Mumbo Jumbo in the Mass Media

The mass media is regularly used in this “age of information” to communicate science to the public. Interactions between science, policy, media and the public are complex, non-linear and dynamic:  science and policy have shaped the way the media reports and also public understanding; meanwhile, journalism and public concern have also shaped continuing science and policy decisions.

Science in the mass media comes in many forms...

It is clear that the media plays a strong role in putting select science issues on the public’s radar. Because of this, analysis has been conducted into which disciplines get media attention, how they are presented, and therefore “what the public know, think and feel” about science.

There appear to be 2 main ways the media attempt to communicate science to the public:

  1. that by making the public understand science, and scientific facts, they can make them support further development etc; and
  2. by relating science to other areas (politics, religion etc), the public garner a greater understanding and an increasingly critical perception of science and technology.

It appears that the later is a more effective method, and has caused the media to put science on the map in a big way in the last decade.

It is worth noting, and being critical of, the “agenda building” in science within the mass media. Scientists and Science-institutions have extended their effort to communicate with the media, including increases in personnel and resources in PR. It has gotten to the point where some scientists have admitted to using “misinformation” and spin to convince journalists to publish their stories. This also extends to other areas that use science (like the government). It is concerning for science communicators that this spin exists, as the factual accuracy of science in the public eye is important to the overall science literacy of the public, and their belief in science in general.

I am inclined to agree with Ben Goldacre’s opinion in the following video (Where is my jetpack!?) – but what do you think?

 

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Resource:

Schafer, M. S. (2011). Sources, characteristics and effects of mass media communications on science: A review of the literature, current trends and areas for future research. Sociology Compass, 5/6, 399-412.

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8 comments on “Mumbo Jumbo in the Mass Media

  1. That interview was a little lengthy but well worth the watch! He covered so many topics within science and the media seamlessly. I agree that a lot of media coverage these days is for medical science, however I think there is also a swing towards the environmental sciences with global warming & the carbon tax.
    I think there are many problems with the way science is reported in the media, like the journalists not having enough of an understanding themselves and the need for articles to often be quick and short. But I think a lot of people do realise that the media are not always great at reporting science and you can often sense that in a report or article. With the internet you can easily go and check something you aren’t quite sure about quite easily (not that you’ll always get the right answer!).

    • I’m going to play devils advocate here, in a sense, by asking – should we have to? Should we have to go and check if the science being reported is incorrect or has a spin applied to it? Doesn’t that just make for lazy science journalism and communication?

      Also – I do apologise that the video is so lengthy, but I thought what he had to say was fairly interesting and brought up a lot of relevant ideas to the article I read.

  2. I agree with the previous comment about the lengthy video, but it brings up a lot of interesting ideas. The notion that the science presented by producers is market related appears aline with my current thinking.
    Is the majority of science presented on the media medical related? I tend to agree with this, since most of the media content I tend to watch has a health aspect and it is also easy to relate to a consumer aspect.

    • When the video was created, in 2010, it was certainly true that the majority of science in the media (especially in the UK) was medical related. It may be the case now that climate change/environmental science has come up to similar levels – but I haven’t done the study.

  3. His comment about homeopathy was interesting. He raised a very valid point about how children can die due to the misinformation of their parents — which is a very good reason for the media to get their facts straight! I agree with ashfonty that a lot of problems hinder science being properly reported in the news, such as the need for deadlines, but things really need to change if misinformation is leading to deaths.

  4. I agree with Ben Goldacre entirely (don’t apologise for the video, it was very good!). I loved it how he started by saying, mainstream media is ok…but they get it straight wrong.

    I agree with Kate. The fact that we are reading a certain piece of scientific information means we want it to be factual. We shouldn’t have to go and chase up the facts ourselves (unless we want to of course).

    Whilst climate change is certainly a major issue in science today, I still think that the video is valid. Medical breakthroughs are always coming through. Like Ben alluded too, we are obsessed with cures. The media is merely fueling that obsession.

  5. I agree with Ben Goldacre entirely (don’t apologise for the video, it was very good!). I loved it how he started by saying, mainstream media is ok…but they get it straight wrong.

    I agree with Kate. The fact that we are reading a certain piece of scientific information means we want it to be factual. We shouldn’t have to go and chase up the facts ourselves (unless we want to of course).

    Whilst climate change is certainly a major issue in science today, I still think that the video is valid. Medical breakthroughs are always coming through. Like Ben alluded too, we are obsessed with cures. The media is merely fueling that obsession.

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