Most of what most Americans know about science and technology comes from watching television or reading a newspaper. (See sidebar, "Where Americans Get Information about Science and Technology.") Thus, the media serve as a crucial conduit between the science and engineering community and the public at large.
Television is the leading source of information about new developments in science and technology, followed by books and newspapers.* According to the 1999 NSF survey, each adult watches an average of about 1,000 hours of television per year; 42 percent of those hours are devoted to television news and 4 percent to shows about science.** (See appendix table 8-33.)
Men watch more science shows than women; the 1999 survey data indicate that men watch an average of 46 hours per year, compared with 38 for women. Those with more formal education and those who have taken more science and mathematics courses tend to watch more television shows devoted to science than those with less education, but the differences are not substantial. (See appendix table 8-33.)
Cable television subscribers watch significantly more science shows than those without cable. The 1999 data indicate that cable subscribers watch an average of 50 hours per year, compared with 20 hours for individuals without the service. (See appendix table 8-33.)
The most recent data show Americans reading an average of 178 newspapers, 11 news magazines, and 3 science magazines per year. (See appendix table 8-33.) However, the percentage of all adults who read a newspaper every day has been declining-from 62 percent in 1983 to 41 percent in 1999.*** (See appendix tables 8-34 and 8-35.) The decline is apparent at all education levels. (See figure 8-20.)
The 1999 data indicate that Americans visit a public library an average of 9 times per year, and they borrow an average of 11 books and 1 videotape during that time frame. Sixty-two percent of those surveyed bought at least one book during the preceding 12-month period, and 33 percent said that they bought at least one book about science, mathematics, or technology (including computer use). (See appendix tables 8-33 and 8-34.)
About three out of every five Americans visit a science museum, natural history museum, zoo, or aquarium at least once per year. Museum attendance is positively related to formal education and attentiveness to science and technology. (See appendix tables 8-34 and 8-36.)
[*] In one survey, 40 percent of the respondents said they pay a lot of attention to programs about science and technology; 46 percent said they pay a lot of attention to news reports about science on evening news shows or programs such as 20/20 or Nightline (Roper 1996).
[**] Since respondents were asked to name the science shows they watch regularly or periodically, this is a credible estimate of viewership.
[***] A focus group study revealed that Washington Post readers spend an average of only 22 minutes per day reading the paper (Suplee 1999).
Findings from a recent study conducted by the First Amendment Center revealed a general consensus that the science community and the press are missing opportunities to communicate with each other and with the public:
[T]he frequent inability of science and the media to communicate effectively with each other seriously undermines science literacy among the general public. This, in turn, creates an electorate ill-prepared to make informed judgments about major issues related to science, health, and technology, such as global warming and human cloning, as well as multi-billion-dollar federal investments in research and development (Hartz and Chappell 1997).
The public needs to be informed about the importance of science and technology, because tax dollars fund a sizable portion of the nation's R&D enterprise-an estimated $66.6 billion in 1998. (See chapter 2, "U.S. and International Research and Development: Funds and Alliances.") The public should know what it is buying with that investment. In addition, the science and engineering community, which relies fairly heavily on public financing for both its employment and its education, is also dependent on the news media to inform the public about the work that it does.
The relationship between the media and the science and engineering community has been the focus of considerable scrutiny. Interest has grown in the past decade, probably because with the end of the Cold War, Federal support for R&D is not quite as solid as it once was. That is, R&D is facing stiffer competition among competing priorities within the Federal budget. (See chapter 2, "U.S. and International Research and Development: Funds and Alliances.")
To identify the problems and develop recommendations for improving the relationship between science and the media, the First Amendment Center conducted a survey wherein both journalists and scientists were asked the same series of questions. (Because only about one-third of each group submitted completed questionnaires, these findings should be treated with caution.) In addition, the survey findings were discussed at a forum on the topic. A report was then prepared that contains a comprehensive description of the issues and recommendations for improving the relationship between science and the media. (See footnote 25 ).
