Journalists and Journalism Education Must Grasp the Democratic Science Opportunity, Steve McIlwaine

Steve McIlwaine

The University of Newcastle

Singapore Campus

PSB Academy
355 Jalan Bukit Ho Swee
Singapore 169567




In an age when science-based questions are confronting society almost constantly, public science knowledge appears to have remained stalled at a very low level, or is in retreat. This is largely a result of a failed communication theory that persists in science journalism and particularly among scientists. Serious thought should be given urgently to training working journalists and journalism students to deal successfully with science topics by abandoning failed models and taking up the democratic opportunities offered by new communications technologies.

For 50 years at least, enormous amounts of paper, energy, money, time and anxiety have been expended on the question of getting science to the public – and the ferment continues. So John Maddox, then editor of Nature, could in 1995 describe promotion of “the public understanding of science” as swiftly becoming politically correct, while, in the US, the funding base of the Informal Science Education program of the National Science Foundation grew from $US4 million in 1984 to $56 million in 2001 (Field and Powell, 2001) and is still growing. Scientific literacy has become “an internationally well recognised educational slogan, buzzword, catchphrase and contemporary educational goal” (Laugksch, 2000, p. 70). Indeed, by the beginning of the 21st century, promotion of science communication had become literally an industry (OST and The Wellcome Trust 2000, p. 14). Obviously, significant powerful sections of Western society are anxious that the populations become more science-literate, and that anxiety is repeatedly aggravated by studies showing low to very low levels of public understanding and knowledge of science.

As many commentators have observed (eg, Hornig-Priest, 2000), a large part of the responsibility for providing the public with this scientific understanding and knowledge is perceived to be that of the mass media, especially journalists in the news media. However, the media do not appear to be making anyone happy with their coverage of science – not scientists, not the public, not journalists. Anger and frustration among scientists and the many promoters of public science literacy at the amount and quality of science the news media provide is constantly evident (Fleishman, 2002). Content surveys show that the level of science in newspapers, for example (newspapers carry the greatest quantity of science information), ranges from extremely low to very low (McIlwaine, 2003). And the accuracy and fidelity to scientific sources of that low level of information is never satisfactory to science (McIlwaine, 2001). At the same time, what is labelled pseudo-science and even anti-science appears to be flourishing as never before. Even attempts at providing science information in science sections, such as that begun in 2002 by The Sydney Morning Herald, are characterized by critics as mere consumer health-and-fitness niches that are designed to attract advertising, not inform anyone about current scientific work (McIlwaine, 2003). Simultaneously, specialist science journalists are viewed with suspicion by their generalist colleagues, as well as media critics, as complaisant creatures of the science and scientists they write about. Science journalists complain that they do not get a fair go, that they are not allowed to do their job. Meanwhile, survey after survey in Australia, in the US and in Europe show that media audiences are interested in knowing about science but consider themselves poorly informed about science and poorly served by the media in science information. Clearly, these problems present a major challenge to journalism and to journalism education.

Much of the science establishment’s disappointment concerns public ignorance of basic science and the way science is supposed to work. Surveys keep showing widespread failure to answer satisfactorily such “textbook” questions as whether the sun revolves around the earth, whether electrons are bigger or smaller than atoms, whether lasers are produced by sound or light, how the “scientific method” functions, and so on. The presumed task for journalism of getting this kind of science information and understanding across to lay audiences has always been based on what appears to be an attractively simple process: publish more science “facts”, train more specialist science journalists, who will generate still more science “facts”. This uncomplicated remedy sees the needs of all parties being satisfied: science journalists would have more opportunities to do the work they are passionately interested in, media audiences would be freed from their superstitions and misguided ideas about science, and scientists would bask in the glory of their even further heightened social profile, as well as gaining greater access to funds provided by a grateful public.

But this apparent solution has failed, and failed comprehensively. Nobody is satisfied and little has changed. Despite the establishment in many journalism-education institutions throughout the world – and notably the US – of postgraduate and undergraduate courses in science journalism since 1979, lay knowledge of science among news consumers appears not to have risen at all (Miller, 2001). Indeed, despite some rapid increases (from a low base) in the space devoted to science in newspapers, the quantum of science “knowledge” among the populations of Western democracies as a proportion of what is there to be known, in fact appears to be rapidly diminishing: as the number of research outcomes rises almost exponentially, public awareness bumps along a bottom flat line. This has produced a fresh round of charges against journalism. Not only are the media responsible for an anti-science movement, the science establishment accuses, but also the stubborn persistence of public scientific ignorance is a direct outcome of journalism’s refusal or inability to do what only it can do. Further, even critics of science assert that the very basis of democracy is threatened by this media-driven public ignorance. We are constantly warned that the scientific and technical revolution offers a series of complex choices that demand an informed electorate. As one critic put it: “We cannot hope to maintain even the limited degree of democracy that we now have (in the US) if the great majority of us are alienated from the language and methods of science” (Cooper, 1998, p. 25).

