Beyond the Journal: The science of communication

Best practice when handling breaking science news

11 Feb 2020
When a story breaks and the full facts are not clear, what can researchers and communicators do to help media gather information? Should there be a range of voices or one clear message coordinated from the top?

By Ruth Francis

As media around the world scrabbles to cover the rapidly evolving story that is novel coronavirus, requests to speak to experts increase every day. When news breaks and expands at a pace like this, demand can outstrip supply of people who are able to comment, and scientists working on the issue will want to focus their energies on their research.

Yet I have seen how a range of voices can bring depth and value to reporting, whereas shying away from a topic because the situation is emerging can leave space for guesswork and misinformation. To minimize confusion, it is best to not leave a vacuum.

In the event of breaking news, though we may not be able to put up experts on, say, coronavirus, we can find researchers in zoology to talk about viral transmission or reservoirs, virologists to talk broadly about what the evidence so far dismisses, global health experts to share epidemiology or policy insights. Each of these feeds into news outputs and is a positive for science and for public understanding of science.

When there are unknowns, there are usually things that can be said with a greater degree of certainty – things that the evidence so far can rule out. A discussion can take place about what is known and what is unknown without making assumptions about what could happen next. This reassures the public who, understandably, can be concerned or confused by emerging information.

Additionally, a broad range of voices means no one ‘key expert’ takes on such a time burden of speaking to the media. It spreads the workload and allows those who are directly working on the challenge to focus on it.

Because a can of worms can be opened with speculation, it is important for researchers to stick to what they know. There is already a lack of clarity and we don’t need more conjecture. With a bit of training and self-discipline, it is possible to avoid being drawn into such. Researchers can rehearse saying ‘I don’t know’ with confidence to questions beyond an area of expertise, or simply where the facts are not known. They can try transitioning with: “What we can say is…” or “What we do understand is…”. 

We know that some academics feel uncomfortable speaking to the media, or find it self-promoting. These times are not about self-promotion, though. It is important to decide whether to contribute based on how the information will inform the discussion. 

Review tips on how to prepare for interviews and remember that breaking news happens on a breakneck timeline so reporters need prompt responses.

Ultimately, having more scientists in the news, particularly at times of uncertainty, is an opportunity. Crises are often the best time for the public to hear from experts and it is important for researchers to be out there, setting out the right information in context and ensuring evidence is part of the discussion on a breaking story.


Ruth Francis is a communications expert with 20 years of experience working in academia and publishing, including Springer Nature, BioMed Central, Cancer Research UK and King's College London.