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The phrase ‘science and the media’ as a single concept encompasses two major social institutions. Science is both a system of reliable knowledge about the natural world and a complex social system for developing and maintaining that knowledge. Similarly, the media comprise a variegated system for collecting and presenting information as well as being an institution with signiﬁcant economic, political, and social impact. Though long perceived as separate realms, recent scholarship has highlighted their mutual dependence. Increasing episodes of tension and conﬂict in the late twentieth century led scholars, scientists, media producers, and social critics to explore the interactions of science and the media. Working scientists and media producers sought guidance on how to use each others’ resources more eﬀectively, while analysts asked how such issues as political and economic interests, rhetorical conventions, and audience responses shed light on the roles of science and media in shaping each other. One eﬀect of recent scholarship has been to elide the diﬀerence between ‘media’ (all forms of media) and ‘the media’ (particularly the major institutions of newspapers, magazines, television, and radio), an elision that will be evident throughout this research paper.
1. Science And The Media: A Brief History
The history of science and the media is the history of a growing mesh: increasing use of media by science, increasing attention to scientiﬁc ideas by media institutions, and increasing tensions caused by the rising interaction.
Through the middle of the twentieth century, science and media were largely seen as separate realms. Science had emerged in the nineteenth century from natural philosophy as a systematic approach to understanding the natural world. With the advent of research-based industries such as chemical dyes and electronic communication, science began to attract the attention of capitalists and government leaders who understood the value of controlling scientiﬁc knowledge. By the end of World War II, the emergence of ‘big science’ had made science a powerful institutional force as well as a system of accredited knowledge with increasingly far-reaching applications. The media had also evolved in the nineteenth century from small, local organizations into nationally and internationally-circulated publications that served as tools of merchant capitalism and political control, full of advertising, business and political news, and the ideology of the industrial revolution. By the early twentieth century, new electronic media such as movies and radio provided the means for newly-developed forms of ‘publicity’ and propaganda to help produce modern mass society, as well as to increase public access to new forms of cultural entertainment.
Since the late seventeenth century, natural philosophers had relied on print media, particularly professional journals such as the Philosophical Transactions and books such as Isaac Newton’s Principia, as tools for disseminating the results of their investigations. These publications were not only records of experiments or philosophical investigations, but also served as active carriers of the rhetorical structures that enabled natural philosophers to convince people outside their immediate vicinity of the truth of their claims (Shapin and Schaﬀer 1985).
Early in the nineteenth century, new forms of science media emerged, particularly a genre known variously as ‘popularization,’ vulgarisation [French], or divulgacion [Spanish]. These books and magazines provided entree into the knowledge of the natural world for non-scientist readers. They ranged from textbooks for young women through to new mass-circulation magazines ﬁlled with instruction on the latest achievements of a rapidly industrializing society. The so-called ‘great men’ of late nineteenth century England (most notably Thomas Huxley and John Tyndall) became evangelists for science, lecturing widely to enlist public support for the enterprise of rational understanding of the natural world; they converted their lectures into articles and books to spread their reach even further. At the same time, scientists’ use of media for disseminating knowledge among the scientiﬁc community grew dramatically, with the growth of new journals and the founding of publishing houses committed to scientiﬁc information.
The growth of both science and media in the twentieth century forced specialization into the ﬁelds, leading to a distinction between what some scientists have called ‘communication in science’ and ‘communication about science.’ For scientists in their daily work, broad synthetic journals such as Science and Nature (published respectively in the USA and the UK) were joined by topical journals in chemistry, physics, biology, and their many sub-disciplines. For non-scientists, magazines and other media (such as radio and new ‘wire services’ for newspapers) increasingly focused on particular audiences, such as teachers, inventors, ‘high culture’ readers, general media users, and so on. Although scientiﬁc ideas appeared in some entertainment media, science in most non-technical media became a component of news coverage for diﬀerent audiences. In the 1920s and 1930s, a small group of professional journalists began to write almost exclusively about science. (These developments were clearest in the highly developed countries of Europe and North America. The patterns in the rest of the world have been little studied and so cannot be described.)
By the second half of the twentieth century, the interaction of science and media had become a complex web, in which new scientiﬁc research appeared in abstracts, journals, press reports, and online, while other forms of science–not necessarily derivative of the research reports–appeared regularly in media outlets such as newspapers, televisions, websites, radio programs, puppet shows, traveling circuses, and museums. Moreover, as science became central to modern culture, the presence of science in media such as poetry, sculpture, ﬁne art, entertainment ﬁlms, and so on, became more evident. In the journalistic media, many reports circulated internationally, through cooperative agreements between public broadcasting systems and worldwide news services. The rise of the World Wide Web in the 1990s provided further opportunities for information about science to circulate more fully between the developed and developing world.
