A characteristic feature of scientific research is its uncertain and provisional nature. This article focuses on the mass media as the crucial spot in the relationship between science and the public and analyses how journalists deal with this uncertainty of scientific evidences. It is argued that media content does not mirror scientific “reality” but that it reflects journalists’ specific dealing with scientific issues. Based on a systems theoretical approach considering media content as the result of journalistic construction it is investigated to which degree reporting refers to uncertainty. Further, the paper identifies journalistic patterns of presenting scientific issues as certain respectively uncertain. To this end, two methods are combined: 17 German media products (news and special-interest media) are investigated for a period of nine months (10/2009 – 06/2010) examining all those stories covering the topic “health and medicine”. This topic is highly relevant for a broader public and therefore, information from this field can be regarded as especially sensitive. The results are reflected in in- depth interviews with science journalists providing information about their routines working on uncertain topics. Findings indicate that uncertainty plays a minor role in reporting. References to uncertainty mostly occur implicitly. Journalists obviously do not tend to highlight uncertainty as explicit references to doubts, debates, faults and fraud are a rare exception. Uncertainty is neither expressed through the presentation of scientists contradicting one another. Most stories only refer to one source; in those cases two or more scientists are cited those sources mostly correspond. When presenting scientific knowledge journalists focus on results while ignoring process. To the audience the level of evidence remains dubious as most stories do not give any information about the methods used. Only few stories explicitly refer to the quality of scientific work or the expertise of the scientists cited. Though those general tendencies apply to all analysed media products, there are differences when taking a closer look at special patterns of constructing (un-)certainty. At the conference these differences between news media and special interest media as well as between print and broadcast media will also be presented.

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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

“If you doubt leave it out.” Communicating scientific uncertainty in german mass media

Daniel Noelleke   Department of Communication, University of Muenster

A characteristic feature of scientific research is its uncertain and provisional nature. This article focuses on the mass media as the crucial spot in the relationship between science and the public and analyses how journalists deal with this uncertainty of scientific evidences. It is argued that media content does not mirror scientific “reality” but that it reflects journalists’ specific dealing with scientific issues. Based on a systems theoretical approach considering media content as the result of journalistic construction it is investigated to which degree reporting refers to uncertainty. Further, the paper identifies journalistic patterns of presenting scientific issues as certain respectively uncertain. To this end, two methods are combined: 17 German media products (news and special-interest media) are investigated for a period of nine months (10/2009 – 06/2010) examining all those stories covering the topic “health and medicine”. This topic is highly relevant for a broader public and therefore, information from this field can be regarded as especially sensitive. The results are reflected in in- depth interviews with science journalists providing information about their routines working on uncertain topics. Findings indicate that uncertainty plays a minor role in reporting. References to uncertainty mostly occur implicitly. Journalists obviously do not tend to highlight uncertainty as explicit references to doubts, debates, faults and fraud are a rare exception. Uncertainty is neither expressed through the presentation of scientists contradicting one another. Most stories only refer to one source; in those cases two or more scientists are cited those sources mostly correspond. When presenting scientific knowledge journalists focus on results while ignoring process. To the audience the level of evidence remains dubious as most stories do not give any information about the methods used. Only few stories explicitly refer to the quality of scientific work or the expertise of the scientists cited. Though those general tendencies apply to all analysed media products, there are differences when taking a closer look at special patterns of constructing (un-)certainty. At the conference these differences between news media and special interest media as well as between print and broadcast media will also be presented.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.

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