Sources, Characteristics and Effects of Mass Media Communication on Science: a Review of the Literature, Current Trends and Areas for Future Research

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Sociology Compass 5/6 (2011): 399–412, 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2011.00373.x

Sources, Characteristics and Effects of Mass Media Communication on Science: A Review of the Literature, Current Trends and Areas for Future Research ¨ Mike S. Schafer*
University of Hamburg

Abstract

A significant amount of science coverage can be found nowadays in the mass media and is the main source of information about science for many. Accordingly, the relation between science and the media has been intensively analyzed within the social scientific community. It is difficult to keep track of this research, however, as a flurry of studies has been published on the issue. This article provides such an overview. First, it lays out the main theoretical models of science communication, that is, the ‘public understanding of science’ and the ‘mediatization’ model. Second, it describes existing empirical research. In this section, it demonstrates how science’s agenda-building has improved, how science journalists working routines are described, how different scientific disciplines are presented in the mass media and what effects these media representations (might) have on the audience. Third, the article points out future fields of research.

‘Scientists Bypass Need for Embryo to get Stem Cells’, ‘New Signs of Water Mean Mars May Once Have Supported Life’, ‘Proton Beams are Back on Track At Collider’ are all recent headlines extracted from the front pages of The New York Times. They illustrate that a significant amount of science coverage is found nowadays in the mass media ‘in front page articles[,] stories about discoveries, news about health, and reviews of economic trends and business affairs’ (Nelkin 1995, 1f.) – and that the chances for the broader public to inform themselves about science may have never been better (Felt et al. 1995, 244). This development is mirrored within the social sciences, where the relationship between science and the media has been increasingly examined since the mid-1980s. This research interest was (and is) sparked by the mass media’s overall importance for societal communication and also for science. Modern science is often seen as a highly specialized enterprise with its own modes of communication such as journals and conferences (Stichweh 1988) that usually does not address society directly (Weingart 2005a). As a result, citizens and many decision-makers get information about science mainly, or even exclusively, from the mass media (cf. Schenk 1999, 9ff.). Accordingly, these media play a strong role in elevating selected science issues onto the public agenda, they contribute to science’s public image, and influence its legitimation, public support, and, eventually, its funding (Weingart 2005a). Therefore, social science has devoted considerable attention to determine which scientific disciplines get media attention, how they are presented in the media, and as a result, ‘what the general public knows, thinks and feels about science’ (Lewenstein 1995b, 343). Keeping track of this research, however, is not easy. The number of respective publications exploded since the 1990s (Schafer forthcoming), but comprehensive bibliographies ¨ (e.g. Dunwoody et al. 1993) or articles reviewing the research (e.g. Lewenstein 1995b; Weigold 2001) are at least 9 years old. ª 2011 The Author Sociology Compass ª 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

400 Mass Media Communication on Science

This article provides such an overview. It aims to present the state of the art in the respective scholarship, highlights areas where further research seems necessary and identifies the major and most robust findings. The article is organized in three parts: In Section 1, we outline the main theoretical models of science communication. In Section 2, we summarize existing empirical research, and in Section 3, the article concludes by pointing out directions for future research. Conceptual approaches: what is the relationship between science and the media?...
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