What can be the reason for this paradox? Why does journalism not satisfy such a clear demand? Why does such a large and growing investment in public understanding of science have such negative return? The reasons are complex and include problems of specialisation versus journalism’s inherently generalist outlook. They also have something to do with the non-science backgrounds of many in executive positions in the news media. But an important and basic reason is that the theory on which the idea of science communication – including the training of specialists – is constructed is fundamentally flawed. The crux of recent research is that much of what the science establishment, scientists and promoters of science popularisation have for so long insisted on is clearly counter-productive. The recent work in Britain has found little or no evidence that the presence of more science, scientists and science specialists in the media increases the public understanding of science (Hargreaves, Lewis & Speers, 2003). On the contrary, a “science for science’s sake” approach seems the one least likely to generate public engagement and understanding (p. 53).

These researchers have confirmed what promoters of science literacy through the mass media have refused to admit since social scientists started to question the validity of the science-literacy paradigm more than 15 years ago. They show that the pedagogically inspired notion of news audiences being filled with knowledge like so many empty vessels is nonsense. The splendidly simple idea that through consuming news and features about science citizens will become more scientifically literate and, therefore, more friendly towards science, and therefore seek to know still more about science is by now utterly threadbare. This model’s lack of success in building a scientifically informed citizenry, a failure about which scientists and other science promoters have complained for 50 years, appears to be absolutely predictable. People do not respond to being lectured, and they will actively disengage from a communication that allows them no say. This is especially so when the lecture appears to have nothing very much to do with day-to-day life or particular problems. Yet this “deficit” or “top-down” model of science in the news media, where information flows in one direction only – from science through the conduit of journalists to the public – is still earnestly promoted and practised. And this discredited and ethically suspect model is still the basis for teaching people to write about science as science specialists. The central thrust of courses continues to emphasise one-way transmission from science to the public (see, eg, Wallin, 2001). The most recent text, A Field Guide to Science Journalism (Blum & Knudson, 1997), the “Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers”, is prefaced by a briefing on the “chief responsibilities” of a newspaper science writer, including: “Writing a story based on a journal article is the science-writing equivalent of a political writer covering a candidate’s speech or a court reporter covering a written decision handed down by a judge” (Rensberger, 1997, p. 10). That is, science is holy writ and must be faithfully translated for the masses in a form that they can understand, but in a form that permits no discourse, no dissent.

As we know, the same people who seem to resist the instruction to learn science from the media do want to know more about science from the media: they keep saying so, at least in answer to surveys. Here is another paradox, or another part of the same paradox. While it is not yet clear what lay people generally consider is and is not science, it is becoming much plainer that their interest in what are obviously important aspects of “real” contemporary science is rational and growing.

Researchers have long been aware that people are intensely interested in knowledge that affects them or has the potential to affect them personally. This means much interest in science that deals with health and medical research, but also considerable interest in science other than health and medicine (Myers, 1996). We know that very few people outside the 10 per cent or less who can be described as science-attentive care enough about science in general to read an article on astronomy, chemistry, geology or quantum physics, for instance (Weigold, 2001). And that same 90 per cent will not be shamed, cajoled, or bullied into doing so. However, a great majority is likely to be very interested in specific matters, such as potential harm from science or associated technologies that are touted by science as promising great gains. These might include personal chemical or radiation hazards, general environmental effects or specific risks, such as Prince Charles’s recent warning of advanced nanotechnology turning the world’s surface into “grey goo”. Such concerns are further heightened by public awareness of government science’s equivocal or obfuscatory responses to “scientific” disasters, including effects of the Chernobyl nuclear accident and “mad-cow disease”, as well as by the uncertainties of the global-warming debate and developments in genetic modification of crops and animals, including humans (Weill, 2003). This kind of interest is, of course, normal: such questioning is a valid exercise in scepticism based on the knowledge that science has often failed to see what might arise from its discoveries. (It is instructive that leading scientists, who themselves could not know the potential for proposed self-replicating, sub-microscopic nanomachines to do unimaginable damage, called for the prince’s statement to be rebutted in case public fears interfered with public funding of nanotechnology research.) Importantly as well, such questioning is a fundamental element of democracy.

Developments in democratic reform emanating originally from the US, but now concentrated in Europe, are showing that scepticism and questioning are natural outcomes of late 20th century social structures, as better-educated citizens become more exposed to information and more likely to exercise their rights to question authority (Cross, 2003). Elements of this change are becoming apparent in the news media, most notably locally in such innovations as ABC television’s “Do It Yourself Dissent”, where citizens’ disagreements with authorities are aired from their own videos. With wider bandwidths becoming increasingly available, it is now thoroughly normal for news consumers to do their consuming entirely on-line, although most members of the news audience who use on-line news sources combine conventional sources and Internet (Nguyen, 2003). This already allows a number of participatory opportunities, from “have your say” sites and on-line polls to recorded interviews. Topics for participation in the on-line version of the “up-market” broadsheet The Sydney Morning Herald include sporting, political and social issues, as well as matters in the news. Readers are offered an opportunity to comment on such matters as the sacking of two Sydney councils and a “vote” on whether these councils should be merged. Readers are also offered a “vote” on, for instance, “which city is best” in response to a front-page story reporting that Melbourne had been named the best city in the world to live in. At the same time, the “down-market”, wide-circulation tabloid The Daily Telegraph may offer readers a “vote” on whether Sydney’s troubled public transport system is “up to scratch”. Of course, none of these votes could be validly representative or have any direct political effect other than generating news reports about news reports.

