Americans’ understanding and attitudes about topics such as S&T depend, in part, on how much exposure they get to such content throughout their life, as well as how much attention they pay to such content (Slater, Hayes, and Ford 2007). Exposure and attention to S&T can make residents more informed, shape attitudes, and help them make decisions that are better for themselves, their families, and their communities. Media use can also spur interest in S&T issues and foster a desire to seek out and consider new information.
This section reviews overall expressed interest in media reports about S&T, the sources of material about S&T that are available to the public, and the type of S&T-related content the public uses. It concludes with indicators of behavioral involvement in S&T through visits to museums and other cultural institutions.
Most Americans say they are interested in science news, although several other subjects draw more interest. Less than half of Americans (40%) in 2012 said that they were “very interested” in news about “new scientific discoveries,” which is about the same as the percentage who expressed high levels of interest in news about “military and defense policy” (37%) and the “use of new inventions and technologies” (42%). Interest in other issues that touch on S&T ranged from a high of 58% for “new medical discoveries” to a low of 23% for “space exploration.” “Environmental pollution” issues (45%) were also popular (figure
Current findings for science news are within their historical range. For 2012, the percentage of Americans who said they find news about scientific discovery “very” interesting stayed stable from 2010, but the percentage saying they are “not at all interested” in scientific discovery climbed from 8% in 2010 to 14%. Between 1981 and 2012, the percentage of uninterested respondents has ranged between 17% (1981) and 8% (2001), whereas the percentage of “very interested” respondents has ranged between 37% (1981) and 49% (1997). The topic of medical discoveries has consistently stayed at the top of the list alongside nonscience issues such as local school issues and economic issues. Space exploration has remained near the bottom alongside nonscience subjects such as international affairs (figure
Also, although most Americans may say they have an interest in S&T, Pew Research data show that the percentage of Americans who actually followed news about “Science and Technology” “very closely” was just 16% in 2012 and has stayed between 13% and 18% since 2000. The 2012 percentage is down from highs of 20% and 22% in 1996 and 1998, respectively. Weather is the most common subject respondents say they follow “very closely” (52%). About the same percentage of people paid close attention to S&T as paid close attention to politics, business and finance, and international affairs. Although some issues have stayed relatively stable, most issues have seen at least small declines in the percentage of Americans who say they follow that topic closely. One of the largest declines has been in the percentage of Americans interested in health news (Pew Research Center 2012a) (table
Americans generally report higher levels of interest in S&T issues than do residents of many European countries. A survey conducted by the BBVA Foundation in the United States and 10 European countries—including the 5 largest (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom) and 5 others (Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Poland)—asked respondents to use a 0-to-10–point scale to rate their interest in six issues. These included three S&T-related issues (“scientific issues,” “environmental issues,” and “health issues”) and three non-S&T issues (“economic issues,” “international issues,” and “political issues”). For scientific issues, the United States had an average interest level of 6.0, which was greater than the 10-country European average of 5.6. The Netherlands had the highest score (6.4), and several countries were in the same general range as the United States. The U.S. average for interest in environmental issues (6.9) tied the Netherlands, the highest of the included European countries, but was only a little higher than the overall average of 6.6. For health issues, the U.S. average of 7.8 was just below that of Spain (7.9%), which had the highest average of the European countries. The overall European average for health issues was quite high at 7.4. The U.S. averages for non-S&T issues were also relatively high (BBVA Foundation 2012b).
A separate 2010 all-European survey found that 30% of respondents across 27 European nations reported being “very interested” in new scientific discoveries and technological developments, 49% were “moderately interested,” and 20% were “not interested.” Thus, again, expressed interest in S&T appears lower in the European Union (EU) than in the United States, where 40% of Americans in 2010 reported being “very interested” in S&T. However, several European countries—the Netherlands (48%), the United Kingdom (43%), Sweden (43%), Luxembourg (42%), France (41%), and Hungary (41%)—had percentages similar to the U.S. percentage (European Commission 2010a).
