These pointers for accuracy and engaging reporting about a politicised science issue are adapted from this article by James Fahn about reporting on climate change.

‘All journalists should understand the science of climate change—its causes, its controversies and its current and projected impacts. Start by doing your own research from established sources, such as reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or from local scientific experts you trust.  Read and report on the latest research from peer-reviewed scientific journals, or at the very least from reputable popular science publications.’

Communicating uncertainty

  • Don’t give in to sensationalism. It’s better to have an accurate story with nuance than a misleading one that gets you on the front page.
  • Learn how to convey risk. For example, for climate change, the IPCC’s terminology may help—the panel gives lay terms for the numerical values it uses for risk.
  • Avoid false balance—where minority views are given equal prominence to well-accepted science. If you report sceptics’ views, also describe their credentials and whether theirs is a minority opinion.

Selling the story

  • Use different angles. Climate change is a political, business, science, human rights, energy and technology story.
  • Report on solutions.
  • Tie stories to interesting people, places and topics. Give the issue a face and a voice.
  • Use reporting aids. If possible, grab people’s attention using polls on climate change issues, special investigative reports, graphics to help explain complex data, and of course video, audio and photos.
  • Use different sources, and explain scientists’ language. Remember to include the voices of other stakeholders, whether local villagers, nongovernmental organisations or top business people.
  • If officials and scientists mistrust you, be persistent. Try approaching them directly (perhaps at conferences and seminars) to ask the more probing questions that they often won’t discuss in public speeches.
  • For highly technical content, you could let a scientist review your draft. This should help you gain trust. But it’s not advisable for more general content or with more opinionated sources.


Read the blog post Graham Readfearn wrote about spurious reporting by The Australian. The Australian has now removed its article, but the original text was captured:

“The latest science on sea level rises has found no link to global warming and no increase in the rate of glacier melt over the past 100 years.

A paper published last month in Journal of Climate highlights one of the great uncertainties in climate change research – will ocean levels rise by more than the current 3mm a year?

The peer-reviewed article, “20th-century global-mean sea-level rise: is the whole greater than the sum of the parts?” by JM Gregory, sought to explain the factors involved in sea-level rises during the last century. It found that sea-level rises had not accelerated “despite the increasing anthropogenic forcing” or human influence.

Australia’s pre-eminent sea-level scientist, John Church, contributed to the paper, which said it could not link climate change and the rate of sea-level rises in the 20th century.

Australia is at the forefront of global research on sea-level rises, but must double its funding to $10 million a year to match other countries in the search for an answer.

There is no dispute that sea levels are rising and significant concerns about what the recent increased rate of melt of Arctic ice might mean. But the key question is whether the rate of sea-level rise will accelerate and, if so, when and by how much? …”

Discuss the issues that Graham Readfern raises in his post (for example: incorrectly referencing uncertainty, misrepresenting the rate of sea-level rise).

Pick three paragraphs to rewrite of The Australian article above, using the scientific information provided in Graham’s post.

Check out all the exercises for this module.

For further reading/investigation


Scijourno is a collaborative project

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The University of Western Australia also contributed to the academic advisory group.