The survey revealed a lack of confidence in the press. Only 11 percent of the scientists reported having a great deal of confidence in the press, and 22 percent said they have hardly any. (Comparable percentages for the journalists were 35 percent and 4 percent, respectively.) Confidence in television media was even lower: nearly half (48 percent) of the scientists said they have hardly any confidence in it (compared with 27 percent for the journalists). It is noteworthy that of all groups surveyed by the First Amendment Center (including the clergy, corporate leaders, the military, and even politicians), none was as distrustful of the news media as the scientists.
In addition, the media were faulted for failing to understand the process of scientific investigation, oversimplifying complex issues, and focusing on trendy discoveries:
News decisionmakers may decide not to cover science stories. Few editors have any formal training in science. These "gatekeepers" may
Scientists tend to use technical jargon instead of plain English when discussing their work. Also, they have yet to master the "sound bite." They have a penchant for citing numerous qualifications when describing their findings, rather than summing up their research in one or two sentences. This communication style makes it difficult for science reporters to do their job.
Scientists also have a reputation for not being very good at identifying what is newsworthy and relevant to readers or listeners. According to one reporter, "scientists are sometimes bad judges of their best stories" (P. Conti, as quoted in Hartz and Chappell 1997, 92). Therefore, the message to scientists should be:
...Two things...are vital and...found in nearly all good stories about science: relevance and context. Since so much of science is incremental, the reporter and the public need special help in placing research in the context of the big picture....(Hartz and Chappell 1997, 93).
Most scientists are unaccustomed to discussing their work with anyone other than their peers or students. Also, in the past, scientists were often able to take funding for granted; that is, they rarely needed to justify and explain their work to the public. This may account for their lack of experience in communicating with lay audiences through speaking engagements, on television, on the radio, and in writing for the popular press.
Scientists are often reluctant to talk to the press, and rarely do so. Undoubtedly, some of this lack of media contact is related to the feelings of distrust discussed previously. Also, scientists may seem overly concerned with how they are perceived by their peers. One of the most frequently cited reasons for scientists' reluctance to talk to the press is the so-called Carl Sagan effect, that is, renowned scientist Carl Sagan was criticized by his fellow scientists who assumed that because Sagan was spending so much time communicating with the public, he must not have been devoting enough time to his research. Another reason that may cause scientists to evade the press is a fear of being misquoted or having their work mischaracterized; in such cases, their colleagues would have no way of knowing whether the scientist or the reporter was at fault.
Although scientists and journalists do not see eye-to-eye on several issues, both agree that there is a need for a better informed and educated public. In the First Amendment Center survey, more than two-thirds of the journalists and more than three-quarters of the scientists strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement: "The American public is gullible about much science news, easily believing in miracle cures or solutions to difficult problems." Moreover, 60 percent of the journalists and 80 percent of the scientists strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement: "Most members of the public do not understand the importance of government funding for research" and therefore do not understand what they are getting from their investment in R&D. (See figures 8-22 and 8-23.)
The state of science education has been a major concern because scientific and technological advancements are having an increasingly pervasive impact on modern life. (See chapter 5, "Elementary and Secondary Education.") Both sets of respondents cited weaknesses in science education in their survey questionnaires. Not only does the education system not do as good a job as it should in imparting basic scientific knowledge, it also lets too many students slide through without developing good critical thinking skills, skills crucial in a society in which informed decisionmaking is becoming increasingly important and more complex. (See the section "Belief in the Paranormal or Pseudoscience.")
Media publicity about the Y2K problem seems to have worked. (Of course, the Y2K issue turned out to be a non-issue.) Data from several polls-including one conducted in December 1998, another in March 1999, and a third in August 1999-indicated
Most of those polled expressed:
Both scientists and journalists participating in the First Amendment Center project demonstrated a willingness to improve their working relationship. More than three-quarters of the scientists said they would be willing to take a course designed to help them communicate better with journalists and the public, and more than 90 percent said they would be willing to participate in an ongoing dialogue with members of the news media.
After reviewing the survey findings and listening to ideas exchanged at the forum, participants developed the following recommendations, which were included in the First Amendment Center report: