Explaining controversial issues to the media and to the public: a practical guide.

5 June 2012

Robert Ward has published a quick practical guide (in Spanish) on the Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net) on how academics and scientists can explain controversial issues to the media and to the public. Every so often research findings may cause controversy regarding their implications, especially when they imply having to change people’s behaviours, and thus researchers must know how to explain these findings with clarity, honesty, and ease.

The first step is to identify beforehand what interests the public and the media, so it is useful to anticipate the questions that they will have. These two audiences are usually most interested in the implications that the research in question will have on the lives of the public. If this is not entirely clear to academics or scientists, they should to ask other specialists such as public policy makers, who may have more experience regarding the potential impact that the research findings could have on the public (if it were to be implemented). If the implications have not been considered, it is best to admit to this rather than speculate.

Researchers must also practice how to speak about the controversial issue with the public and the media. Technical language should be left aside. Conflicts must be acknowledged and their existence thoroughly explained, even if the researcher is trapped in a potential conflict of interest.

A journalist that senses that a scientist is not being completely honest about a controversy will usually feel compelled to further investigate, and may cause dispute among those who have a stake on the consequences of the research findings.

Questions regarding security and risk are of particular importance. Sometimes, researchers who do not want to compromise themselves with these types of questions cause controversy without meaning to. If qualified to evaluate risk, for instance, researchers should try to do so going beyond a simple yes or no answer. However, if they are not, they should say so and suggest somebody who is capable.

Finally, it is important to practice discussing issues that may cause debate or polarization. Researchers should consult with communications professionals, but must always be sure that whatever is presented to the press is expressed in a way that is not inexact or deceitful.

Furthermore, we should not forget that the media has its own agenda; it is not a passive actor waiting to be ‘used’ (researchers are unlikely to ever be able to ‘use’ the media). For example, Chile’s El Mercurio developed a strategy to influence the Chilean government that any researchers wanting to work with the newspaper would have taken into account.

More manuals and guides can be found here.