A majority of residents of China, Japan, and Korea report interest in science and technology, although the varied questions and survey structures used make direct comparisons with the United States unwise. In 2010, 72% of Chinese respondents said they were “interested” in “new scientific discoveries,” and 68% said they were interested in “new inventions and technologies” (CRISP 2010). Interest in both topics appears to be up from a 2007 survey (NSB 2010). In Japan, the percentage saying they were interested in “science and technology” climbed from 63% in January of 2010 to 76% in July of 2011, before and after the major earthquake that damaged the nuclear energy plant in Fukushima. It dropped back to 65% in December of 2011. Japanese interest in S&T was in the mid-50% range from 1990 to 2004 (NISTEP 2012). In Korea, a 2010 survey found that 51% of respondents said they had an interest in “new inventions and technologies,” and 49% had an interest in “new scientific discoveries” (KOFAC 2011). Korean interest in scientific discovery was up from 24% in a 2008 survey (NSB 2012). Respondents in China and Korea were asked about both S&T and non-S&T topics, whereas the Japanese surveys addressed only S&T topics.
The 2011 BBVA Foundation survey, as well as the 2010 Chinese survey, reported two novel indicators of science interest and involvement: how much people discussed science and whether they knew someone who was a scientist. Interpersonal discussion and contact with opinion leaders within one’s social network influence views about S&T issues (Hwang and Southwell 2007; Nisbet and Kotcher 2009). About 36% of Americans said that S&T issues were “part of [their] conversations with family members, friends, or work colleagues” “very often” or “quite often.” The 10-country European average was 27%, although countries such as Denmark (50%), the United Kingdom (38%), and the Netherlands (37%) had scores at or above the U.S. level. The percentage of Americans who said they are “personally acquainted with someone who is a scientist” (44%) was close to the 10-country European average of 40% but lower than those of a number of countries, including the Netherlands (74%), Denmark (67%), the United Kingdom (55%), and Germany (53%). In total, 1 in 5 Americans (20%) reported having a friend who was a scientist. This was about the same as the 10-country European average (22%) but once again was less than the scores for the Netherlands (34%), Denmark (30%), and the United Kingdom (28%) (BBVA Foundation 2012a). In China, 43% of respondents said that “conversations with people” were a main source of S&T information. Further, 61% said they had “often” or “sometimes” engaged in talk about S&T with “relatives, friends, and colleagues,” and 14% said they had been involved in “discussions or hearings” related to S&T.
Americans’ knowledge and attitudes about S&T, particularly in areas of emerging knowledge, partially depend on the availability of S&T news. Media coverage often sets the public agenda (Soroka 2002) and frames the debate related to scientific issues (Nisbet and Scheufele 2009). A range of social processes associated with journalism, science, and public decision making determine which issues get attention from journalists at particular periods of time (Nisbet and Huge 2006). For example, natural or human disasters may increase the likelihood that relevant S&T issues are covered by the news while decreasing the likelihood that unrelated issues are covered. Quantity and prominence of coverage may also affect topical knowledge within society (Barabas and Jerit 2009). Other research suggests that different types of media have different effects on attitudes, with newspaper and Internet use being associated with more favorable attitudes than television (e.g., Dudo et al. 2011). Given the potential impact of media use, indicators that address how much and what kinds of S&T news coverage are available in the media can be important for understanding the development of views about S&T.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ 2012) conducted an extensive content analysis of media coverage between January 2007 and May 2012 using 52 outlets in the following media sectors: print, Internet, network television, cable television, and radio. Each week, stories were classified into 1 of 26 broad topic areas, including S&T, the environment, and “health and medicine.”
