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Sources, angles and agendas

“Scientists want to inform the public, while journalists want to satisfy the audience’s needs.“ [1]

Despite the popularity of social media, the traditional media is still the main source for science news for many people and all media works to different paradigms from science. While both science and the media seek to find an appropriate description of ‘reality’ and use similar ways to classify claims as true or false, the way in which evidence is created and communicated is largely different. Here are some ways in which journalistic and scientific reporting differ:

  • Huge numbers of studies get published in science journals every week and journalists have to select what to cover in their newspaper. This choice is often driven by identifying facts that are true, topical and of relevance to their particular audience. And the choice needs to be made fast. There may not be time to talk to the right experts when writing up a news story.

  • To grab and maintain the reader’s attention, journalists tend to oversimplify conclusions of studies which can lead to misunderstandings. Headlines may focus on a single number, state a fact unambiguously or introduce an element of surprise, all of which undermine the contingencies that may have been well communicated in the original scientific study.

  • To increase the impact of their studies, universities and research institutes distribute press releases that journalists can use to base their article on. These press releases are often not written by the scientists but by their Institute’s press officers who tend to write like journalists.

  • When writing a news story, emphasis may be given to specific aspects of a study depending on audience expectations, the journalist’s knowledge of the science and the interests of the media outlet. The need to maintain or grow reader numbers means reports are often biased towards the readership’s world views, beliefs and interests. It has also been shown that the vested interests of firms that fund advertisements can lead to biases in science reports. Even where journalists strive for a balanced presentation of all the facts, the media expects the reader to draw their own conclusion.

  • The process of carefully and objectively defining and describing the relationship between a particular food item and an aspect of health that is so typical of a scientific study is not suitable for mass media. Facts are re-contextualized to make them applicable and understandable to a wide audience. Good stories contextualize abstract information, highlight real-life implications and appeal to readers’ emotions.

  • Uncertainties are dealt with very differently by science and media. While scientific uncertainty plays an important role in the scientific process and science publications, it’s often not mentioned in media reports about the studies.

  • Journalists have their own ways of assuring the reliability of their sources. Of course, they can evaluate a study design and discuss specific statistics, but often this is neither their area expertise nor does it fulfill the needs of their audience. So they use different methods to create credibility, by citing the pedigree of journals or universities for example. They often create a sense of authenticity by talking to different experts who can help put the study in context. However, these experts also have their own agendas when talking to journalists. They may highlight their own results to emphasise the impact of their research, or underline uncertainties to stress the need for further funding.

  • And of course, the availability of scientists for interviews and the journalist’s own science education play a role. Not all newspaper reports are written by trained science journalists and the vast body of scientific knowledge means that expertise isn’t uniform across all fields.

What type of information do you look for when you want to know more about the evidence base of a news article? Please share your suggestions with other learners in the comments section below.

Reference

  1. Maier et al. Educational Psychologist, 2014. p 88

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This article is from the free online course:

Food and Nutrition: The Truth Behind Food Headlines

EIT Food