Science & Media, was it better 'then'?

A while back, we attended the North Carolina Science Blogging Conference (now named  ScienceOnline) and I had a stream of thoughts about almost every thing I attended. It was a great conference, and we hope to attend next year. I wrote this post soon after, but never actually posted, so here it is because after rereading it, I still agree with myself (hey, that’s actually a less frequent occurrence than you’d expect). This was in response to a panel on Framing Science (I can not find the old site, which seems defunct now, with links to the forums, etc. If anyone has that archive, please let me know)

Let me say, I agree with the basic premise that citizens in society, media and the political realm need, unequivocally require, a better understanding of science. If there ever was an age that needs it, it’s now: climate change, personalized genomics, health care, stem-cell research, evolution in classrooms and so much more. I also agree with the basic premise behind the article in Science by Nisbet and Mooney (the latter of which was one of the panel members): Framing Science, it would be helpful to find scientists focusing more on how to make complex topics relevant to the public.

One of the premises of the first speaker of the panel mentioned above, Jennifer Jacquet of Shifting Baselines, seemed to be that as a society we were more scientifically literate, or at least aware, and that the media then was better reporting science in the era of Sputnik. I’m not so sure this is the case.:

“Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson: You find the present tense and the past perfect”

From many indications, scientific literacy in the populace has remained relatively stable over the decades, and from my own memory of flouridation scares and ‘desk ducking’ in nuclear explosion drills (yes, I’m getting old), I’m not so sure the public was particularly savvy when it came to understanding science in the 1960′s.

It reminds me of a book club I participated in when I lived in Heidelberg Germany (a very diverse group of people from all over the world). We were discussing raising children. To the last of the two dozen people in the room they were lamenting how wonderful it was raising children in the world 50 years ago, even the young among us were waxing nostalgic for that bliss of a time for children. I wasn’t. I and my partner had just adopted an African-American girl, and I spoke up: “there is no better time than now and place than here, to raise an child of color, a girl or a child in an non-traditional family. And I suspect that is true of most other children.” The participants then started to remember the blemishes of that era, and myriad they were.

My point is that we often look at the past with a very selective memory, and I have a suspicion that we were doing it here in this panel that day. It was a heady time in the 50′s and 60′s. We were entering space, nuclear scares, new technology, even plastics (“plastics, my boy, plastics“) and it was being reported on the front page and at the top of the news hour.

But I would raise a question: Did the media really report science better and more often 50, even 20 years ago? (don’t forget the other big stories of the day like Marilyn Monroe) and is the decline due to the rise of corporate conglomerates like CNN and MSNBC?

The cause of this decline according to the panelist appeared to be “corporations.” After showing us some stats on the reporting by several “MSM” outlets on celebrities such as Brittany Spears (90some percent), she indicated that the main culprit of this sad state of affairs was the ‘corporate’ media such as MSNBC, CNN and others. She contrasted the reporting of BBC, NY Times and others with those of CNN, MSNBC and others. The main difference? The former were either public (BBC) or “family-owned” (NY Times) and latter were profit/ratings-driven corporations. The thought being, I assume, that the former media outlets still considered “public interest” and the latter were purely “profit-driven.”

I’m not sure this premise holds. The first kink in this argument is the profit motive. The former group, including the NY Times, are also profit-driven. They must be to survive and it is their mandate. Perhaps they are better than the latter group by the fact that the drive for profits and ratings is somewhat moderated by the central control of a family governing body and mission.

My suspicion is the real reason the panelist sees a greater number of reports on celebrities in the corporate media of today is the move from a centralized media do a very decentralized one.

Until the 1980′s we had three major networks and a couple papers in every city. Control of what the public saw and read was in the hands of relatively few media groups and venues. If science topics would be reported, it had to go though these very centralized venues. With the advent of cable and satellite TV in the 80′s and the web in the 90′s and this decade, the number of media venues exploded. The “old” media (the big three networks) (and cable media like CNN and MSNBC have now also themselves become “old” media), had to find niches to fill as the number of outlets exploded. Apparently they have. The networks, CNN and MSNBC have found the celebrity and ‘missing young woman’ news niche, while politics, science, history, art and other niches were filled by individual channels (Science channel, PBS, etc), the huge number of new and very specific layperson periodicals, blogs and so much more.

In fact, though periodicals as an industry started to lose some advertising revenue, the number and diversity of niche periodicals grew rapidly, with 800 new titles added annually from 1994-1998:

According to the MPA, between 1991 and 2001 the following 10 categories added the most new titles: comics, regional interest, lifestyle, management, environment & ecology, computers & automation, travel, women’s, music & music trades, and family.

In fact, “education” related periodicals doubled:

Education magazines more than doubled, from 227 titles in 1988 to 519 titles in 1998.

And we know of the explosion of blogs, including those specifically science-focused such as those at ScienceBlogs.

So, the perceived rise in the ‘celebrity’ media culture seem to me to be less a function of the rise of the mega-corporation and ratings/profit motive and more a function of the diversification of outlets for information and the ‘niches’ that each had to find. For CNN and MSNBC (don’t mean to pick on only them, there are others that fit the niche :)), science isn’t their niche, but other outlets that report on science have proliferated. It seems to, based at least some of the data I can muster and looking at ‘media’ as a whole (whether that is network or cable TV, internet, periodicals or newspapers), science reporting isn’t particularly worse or a lower frequency.


6 thoughts on “Science & Media, was it better 'then'?

  1. Victor

    Being only 28 years of age, I haven’t experienced any other era of reporting, hence I don’t have a frame of reference for comparison.

