When Aruna Chandrasekhar first started covering the “high seas treaty,” a historic United Nations agreement reached in March 2023 to protect and conserve marine biodiversity in international waters, she felt intimidated. “To start with, I don’t know how to swim,” the Mumbai-based climate journalist jokes. “And I have not been wading through the two decades of high seas treaty policymaking.” Ultimately, Chandrasekhar relied on her stock of journalism skills, previous experience working in policy, and the input of trusted experts to produce (alongside The Open Notebook early-career fellow Giuliana Viglione) a detailed story analyzing the treaty for Carbon Brief.
Almost every science story has the potential to also be a political story. Politics and policies dictate who can receive reproductive health care, what medical research will win enough federal dollars to treat a deadly disease, and which imperiled species deserve saving. But science writers aren’t always familiar with political minutiae, legalese, and thorny regulatory issues. And heated political rhetoric can make it tough to separate scientific fact from distortions or even outright lies.
Journalists don’t need to become policy wonks to write about science policy deftly. With the help of a few strategies, a science writer can find myriad stories where science and politics merge, track down key documents and experts to help interpret them, scrutinize political bias, and seek out sources who can illuminate the real-world impacts of a policy or regulation.
Finding Policy Stories
Numerous types of policies can shape scientific research, and they can be shaped by scientific findings in turn. Journalists can approach a story from either of these angles, as they cover policies such as international treaties, federal laws, city ordinances, local regulations, and court cases.
For example, in a March 2023 story for Undark about boating speed limits meant to protect whales off the East Coast of the U.S., I focused on the science informing those policies. Similarly, reporters have covered how research on the health risks posed by plastics containing toxic chemicals has led to policies banning them.
On the flip side, journalists can explore how a political issue influences science. For example, Science senior correspondent Jeffrey Mervis says he focuses on the effects of policies on scientists and their work, such as how federal initiatives targeting researchers collaborating with Chinese institutions have upended their careers. “I like to think about it in three pots,” explains Mervis, who has covered policy for more than 30 years. “There’s the money”—or how scientists find resources to do their research—“there’s the people, and there’s the policies.” Dipping into one or more of these pots can help define the angle of a story.
You’ll need to immerse yourself in the relevant scientific literature, of course. But you’ll also need to read through the associated policy documents, starting with the text of the proposed or enacted legislation itself.
In the age of social media, though, living in a political hub isn’t necessarily a job requirement. Chandrasekhar says she keeps track of debates and conversations about policy through Twitter. There, “you have the luxury of being able to see people with a lot of stake in these negotiations,” she says. While reporting on the high seas treaty, Chandrasekhar followed hashtags such as #HighSeasTreaty and #BBNJ (biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction). You can use social media to “find a lot of people who are interested in what might seem like a very niche or very nerdy subject,” she adds, “and ask them what they think.”
Journalists can also keep tabs on policy developments by reading trade publications for industries they cover. These outlets may reveal political debates happening out of the general public’s eye, says Amy Westervelt, an investigative journalist who focuses on climate change. “Oil companies in particular are quite open about what they’re getting up to in the trades—way more than they would be in a mainstream publication,” she says. Sign up for companies’ newsletters, too, and publications from related or opposing advocacy organizations. The magazine of a recreational fishing advocacy group, for example, gave me valuable fodder for my boating speed limit story.
Digging Up Documents—and Sources of Bias
Once you know you want to report a story where science and policy meet, get ready to wade into the waters of both. You’ll need to immerse yourself in the relevant scientific literature, of course. But you’ll also need to read through the associated policy documents, starting with the text of the proposed or enacted legislation itself. You can Google a policy to find its full text, and you can access U.S. policies via GovInfo.gov or the Federal Register.
Documents related to policies can also go well beyond the basic text of the law: For example, the Endangered Species Act has been challenged in court many times, and the agencies responsible for its implementation, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have their own internal guidelines. Follow the paper trail surrounding the policy you’re covering, including court cases, white papers, agency memos, and congressional proceedings.
Once you track down these documents, understanding them can be easier said than done—they’re often long, written in jargon, and mired in decades of historical debates. Reading news sources that specialize in covering certain policy areas can help you get acquainted with the relevant document ecosystem. For example, E&E News can help you navigate the energy and environment policy arena, while STAT can guide you through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval process for new drugs.
As in most areas of journalism, it helps to follow the money.
If you’re struggling to decipher a byzantine policy document, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Westervelt says she loves to speak with academic experts to help her wrap her mind around a new policy. “There’s almost always one person, at least, who’s been toiling away on this particular research area for 20 years,” she says. “And they’re thrilled to hear from a journalist that’s actually read their obscure textbook.”
