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Public Communication of Science and Technology


Scientific Evidence and the Media
Investigating the Journalistic Intention to Represent Scientific Uncertainty.

Lars Guenther  

When reporting on science, journalists automatically indicate scientific evidence, as they frequently include statements referring to the certainty and/or uncertainty of research findings (e.g., Heidman & Milde, 2013). Scientific uncertainty is a central feature of scientific research (Popper, 1960), but with respect to Fleck (1935), scientific uncertainty is only part of expert's circles (= scientists); when knowledge is transferred from experts to laymen, for instance by the mass media, then information get more simplified and certain. This could explain why reporting on science often lacks statements referring to scientific uncertainty (e.g., Caccioatore et al., 2012; Dudo, Dunwoody, & Scheufele, 2011), which can be crucial for laypeople who want to make elaborate decisions (e.g., Jensen, 2008). However, content analyses also found that in some cases uncertainty is a strong characteristic of media's reporting on science (e.g., Ashe, 2013; Friedman & Egolf, 2011). As a result, journalists do not exclusively downplay scientific uncertainty; that is why this paper is interested in investigating the predictors of the journalistic intention to represent scientific uncertainty. Investigating these predictors is important, because recent science communication concepts (e.g., public engagement with science), among other things, explicitly ask for more science journalistic reporting on scientific uncertainty. To identify the predictors, a telephone survey was conducted with a representative sample of German science journalists (n = 202). The dependent variable in this investigation is the journalistic intention to represent uncertainty; independent variables were drawn from the research literature (e.g., Stocking & Holstein, 2009) and from qualitative interviews with science journalists (AUTHORs). Preliminary analyses showed that the journalistic intention to represent scientific uncertainty is influenced by the coverage of other media, individual understandings of scientific uncertainty, perceived expectations of the audience, and past behaviour of depicting scientific uncertainty. Further analyses will be completed and presented at the conference.

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