In the course of two days last week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry expressed controversial views on two politically sensitive scientific issues. The news coverage of his remarks once again demonstrated the challenge journalists face when science intermingles with politics.

Perry, the newly announced candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, suggested that man-made climate change is little more than a hoax, perpetrated by “a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data.” Then, a day later, he voiced skepticism about evolution, which he called a theory “with gaps in it.”

Perry’s assertions weren’t new or terribly surprising. He’s spoken before about his doubts regarding climate change (his recent book calls it “a contrived phony mess”) and his belief in “intelligent design.” And other GOP presidential candidates, most notably U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), have expressed similar opinions.

But Perry’s statements renewed a discussion about how the media report on politically charged scientific subjects. The task for journalists can be especially vexing on issues where there’s substantial political controversy but little scientific disagreement. A 2010 National Academy of Sciences survey found that 97 percent of climate scientists agree humans are changing the climate, while a 2009 Pew Research Center survey concluded that 87 percent of scientists believe in evolution “due to natural processes.”

“In some issues in science, there’s really just one answer,” said Tom Yulsman, the co-director of the University of Colorado Center for Environmental Journalism. “That makes science a lot different from our binary world of politics.”

Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry appeared in Walcott, Iowa, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2011. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

It also makes reporting on scientific issues different from covering political squabbles. While many political reporters are most comfortable writing stories that evenly portray both sides of controversial issues, Yulsman said stories about issues such as climate change need to take a different approach.

“Part of the context is stating – even in a political story -- that there’s very little scientific debate,” said Yulsman, who developed a Poynter e-learning course on covering climate change.

Some stories included context; some did not

Perry's comments, especially those on the climate, provided plenty of fodder both for his supporters and opponents:

  • He disputed the premise that humans are affecting the Earth’s climate.
  • He suggested, without substantiation, that scientists are hyping the danger of global warming “so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.”
  • He said other scientists are coming forward “almost weekly or even daily” to question the prevailing theory.

In fact, while there are indeed some skeptical scientists, there’s no evidence that their numbers are quickly growing or that they make up more than a small minority of the experts who’ve extensively studied the subject.

Many of the media accounts of Perry’s remarks attempted to reflect the scientific context. The Associated Press reported, “Perry’s opinion runs counter to the view held by an overwhelming majority of scientists.” The Washington Post noted “the broad scientific consensus” that mankind is affecting the climate, then followed up with a biting online analysis that accused the Texas governor of “made-up facts.”

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram told readers in Perry’s home state, “While most climate scientists believe that climate change is real and that fossil fuel combustion is helping warm the Earth, a core group of dissenters, coupled with some conservative groups and activists, has challenged that view.”

“I worked on that sentence for about 10 minutes,” Star-Telegram political reporter Aman Batheja told me in a phone interview. “That was an important part of the story, that Perry was saying something that’s different from what most experts in the field feel.”

Batheja said he heard complaints from a few readers about the story; one online comment read, “The liberal media's attack on Perry is in full swing.” The AP and Washington Post articles attracted a fair amount of scorn from conservatives, including websites associated with Andrew Breitbart and Glenn Beck.

Meanwhile, a handful of media organizations chose to report Perry’s comments without any scientific context. As might be expected, Politico’s stories concentrated instead on the potential political ramifications of the remarks, drawing distinctions between Perry and fellow Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr., who both say they believe in man-made climate change and evolution.

The National Journal and Agence France-Presse took similar approaches, analyzing Perry’s positions in the context of voter attitudes rather than scientific opinion. Their stories included some interesting information, including polls showing a good deal of doubt among the public about evolution and man’s effect on the climate.

But AFP correspondent Mira Oberman said in a phone interview late last week that she regrets omitting the scientific perspective from her story about the Texas governor’s remarks.

“I should have thrown a line in there saying this runs contrary to the opinion of the overwhelming majority of scientists,” said Oberman, who writes mainly for an overseas audience.

“What’s problematic for some journalists is they get caught up in the idea that you have to be balanced and you can’t take a partisan position,” Oberman said. “Once a politician turns a fact-based issue into something that’s partisan, they feel handcuffed.”

Tips for journalists when science, politics collide

In addition to concerns about balance, the very nature of daily political journalism sometimes hampers reporters from including scientific context in their stories. Reports from the campaign trail often are relatively short and filed on tight deadlines, affording journalists little space or time to provide background on complex issues.

Still, news organizations can take some steps to assure accuracy and perspective in their coverage of politically-tinged scientific controversies:

Plan ahead. You can’t anticipate every issue that will come up during political campaigns, but you can bet that scientific hot-buttons like climate change and evolution will be among them. In varying degrees, they’ve been a point of contention in each of the last four presidential elections.

Editors and newsroom managers should develop policies on how to report on such issues and how to incorporate appropriate scientific context. You can help political reporters who may lack the time or knowledge to research unfamiliar scientific subjects by coming up with some suggested language – periodically updated to reflect current scientific thinking – and a contact list of credible experts.

Avoid false equivalence in the name of “fairness.” It’s understandable that mainstream journalists don’t want to be seen as taking sides in a political conflict. But you can write a fair story while still referencing the prevailing scientific view. Hard data — like the results of reputable surveys of scientists — can add credibility to your reporting, as can a legitimate assessment of the possible holes or ambiguity in the prevailing theory.

“My obligation is to understand the nature of whatever issue I’m writing about and understand the degree of uncertainty that there is,” said Michael Lemonick, a former Time magazine science correspondent who now writes for the nonprofit journalistic organization Climate Central. “Two sides doesn’t mean two equal sides,” Lemonick said in a phone interview.

See the big picture. News accounts that merely reported Perry’s statements only told part of the story. A more informed – and useful – approach explains the scientific consensus and examines why politicians such as Perry distrust it.

Yulsman, the Colorado professor, noted that a candidate’s positions on scientific wedge issues tend to serve as a proxy for his or her values on broader topics, such as the role of government in the free market and the role of faith in American life.

“At the end of the day, that’s what the political debate is about,” Yulsman said. “It’s not about the science.”