Monday, March 17, 2008

How much Science in the News?

It's been discussed before on the Bayblab (in the comments here, for example) about the state of public understanding of science, and how more mainstream attention to science news and issues could help that problem. It's a bit of a chicken and egg dilemma: The media (for the most part) reports on what people want to hear, but how do people get interested if they never hear about science? Matt Nisbet at Framing Science highlights the issue, pointing out a study that shows for 5 hours of cable news, only 1 minute of that will be science covereage. Looking at the numbers Nisbet quotes, I might be more generous and say it's 6 minutes (lumping in 'the environment' and 'health and health care' with science), but that's still a miniscule fraction of reporting. I've said before that if a newspaper can devote a full weekly section to "wheels" or "food" then surely it can spare the pages for a science section. What needs to change? Does the media need to be more active in reporting science? Does education need to change so people are more aware of science issues? Or is 10 minutes of celebrity news to 1 minute of science a ratio that everybody is happy with?


7 comments:

Anonymous Coward said...

There is also the issue of novelty. News is supposed to cover well, new stuff. Science progresses very slowly, and new stuff is generally hard to interpret. When it's a swath of new species being discovered at the bottom of the ocean, it's easy to generate cool footage and a news story out of it. But when say a new miRNA against cancer is found, well it just sounds like the same story that's always being given, of some new breakthrough, that you'll never hear again about. That's why I think shows that cover science (lets keep it wide and cite planet earth or mythbuster) are more popular than science "news".

kamel said...

That's a good point, and I think we've talked about that as well. A new miRNA against cancer gets spun and reported as though a cure for cancer is imminent. So how the news gets reported is also important.

But news isn't just "news". There are human interest stories, why not science interest stories? Rob's road salt story is a good example of the kind of reporting that could be done. (I suppose this sort of goes back to the 'what is science blogging' discussion we had earlier this month - not all 'news' needs to be peer-reviewed research). Or like I said, the paper has a dedicated 'wheels' section or 'food' section which are clearly not news in the sense you describe.

As you say, Mythbusters/Planet Earth are decent examples of mainstream science programming (if not wholly accessible - mythbusters is a cable program) but being self-contained makes it easier to ignore them. That is, if you aren't already interested you might not tune in. I suppose that runs counter to my 'science section' argument since it's easy to discard a whole newspaper section as well. I guess, ideally, you should be able to sit down to watch your regular newscast and get some more science mixed in with the usual content.

Anonymous Coward said...

Well old media like newspaper provide content as a means to sell adds. The question is, who would want to advertise in a science section when pharmaceuticals, which are the only group with money, can't advertise for drugs in Canada. I guess science journalists don't generate enough "eyeballs" to be a good investment for newspapers. It would be nice however if the CBC which doesn't have the same profit motives could devote a bit more time.

kamel said...

That just gets back to the original questions: How do you get people interested? Does the media need to start reporting science and hope it catches on (not likely for $ considerations as you say)? Or do you get people interested in science some other way (any suggestions?) so they demand more reporting from the media? Or am I just imagining that 1 minute of science for 5 hours of cable news is a problem?

Anonymous said...

The real question is how can we get more Paris Hilton.

kamel said...

Speaking of mythbusters and science programming, check out this xkcd comic

Mr. Gunn said...

I think one of the main problems is that a good chunk of people are, in the main, fairly uninterested and you can't get them interested, because they have never understood science from the very beginning. I'm talking about the kind of people you see in the comments section of Youtube, or your local paper's website. Avowed, loud, and proud idiots. Not only do they not understand basic scientific ideas, but they actively avoid science-related content in mass media because they know it's an attempt to teach them something. It's the same kind of reaction a NAAFA member might have if you went to speak to them about eating salad.

If you'd like another potentially insulting example(but hey, I've already called them idiots, so that bridge has been crossed), they have essentially the same priorities as a dog. Shiny things will always get their attention over someone trying to tell them something, and their attention span is too short anyways.

So, yeah. Science education of the post-schooling public is a tough issue, with no obvious near-term solutions. Problems that have been decades in the making generally don't unwind in the near-term, either, but if we could catch them while they're still in school and somehow not fail at giving them whatever aspect of science they can handle, maybe they'd pass on the respect to their children, instead of passing on the celebration of idiocy. Maybe some of those people would grow up to be reporters, too.