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Media Skills for Scientists

Explaining controversial issues to the media and the public

Speed read

  • Controversies carry risks and opportunities
  • Know how to predict journalists’ questions
  • Certain tactics have worked well for some researchers

By: Charles Wendo

Science operates on evidence. Yet there are cases where the available evidence doesn’t lead all scientists to a unanimous conclusion, resulting in what is termed a “scientific controversy”.

Additionally, there might be scenarios in which, despite a consensus among scientists based on the evidence, policymakers or the public may hold opposing views. This, too, is a form of controversy that researchers need to be aware of.

It’s important for researchers to know how to explain controversial issues to the media and public. Otherwise, their efforts to communicate science might backfire.

What causes controversy?

Scientific controversies can arise due to a variety of factors. These factors may be related to science or the political and socioeconomic environment in which communication is taking place.

The nature of science. Absolute certainty is not in the nature of science. Scientists acknowledge that knowledge is dynamic and can be refined as new data, insights and methodologies emerge. However, a common source of misunderstanding and controversy emerges when the public seeks unequivocal certainties that science, by its nature, cannot provide. At the same time, the pursuit and refinement of knowledge naturally leads to debate within the scientific community. On some issues, scientific questions may remain unresolved for years, or even decades. This may give room for a prolonged emotional debate. For instance, the causes and effects of climate change have been studied for decades but to date there is still a lot of disagreement within the scientific community on these matters, even after mainstream scientific consensus has been reached.

Political influence. Does HIV cause AIDS? The scientific consensus has been “yes” since the early 1980s. However, in the early 2000s, former South African President Thabo Mbeki took advice from dissidents who argued that HIV was not the cause of AIDS, which influenced the South African government’s policies on HIV/AIDS. Likewise, there is currently scientific consensus that the earth is getting warmer, mostly due to the activities of human beings. This has not prevented some political leaders, activist groups and industry actors disputing the scientific facts.

Ethical debates. Some fields of science – for example, research involving embryonic stem cell – are the subject of ethical and moral debates. Do embryos have rights similar to human beings? Is it right to kill embryos? Is it alright to create embryos for research purposes? Is it right to pay people for their embryos? These questions give rise to ethical debates.

Social and cultural concerns. In another case, something might be scientifically plausible but not in line with widely held social and cultural beliefs and norms. Take, for instance, a project at Addis Ababa University to produce environmentally friendly fertilizer from human urine. Regardless of the science, many people will not accept the idea of collecting human urine for use as fertilizer. Indeed, an attempt by a Ugandan organization to collect human urine and turn it into fertilizer faced some hurdles, partly because many people find the idea disgusting.

Religious matters. Religious views can also render some scientific issues controversial. The Catholic Church, for example, does not approve of artificial contraception methods, such as pills and condoms, regardless of what the science says about this. Communicating about the science of artificial contraception to an audience of Catholic leaders is likely to meet with controversy.

Be aware of the risks

Communicating uncertainty and other forms of controversy around science can have negative effects if it is not done carefully. For instance, prolonged disagreements within the scientific community can lead to conflicts. If this happens, the two factions will be communicating conflicting messages to the public and policymakers. This can potentially cause confusion.

Even when there is consensus within the scientific community, disagreement between scientists and policymakers can lead to problematic policy decisions. For example, in South Africa in the early 2000s, the government delayed endorsing HIV treatments that were supported by scientists, including treatments for the prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission. A team of researchers estimated that, as a result of this delay, 365,000 people died needlessly. A conflict between science and policymakers or society, whether due to cultural, religious or political concerns, can hamper the application of science. In extreme cases, a research study can be stopped or blocked as a result of a dispute between government authorities and researchers.

Journalists love controversy

Controversy is one of the criteria that journalists consider when deciding what is worth reporting on in the news. Journalists like to report on controversies because they predict that doing so will attract the attention of the public and policymakers. When you, as a researcher, say something controversial, the media are likely to focus on that controversy. This can be during a media interview or as part of a speech you might be giving at an event where journalists are present. The media may choose to focus on the controversy instead of on your main message.

Even if you didn’t plan to speak about a controversial issue, journalists might prompt you to do so by asking a particular question. If a controversial issue has been in the media and a journalist is coming to interview you, be prepared for them to ask you about it – even if it’s not the main topic of the interview, and even if they have not told you they will ask about it. Therefore, it’s important to predict a journalist’s questions and to prepare your answers.

Quite often, journalists will ask you a question related to something that has been in the news or on social media, especially if it’s controversial. Suppose you are giving a media interview on research findings about the effect of climate change on maize yields. If, for instance, the media have reported about a parliamentary debate on genetically modified crops, the journalist will most likely ask for your views about this. Even if you have agreed on the scope of the interview beforehand, be prepared for a surprise question on something that has been in the news. Anticipating the question gives you an opportunity to think through the answer and even to consult with others, where necessary, before the interview. It also gives you an opportunity to think through and decide whether you want to answer such a question, or pass it to someone else. For this reason, it is not advisable to agree to an impromptu interview: you need time to prepare, even if it’s just a few hours of preparation.

Therefore, it is important to build relationships with journalists, to understand their goals, and to ensure that their stories represent the scientific facts clearly and fairly. A journalist you have established working relations with is less likely to drag you into a controversy.