Special tabulations of PEJ data show that S&T coverage made up a small percentage of the total amount of news in the traditional media—less than 2% annually—between 2007 and 2012. News coverage of the environment made up a similarly small percentage of the news, dropping to 1.0% of all coverage in 2011 and 1.2% in the first part of 2012. Coverage of health and medicine consistently made up a greater percentage of the news, ranging from 3.1% in 2011 to 8.9% in 2009 (table
Many issues that dominated coverage in previous years remained prominent in 2011 and early 2012. For S&T, “cyberspace” issues have been near the top of the media agenda since 2009 (NSB 2010, 2012). The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) led coverage in 2011 with the final launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis and the end of the shuttle program. (table
News programming on the three major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) shows a similar pattern. The Tyndall Report has tracked the content of the three major broadcast networks for more than 20 years. Tyndall tabulates the amount of airtime devoted to different topics using 18 different categories (Tyndall Report 2013). Two categories with large science, engineering, and technology components are “science, space, and technology” and “biotechnology and basic medical research.” Neither category has ever occupied a large percentage of the approximately 15,000 minutes of annual nightly weekday newscast coverage on the networks. The airtime devoted to “science, space, and technology” averaged about 2% of broadcast news between 2000 and 2012. Time devoted to “biotechnology and basic medical research” was even lower, almost always 1% or less of broadcast news (figure
The leading stories in these two science-related categories on nightly news broadcasts in 2011 were the death of Apple chief executive officer and technology innovator Steve Jobs and the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle program. In 2012, the social networking site Facebook’s initial public offering of stock led technology coverage. NASA stayed in the news with its Curiosity rover mission to Mars as well as additional coverage of the end of the space shuttle program. In the category of “biotechnology and basic medical research,” cancer research garnered the most coverage in both 2011 and 2012 (table
The PEJ also tracked new media and social media—a segment of the Internet that continues to grow at high rates around the world (Pew Research Global Attitudes Project 2012)—between January 2009 and June 2012. The New Media Index focused specifically on the five main topics linked to by blog and Twitter posts from Monday to Friday of each week. Discussion of specific technology companies (e.g., Apple, Google, Samsung, Facebook, and Twitter) dominated both blogs and Twitter. In 2012, technology companies remained among the most common topics of discussion on blogs, but other subjects dominated Twitter (table
Entertainment television can also shape views. However, one recent study showed that, between 2000 and 2008, scientists represented just 1% of characters on prime-time network shows. Of these scientists, 7 out of 10 were men and almost 9 of 10 were white. Medical professionals were 8% of the characters. Generic “professionals” were the most common type of character (21%). In general, about 8 of 10 scientists were coded as being “good” (Dudo et al. 2011).
The media environment has changed repeatedly over the last century. The available data show clear trends in what sources Americans say they use to get news about current events and S&T, as well as where they would look for new S&T information. Overall, Pew Research reports that Americans said they spent 67 minutes with the news per day in 2012, similar to previous years. The main difference was a clear shift toward online sources (Pew Research Center 2012a).
For news about current events, television remains the primary source of information for 43% of Americans. Substantial percentages also reported in 2012 that most of their current event news comes from the Internet (33%) or newspapers (13%) (figure
For news specifically about S&T, Americans are now more likely to rely on the Internet than on television. In 2012, 42% of Americans cited the Internet as their primary source of S&T information, up from 35% in 2010. The percentage citing the Internet as their primary source of S&T information has also grown steadily since 2001. Conversely, reliance on television has dropped; about 32% of Americans reported that television was their primary source of S&T news in 2012, down from 39% in 2008. Some 7% said they get their S&T information from newspapers, and another 8% said they get their S&T information from magazines (figure
In 2012, the GSS also included questions aimed at unpacking what people mean when they say they go online for S&T information and whether people are using traditional media sources’ online content. These analyses point to the importance of newspapers’ online presence. Of the 42% who said they go online for S&T news, 63% indicated they used online newspapers. Of the 7% who said newspapers were the primary source of S&T information, about one-sixth (16%) said they used an online edition. Combined, this means that 33% got S&T news from newspapers, with 27% getting their newspaper online and 6% getting it in traditional form. It also means that newspaper content is described as a primary S&T source by about the same percentage of people who said television was their primary source of S&T information (32%). Another 11% said their online source was magazines. This represents about 5% of all respondents and means that about 13% of all S&T media use was from magazines. All other potential online sources—which might include blogs and other forms of social media—were chosen by less than 10% of respondents who indicated they went online for S&T news. The data do not address attention to individual issues.
Since at least 2001, the Internet has also been the most common resource that respondents say they would use to seek out information about specific scientific issues. In 2012, the highest ever percentage of Americans (63%) said they would go online to find information about a specific S&T issue. Another 17% said they would turn to television and just 3% said they would use newspapers (figure
Generally, newspaper reliance is more common for relatively older respondents, and Internet reliance is more common for relatively younger and higher earning respondents. Television use is also somewhat less common for younger respondents, although the pattern is not nearly as pronounced. Those with lower incomes and lower levels of education are more likely to say they get their news, including S&T-related news, from television, whereas those with more education and income get their news from newspapers, television, and the Internet (appendix tables 7-3–7-5).
