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Changes in Science and Media Demand Evolution in Science Communication

Matthew C. Nisbet, an expert on the intersections between science, media, and politics at American University’s School of Communication, says that changes in scientific research and the rapidly changing media landscape demand that eight specific steps be taken by science organizations and journalists in order to better engage the general public and to accurately report scientific research.

“During the past several decades, science has become more bureaucratic, problem-based, and dependent on private funding. Public surveys point to a high trust in scientists, especially those affiliated with universities, but the trust level decreases when it comes to scientists affiliated with corporations or industries,” Nisbet said. “Factor in changes in the media landscape that have created audience fragmentation and ever fewer quality sources of science news, and it is clear changes in science communication are needed to better engage the public on science-related issues.”  

The eight steps are outlined in “Science Communication Reconsidered,” an article published in the June 2009 issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology. It presents the collective recommendations made by Nisbet and 23 other international experts in science, media, and policy at a science communication workshop in Washington, D.C. The workshop was organized by the Health Law Center at the University of Alberta.

The eight steps are as follows:

1.    Scientists and science organizations should pursue a trust- and dialogue-based relationship with the public.  More forums, conferences, and other public dialogue initiatives should be held. The goal is not to persuade or sell the public on the importance of science, but to “democratize” public input about scientific issues so that members of the public can meaningfully participate in science-related decision making.

2.    Scientists and science organizations need to recognize the importance of framing science-related issues. Science communication efforts need to be based on careful audience research. Different frames of reference that better communicate the nature and relevance of scientific issues across a diversity of audiences should be identified and tested. This research on framing can be used to structure dialogue and to move public discussion beyond polarized arguments and entrenched positions.

3.    Graduate students at science institutions should be taught the social and political contexts of science and how to communicate with the media and numerous publics.  Graduate students are future spokespeople and decision makers. They need to understand the significance of research in the field of science communication. These programs should include specialized electives for doctoral students but also new interdisciplinary degree programs that combine scientific training with course work in communication, ethics, and policy.

4.    Factors that facilitate media hype and errors should be recognized and addressed. Researchers should resist the temptation to describe their studies using inflated metaphors and terminology, such as “groundbreaking,” and remain true to the significance of a study. Research funding and methodological details need to be included in media coverage so that the public may better assess credibility. Short-term gains in media credibility should not be valued above longer-term relationship building with journalists, decision makers, and the public.

5.    Science communication initiatives should investigate new forms of digital media and film to move beyond traditional popular science outlets, such as science newspaper columns, science magazines, and television programs like PBS’s NOVA. This includes finding ways to create opportunities online for incidental exposure among key audiences not actively seeking news, information, and science-related content

6.    Scientific organizations need to track science-related media coverage (news, entertainment, etc.) to be aware of the numerous cultural contexts through which the public interprets science.  National newscasts, talk radio, blockbuster films, entertainment TV, and late night comedy provide broader audiences with alternative messages about science topics and can be important outlets for science communication.

7.    Journalism schools and news organizations should develop a science policy beat to address the gap between journalists covering science and those covering politics. Developing such a beat and training journalists to understand both science and policy would provide important background for science policy debates.

8.    New models of journalism—whether foundation, university, or government supported—are needed.  The for-profit journalism business model is failing and specialty journalists, such as science journalists, are losing their jobs. In addition, new media formats offer another avenue for public participation, as user generated content can enhance professionally produced content.

Nisbet is one of the article’s two primary authors.  He will also deliver the keynote address on science communication at the 2009 spring conference of the Danish Science Journalists Association in Copenhagen, Denmark, on June 11.

American University is a leader in global education, enrolling a diverse student body from throughout the United States and more than 150 countries. Located in Washington, D.C., the university provides opportunities for academic excellence, public service, and internships in the nation’s capital and around the world.

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