Challenges in media and communications writing

Writing about controversial topics

Balance and objectivity are often seen as the hallmarks of good journalism – that is, information is presented in an impartial way without bias or emotion. In news, feature or magazine articles, the journalist should let readers make up their own mind about an issue, rather than trying to influence their decisions or opinions.

It is good practice to interview several sources for an article, and to ensure that varying points of view are presented. Where opinion and evidence are divided, having a ‘balanced’ article means presenting each side.

But remember, the different points of view may not be equal. Sometimes, the weight of evidence may be strongly on one side of an issue. In such cases, a balanced article does not mean giving equal weight to both sides. This skews the information by making it appear that both sides are equally well supported by the evidence. For example, giving equal space to anti-evolution beliefs in every article about evolution would actually create an imbalance of information.

If you do want to acknowledge the other side of a well-evidenced story, explain how these beliefs are not considered compelling by the majority of experts and why.

Caution! Give the sides equal weight only when there is equal evidence.
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Avoiding overselling

Many forms of communications writing are about persuading the audience to take a particular action, choose your brand or organisation, or buy your product.

Do not oversell your product. If you talk up the offer too much, you will lose credibility. Your claims and language must be accurate, even when you are trying to shift your audience’s opinion or decisions:

This course will teach you the methods used by legendary real estate investor, Jane Smith, as she amassed a multi-million-dollar property portfolio.
This course will give you the tools you need to build a multi-million-dollar property portfolio. Starting with an initial investment of $50,000, you will be a millionaire in just 5 years!

Organisations have a legal obligation to avoid overselling or false claims: the Australian Consumer Law covers issues around ‘misleading or deceptive conduct’ as well as ‘false or misleading claims’, which apply to advertising and promotion. Overselling or false claims also run the risk of reputational damage and loss of trust from customers.

In press releases, it can be tempting to oversell a story to grab media attention. For example, in reporting scientific research, it can be tempting to claim certainty where only possibilities exist. Always retain the qualifying language to keep your story accurate:

The study may show the way to a new treatment for ovarian cancer.
The study will deliver a new treatment for ovarian cancer.

See also Accurate language for more information on writing about evidence, data and statistics, and risk.

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Ethics in media writing

Many professional bodies that represent journalists have codes of ethics that outline the moral and professional standards expected of their members. In Australia, the Australian Press Council has standards of practice that focus on 4 values: accuracy and clarity, fairness and balance, privacy and avoidance of harm, and integrity and transparency.

A journalist must sometimes decide between 2 courses of action, both of which may compromise one of the core values (eg truth versus the right to privacy of the subject, national security versus the public’s right to information).

These ethical questions do not have easy answers. As a journalist, you should carefully consider the impact of your writing before publishing.

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