How many journalists does it take to change a light bulb?

Three. One to report it as an inspired government program to bring light to the people, one to report it as a diabolical government plot to deprive the poor of darkness, and one who aims for a Pulitzer prize, reporting that the electric company hired a light bulb assassin to break the bulb in the first place.

To put it another way, mass media content is “a socially created product, not a reflection of an objective reality.”1 In contrast, science is as close to an objective reality as we can muster. How the two interact is fascinating, and it’s not without tension: Researchers get frustrated when the media sensationalize science, and they often lack respect for journalists, while reporters regularly find scientists to be incomprehensible and opaque, poor communicators who wrap their message within layers of caveats.

A number of other factors influence the quality of science reporting. On the credit side, there currently exists a pool of trained and talented science reporters, the likes of which have never been seen before. However, this is more than canceled out by the single consideration that currently dominates the print and broadcast media: entertainment. The first target of any media organization is survival, and today that requires that they amuse and distract us. According to a survey of 300 US media professionals, conducted by The Columbia Journalism Review, 84% of journalists polled felt that a story would not be covered if it were “important but dull.” Remarked Peter Preston, editor of The Observer newspaper: “This is not dumbing down; it is dumbing out.”

Nonetheless, science coverage in the media is growing. For example, a recent analysis of Danish newspapers2 concluded that there was a “dramatic and accelerating sevenfold increase in the number of articles referring to researchers” between 1961 and 2001.

What rules apply to news selection? According to Pamela J. Shoemaker and Stephen D. Reese,1 news values fall into six categories: prominence/importance, human interest, conflict/controversy, the unusual, timeliness, and proximity. Some topics, such as biosecurity or the development of a new disease therapy, share many of these values. We begin to see, for instance, why the Raelians’ cloning claims got so much attention. On the face of it, the reporting was not poor journalism; on the contrary, every news value was realized, and it was entertaining. The difficulty, from the scientific vantage point, is that it was nonsense, purely a “socially created product.” Several of Shoemaker and Reese’s news values appear irrelevant or even antagonistic to straight coverage of mainstream science.

Although claims of human cloning stick in the mind (and the throat), they are the exception in science news. Regular reporting of research papers on the day of publication dominate, not surprising since news needs defined events. What is surprising is the predictability of story selection. A recent analysis3 of coverage by newspapers on research published in four elite journals concluded: “Journalists depict themselves as keen–at times even ruthless–competitors with one another, but this finding suggests a different view: When it comes to breaking news about scientific research, newspapers try to make sure that they cover the stories that other newspapers cover. The goal is not to be different, but to be the same.”

It is not clear whether science journalists run in packs because they all have good news judgment, because their employers constrain them, or because they are lazy. Whatever the cause, the opening joke appears not to apply.

Richard Gallagher is the editor of The Scientist


1 P.J. Shoemaker, S.D. Reese, “Mediating the message,” In: Theories of Influences on Mass Media Content, 2nd ed., White Plains, NY: Longman, 1996, p. 261.

2 E. Albaek et al., J Mass Comm Quart, 80:937, 2003.

3 V. Kiernan, J Mass Comm Quart, 80:903, 2003.

This article was reproduced with permission from The Scientist, Issue: May 10, 2004, Volume 18, Issue 9, Page 6, Copyright 2004, The Scientist LLC. All rights reserved.

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