A Brief Look at the State of Science in the Media

As a society we are highly dependent on technology, and that dependence grows deeper by the day. By several measures, the amount of scientific discovery that will affect our lives is increasing at a rapid pace.

There will be more scientific work done in the next 10 years than happened over the past three centuries. The number of scientists and engineers, and the number of research papers written about science doubles every ten years, according to a May 18, 2000 Nature essay by Terence Kealey.

According to a 2002 survey commissioned by the NSF, 90 percent of adults said they are either moderately or very interested in new scientific discoveries and the use of new inventions and technologies (www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/seind02/c7/c7s1.htm). According to the survey, more people say they closely follow science and technology than say they closely follow Washington news, entertainment, international affairs, business and finance, consumer news and culture and arts (www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/seind02/c7/tt07-01.htm).

The survey also showed that people overwhelmingly choose news media as their source for understanding science and technology.

A study of trends in newspaper coverage of science by Purdue University researcher Marianne Pellech also concluded that the role of the press is crucial to the public's understanding of science: "for most people the reality of science is what they read in the press. The reporting can... enhance the public's ability to evaluate science policy issues, and the individual's ability to make rational choices; poor reporting is cause for alarm."

According to both studies, the media has not been able to meet the demand for comprehensive news about science and emerging technology. Less than 15 percent of adults say they feel very well-informed about new discoveries in science (www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/seind02/c7/c7s1.htm#c7s1l2).

The result is that the average person has trouble understanding the technologies that underpin modern daily life.

According to the Pellech report, "It appears that, at least over the last three decades in... three major daily newspapers, science news reporting has not taken the necessary steps to improve the comprehensiveness of [science] accounts." (list.msu.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind9602B&L=aejmc&P=R17302)

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