However, from about the mid-century onward, no matter what media were involved, many working scientists perceived presentations in non-technical media to be incorrect, oversimpliﬁed, or sensationalized. Thus, tensions developed between the institutions of science and those of the media. Those tensions led eventually to the development of an analytic ﬁeld of science and media, populated largely by media sociologists, communication content scholars, and sociologists of science.
2. Understanding Science And Media
Analysis of science and media has led to a deeper understanding of the essential role of media in creating scientiﬁc knowledge, the ways that media presentations shape understandings of nature, and the role of public debate in constituting scientiﬁc issues.
The earliest attempts to understand the relationship of science and media came from two directions: the overwhelming growth of scientiﬁc information, leading to attempts by scientists and scientiﬁc institutions to learn how to manage scientiﬁc publications, and emerging tensions between scientists and journalists, as specialized reporting developed in the 1930s. Research and publications before and after World War II led by the 1970s to two common understandings.
First, sociologists of science had come to understand the fundamental role of communication in the production of reliable knowledge about the natural world. Scientists do not work in isolation, but must constantly present their ideas to colleagues for acknowledgement, testing, modiﬁcation, and approbation. The process of communication, occurring in various media, is the ‘essence of science’ (Garvey 1979), leading to science becoming ‘public knowledge’ (Ziman 1968). At the same time, the apparent diﬀerences between the goals of science (methodical, tentative, but nonetheless relatively certain statements about the natural world) and the needs of public media (rapid, attention-getting narratives about issues directly related to readers and viewers, regardless of certainty) had also been explicated (Krieghbaum 1967), leading to practical attempts to ‘bridge the gap’ between science and the media but also to recurring fears that the gap was unbridgeable.
Beginning in the 1970s, new developments in the sociology of scientiﬁc knowledge opened up new ways of conceiving of the relationship between science and media (Barnes 1974, Latour and Woolgar 1979). In particular, attention to the rhetorical goals of scientists in their use of media suggested that a distinction between communication in science and communication about science could not be maintained. Instead, some researchers began to discuss the ‘expository’ nature of science, showing how scientists tailored their communication to meet the needs of speciﬁc media and speciﬁc communication contexts (Bazerman 1988, Shinn and Whitley 1985). These researchers highlighted the interaction of the idealized intellectual goals of science (for the production of reliable knowledge about the natural world) with the social and institutional goals of scientists and their employers or patrons (for priority, status in the community, ownership of ideas and thus patents, and so on).
In this conception of science and media, scientiﬁc knowledge itself might diﬀer in diﬀerent presentations—in some cases, appearing as a ‘narrative of science’ (focusing on the methodological and theoretical structures leading to particular knowledge of the natural world), in other cases as a ‘narrative of nature’ (focusing on the relationships between organisms or entities, with emphasis on the ‘story’ linking diﬀerent aspects of those organisms and entities) (Myers 1990). The very boundary between ‘science’ and ‘non-science’ (or ‘mere’ popularization), between communication in science and communication about science, was shown to be highly mutable, itself an object of rhetorical construction used for political purposes by participants in scientiﬁc controversies to establish control over elements of a debate (Hilgartner 1990).
A second new line of inquiry highlighted the institutional interdependence of science and the media. Pointing to the growing post-World War II need for scientiﬁc institutions to generate public and political support, and to the media’s need to draw on scientiﬁc developments for constant infusions of drama and ‘newness,’ the new research identiﬁed ‘selling science’ as a major element of the political economy linking science and the media (Nelkin 1987).
Finally, work on the images of science that appeared over time helped show the ways that social concerns interacted with scientiﬁc developments to create cultural representations of science (Weart 1988, LaFollette 1990, Nelkin and Lindee 1995).
At the same time that these developments were occurring in the understanding of science communication, new approaches were developing in understanding the relationship between science and the public. Spurred by concerns in the scientiﬁc community about lack of ‘scientiﬁc literacy,’ the studies ultimately questioned the idea that the public has a ‘deﬁcit’ of knowledge that needs to be ‘improved’ (Irwin and Wynne 1996). Instead, the new approach focused on the possibility of engaging the public in discussions about scientiﬁc issues, recognizing the contingent nature of understanding of scientiﬁc issues and thus the alternative meanings that might emerge in democratic discussions instead of authoritarian pronouncements (Sclove 1995). Much of the new work looked at issues of uncertainty and risk, highlighting the social negotiations required to make personal and policy decisions in a context of incomplete information (Friedman et al. 1999). The new work clearly implied that science and the media cannot be perceived as separate institutions with separate goals. Instead, better understanding comes from analyzing science and media across audiences, looking at the political and economic interests of media producers, at the rhetorical meanings of media conventions, and at the audience responses to media content (especially in terms of meaning-making).