Blending traditional and online news sources was also addressed in the context of S&T for the 2012 Indicators report based on 2010 GSS data. That survey asked half of the sample a question with response options that distinguished between online and print-format sources for newspapers and magazines. Overall, there was a clear pattern of increasing reliance on online sources for increasingly specific content (NSB 2012). More recent information on what other online sources people may use for S&T information and the degree to which people encounter S&T information as a byproduct of attention to other issues is not available.
Another important aspect to understanding media use is to recognize that people make choices about what media to use based partially on the degree to which they trust that source. Both Pew Research and Gallup data suggest that Americans trust the media less than they did in previous years (Morales 2012; Pew Research Center 2011a, 2012b). Evidence about how Americans judge the credibility of S&T-specific media is, however, scant. A 2006 Pew Internet & American Life Project study of how Americans acquire science information indicates that Internet users who seek science information online do not always assume that the information they find there is accurate. The vast majority reported that they checked information by comparing it to other information they found online, comparing it to offline sources (e.g., science journals, encyclopedia) or by looking up the original source of the information (Horrigan 2006; NSB 2008).
The 2011 BBVA Foundation survey found that residents of all countries made similar uses of television, newspapers, the Internet, and radio to acquire S&T content. The survey found that 47% of Americans watched television programs addressing S&T topics “very” or “quite” often. The average of the 10 European countries surveyed was 41% but residents of two countries—the United Kingdom (54%) and Denmark (54%)—watched more S&T television than Americans. About one-third (34%) of Americans said they read news items about S&T “very” or “quite” often in newspapers. This was similar to the 10-country European average of 32%. Residents of the Netherlands were the most likely to say they often read S&T news in newspapers (52%), although Denmark (48%) and the United Kingdom (43%) also had relatively high S&T readership. About 32% of Americans said they often read S&T news online, which was a percentage comparable to those of the largest European countries and substantially above the 10-country European average of 24% (BBVA Foundation 2012a). Although these data, compared with the GSS information on media use, may suggest a less prominent role for the Internet, this may reflect a difference in the questions on the two surveys. Whereas the GSS asks people for their primary source of information, the BBVA Foundation survey asked about overall use for each channel.
Outside of Europe and North America, research has also suggested that television is the leading source of S&T information; newspapers are generally second, and relatively fewer survey respondents cite the Internet as an important source of S&T information. This was true in countries such as Malaysia (MASTIC 2010) and India (Shukla 2005). A 2010 Chinese survey allowed respondents to choose up to three sources of information. About 88% of Chinese indicated that television was a primary source of their S&T information, 59% said newspapers, and 27% said the Internet (CRISP 2010). However, in more widely connected South Korea, a 2010 survey found that more respondents named the Internet (23%) as their primary source of S&T information than newspapers (12%). About 57% said television was their primary source of S&T information. A separate set of measures show that 30% said they “almost never” get S&T information from television. About 53% said they rarely get S&T information from newspapers, and 56% said they rarely get S&T information from the Internet (KOFAC 2011).
Americans and Europeans also appear to differentiate the degree to which they trust scientific information provided by various sources. The 2011 BBVA Foundation survey of 10 European countries and the United States asked respondents to score a range of different groups on an 11-point scale, where “0” meant they did “not trust it at all” and “10” meant they trusted it a “great deal.” The results suggest substantial agreement over who should be trusted as an information source. In the United States, professional medical associations were the most trusted, with a mean score of 7.6, but universities (7.4), science museums (7.2), and government (7.2) were also highly trusted. In Europe, universities were the most trusted information sources, with a mean score of 7.2, but medical associations (7.0) and science museums (6.9) were also highly regarded. The score for government was about a point lower in Europe (6.1) than in the United States (7.2) but varied widely across countries. The news media was the least trusted source in both the United States (4.8) and Europe (5.1), but again scores varied widely in Europe. Consumer organizations and environmental organizations had midrange scores in both the United States (6.1 and 6.2, respectively) and in the European countries surveyed (both 6.3) (BBVA Foundation 2012b).
