Science and environmental issues can be challenging for the public to understand due to the technical language and complexity, so journalists should act as translators by using clear, concise language and relevant examples to explain the science and the issues. Here are 10 tips by environmental writer Stephen Leahy. 

Science and environmental issues can be challenging for the public to understand due to the technical language and complexity, so journalists should act as translators by using clear, concise language and relevant examples to explain the science and the issues. Here are 10 tips by environmental writer Stephen Leahy, adapted from a chapter written by him in the newly published book Reporter’s Guide to the Millennium Development Goals, published by the International Press Institute in Vienna.

1. Learn the science really well, in as much detail as possible. It is the only way you can write plainly

and keep yourself from being deceived. Start by doing background research on the subject. Science has its own language and uses some common words differently. For example the word ‘theory’, as in theory of gravity or theory of climate change.

2. Never be embarrassed to say ‘I don’t understand.’ It is the expert’s role to help journalists do their job of making the research or findings understandable to the public.

3. During interviews ask sources how they would explain their findings if they were speaking to a neighbour. (If that is still too complicated, ask how they would explain it to a 10-year-old child.)


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4. Because you cannot know everything, make sure you use sources that are reliable and who do not have a hidden agenda. Some scientists or experts have vested interests or are paid by corporations and lobby groups. This includes NGOs and governments.

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5. The story should answer these four questions: Why is the study or report important? How does it affect the public? What are implications for people, region, etc.? What should be done?

6. Check the content of news studies, reports, or press releases with trusted sources. There are organisations paid to confuse reporters on technical issues or to promote certain agendas.

7. Question and challenge all information and arguments, no matter where or which side they come from. Credibility is everything.

8. Avoid ‘he said—she said’ stories that just trade accusations. Find out what is really going on. For example, nearly every climate scientist in the world has been saying for years that climate change is happening now, and yet some media still quote sources saying ‘no, it isn’t.’ There will always be contrary viewpoints—someone who says the Earth is flat—but why quote them in a story? When it is not obvious, make an accurate assessment of each argument, and then decide which merits attention, or point out flaws. 

9. Get out and meet people involved in environmental issues, including those directly impacted. 

10. Global is Local and Local is Global. Virtually all aspects of environmental stories are local. Climate change, water, food, pollution, sustainable development, biodiversity, etc. have local angles. But these stories are also unfailingly global—a local environmental issue is almost certainly replicated in many other places around the world.

Stephen Leahy is the 2012 co-winner of the Prince Albert/United Nations Global Prize for Climate Change reporting. A Canadian freelancer living in Uxbridge, Ont., Leahy is the senior science and environment correspondent at Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS) based in Rome and Montevideo. His work is also published in The Guardian (UK), National Geographic, DeSmog Canada,  Maclean;s, Al Jazeera, and the Toronto Star among others.