    Having said that, the outcome of the media diversification you’re describing nonetheless remains that fewer and fewer people are being “subjected to” science reporting. It has shifted from a “push” to a “pull” model in which only people who are already interested in science will actively try to discover the niches where it is being reported. It remains to be seen whether this lack of “pushed” science reporting also precludes a number of people to discover their interest in science in the first place.

    Moreover, and this is only my vague impression, I believe that the increasingly breathless, sensationalist style of reporting found in the mainstream/celebrity media is starting to seep into other areas as well. New generations of science reporters are not living in a bubble, so I think there’s a danger they might take their cues from the celebrity media around them.

    In my native Germany (and if you’ve lived in Heidelberg for while, you’ve certainly come across this discussion), one of the major criticisms of the state-funded TV channels (ARD, ZDF) is that their programming is resembling the private channels’ more and more, simply because they are competing for audience and market share.

  2. Mary

    Someone is probably studying this somewhere and I just don’t know–but wouldn’t it be interesting to take July 1958 and compare to July 2008 on one of the major channels that existed then (at least in the US)—you know, ABC, CBS, NBC–and compare the evening news broadcast for science content. Might be interesting to compare with BBC and CNN too. On the Beeb you could do the 58 work possibly too, but CNN you would have to look at contemporary stuff.

    I know there’s a lot of variables. But people who study media would know how.

    Any science media students out there who need a project?

    I wonder if the Museum of Television would have projects…. I have always wanted to go there. They have a scholar’s room.

  3. Theodore Horoschak

    Speaking as a non-scientist (I develop software), I see two primary barriers to attaining a better understanding of science in our citizenry.

    The first one is largely an issue of time vs abundance. There is simply too much for your average citizen to find the time to learn about, much less digest. Quality reporting can help here.

    But to me, the larger barrier is the lack of understanding of scientific (or even just well reasoned) thought processes. The reasoning you need in science often goes far beyond what most people have exposure to. The simple fact that science refines (or even sometimes discards) prior knowledge as new evidence comes to light is difficult for most to deal with. Reports of new studies, say in the realm of nutrition and the effects of dieting, which challenge the results of older ones are seen by many as a sign that “they”, meaning the scientists, don’t really know what they are doing (I hear this all the time when I try to discuss the topic with people…I’ve given up).

    You can see this attitude manifest itself in non-scientific arenas. The most notable one is the current presidential race in America where revising one’s position is called “flip-flopping” and is a sign of weakness rather than enlightenment. You’d think that people would at least ask “What are the reasons? Are they good ones?”

    Top quality science reporting won’t remedy this attitude. At best, it will just confuse people. If the science reporting is good, presumably it would not only discuss what the scientists have concluded, but why. Then two years later, a new study will add information and the reporting will have to discuss how the scientists have changed their minds, and here’s why. And the refrain will be “ah, they don’t know what their talking about after all.”

    It’s all worsened by the political-ization of scientific topics, at least in the US. I can’t speak for the processes in other countries which at times seems a little more sane and at others at little less sane. In any case, once you put science into the political arena, you’ve opened it up to a public reasoning process that regards changing one’s mind as a sign of weakness. Hence, if scientists have concluded that so-called global warming is real and then you publish a study failing to find expected undersea warming…expect to be regarded as not knowning what you are doing. The complexities of multi-variable phenomena will be lost on most. (this will be compounded, of course, by BAD reporting)

    To return to the original point: if the goal is to improve the understanding of science among the citizenry, science reporting is the wrong place to start. What is needed, in my opinion, is a program to familiarize people with the process of scientific thinking and the nature of contextual knowledge. Scientists should spend some time talking about that in public forums.

  4. Trey


    In spite of your young age (sorry, just had to say that :), I think you have a point.

    There is a difference in that earlier media was ‘push’ and today’s media is largely pull. This can make a difference in how much science we get or understand. I know that I see a difference in my own media consumption if I compare 1980 (yep, I’m old) and today, or even 1990 and today. Media was ‘pushed’ to me then, I largely ‘pull’ it now.
    Mary’s suggested study could be interesting, though I think one would have to correct for the fact that the networks were the only source of news then, and one of a myriad now. My suspicion would be that the science reporting would be down in comparison, but overall the same if you consider all news venues today compared to then. If it wasn’t the case (ABC nightly news had as much today as then), that would be a very interesting finding.

    Also, I think this doesn’t contradict the point that it isn’t the profit-motive vs. the non-profit companies (but that could still be proved otherwise).

    Oh, and you could be right, science reporting could (and I’ve seen it in shows on the science channel, etc) or already have started to become sensationalist because that is what sells.

    Still, in the end, it seems that science literacy hasn’t really changed over time as I linked to in the post. I’d like to see what other studies have been done.

  5. Victor

    Thanks, Trey! I’ve gotten to an age where I like to be thought of as young – funny how things change :-)

    Theodore (by the way, I’m developing software, too): I think you might be right about the confusion potential of science reporting. I vividly remember when my co-author and I talked to a journalist about a study we had published and she constantly wanted to “streamline the story” because she deemed our qualifications (“x will only happen if conditions y and z are met, and moreso in the US than in Europe”) too confusing…

    I’m really looking forward to going to the EuroScience Open Forum ( in Barcelona this weekend – one of the major topics there will be Science Communication and Open Science. I’ll also be giving a presentation at the “Development of a virtual network custom designed for scientists” workshop on Monday afternoon, if someone who’s reading this would like to meet up!

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