Contentious issues

Gene editing, climate change, vaccination, 5G technology – there’s no shortage of hot-button issues where science has a crucial role to play.

Media interviews are usually driven by genuine curiosity and interest, but contentious issues require special handling. Many scientists may feel out of their depth, but it is important they step up where they can make a difference in understanding the science behind a controversial issue.

Before you start, you need to be prepared for simplistic and unscientific comments, and often aggressive argument, particularly in the case of talkback radio and online media.

Giving scientific facts alone is not enough when feelings are running high. The fundamental concerns raised are rarely just about the science. They are usually driven by emotional arguments, which can be more persuasive than a dry, factual approach. Show that you are prepared to discuss the topic openly and empathise with the audience’s reasonable concerns. Be human and do your best to relate on a personal level with real-life examples where appropriate.

Survival strategies for tricky interviews

Before the interview  During the interview 
Watch/listen to the programme you are going to be on so you understand its style. Express your informed opinion, clearly signposted (e.g. “Based on the available evidence, my view is that…”).
Check with the journalist whether you will be debating anyone, or taking calls from the public. Don’t waste time responding point-by-point to misleading questions or assertions.
Remember the exchange is likely to be short, so practise ways of summarising the issue, the main facts, and your position in a way that a non-scientific audience will understand. When faced with an adversarial argument or conspiracy theory, acknowledge it, refute it briefly, and then move the discussion back to your main message.
Scan media and social media to know where the public debate is up to on the issue, and to understand why you have been asked to comment at this time. Confront emotive defenses with emotive arguments. 
Anticipate questions you might be asked and rehearse good answers to them. Focus on what scientists do know, and put areas of uncertainty in context.
Have references and facts at your fingertips, including ‘big picture’ statistics from major reports and trusted organisations. Stay calm and sure of your ground.
Research the opposing point of view (e.g. by checking out interest group websites) so you know and can refute arguments. Be alert for selective use of data, unsubstantiated claims, anecdotal evidence and strongly emotional arguments.
If possible, negotiate to have the discussion on your own terms, not at a time or place that puts you at a disadvantage.
Ask for a pre-recorded rather than live interview, if possible.
Ask what the general line of questioning is likely to be.

WORKING WITH YOUR COMMS TEAM | A SCIENTIST’S PERSPECTIVE

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