Written March 7th, 2018.

 

About seven-in-ten Americans express some level of curiosity about science in the news, according to a report published by the PEW Research Center. In fact, according to the report, 17% of Americans describe themselves of active science consumers while 30% actively search for science news on a regular basis. Despite this, few polled within the study completely trust news media on scientific matters.

Only 57% of Americans believe that the news media portrays an accurate depiction of the science they are reporting on. Many believe that science news reporting within mainstream news outlets is inaccurate due to the oversimplification of scientific findings and even more believe that the news media is too quick to report new findings that may not hold up over time.

With the general distrust of popular science reporting, many are hesitant to judge popular news media on science related topics. Vaccines have been one of the more popular topics among science news skeptics. From 2010, vaccine refusals jumped from 2.5% to 4% in 2016. With the ease of access, however, more Americans are reading about scientific topics but many are skeptical of findings reported by the mainstream news media.

Another potential problem that the American public perceives with scientific news reporting is the audience and how they may interpret science news. Over half of Americans believe the public does not know enough about science to understand findings.

The public themselves have also blamed journalists for scientific misunderstandings within the news. Most Americans reported in the survey that the problem with scientific news is not the way researchers publish their findings, but the way that news reporters cover said findings.

Eric Meyer, associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, spoke about this situation, likening it to what he calls a “house of mirrors.”

“A lot of science is, in itself, shoddy. But so, too, is how many journalists cover science. Journalists … can distort actual conclusions in hope of finding something more sensational to report — which, of course, researchers themselves [are also guilty of], in hope of securing further funding for future efforts. And the public is at least equally to blame for being immediately dismissive of results that challenge their views,” he said.

Social media, one of the largest outlets for scientific news, is even less trusted among news consumers than the mainstream media. Less than a third of social media users trust posts about scientific findings.

… In essence, [social media is] the office water cooler or neighbor coffee klatch on steroids, powered by the communications equivalent of a warp drive, giving it near instantaneous global impact,” Meyer said.

However, there is a solution to this “house of mirrors” according to Professor Meyer, though he admits it will not be an easy one.

“For journalists to contribute to a solution requires even greater emphasis on creating coverage that goes beyond easy-to-do stenography to, among other things, focusing on the much harder task of accurately locating and depicting relatable human faces and relatable human emotions about real people, not talking heads, who actually are impacted by the real implications of issues under discussion. Unfortunately, that requires … the notion mass media, reaching across multiple segments of a diverse society, and the economics of such media are greatly in question,” he concluded.

February 3, 2019