Media thought: Ask what is known, not the expert's opinion

By Grant Jacobs 31/12/2009

I’ve written a number of posts related to science writing; one recurring theme is the distinction between opinion and evidence.

In my previous post I wrote:

…unless the audience has deep knowledge of the evidence for the subject in question, it’s merits and weaknesses, and is honestly presenting what can be concluded from that evidence, not ’opinion’. [emphasis added.]

A (partial) solution might be for interviewers to not ask experts for the “their opinion”.

In being asked for their “opinion” in the public forum, such as a TV interview, the implication is that the expert is being asked to give what is known.

Media should ask that directly, really. “What is known about…” not “What is your opinion on…”

To my mind, scientists as interviewees faced with “What is your opinion on…”, should defer, make light of that opinions don’t matter in presenting what is known, then present “What is known is that…”, giving some indication of their sources.

Essentially, I think they’d be wise to explicitly shift the question to the one they really ought to have been asked, the one that was implied but not stated.

On the plus side for the media is that by explicitly asking for what is known, they are (hopefully) more likely to get back substantive answers, rather than someone’s extrapolation or speculative thoughts that rest on top of or beyond what is soundly understood.

More science journalism posts in Code for life:

Banished from science writing. Words, that is.

Beautiful and informative data presentation

Scientists on TV: referees of evidence or expert’s opinion?

Best newspaper award, science

Genetic tests and personalised medicine, some science communication issues

Three kinds of knowledge about science journalism

Science journalism–critical analysis not debate

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