Covering Scientific Consensus: What to Avoid and How to Get It Right

From a post on by Denise Marie Ordway headlined “Covering scientific consensus: What to avoid and how to get it right”:

When reporting on controversial policy topics such as vaccine safety and climate change, journalists can look to scientific consensus to bolster their coverage and battle misinformation.

If you’re unsure what scientific consensus is, don’t understand its significance or have no idea how to gauge it, keep reading. This tip sheet features practical advice from three researchers with expertise on those topics.

Scientific consensus is the collective position scientists in a given field have taken, based on their interpretation of the available evidence. For example, the overwhelming majority of doctors say childhood vaccines are safe. Surveys of physicians and medical researchers “have repeatedly indicated that over 90% of doctors agree that adults and children should receive all recommended vaccines,” according to a paper published in 2016 in the medical journal BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine.

Knowing what experts think about an issue can help the public make informed decisions about it. When a reporter interviews a source whose views match the collective position, it’s a strong signal the information is trustworthy, explains Eric Merkley, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto who studies expert consensus.

His research finds that news outlets do a poor job informing the public about the scientific consensus on hot-button issues such as vaccination, nuclear power and genetically modified foods — even when it’s directly relevant to their coverage.

When Merkley analyzed U.S. news coverage of 10 science and economic policy issues on which there’s clear consensus, he discovered “information related to expert consensus is contained in an extremely small portion of a news consumer’s diet on these issues.” He examined nearly 300,000 news articles and transcripts from six national and local newspapers, three cable news networks, three TV news networks and the Associated Press newswire service going back to 1980.

The resulting paper, “Are Experts (News)Worthy? Balance, Conflict, and Mass Media Coverage of Expert Consensus,” was published last year in Political Communication.

Merkley urges journalists to make a habit of pointing out when there’s broad expert agreement on the policy questions they’re covering. Audiences need that information.

“A lot of people only really get information about these issues through the news media, so when the opportunity arises to provide this contextual information, I believe it’s very important to do so,” he says.

This tip sheet aims to help with that. Below, Merkley joins two other researchers — Teresa Myers, an assistant research professor at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, and Sara Shipley Hiles, an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and veteran science journalist — to offer advice on how journalists can strengthen their work.

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