3. Approaches To Studying Science And Media
3.1 Political And Economic Interests Of Media Producers
The most detailed and well-developed understandings of science and the media point to the political and economic interests that motivate the producers of media representations of science. In many countries, the media depend on government subsidies or at least on political tolerance. Moreover, media are expensive to produce. While the presence of the media in democratic societies is often seen as fundamental to political liberty, the economic need to appeal to broad audiences (even for government-controlled media) often leads to editorial decisions that emphasize broad coverage and sensationalism over depth and sobriety. Science media are no diﬀerent, and even the most prestigious scientiﬁc journals such as Science and Nature have been criticized for highlighting the most ‘newsworthy’ research, for hyping scientiﬁc reports beyond their value, for engaging in ‘selling science.’ Newspaper and television coverage of science is routinely criticized for its sensationalism, particularly in the coverage of controversial issues such as food contamination (e.g., the BSE or ‘mad cow’ epidemic in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s), genetic modiﬁcation of food, and global climate change. Journalists (and their employers) routinely defend their practices on the basis of ‘what readers viewers want,’ which is often judged by sales success. Entertainment media are criticized even more heavily for creating movie plots that involve impossible science or focus on highly unlikely scenarios; producers disclaim any responsibility for accuracy, claiming only to be providing (proﬁtable) escapism. These recurring disputes between the scientiﬁc community and media producers highlight the irreconcilable tension between the goals of science and the goals of the media.
3.2 Rhetorical Meanings Of Media Conventions
An emerging area of understanding is the way that media conventions shape the rhetorical meaning of science communication. Scientiﬁc papers reporting original experimental research, for example, have developed a standardized format (called ‘IMRAD,’ for introduction, methods, results, analysis, discussion). The IMRAD format, conventionally written in an impersonal tone, with passive grammatical constructions, hides the presence of the researcher in the research, highlighting the objective character of scientiﬁc knowledge that is claimed to exist independently of its observer. In journalistic reports of scientiﬁc controversies, the conventions of objective reporting require ‘balance’—the presentation of both sides of a controversy (Bazerman 1988). Though 99.9 percent of all researchers may hold that a new claim (such as the eventually discredited 1989 announcement of a new form of ‘cold nuclear fusion’) is scientiﬁcally untenable, the journalistic norm of balance may lead to approximately equal attention to all claims. Similarly, journalistic goals of story telling often lead to emphasis on the human, narrative dimensions of an issue over the theoretical or mathematical components of the science. New research is exploring the meaning of visual representations of science, at every level from the technical outputs of genome analyzers to mass media manipulations of false-color images produced by orbiting astronomical telescopes (Lynch and Woolgar 1990).
3.3 Audience Responses To Media Content
One of the most diﬃcult areas to investigate is the audience response to particular media presentations. Virtually no work, for example, has been done on how scientists respond to specialized science media, despite anecdotal stories suggesting that changes in information presentation (such as World Wide Web access to scientiﬁc databases) may have dramatic impacts on how scientists conceive of the natural world and frame their hypotheses and theories. Some work has been done at broader public levels, such as responses to media presentations of risk information. But, although the psychology of risk perceptions, for example, has been extensively investigated, the factors aﬀecting individual responses to media coverage of speciﬁc risky incidents are so varied as to defy measurement. Though the complexity leads some researchers to reject the possibility of quantitative analysis, others insist that social scientists can learn to isolate appropriate variables. Certainly some areas of audience response could be investigated more carefully; audience reaction to images of science in entertainment ﬁlms, for example, has never been systematically tested, despite frequent statements that ‘the image of scientists in the movies is bad.’
The shift away from separate analysis of ‘science’ and ‘media’ to an integrated understanding of ‘science and media’ has led in recent years to the possibility of cross-cutting analyses, such as those of producers, rhetorical structures, and audience reception. These analyses will ultimately yield a much richer understanding of the interaction of science and media. Less clear is how such improved understanding will contribute to the practical concerns of those in the scientiﬁc community and elsewhere, who worry about possible linkages among science literacy, the image of science, and public support for science.
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