PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology


Interactions of scientists and journalists
Theoretical approaches and empirical results

Hans Peter Peters   Forschungszentrum Jülich, Germany

Scientists - as researchers and experts - are important journalistic sources in the classical popularization of science and technology as well as in the reporting on environmental problems, risk controversies and conflicts over technologies. While horror stories about scientists’ experiences with the media anecdotally are still being told, the average scientist-journalist encounter - at least in Germany - is rated much better by both sides than has long been assumed. There is empirical evidence that the average satisfaction of scientists with journalism has increased during the last years. Nevertheless, a significant portion of encounters still seem to end in frustration and with a ”result” (article or program) which is rated critically by scientists.

Encounters of scientists with journalists during journalistic research work are studied in this paper as a special case of journalist-source interactions - a field not comprehensively covered by communication scholars as yet. To concentrate on scientific sources has two interesting aspects: Scientists’ work (in contrast to that of e.g. politicians) usually is not directed towards the public. Furthermore, scientists are often inexperienced sources and have not adjusted to the journalistic routines as efficiently as may be expected from politicians. Characteristics and problems of source-journalist interaction, hence, may be more obvious and easier to study in the field of science reporting than in other fields.

The paper sketches an analytical perspective that conceptualizes the interactions of journalists and scientists threefold as intercultural encounter interest conflict and interactive framing process taking place in a certain mediamarket and public discourse context.

Drawing on the theory of intercultural communication,on game theory and on the linguistic framing approach different aspects of the scientist-journalist interaction such as misunderstanding of information and behavior, held and expected roles of both actors, power structure and differences in objectives are analyzed. The mentioned theoretical approaches are seen as complementary rather than competing in explaining a number of characteristics of scientist-journalist interactions. Results of a number of surveys among scientists and journalists are used to check the fruitfulness and strength of this theoretical frame.


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