Science communicators the world over fret over how to present truth claims in contested situations, particularly when the best evidence suggests that one claim is more likely to be true than others.  Journalistic norms often limit a reporter’s freedom to adjudicate these claims in stories, and audiences in many countries—habituated to the role of the journalist as a “translator” rather than an “evaluator” of evidence—also may react badly to stories that attempt to sort out the most valid claims.  Charges of “biased reporting” often accompany such efforts, leading journalists to make strenuous efforts to distance themselves from validity judgments by, for example, giving equal space to all claims in a story or by concentrating solely on “accuracy,” defined here as achieving a good fit between what a source says and what the story reports. None of these tactics is good for the reader who, faced with “he said/she said” accounts, typically concludes that “nobody knows what’s true!”  Given those challenges, this panel will examine strategies for building journalistic stories about contested science issues in ways that are consistent with journalistic norms and that may enhance the ability of audiences to understand that not all truth claims are created equal while helping them determine which truth claims are likely to be more valid than others.   

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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

Can weight of evidence strategies help audiences evaluate truth claims when the science is controversial?

Sharon Dunwoody   School of Journalism and Mass Communication University of Wisconsin-Madison

Science communicators the world over fret over how to present truth claims in contested situations, particularly when the best evidence suggests that one claim is more likely to be true than others.  Journalistic norms often limit a reporter’s freedom to adjudicate these claims in stories, and audiences in many countries—habituated to the role of the journalist as a “translator” rather than an “evaluator” of evidence—also may react badly to stories that attempt to sort out the most valid claims.  Charges of “biased reporting” often accompany such efforts, leading journalists to make strenuous efforts to distance themselves from validity judgments by, for example, giving equal space to all claims in a story or by concentrating solely on “accuracy,” defined here as achieving a good fit between what a source says and what the story reports. None of these tactics is good for the reader who, faced with “he said/she said” accounts, typically concludes that “nobody knows what’s true!”  Given those challenges, this panel will examine strategies for building journalistic stories about contested science issues in ways that are consistent with journalistic norms and that may enhance the ability of audiences to understand that not all truth claims are created equal while helping them determine which truth claims are likely to be more valid than others.   

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