The Effect of Media Coverage on Public Understanding

Having thrashed around quite about over the last year in the issues raised by Dan Sarewitz’s scientization paper, I’m at a bit of a loss on something. Perhaps y’all can help.

There have been a couple of discussions this week on RealClimate (here and here) about the “false balance” problem – the allegation that journalists seeking to balance their coverage of science controversies create bias by quoting outliers and mainstream scientists, leaving the public with a false impression by giving the outliers greating standing than they deserve in contrast to the mainstream consensus on the issue at hand.

There’s an underlying premise to all this that has been unexamined: that what we in the press write does, in fact, matter. Does it? If so, how do we know? This is not a rhetorical question. Bob, in the comments to a previous post of mine, cited some interesting-looking literature.

In order to figure out how to function as a journalist in this scientized world, I need to figure out how to deal better with these questions. This is a lazyweb request. I know there are some very smart people who occasionally stop by here. Please cite more literature.


  1. The assumption that what you evil killer journos (thats a joke πŸ™‚ write does matter is natural: otherwise, why are you being paid to do it, and why do people pay to read it?

    I presume that any one article doesn’t shift opinions much; its more the tone of the total coverage that matters (or so I assume: I don’t get my coverage of GW from the press, and whenever I give a public talk I advise the public not to either. I don’t know whether they take my advice).

    I have an observation (probably tediously familiar) which suggests otherwise though: that increasingly the press seems to see itself as just entertainment. I’m thinking of the Guardian in the UK. More and more tittle-tattle; more opnion columns; less hard news. So (if this thought is correct) the science stuff isn’t there to inform either: its just to entertain (hence the very definitely tediously familiar presenting-things-as-controversies problem).

    OTOH… someone on the RC comments corrected us re the headlines (not usually chosen by journalists) and his point was: if we want journalists to know how the science works, maybe we need to know how the journos work in return.

  2. John,

    Perhaps you’re aware, but there is an academic journal titled “Public Understanding of Science” that is dedicated to exploring the questions you raise. I might have a bibliography or two in my office that may be useful in your quest. If I get some time this week I’ll try to put together some specific citations to post here.

  3. Bob –

    It’d be great if you could send along some citations to help me get started in Pubic Understanding of Science and any others you think would be useful in tackling this question. (And FYI, looks like my local university library doesn’t have Pubic Understanding of Science.)

    William –

    Actually, we journalists don’t labor under the misapprehension that our work can have great effect. We’ll offer up something we think is breathtakingly important and it’ll fall off the edge of the table and roll into a dark corner behind a bookcase, quickly forgotten. And then we’ll write something we think is inconsequential, which is greated with thunderous applause. Go figure.

  4. John,

    Here’s a brief bibliography of some articles you may find useful. You may also want to search for more by James Shanahan and crew at Cornell. He and his graduate students have done some interesting work on the inter-relationship of media and public opinion.

    Bell, A. (1994a). Climate of Opinion: Public and Media Discourse on Global Environment. Discourse and Society, 5(1), 33-64.

    Bell, A. (1994b). Media (mis)communication on the science of climate change. Public Understanding of Science, 3, 259-275.

    Boykoff, M & Boykoff, J. (2004). Balance as bias: global warming and the US prestige press. Global Environmental Change 14, 125–136.

    Fortner, R., Corney, J., Lee, J.-Y., & Romanello, S. (2000). Developing a Measure of Public Understanding of Climate Change and Willingness to Act when Science is Uncertain. Paper presented at the Climate Change Communication Conference, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

    Krosnick, J. A. et al., “The Impact of the Fall 1997 Debate About Global Warming on American Public Opinion.” Public Understanding of Science 9: 239-60.

    Mazur, A. (1998). Global Environmental Change in the News: 1987-90 vs. 1992-96. International Sociology, 13(4), 457-472.

    McComas, K., & Shanahan, J. (1999). Telling Stories About Global Climate Change. Communication Research, 26(1), 30-57.

    Shanahan, J., & Good, J. (2000). Heat and hot air: influence of local temperature on journalists’ coverage of global warming. Public Understanding of Science, 9, 285-295.

    Stamm, Keith R., et al. (2000). “Mass Communication and Public Understanding of Environmental Problems: The Case of Global Warming.” Public Understanding of Science 9: 219-37.

    Trumbo, C. W. (1996). Constructing Climate Change: Claims and Frames in U.S. News Coverage of an Environmental Issue. Public Understanding of Science, 5, 269-283.

    Ungar, S. (1992). The rise and (relative) decline of global warming as a social problem. The Sociological Quarterly, 33, 483-501.

    Wilkins, L. (1993). Between facts and values: print media coverage of the greenhouse effect, 1987-1990. Public Understanding of Science, 2, 71-84.

    Williams, J. L. (2001). Proposed Solutions and Counter Claims: Global Warming in the Media, The Rise and Decline of Public Interest in Global Warming (pp. 47-63). Huntington, NY: Nova Science.

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