NSF’s ‘Indicators’ Report: Science Communication, News and Television

11 February 2014 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Photo: Daniel Lobo

Photo: Daniel Lobo

If you want to engage in science communication, getting mainstream news coverage offers the most bang for your buck. But is anyone interested? And which news outlets should you try to reach? A recent report from the National Science Foundation (NSF) offers some interesting insights into science news coverage and public attitudes toward science. One of my take-home messages? Television matters even more than I thought.

NSF released its Science and Engineering Indicators report on Feb. 6. The report, which comes out every two years, offers a national overview of the science and technology enterprise in the United States. The report is something of a behemoth, filling hundreds of pages and covering everything from national publication rates of research articles to childhood education.

But I’m going to focus on a single chapter, “Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding.” There’s a lot to unpack (the chapter is 53 pages long), but it’s worth a look.

Two quick notes: First, I encourage you to read the chapter. It’s interesting, and I will (by necessity) be leaving out a lot of information. Second, the report draws extensively from the General Social Survey conducted by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, but also cites a wide variety of additional materials. In the interest of time/space/readability I won’t be listing the citations exhaustively here. For full citations, see the report.

Support for Research Funding

Photo: Siv Andersson

Photo: Siv Andersson

NSF reports that “in 2012, 83% of Americans ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ that ‘even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research that advances the frontiers of knowledge is necessary and should be supported by the federal government.’” This is down from a high of 87 percent in 2006, but higher than the low of 76 percent reported in 1992. About 16 percent of people said the government should not support scientific research.

It’s worth noting that support for research funding is affected by education. Only 75 percent of people who didn’t graduate from high school support research funding, compared to 94 percent of those with graduate degrees. (Bear this point in mind, it comes up again.)

However, in 2012, only 38 percent of the public thought government wasn’t spending enough money on science and technology research, with 45 percent saying funding levels are “about right” and 12 percent saying the government spends too much.

To put this in perspective, scientific research falls behind ten other policy issues – from education to social security to law enforcement – in terms of public support for greater funding. In the court of public opinion, it’s not a priority.

Interest in Science News

In 1997, 49 percent of the public reporting being “very interested” in news about “new scientific discoveries.” By 2012, that number had dropped to 40 percent. The number was higher for “new medical discoveries,” which 58 percent of people found very interesting. But only 23 percent of the public found “space exploration” very interesting. (I found this fascinating, because an analysis of TV news in the report found that space exploration accounted for eight of the 20 most covered stories in 2011, and six of the top 20 stories in 2012.)

Credit: National Science Board

Credit: National Science Board

The good news is that only 14 percent of the public reported being “not at all interested” in new scientific discoveries. The bad news is that – while 40 percent are very interested and 46 percent are “moderately interested” – only 16 percent of the public reported actually following science news “very closely” in 2012.

But even for folks who are very interested in science news, it’s something they have to look for. The Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) analyzed media coverage in 52 print, online, television and radio outlets from January 2007 to May 2012, to determine what kinds of stories they were telling.

According to the NSF report, “Special tabulations of PEJ data show that [science and technology] coverage made up a small percentage of the total amount of news in the traditional media – less than 2% annually – between 2007 and 2012.” That’s a woefully small percentage.

I suspect that one reason for the disconnect between the facts that  86 percent of the public has at least some interest in science news, but only 16 percent follow it very closely, is that “mainstream” media outlets don’t cover science very much.

This is something of a chicken/egg problem. One could argue that mainstream news outlets would cover more science stories if more people followed science news closely; but one could also argue that more people would follow science news closely if mainstream news outlets covered more science stories.

Where People Get Their News

Television is still king when it comes to news, with 43 percent of people saying it is their primary source of information on current events (online news came in second at 33 percent). However, “for news specifically about [science and technology], Americans are now more likely to rely on the Internet than on television.”

In fact, the numbers are almost exactly flipped. In 2012, 42 percent of people said the internet was their primary source for science news, with television coming in second at 32 percent. Magazines were the primary source of science news for 8 percent, with newspapers trailing at 7 percent.

However, those numbers are misleading. Here’s why: “Of the 42% who said they go online for [science] news, 63% indicated they used online newspapers.” If you take this into account, television and newspapers (online or in print) are essentially tied as the public’s primary source of science news, followed by online-only news outlets.

And it’s worth noting that people with lower incomes and lower levels of education are more likely to say they get their science news from television.

The Importance of Television

Image: Istvan Takacs

Image: Istvan Takacs

When it comes to science, online news outlets are more important than ever, but newspapers are still key. That’s one take-home message. But what struck me was the importance of television.

Television is a primary source of science news for a lot of people, particularly people that make less money and have less education. This is important to the science community for at least two reasons: funding and diversity.

First, to boost federal research funding, you need to boost public support. And the numbers in the NSF report tell us that the less education people have, the less likely they are to support federal funding for scientific research. Ergo, if you want to increase public support for research funding, you need to reach people who aren’t already convinced – many of whom haven’t been to college. And if you want to use news media to engage that segment of the population and get them interested in science, you have to use news outlets that they’ll see. Those news outlets are most likely to be on television.

Second, science still has a diversity problem. A 2013 report from the U.S. Census Bureau made clear that minority groups are still under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. These minority groups – particularly black and Hispanic populations – also have lower median incomes than whites. Getting these communities interested in science and technology is essential if we want to increase minority participation in STEM, and to do that effectively our outreach efforts need to reach lower income households – which are more likely to get their news from television.

How Do We Do That?

I wish I had a magic formula that would get science more television coverage, but I don’t. I do however, have some ideas (and I’d love to see your input in the comments section).

First, scientists need to be willing to do television interviews and work with television reporters. Many scientists find the idea of being on TV scary or – worse yet – think that going on TV will result in a “dumbed down” misrepresentation of their work. However, raising awareness of one’s research program can also have significant benefits, in addition to the long-term benefits related to funding and diversity I mentioned above.

Second, institutions should train their researchers, so that they can communicate effectively during TV interviews. Few, if any, people are “naturals” at appearing on television. Training will not only make researchers more comfortable on camera, it will also make it more likely that the resulting news story will accurately reflect the scientist’s work.

Finally, institutions should invest in multimedia materials that appeal to television news outlets. If you can provide producers with footage of fieldwork, lab research, or interviews with researchers, they’re more likely to cover your work. They may use the footage you provide, or they may simply view it as evidence that your work is sufficiently visually appealing for them to come and shoot their own footage. Either way, good video is helpful.

Animation is another valuable tool. Much of the research being done today is difficult to film. If you’re doing research on genetics, proteins or nanomaterials, there is (usually) basically nothing to see. That makes it hard for television news crews to tell a story. They’re looking for stories that are visually compelling. This is where animation can come in.

For example, if a researcher is doing work on CRISPR RNAs that seek and destroy viruses that invade bacteria, that work is impossible to film. But basic animation could illustrate how a CRISPR RNA seeks out invaders with a specific DNA sequence, and then unleashes Cas proteins to slice up the invaders’ DNA. Heck, the animation could actually be exciting.

Encouraging researchers to work with TV reporters would take time. Training those researchers would take time and money. Creating video and animation resources would take more time – and quite a bit more money. But I think it would be a good investment.


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