On Covering Controversial Science and Public Policy

Journalists, scientists, and academics looking for a respected veteran reporter’s insights on coverage of controversial science issues can turn to, where else, the Web for the perspective of freelance science writer Cristine Russell.

10 Tips for Media Coverage From Science Writer Cristine Russell

Formerly a science journalist with the now-defunct Washington Star and later with The Washington Post, Russell is president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.*

In 2006, while a fellow at the Harvard University Joan Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics, and Public Policy, Russell wrote a “working paper series” entitled Covering Controversial Science: Improving Reporting on Science and Public Policy (.pdf).

Some of the specific data in Russell’s 2006 paper are now out-of-date, in particular references to numbers of daily newspapers still maintaining regular science sections. Declines in number of specialized science sections in metropolitan daily newspapers have only continued and gotten worse since Russell’s report.

She wrote that The New York Times‘s weekly “Science Times,” launched in 1978, “is still the gold standard of science sections, both in space, content, and the size of its contingent of highly skilled science reporters.” That much has not changed.

Russell wrote that although the Times‘s weekly science section “has more than held its own, other newspaper science sections have not fared as well.”

From “a peak” of 95 weekly science sections in major newspapers in 1989, she wrote, the total had fallen to 44 just three years later.

“Since then, science sections have continued to decline in number and size, particularly among smaller papers. Those that have remained have shifted even further toward consumer health coverage.

Pointing to Editor & Publisher‘s 2005 international yearbook, Russell in her 2006 research found 34 U.S. daily newspapers publishing weekly health and science sections, more than two-thirds focusing on health in their titles.

“In comparison, the sections that self-identify as ‘science’ dropped from 30 percent in 1992 to 12 percent in 2004.

By 2006, 24 of 44 science sections surveyed 12 years earlier were still publishing. Their titles reflected their change in editorial thrust, Russell wrote, saying terms like “science” and “discovery” had given way to a “health” and “fitness” emphasis.

“Much of the science and health news coverage has also moved into the ‘lifestyle’ sections and out of news pages,” Russell wrote, pointing to the “struggling newspaper economy” as having led to staff layoffs and roll backs.


*Just what IS the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, CASW? And what is its relationship to the more well-known National Association of Science Writing, NASW? Retired Wall Street Journal science reporter Jerry Bishop, also a former CASW president, explains.


10 Tips for Media Coverage

From Science Writer Cristine Russell

These 10 tips are taken from Appendix VIII of science writer Cristine Russell’s 2006 report on “Covering Controversial Science: Improving Reporting on Science and Public Policy,” published online by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University.

  1. Put new research in context with earlier studies.
  2. Stop the yo-yo approach to science, environmental and medical coverage (swinging from ‘breakthrough’ to ‘disaster’).
  3. Avoid ‘dueling’ experts on science and policy; giving equal weight to opposing viewpoints does not make a story ‘balanced.’
  4. Write about the process of science as well as the end results.
  5. Watch out for ‘anecdotal’ stories involving children or celebrities.
  6. Use caution in citing risk statistics.
  7. Distinguish between impacts on individuals versus impacts on society.
  8. Provide information about what, if anything, can be done by individuals, government, and the private sector.
  9. Avoid becoming an advocate for any side.
  10. Remember that there is no single ‘public’; recognize the diverse perspectives in your audience.
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