One of the most exciting things about being a health writer is writing about recent medical advances, medical breakthroughs and controversial health topics.
We are also witnessing how the medical community reacts to these discoveries. New medical and scientific discoveries may change expert and public perceptions of certain issues.
A good example of this is the growing acceptance of medical marijuana in the medical community and the public. These shifting views of marijuana may even have contributed to laws in some American states allowing for the recreational use of marijuana.
However, not all scientific findings are welcomed by everyone. And, sometimes misinformation can color people’s perceptions and opinions.
If you need to write about a controversial health topic, it can be overwhelming to wade through and process all the differing opinions and information.
So, how do you write your article in a fair and balanced way? This post will give you tips for the next time you’re asked to write about a contentious health issue or health disparity.
What to do before researching
Before you begin writing you’ll need to search for information about your topic. But did you know that there’s a step you should take before even researching?
The first thing you should do is examine your own beliefs about the given health topic. Acknowledge any bias you may have on the issue prior to doing your research. This will help you avoid unknowingly limiting your search to views that you agree with.
What to do while researching
Now once you’ve taken note of your own potential biases, you’re ready to begin researching to learn more. The most important choice you make while researching is to stick with authentic sources.
Selecting only the top sources of your online web search isn’t a smart strategy since the loudest voices online are not necessarily the correct ones.
A good rule of thumb is to double check the information you find. Does the article you are browsing cite their sources? Great! Take a quick look at those sources yourself to make sure the information listed there is accurately reflected in the article you’re reading.
Be sure to not include misinformation. Unfortunately, we are in the midst of what the WHO terms an infodemic which describes the wealth of information available, including incorrect and fake information that could lead to confusion.
What to do while writing
Once you’ve researched the topic thoroughly you are now ready to start writing. An important aspect of effective public health messaging is to include the different viewpoints of your subject but don’t equate the two arguments if one side is clearly incorrect.
Let’s look at an example to clarify this point.
If you were asked to write about the COVID vaccine you would of course include arguments made by those for and against.
However, would you give each side equal weight knowing that anti-vax sentiment draws on misinformation?
No, because then you may actually be providing these anti-vax beliefs credibility by equating them with the facts presented by the medical community.
When addressing vaccine hesitancy you can’t present anti-vaccine arguments on the same level as the advice of medical experts. A fair and balanced approach doesn’t always mean giving each side equal time.
So, what should you include in your article? Well, first be sure to include accurate facts and statistics to support all the arguments if they are present. If there are no facts to support one side be sure to write about that as well.
Does this mean that only numbers should be considered and that there’s no space for people’s beliefs? Not at all. But facts and feelings should be clearly articulated in your writing so the reader doesn’t conflate the two types of information.
It’s also important to not entirely exclude people’s fears and feelings. For some topics such as assisted euthanasia the feelings of patients and family members are an important part of the discussion.
In fact, the feelings of patients and their families could be a component that medical experts take into account when they are making decisions.
Any article that doesn’t incorporate the people’s beliefs and perceptions would be missing a vital piece of the discussion.
What to do while editing
During the course of your writing, you’ve made sure to include the relevant information for each side as well as the arguments that support them.
You made sure to call out misinformation when it is the contributing factor to a specific belief. And you also made sure to address the perceived beliefs and feelings of individuals on a given topic.
Now, you’re ready to start the editing process and finalize your post.
As you polish your article lookout for charged words that carry a negative or positive connotation. As the health writer, you need to be the objective voice that is presenting the facts and sentiments regarding a controversial topic without coloring the reader’s perception with your own bias.
Let’s look at another example to illustrate this point.
Here are two sentences on parenting and childhood nutrition.
- Responsible parents and guardians control what their children eat at very young ages and should therefore indoctrinate their children to make healthier choices.
- Parents and guardians play a role in the food choices of children at very young ages and should therefore educate their children to make healthier choices.
While both sentences convey the same essential information, the first sentence paints a picture of a good parent as one who is controlling and demanding. Changing loaded words like ‘control’ and ‘indoctrinate’ makes your writing less charged and potentially offensive.
Once you’ve edited your paper and ensured that you aren’t implying unwanted information with your word choices, you are ready to publish your post!
As health writers, we have the awesome opportunity to share engaging accurate articles covering controversial health issues that benefit the public.
The next time you’re tasked with writing about controversial health topics, new drug treatments or vaccine myths, be sure to include these tips into your process.