Other journalists are also often generous about sharing advice and guidance. Collaborative groups, such as Covering Climate Now and The Uproot Project, which supports environmental journalists of color, can provide guidance on specific policy beats.
As you comb through documents, pay close attention to the evidence being used to justify a policy—and where it comes from. A firm foothold on the science surrounding an issue can help you identify potential sources of bias in a policy. When covering trans issues, for example, journalist Evan Urquhart searches for points where policies diverge from medical evidence. In an April 2023 story for Assigned, which he founded to cover anti-trans propaganda, Urquhart reported on how a Missouri emergency order restricting access to gender-affirming care questioned the off-label prescription of hormone-related treatments, when in fact off-label use is common and uncontroversial in other patient populations. In cases like this, Urquhart says, journalists should ask: “What does this look like in other areas of medicine that aren’t politicized?”
As in most areas of journalism, it also helps to follow the money. Look up the funding organizations that back studies cited in proposed legislation. “In a lot of cases, various corporate interest and political interest groups have funded the research that’s generated the white paper that’s provided the foundation for the policy,” Westervelt says. The same goes for researchers and politicians behind a particular policy—look up their financial backgrounds to uncover potential conflicts of interest. Including this context in your reporting helps your readers better understand the different agendas fueling a political debate.
Aside from the nuts and bolts of policies and where bias might be lurking, your reporting should explore how pieces of legislation work in the real world and shape people’s lives. Think about the downstream effects of a policy and who will ultimately be impacted, says Marina Martinez, a Brazilian journalist who covers environmental issues and policy.
Once a policy is enacted, cover how it plays out in different communities. “Policies don’t always work out in practice the way they’ve been perceived in theory,” Martinez says. Rather than being dispirited by this, journalists should see that as a sign that they should dig deeper. Policies can have unexpected outcomes, too, which make for great story angles, she says. This was the case when Martinez reported a January 2023 Sierra story on a surprising study finding that ecotourism had little impact on wildlife at a Brazilian national park. She tracked down a tour guide to learn more about the park, and she learned from that conversation that the park’s particularly strict policies for tourists and tour guide training might have contributed to the unexpected trend the scientists identified. That on-the-ground perspective “made my story unique,” she says.
When interviewing sources from politically vulnerable groups, be aware of language or cultural barriers and avoid overestimating your knowledge of communities you aren’t part of.
It also helps to figure out who is most vulnerable: Who will be most affected by a policy and have the least ability to influence the outcome? “That always helps to sort of center” a story, Chandrasekhar says. “It’s good to have that compass.” During her years-long coverage of government-backed coal mining in India, for example, she made a point to speak with activists on the ground and paid attention to how their views on the mining differed from official statements from government and industry groups.
When interviewing sources from politically vulnerable groups, be aware of language or cultural barriers and avoid overestimating your knowledge of communities you aren’t part of. Westervelt recommends partnering with local journalists to report on policies’ effects in a given community. For example, she teamed up with Guyanese journalist Kiana Wilburg to cover the fossil fuel industry’s government-backed oil colonialism in Guyana for season 8 of her podcast Drilled. “Working with someone who already has that cultural fluency, who can translate stuff for you, who can tell you when a source is reliable or not and why,” Westervelt says, is “just so valuable.”
At the same time, it’s important to know the limits of your sources’ expertise. When reporting on the science of gender-affirming healthcare, Urquhart makes sure to include published research and comments from medical experts alongside the personal accounts of trans sources.
Covering the ground-level effects of policies also means figuring out who is responsible for making sure others follow a new regulation or agreement. “Is there going to be accountability?” Chandrasekhar asks. For example, does the policy designate a group in charge of its enforcement, and are there penalties for noncompliance? These questions helped Chandrasekhar understand how the high seas treaty might affect small island nations, whose economy and culture depend more on the sea than larger players like the U.S. and China.
Diving into the “vast body of ocean, marine, and biodiversity law and literature” for that story whetted her appetite, Chandrasekhar says. The self-confessed landlubber already has her sights set on more waterborne science policy stories, such as those involving the resource-rich and genetically diverse deep sea. When reporting on science policy, just like when reporting on research, there are always new stories approaching from the horizon.
Darren Incorvaia is a journalist who writes about the natural world. He earned a PhD in ecology, evolution, and behavior from Michigan State University in 2021, with a dissertation on bumblebee behavior. He has since written freelance stories for Discover Magazine, Science News, Scientific American, and The New York Times, mostly about exciting new discoveries in the animal kingdom. Darren is a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Follow him on Twitter @MegaDarren.