Declining to answer a question

When talking about a controversial issue, do not feel obliged to answer every question that a journalist asks you. Trying to answer a question that you are not ready for can cause avoidable problems. If you do not know the answer, say so. Refer them to someone else who has the answer. Limit yourself to issues you are an expert on. Even then, you can’t know everything on that topic: it is better to say “I don’t know” if you don’t know. If you know the answer but feel someone else is better placed to answer the question, point them to that person. In any case, your answer to a question on a controversial issue can potentially divert attention from your main message. Remain focussed on your main message.

Handling politically sensitive issues

SciDev.Net carries out training for researchers in the natural and social sciences on how to communicate their research to the media, policymakers and the public. As part of these trainings, we normally engage researchers in a discussion of the factors that hinder them disseminating their research findings to the public. One of the hindrances that often emerges is fear of the political repercussions. This fear is expressed mostly by researchers in countries that rank poorly on press freedom, academic freedom and democracy. It is worse when research studies expose problems that the government does not want the world to know about.

We also engage researchers in a discussion of how they have managed to overcome this challenge. Below are some of the approaches that some researchers have successfully used to navigate politically sensitive issues.

Brief those in positions of government authority before communicating the findings to the public. This helps to soften the ground. Government officials are less likely to trouble the researcher if they get to know about the findings before they go to the media and the public. In some situations, a government official can take up the task of releasing the research findings, though the advisability of this is debatable.
Highlight the positives. This applies to situations where the research exposes a problem in the society. In this case, some researchers soften the blow by communicating the problem and adding an explanation of what the government is doing about it.
Get someone else to speak about the findings. Junior researchers can request someone in a higher position of authority within the institution to release the research findings. Alternatively, they can share the report with a partner or a funding organization, which might take on the responsibility of sharing the findings.
Present at a meeting. Rather than take the findings to the media, some researchers prefer to make a presentation at a meeting or event, and to let the media take it on from there.

However, what works for one researcher might not work for another. It depends on the circumstances under which they operate. Besides, each of the above tactics has strengths and weaknesses. Think about them and decide if they can work for you.

Make it simple and clear

In communicating science, it’s always important to make your message simple and clear so people will understand it easily. This is even more important when communicating on controversial issues, because any misunderstanding will complicate an already difficult issue. Use simple and clear messages to avoid the risk of being misunderstood.

Avoid jargon (technical terms) and unfamiliar acronyms where possible. Jargon makes information difficult to understand and more likely to be misinterpreted. You can almost always say the same thing using alternative simple words that your audience can understand: for example “solar panels” instead of “photovoltaic modules” and “rainfall” instead of “precipitation”.
Explain technical terms. If you must use technical terms, explain them: for example, “Cutting down a tree to encourage regrowth, scientifically known as coppicing, is an age-old practice”.
Use visuals where possible. Photos, videos and infographics will help your audiences to clearly see what you are telling them.
Avoid information overload. Providing too much information can potentially cause confusion. Summarize your main message in 1-3 sentences and focus on that as your theme. When you communicate on your study, focus on the main findings, implications, and what needs to be done about them. The background information, methodology and literature can each be summarized in a single sentence or paragraph.

Transparency on scientific controversy

As explained earlier, absolute certainty is not in the nature of science. As a result, scientists report their work in probabilistic terms. This presents a communication challenge. The public expect researchers, as the experts, to be certain about things. Will it rain this week or not? Can a circumcised man get HIV through sex or not? Does eating an egg a day prevent heart disease or not?

Responsible communication requires that you state clearly what is known and settled, what is unknown, and what are the grey areas. It is your responsibility to communicate factually and let people make informed decisions. Try as much as possible to stick to the scientific evidence.

You should not only state what’s known, but also be clear about the limits of current knowledge. By acknowledging that the landscape of science is marked by shades of probability and ongoing exploration, you can foster a more realistic and productive dialogue with the public. Embracing the dynamic nature of science enables us to bridge the gap between the pursuit of knowledge and the public’s yearning for certainty.

Predict opposing views

This is similar to predicting a journalist’s questions. If you are going to communicate something that’s likely to attract disagreement from a section of the public, it’s important to be aware of their concerns and to plan accordingly. Ask yourself the following questions.

What do I want to say?
• Who is likely to find this disagreeable?
• What are their concerns?
• What are their fears?
• Is there any message I can add to allay their fears?

Your message will fall on more fertile ground if some aspects of it can allay the concerns and fears of the people you are communicating with. Understanding opposing views isn’t just strategic – it’s also a way of ensuring communication is respectful and compassionate.

In conclusion, effective communication of controversial scientific issues to the media and the public is a crucial skill that researchers need to develop. Navigating through uncertainty, political influence, ethical debates, cultural sensitivities, and even religious beliefs, demands a thoughtful and strategic approach. By embracing the complexity of these challenges, scientists can proactively address concerns and prevent misunderstandings. Good communication can help in fostering public trust in science, ensuring research is used to make informed decisions and promoting a more scientifically literate society.

Dr Charles Wendo is the Training Co-ordinator for SciDev.Net. He trains scientists to communicate their work and he trains journalists to report science.

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