Although the media received relatively low trust scores on the BBVA Foundation S&T survey, a 2011 U.S. survey by Pew Research suggested the media was among the most trusted sources of general information (Pew Research Center 2011a). This difference may reflect the comparison groups involved in the two studies. The Pew Research study asked about the trustworthiness of information from the media versus various actors typically involved in political decision making, and the BBVA study asked about actors from a broader range of sources. The Pew Research study also focused on general media trust, whereas the BBVA Foundation study focused specifically on science.
U.S. residents may also come in contact with S&T through America’s rich and diverse informal science and cultural institutions. Many of these institutions actively try to broaden and deepen Americans’ intellectual and emotional engagement with science (Bell, Lewenstein, Shouse, and Feder 2009). By offering visitors the flexibility to pursue individual curiosity, such institutions provide exposure to S&T that is well-suited to helping people develop their interests and improve their knowledge, and such institutions can sometimes even change patrons’ attitudes.
The 2012 GSS shows that reported attendance at informal science and cultural institutions was down slightly from 2008, although the changes were all quite small. Zoos and aquariums were the most popular type of informal science institutions with 47% of Americans saying they had visited such an organization in the previous year. This represents a drop from 52% in 2008 and 58% in 2001. The Association for Zoos and Aquariums’ member surveys have also consistently shown that about half of Americans visit a zoo or aquarium in any given year, but their numbers suggest that attendance stayed relatively stable between 2008 and 2011 at about 175 million visitors and then climbed to 181 million in 2012. According to the GSS, natural history museums (28%) and science and technology museums (25%) continued to attract about the same percentage of people in 2012 as they did in 2008, although these percentages are also down from 2001. In total, 58% of Americans said they had visited at least one of these three types of cultural institutions in the 12 months prior to the 2012 survey, down from 61% in 2008 and 66% in 2001.
The public library remains a widely used resource in communities across America, with 60% of respondents saying that they had visited a library in the previous 12 months. This number was down from 2008 (64%) and 2001 (75%). The percentage visiting art museums (33%)—the other cultural institution in the survey—stayed essentially unchanged from 2008 (34%) and the earlier 2001 survey (32%) (table
Americans with more years of formal education are more likely than others to engage in these informal science activities. Those in higher income brackets are more likely to have visited a zoo or aquarium, a natural history or S&T museum, or an art museum but are just as likely as those in the lowest income bracket to have visited a public library. In general, visits to informal science institutions are less common among Americans who are 45 or older (appendix table
A 2012 Pew Research study focused on libraries found similar results. It found that 53% of Americans aged 16 or older said they had visited a library in the “past year” and that women (59%) and residents aged 16–17 (62%) were most likely to have done so. Almost everyone (91%) agreed that libraries are “very” or “somewhat” important to their “community as a whole.” Many also said they used the library for activities such as researching a “topic of interest” (54%), using a “research database” (46%), and attending a “class, program or lecture for adults” (21%) (Pew Internet & American Life Project 2013).
The available data—some of which are relatively dated—suggest that Americans are particularly active in the degree to which they make use of a range of informal science and cultural institutions.
China and Japan are the only countries where zoo and aquarium attendance is similar to that in the United States, and China also has similar levels of S&T and natural history museum attendance. Chinese attendance at these types of institutions also appears to be growing, with average attendance up about 8% from 2007 across the five types of cultural institutions measured (NSB 2012) (table
The 2011 BBVA Foundation survey of 10 European countries and the United States asked slightly different questions and found that attendance varies greatly between countries. About 32% of Americans said they had visited an S&T museum or exhibition in the previous 12 months. This was higher than the 10-country European average of 25% but similar to the rate of attendance by residents of several specific countries such as Germany (35%), the Netherlands (32%), Denmark (29%), Austria (29%), and France (29%). Also, about 12% of Americans said they had attended a “conference or talk on science or technology topics.” This was about the same as the European average (12%) but substantially lower than for countries such as the Netherlands (25%) and Denmark (27%). Americans were, however, nearly twice as likely as those in the 10 European countries surveyed to have made a “virtual visit to a science and technology museum via the Internet.” About 20% of Americans said they had made such a “visit” in the previous 12 months, whereas the 10-country European average was 8%, and the highest percentage for an individual country was for Denmark (12%) (BBVA Foundation 2012a). As noted previously, the BBVA Foundation also found that both Americans and Europeans in the 10 countries surveyed see science information from museums as more trustworthy than information from many other groups (BBVA Foundation 2012b).