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  • How to report on science policy

Announcements about changes in science policy don't always tell the full story. Linda Nordling shows how to report the facts behind the spin.

Science journalists often come across stories where politics takes centre stage. It could be a new law to regulate the growing of genetically modified crops, say, or a budget cut for university scientists.

Such stories are important, not least in developing countries where governments face difficult science-related choices or are keen on investing in science to become 'knowledge economies'.

As budgets rise, so do expectations — not just among scientists, who are the short-term beneficiaries of such investment, but also among members of the public who want to see long-term development benefits. So science policies deserve the same scrutiny as those for health or education, say, to ensure that money is being spent effectively.

Writing policy stories is not easy, especially if you aim — as you should — to do more than simply repeat what government or donor spin-doctors say and explore what their policies will mean in practice.

This guide will explain how to make the most of a policy story: what questions to ask, who to listen to, and how to make sense of what you are told.

Getting started

Some journalists think they can report on politics without understanding the processes involved. They are wrong. You should at least try to understand enough to honestly say you know what is going on.

If a government says it wants to 'consolidate the national innovation system', what exactly is it proposing to do? Crucially, is it worth a story? Getting to grips with this does not require a degree in politics.

The most common mistake is to report what ministers or organisations say without questioning it. For example, if you keep finding yourself writing stories saying 'investment in science is critical for development, says minister', maybe it is time to look at what, if anything, has actually been done.

You should also avoid the tendency to report anything — even mere proposals for policy action — as established fact. Just because a government has presented a bill to parliament to introduce genetically modified crops commercially in the country, this does not mean that the bill will pass unchanged into law. Legislation goes through many stages before being passed, and journalists need to understand exactly how far a policy has gone.

Voting card at the ready: the public wants to know that money is being well spent

Flickr/World Bank/Gennadiy Ratushenko

It is worth asking policymakers what the next step is. If a government says it will set up an endowment fund worth US$3 billion for science, but a policymaker says the next step is to start looking for the money, then make sure the lack of concrete funding features high in your story.

Sometimes it is hard to gauge what impact a policy will have on science, and how long it will take for any effect to trickle down. Beware of writing about a policy as if it will have an immediate effect on science starting tomorrow unless you are sure that it will.

A good policy story will not just explain to the reader what the government wants to do, but also why and who stands to gain or lose from it. This often takes a bit of work, especially if the government has something to hide.

Introducing the policymaker

Apart from wrestling with unfamiliar jargon and the complexity of the policymaking process, you will also come in close contact with policymakers.

Politicians — members of parliament (MPs) and government ministers — are the main policymakers, but the definition can also include ministry civil servants. These can be an extremely useful source of information for journalists, as will be explained later.

In some ways, policymakers are similar to scientists. Both groups are organised in hierarchical systems and low-ranking government officials, like their scientific counterparts, can be reluctant to comment on a story without the blessing of their superiors.

High-ranking policymakers can be difficult to get hold of

Flickr/v3rbo(dot)com

But there are notable differences. Rather than representing themselves, as a scientist might, elected politicians usually represent a government (in the case of a minister) or a political constituency (for an MP). Whatever they tell you will therefore be determined by more than just their personal views — an elaborate array of influences and strategic alliances can lie behind a simple statement. 

Annoying as this can be, the mud-slinging of politics will add colour to your story and should be used when appropriate. However, knowing when somebody is trying to manipulate you is one of the biggest challenges of political journalism.

Spotting spin 

In policy circles, 'spin' is the bias added to press releases or announcements (including those that criticise government policy, such as lobby statements or attacks from opposition politicians) to persuade people to interpret a situation in a particular way.

Reporting policy stories without questioning the spin is not just bad journalism; it may also mean missing sexier stories that the spin is trying to divert you from. Always do your research and read reports in full, not just the press releases that might be trying to sell a particular angle to you.

When policy touches on well-known controversies, such as stem-cell research or genetically modified crops, spin can be easy to spot. If a government says it will invest in biofuels, for example, it will usually try to 'sell' the idea as a good one, downplaying concerns about environmental effects.

But spotting spin is not always easy. Stories where budgets are important can be particularly tricky. If a government proudly announces a US$20 million boost for science, it sounds like good news. But it really depends on many factors, such as the size of last year's science budget, or how the money will be spent.

In Angola, for example, a US$20 million increase is likely to improve the national science budget by a double-digit percentage. But in China, the same amount as a percentage of its multi-billion-dollar science budget is likely to be less than the annual inflation rate, so it is actually a cut in real terms. This is why you should always add up the numbers yourself.

How the money will be spent is crucial. A government may wax lyrical about its plan to finance more PhD students in the country's universities, but a quick chat with an academic could show that the plan is flawed — there may not be enough senior researchers to supervise these new students, for instance. 

Simple techniques can reveal the truth: read reports in full, do a little bit of arithmetic or make a phone call. It sounds easy, but it is astonishing how often journalists report political stories without doing the basic checks.

Dig deeper

Common sense helps, but it can only get you so far. Working out what is going on behind the scenes, or scooping a story before it is formally announced, also takes diligence and hard work.

Try to understand why a policy is being introduced or changed. Is it to comply with international regulations? Is it because the government is under pressure from a lobby group? Can it be tied to a change of government or minister?

Getting to the bottom of a policy story also hinges, as in all areas of journalism, on your network of contacts.

Who to approach depends on what the story is and what you are looking for. If you want hard information — normally a good place to start — go to the relevant ministry. 

The obvious thing to do is speak to the minister. But ministers are often too busy to talk and are not always clued up about the gritty details. They can also be notoriously fickle and getting a straight answer to a sensitive question can be like trying to squeeze water from a stone.

Meanwhile, press officers are both a blessing and a curse. They can help when you have an urgent query but they do not simply try to keep you informed — they will withhold any information that is not in the public domain. They are also the kings and queens of spin, and using them can take a long time.

Do your research

Flickr/gadl

Middle-ranking officials in the ministry will often provide the most straightforward information. They are usually better informed than press officers and more accessible than ministers, and can be a fantastic source of scoops. When you find officials like this, keep them close. Phone them every so often, and if you don't have an excuse to do so, make one up.

Such relationships are not easy to maintain, however. Sources may feel betrayed if you attack the government after they have helped you. Be as honest as you can with your source about how you will use the information they give you and refrain from implicating your source in damning reports.

Once you have your facts straight, it is time to look for outside comment. This is usually not difficult. Ask yourself who stands to gain, or to lose, from the policy and ask them directly what they think. Opposition MPs and lobbying organisations can also help but bear in mind that they have their own agendas.

If you write about a controversial issue, such as genetically modified crops, it is important to look for comment from both sides of the argument. But remember to explain the credentials of everyone you quote — and don't give someone a soapbox simply to achieve balance.

Writing about policy in developing countries

Some aspects of writing about policy are easier in developing countries. Ministers are usually more accessible and officials are less wary of talking to the press. But you shouldn't always believe what ministers say, especially in administrations where corruption is an acknowledged problem.

A major headache in developing countries is the lack of information that could put a story in context. Sometimes there is no answer to be found, for example to the question of how much money Algeria's government spends on biotechnology research and development each year.

Governments in developing countries also tend to be good at coming up with policies but bad at implementing them. If you want to take your science policy stories seriously, you should follow up on them a year or two later. Not enough stories follow up past promises and governments are getting away with too much.

Writing about science policy is a learning curve. But it can be really rewarding — both for the journalist and for the public, which has been promised the benefits of government investment.