Journalists can bolster public trust in science if they present science as a process of exploration, scrutiny and self-correction instead of focusing on novel or sensational research and controversial retractions of published papers, a new study suggests.
Prior research has found that news stories about science in the U.S. tend to follow a few common themes, including characterizing science as being “broken” or “in crisis” and drawing attention to research retractions based on scientific misconduct, plagiarism or ethics violations.
The new study builds upon that research, finding that negative coverage of science without adequate context can erode public trust in scientists and induce negative beliefs about them. The study, “The Effects of Media Narratives About Failures and Discoveries in Science on Beliefs About and Support for Science,” was published this month in the journal Public Understanding of Science.
Journalists need to change how they report on and frame scientific mistakes, according to the authors, Yotam Ophir, an assistant professor of communication at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communication professor and director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.
Ophir says news outlets usually fail to recognize the role retractions play in advancing scientific knowledge. Discovering that findings from a peer-reviewed paper no longer hold true or that results cannot be replicated by other researchers is part of science’s self-correction process.
Those important details are largely missing from news stories, he adds.
“Sure, talk about scientific failures — we want [journalists] to talk about scientific failures,” Ophir says. “The public should know when scientific studies are successfully replicated and when they are not. But we also want journalists to remind their readers that that’s how science works.”
Jamieson says news coverage should emphasize that knowledge is provisional — research builds upon research over time.
“When something goes wrong in science and something gets retracted, the journalist has a choice about how to frame that retraction,” Jamieson explains. “Those instances in which something really important was found and turned out to be an error — they are building blocks. They become the foundation for the knowledge move.”
How they did the research
To gauge how news media accounts influence public perceptions of science, Ophir and Jamieson randomly assigned 4,497 U.S. adults to read one of five types of news articles. The articles were fabricated but based on real news coverage of science. Marketing research company Research Now recruited participants, who closely resembled the U.S. population in terms of age, gender, education and geographic region of residence.
Researchers assigned participants to four treatment conditions and one control condition, created for comparison purposes. People assigned to the control group read an article about baseball, chosen because the article’s structure and length were similar to the science stories but on a topic unrelated to science.
Participants assigned to one of the treatment groups read stories about science built around narratives common in actual news coverage:
- Discovery: This type of coverage, the most prevalent of the four, “features terms such as ‘advance,’ ‘path-breaking,’ and ‘breakthrough’ and tells the story of scientists who have advanced knowledge through a finding cast as new and important, as a discovery,” Ophir and Jamieson write in their paper. “These stories rarely acknowledge dead ends or false starts, and often fail to emphasize the need for additional ongoing research.”
- The counterfeit quest: These news stories focus on a scientist or group of scientists “whose journey to ‘discovery’ and a resulting finding have been found wanting and purged from the scholarly record through retraction.”
- Science is broken or in crisis: This narrative “concentrates not on individual scientists but on broader and more systemic problems in a specific scientific discipline or in science writ large.” It draws attention to “a problem that science as an institution or collective community has ignored or downplayed.”
- Problem explored: These stories spotlight “scientists exploring and hence potentially remedying one of the problems focal to the crisis or broken narrative.”
After reading the articles, participants answered questions aimed at measuring their trust in scientists and their beliefs in areas such as whether science has benefited the U.S. and whether funding for science should be increased or reduced.
For example, people were asked to respond to the following prompts with a number ranging from 1 to 5, with 1 representing “rarely” and 5 representing “often:”
- “When a study is flawed, the scientists involved in it catch and correct the mistake prior to its publication.”
- “When fraud occurs in scientific research, how often do you think it is caught?”
- “When scientists make mistakes in their research, how often do you think other scientists catch it”?
People assigned to read stories featuring the discovery theme expressed the strongest level of trust in scientists. Those who read stories indicating science is in crisis had the lowest.
Ophir and Jamieson also learned that people who expressed higher levels of trust were more likely to believe science is self-correcting — meaning that scholars continually uncover new ideas and evidence and build upon and correct older ones.
None of the story types had a statistically significant effect on opinions about whether science funding should rise or fall.
A potential solution
Ophir and Jamieson assert that news coverage featuring a problem-explored narrative can help the public understand that research findings are subject to ongoing scrutiny. The problem-explored narrative could “yield more positive beliefs and attitudes about science and scientists, by better communicating scientific norms of continuing exploration, scrutiny, and skepticism,” they write in their paper.
The authors note that better science communication doesn’t depend solely on journalists, however.
Scientists must make changes, too.
News coverage of science, they write, “is the product of a negotiation between scientists and journalists, both of which may be incentivized to prioritize more sensational, novel stories [at] the expense of the somewhat pedestrian, yet crucial, topic of self-correction.”
Ophir and Jamieson add that “scientists and those who communicate about their findings need to develop narratives that reflect the nature of scientific inquiry and its norms and practices as well as the practices it uses to detect and correct error as well as fraud.”