How many times have you been enjoying reading an interesting article and then, just one paragraph from the end, up pops a comment that opposes everything that’s gone before… and that’s it, end of story.
Most editors like nothing better than a bulging post bag of letters from their readers, responding to articles. But often they encourage their journalists to prevent accusations of bias by seeking out a comment from someone with an opposing viewpoint, in order to say that they’ve presented a ‘balanced’ picture. No one writing a story about how the earth is round would feel it necessary to include a final comment from the Flat Earth Society spokesperson. Where a story is controversial and there genuinely is no definitive answer there is good reason to cover ‘the other side’ of that story, but some ‘balancing’ comments are not just pointless, but damaging. The long-running saga in the UK about the MMR vaccine was prolonged by precisely this kind of journalism.
So how can you get the balance right?
This week a guest blog on Not Exactly Rocket Science makes a useful distinction between getting an ‘outside perspective’ and an ‘opposing view’. Written by Ivan Oransky, executive editor at Reuters Health and a medical journalism teacher at New York University, How to avoid “he-said-she-said” science journalism offers tips on getting valuable additions to a story, and a few examples.
From the researcher’s point of view, it’s a useful thing to remember when you are writing your own press releases. Think about who else in this field is going to say that your findings are wrong, and tackle their arguments head-on. Tell the journalist up front which researchers think differently, why they do so, and why you think they are wrong. You might just prevent the appearance of a token and misleading ‘opposing view’ in an article about your work.