However, technological advances allow news consumers to do more than “have a say” or record a meaningless vote: it allows them also to interact with news providers, including experts. Just as part of the democratic change has included the perceived right not only to question authority but also to engage in dialogue with authority, part of the recent revolution in communications is that citizens are now obtaining the means to do precisely that. Citizens can actively “talk” in real time with authorities when authorities make themselves available. Although this is yet not common in newspapers, even if newspapers are clearly moving in that direction, it is already becoming familiar in radio, probably as a direct extension of the long-established “talk-back” format. For example, journalists, their sources and others connected with an issue commonly “stand by” on-line after ABC radio programs are aired.

This is just the environment in which the science issues of the day could be most fruitfully explored. That is, a forum is becoming available for citizens to meet on equal grounds with science authorities to discuss doubts and fears. Here is where real engagement with science could be achieved and where answers to specific questions and responses to specific anxieties could be evaluated and pursued further. Here is where citizens could become “science literate” as far as they need or want to be. But there seems little sign of this, even in the ABC. Science issues appear not to be part of even basic newspaper participation offerings. Apart from an on-line video of a journalist’s questions and answers with an expert on “bird flu”, The Sydney Morning Herald, for instance, has made little concession in 2004 to its audience’s participation in science news beyond the written reports. That audiences might have a reason to want to participate is barely acknowledged in newspapers. For example, an examination of the SMH since 1997 shows that, of 62 items published about nanotechnology, only six (or 9.7 percent) acknowledged that a dispute existed about the safety of this technology. The Daily Telegraph over a similar period published 44 items, four of which (9 percent) mentioned doubts about safety. News Ltd’s national broadsheet, The Australian, published 188 items over the period, 12 of which (6.4 percent) included information about safety concerns. Significantly, most mentions of concern in all newspapers came in reviews of books containing such warnings.

Journalism generally has failed and is failing to take the opportunity to include science in this democratic and technological revolution, and this failure is directly the outcome of science’s refusal to make itself available in such a forum. As Parsons (2001) points out, science finds it hard to accept democracy’s apparently irrational forces of popular belief, so scientists tend to avoid engagement in the public policy debate, often out of fear of having their findings given the same value as popular prejudice. Further, as Roth and Lee (2004) assert, a common science attitude is blatant opposition to the possibility of a general scientific literacy, maintaining that science is an elitist calling and that it requires intelligence and special skills far beyond what “average” people could attain. Such elitism and fears of that elitism being undermined by real public engagement encourage scientists generally to cling to the failed “top-down” model of communication in what Bucchi (1996, p. 380) refers to as a “social itinerary of recognition” used by scientists to give discourse at the public level merely the appearance of public communication. Such communication is an integral part of scientific discourse, Bucchi continues, not meant actually to address the public, but meant as a coded message to colleagues that have been freed of the constraints of specialist communication. But journalists cannot excuse themselves for their failure merely because their sources may be unwilling or fearful, or devious. Democratic times demand democratic measures, and journalism about science needs to move on proactively, to cease being, as veteran Australian science journalist Peter Pockley puts it, “cheerleaders for the good news of science” (Pockley, 1999, p. 11).

Such a transition will not be without trauma. Already highly suspicious of journalists, and of handing control of information flow to journalists, scientists are likely to resist such a process with some tenacity. Media organisations, too, may find such a shift appears just too difficult, especially after what look to be ambiguous results from experiments with “public journalism” in other fields, mostly political. But neither may have a choice. Faced with shrinking budgets, scientists may have to come to the public debating table if their access to public funds is not to become more difficult. Faced with shrinking audiences, media organisations may have to learn to exploit the great potential reader/viewer/listener involvement that would flow from a democratic engagement with demonstrated audiences in the science arena.

Journalists are already beginning to employ the technological tools made available through rapidly expanding communications opportunities. If they are to include science in the democratic sharing of important knowledge, journalists need to follow the advancing edge of these technologies. They need to offer web sites, discussion groups, access to on-line journals and to scientists themselves if they are to provide audiences with the science information they want and need. Journalists must also function as they always have by winnowing the issues, preventing overloading of the discourse with a Babel of voices while still allowing voices from all sides to be heard. Most of all, they must convince their scientific partners in the communication effort that this is the only way for both sides, that the old ways are worse than useless.

Journalism educators need to be aware of current communications findings and to prepare their students, as well as in-service journalists, for new ways of professional work in writing about science. The changes are urgent if journalism is to play its part in avoiding the “red shift” acceleration of science away from the grasp of societies in which it ought to be imbedded as an integral and valued part.


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A version of this article was presented to the first Journet international conference on “Professional Education for the Media”, Newcastle, Australia, 16-20 February 2004.