PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology


Dealing with uncertainty in the reporting on neuroscience
A study of journalistic decision-making

Markus Lehmkuhl   Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany

Hans Peter Peters   Forschungszentrum Jülich, Germany

Science journalism has the reputation of being an exaggerator of cognitive or interpretive claims from the sciences. This assumption is based on numerous content analyses which typically found that journalism rarely refers to ambiguity or fragility of knowledge claims. Scientific uncertainty is obviously not attractive to journalists. Content analyses have the disadvantage that journalistic decision-making processes remain out of focus. Accordingly, they cannot answer the question of how the journalistic representations have emerged and why there is little attention to uncertainty. Using a case study approach, our study addresses exactly these questions reconstructing in detail the production of 21 journalistic products about neuroscience. The investigation of each case is based on the journalistic product, in-depth interviews with the journalist and his/her main scientific sources, and records of the enquiry-talks between journalist and his/her scientific sources. The analysis aimed at inventorying the ways in which scientific uncertainty becomes an issue for journalistic decision making or not. The study draws a detailed picture of how journalism handles uncertainty. It becomes apparent that in some cases journalists do not even perceive the ambiguity or fragility of scientific claims since sources do not proactively point to it. However, in every case in which scientific uncertainty entered the perceptual field of journalists, they allowed for it in their products in several ways: For example, they contrasted one claim with a conflicting other (he says - she says), they leaved uncertain claims out, or they structured their stories in specific ways intending to avoid misinterpretations by their audiences. We conclude from the study that the currently dominant problem definition with respect to journalistic dealing with scientific uncertainty needs to be complemented. Neglect of scientific uncertainty in journalistic products is not only a problem of journalistic reporting practices but also a problem of scientists' information practices.

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