Any topic can stir up controversy. As a health journalist, I can rest assured that someone will passionately disagree with any article’s content. Someone will claim that carrots are wellness-breakers. Another will argue that all meat is toxic. Others are so passionate about a particular lifestyle, they fight for it. Passion can be a great thing, and so can controversy.
Controversial issues run the gamut, from highly debatable topics, like religion, ethics and politics, to the less obvious, like books, fitness and fashion. If varying opinions exist, heated debate can follow. Though journalism and blogging are very different animals, I believe that a little controversy can help or hinder both.
Reasons (and Examples) You Might Cover a Controversial Topic
- To express your opinion. You feel strongly about traditional versus nontraditional publishing, a new law that was passed or a personal experience and dang it, you’re gonna blog about it!
- To educate or inspire others. You have expertise in education or medicine and use your blog as a platform to share it with others. (Writer and therapist Louise Behiel does a fantastic job of this on her blog.) Whether intentional or not, the topics you feel compelled to write about could very well be controversial.
- To engage readers. You have a fair number of readers, but your comments have been sparse. So you dip into a controversy topic to stimulate conversation. This is one of the top ways to gain more comments on your blog, according to social media strategist and blogging pro, David Murton.
- To attract more readers. You primarily write about books and authors. To attract readers with other interests, you cover an environmental or social issue. Social media sends people passionate about the new issue your way. (I’m personally not a fan of controversy for the sake of boosted numbers, but some writers swear by it.)
- To have fun and entertain. Not all controversial topics are heavy. Some are downright funny. I always enjoy Piper Bayard’s series, The End is Near (and we deserve it!). Her last segment featured the question, Would you get a vibrating tattoo? (Need I say more???)
Weighing the Risks
Whenever we cover a controversial topic, we run the risk of misunderstandings and hurt feelings—ours and readers.’ (News alert: Writers are sensitive! ;)) Even if we present information respectfully, readers might not follow suit. If you bring up popular myths, you’re up against the mass media microphone. And we never know when we’ll strike a sensitive chord with someone; it’s possible we’ll unintentionally open wounds. And though we might attract new readers in the process, we risk losing others—particularly if we shock readers with a strong opinion piece or present our case poorly. Intense debates can also be exhausting for the writer—especially if we’ve shared strong personal opinions. (If you thrive on debate, that’s another story.)
I can hear some of you thinking, Gee, August. Sounds lovely. Think I’ll stick to songs about socks. But wait! There’s good news. Lots can be done to write about controversial topics while minimizing the risks. I compiled the following suggestions, based on my experience and observations.
Ways to Handle Controversial Topics with Success
1. If you feel so heated you might explode, take a breath before posting. We all have experiences that light a match inside us. Writing about such experiences pronto can make for passionate, but poorly thought out posts. Writing in this state can be therapeutic, but publishing? Not necessarily. Get your thoughts out, yes. But wait to finalize and publish your post until you’ve cooled down. Exercise. Sleep. Drink some water. Re-evalute. If and when you feel confident, publish it.
2. Choose topics you care about. This may seem obvious, but knowing that controversy can boost numbers might tempt us to cover any sticky issue or buzz word. The most popular Google search may be Kim Kardashian’s latest fling, but covering it with little knowledge or concern could come off as disingenuous. Rather than seek out controversy, let it evolve naturally. When I cover controversial topics, it’s because I feel compelled to do so.
3. Do your research. Even if you have boat loads of knowledge on a topic, take some time to read the latest research before posting. I have a hefty background in nutrition, but I don’t craft posts purely with my know-how or experience. Why? Because things have changed since college. Maybe even since yesterday. I also feel I owe it to readers to provide fact-based information and current studies. Opinion pieces are different, of course. In either case, research can strengthen posts.
4. Consider your sources. Using sources that aren’t credible can be worse than no sources at all when it comes to fact-based, informative pieces. An M.D. might seem credible, but if your topic is eye health, you probably don’t want to talk to a cardiologist. Quoting a self-proclaimed expert without verifiable experience and credentials—also risky. Ask yourself why readers should listen to a particular person or study. If you don’t know, keep seeking. For lots more on this topic, check out my earlier post, Truthiness: Raising the Bar in the Blogosphere and Using Research and Evidence, featured by Purdue University.
5. When you share your opinion, make it known. Personal experience can make for fantastic research and post fuel. If you present opinions as fact, however, the follow-up discussion may not be of the healthy, constructive variety. You could also mislead readers or lose their respect. Being forthright and inviting others’ opinions makes way for healthy discussion.
6. Consider your motivation. Are you posting on a topic to inform? Entertain? Simply to vent? (If venting’s your goal, you may want to reconsider—unless that’s part of your blogging identity.) If you want to stimulate conversation without expressing your view, present both sides of a topic. Then end with a question, like, “What do you think?” The motivation behind your blog also matters. Blogs written by romance authors, for example, can generally discuss sex with ease. If you write children’s books, however, sexual themes are risky. Kristen Lamb makes a great case for avoiding certain topics in her post, Deadly Doses—Politics, Religion and Our Author Platform.
7. Respect your readers. No, they may not all agree with you. Some may give you a hard time. But if the post and discussion seem like nasty brawls, no one will have fun. If you handle challenging comments with grace, on the other hand, your readers will respect you in return. And remember, if your aim is stimulating debate, you want various viewpoints. Welcome them. Opposing views are what make controversies controversial. (For an example of respectful discussion, check out the comments on my last post. You’re all awesome! :))
8. Aim for optimism. A little humor can go a long way toward preventing and easing tension. And in general, I don’t think most readers want to be depressed. ;) If you can, point out the good in a situation or offer solutions to the dilemma you pose. At the very least, end on a positive note. Complaining then ending with an “oh well, like stinks” type conclusion doesn’t provide much takeaway for readers.
9. If you feel you must write it, do. Some of the most controversial books, articles and paintings are also some of the most celebrated and esteemed. If you feel the need to express an opinion or argument, I say do it—in whatever way you feel you must. Think it through, guide your passion with logic and go for it. Freedom of speech exists for good reason.
What are your thoughts on controversial blog topics? Have you covered or shied away from them? Been impressed or frustrated by another’s approach? I love hearing from you!