The Portrayal of Science in the Media

Scientific reporting in the media allows the public access to information regarding various research around the world. It benefits our society by making scientific knowledge more accessible to the general public, and provides people with relevant information that can impact their daily lives.

Despite the benefits associated with the circulation of scientific knowledge, there also comes a great potential for miscommunication, as science and the media are two contrasting entities. In a sense, the media offers readers a translation of scientific knowledge and the quality of that translation relies on multiple factors. In science, data is collected over an extended period of time. It is driven by curiosity that is grounded in uncertainties, and aims to produce reliable information regarding the world around us, while maintaining a certain level of skepticism. Scientific writing is written passively, in an impersonal tone and undergoes an extensive review process in which the eyes of many experts perfect the nuances of its content. Contrastingly, the media holds different values and aims. For simplicity in this case, the media refers to written articles, as multiple comparisons can be made for other forms such as TV news reports, podcasts, online forums, radio programs, and newspapers. Media content is produced within a restricted time frame, in a manner that must be accessible to the audience. It focuses on telling a story and presenting information that it deems its audience will see as relevant and marketable [1].

Obviously, it cannot be assumed that every individual reader does not question the information provided to them; however, there are some key concerns arising from misinformation on scientific topics. These include, although not limited to: sensationalism, biases and conflicts of interest, lack of follow-up and stories that are not reported on [2]. Sensationalism can instill the reader with false hope or even paranoia if information is exaggerated for the purpose of holding the reader’s attention. Issues of bias can arise if those quoted in the article benefit from the message it portrays. As mentioned previously, because scientific practice involves continuous experimentation, a lack of follow-up on the research reported can also skew the reader’s understanding, as the knowledge base rapidly changes; this is especially important when considering potential treatments for various ailments. Finally, in selecting particular areas of scientific research to report on, the portrayal of science is limited to topics that are deemed as interesting [2].

In light of these potential concerns, questions arise: Does the public view of research align with reality? Is the public view of scientists and researchers accurate?

In regards to the first question, an important concept to consider is the history of science and scientific method. For instance, even the concept of objectivity within scientific practice has a history [3]. As scientific objectivity plays an integral role in research today, an understanding of this concept and how it has evolved over time would provide people with an appreciation for the advancements that have been made, but also an understanding of the obstacles ahead.

The second question can be addressed in context of Robert Merton’s work The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations [4]. Although not comprehensive, Merton outlines four imperatives that define the ‘ethos of modern science’ and the ideal scientist. The first imperative, ‘universalism’, highlights the value scientists place on the concept of objectivity and how they can deviate from objectivity when placed under political, religious, or cultural pressures. Next, Merton describes the value of sharing knowledge for betterment of the entire scientific community, he terms as ‘communism’. Another essential characteristic according to Merton is ‘disinterestedness,’ meaning that scientists are not concerned with advancing their own reputations as to falsely gain acclaim in their respective field. Lastly, Merton suggests that scientists have ‘organized skepticism’ that focuses on the inquisitive quality scientists possess, despite religious, political, or economical agendas. Even though some of these specific descriptions can be debated, they highlight important aspects of scientific research: diligence and commitment to produce reliable, objective information, curiosity that motivates this pursuit, and willingness to share this knowledge for the advancement of scientific knowledge. These qualities are presented as defining the ideal scientist, thus the complexities and nuances of actual scientific pursuits can be easily overlooked when expectations are this high.

*Regarding the discrepancies between how scientific research is conducted and the general understanding on it, the work Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar is recommended [5].

Taking into consideration the preceding points, it is apparent that both representatives of science and the media have certain responsibilities in order to avoid these shortcomings. Scientists must be able to explain their research in a manner that is understandable to the general public. Journalists must be thorough in accumulating information and avoid deviating or drawing premature conclusions without proper validation. However, it is also up to the reader to be able to discern for themselves if the information they receive is reliable.

All of the content of this article in itself is encouraged to be questioned and contradicted. This article can be susceptible to the issues it discusses and as my background is in science, it is obvious that there is a bias associated with its composition and factual construction. With that in mind, the concept of self-reflexivity is an important factor to consider when writing and reading. Ask yourself the question: how can the content of a text be used to reflect on the message the text itself attempts to convey? Such critical tactics are characteristic of academics, however, in order for the general public to obtain a glimpse of what scientific research really entails, such tactics may be essential.

References

  1. Lewenstein, B.V. 2001. Science and the Media. International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. 13654-13657.
  2. Shuchman, Miriam, and Michael S. Wilkes. 1997. Medical Scientists and Health News Reporting: A Case of Miscommunication. Annals of Internal Medicine 126.12: 976-982. Web.
  3. Datson, Lorraine, and Peter Galison. 2007. Objectivity. New York: Zone Books. Print.
  4. Merton, Robert K. 1973. The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Ed. Norman W. The University of Chicago Press. 267-278.
  5. Latour, Bruno, and Steve Woolgar. 1979. Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts. Ed. Jonas Salk. USA: Sage Publications. Print.

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Morgan Foret is a fourth year student at the University of Calgary studying Cellular Molecular Microbial Biology (CMMB). Morgan has experience as a summer research student the past three years and participated in a year long academic exchange to Lund University, Sweden.

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