Scientists are from Mars; Media are from Venus

I guess most of you have been to Naomi’s seminar about some scientists manipulating media to argue that climate change was not happening. Such skeptical articles can be very easily found in media. But why media pick those stories? What do they need?

We can find some answers from Schafer’s study (2011) on mass media communication on science. Schafer reviewed and concluded the source (agenda-builder) of the science stories in media, how do science journalists and media work, and characteristics of current media coverage of science.

The relation between science and media has changed. Science used to act as a superior role and media was like a transmitter, but now science has to be pitched to media, because people have too much to look at.

And within a more interactive context, not only scientists, or PR of science industries, but also non-science sources, such as politics, NGOs, are pitching science to media. Obviously they are using science for their own aims (like risk communication).

The question is — are these sources trustworthy? Here’s an interesting video about media source (a little bit long though).

Schafer’s study shows that media routine also help those biased stories get published. “A cancer-killer medicine is invented” and “AFL is going to have 1 year lockout”, which one could be on the front page? Science has a low priority in media, comparing with sports, entertainment, politics, etc.. Scientific importance does not necessarily lead to media attention.

Then the amount of science journalists is very limited in the industry. My girlfriend worked for the science and education column of a Shanghai daily newspaper for a while. They had a kind of database of all the stories written by reporters, then editors’ job was to pick stories from the database and fill the column. Most of those reporters and editors don’t have a science background.

Moreover, media treat science in their way. They may pick two articles with exactly different opinions upon one issue, to make controversy; they may pick an old finding was totally out of date, just to match a current issue; they may also frame and exaggerate the scientific message just to get attention. Media are always seeking for something BIG!

What do you think? What harm the credibility of media sources? Why media bias science? How can we help to make them understand each other?


pictures:; photoshoped by Axl

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.


4 comments on “Scientists are from Mars; Media are from Venus

  1. Realistically the media and the science-deniers that Naomi wrote about work hand-in-hand; science deniers create a controversy then the media sell the controversy.

    Its the human drama that they like. I am sure that the AFL are equally frustrated with the media. All the games that are played and all the goals that are scored dont matter for a few weeks when a player is caught sleeping with another players wife.

    I think the advent of new media is taking hold of these traditional ‘bias’ machienes anyway. Anything that allows the scientists to get on and explain themselves or refute accusations is an improvement from the top-down dissemination of big media outlets.

    I wouldn’t blame the newspaper editors or journalists for their lack of accuracy. We can’t really expect that much of people who are busy looking for a new career.

  2. To be communicating science, someone has to be passionate and knowledgeable-on the scientific angle. He or she must be able to think outside the box in terms of getting the message across.

    Media biases science for various reasons. One obvious point, the journalists lack of science background knowledge. However, at the same time they cannot be blamed as razdyer highlighted. Therefore, there is a need for science communicators to take part in the picture to help educate the world as far as science concepts, research and knowledge is concerned.

    A science communicator could be someone who is interested in and has fun for the audience, which helps them to make well-informed choices based on scientific information. Writing, events, exhibitions, websites, graphic design, art, photography, audio recordings and documentary filming are all sources of a medium of science communication.

    So unless one can relate to both science and the media, there will always be extremes.

  3. I like your picture! I think that the main purpose of the media is to bring entertainment value and to attract a wider range of audiences. You cannot fully put your trust into believing what the media says, as some articles lack scientific truth and credibility. That being said, the media cannot be fully blamed, for the journalist themselves lack the scientific skills and knowledge. The media is always looking for something big, to create a better viewership which would in turn make more money.

    I believe that you need the passion and interest to be able to write an article without jeopardising any scientific truth. That’s where science communicators come into place! You need to be equip with relevant knowledge to produce an article without lacking any credibility, yet making it sound interesting at the same time.

    • Thanks for the comments.
      It seems like most of us have been used to the fact that media bias science. I’m glad to see that you guys understand the reasons why media damage the accuracy of science for their fancy product.
      The other interesting things I always think of is that people don’t think science is biased to the same extent in every medium. One paper I read last semester (Frewer et al. 1996) shows that all those who get information about food-related risks from radio believe it’s true. However, lots of people doubt about the credibility of TV and newspapers.

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