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Science, the Media and the Communication of Controversy & Risk

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Science, the Media and the Communication of Controversy & Risk

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  1. Science, the Media and the Communication of Controversy & Risk John R. Finnegan Jr., PhD Professor & Dean March 5, 2010 University of Manitoba

  2. Agenda • Western culture, science & technology • Science & the media as social institutions • How the scientific agenda is set and how issues are framed • InfoWar! • In the public interest…ways to improve communication about science, risk

  3. Western culture and science • Ambivalence • Drive for progress, innovation, knowledge • Religion, science as ways of viewing world • Intended outcomes • Unintended effects • Cultural myths, frames, archetypes • Ancient: Pandora, Prometheus • Modern: Mary W. Shelley, H.G. Wells, Aldus Huxley

  4. Western culture and science • “Miracle” drugs, treatments • Valium; Prozac (SRIs); Anti-angiogenics • Initially hailed; later assailed • Nuclear power • Our friend the atom… • Now about those used fuel rods… • Reporting of risk in general • Out of proportion (over and under)

  5. Western culture and science • Rev. Cotton Mather (Boston, 1750s) • Campaign for smallpox vaccination • Media opposition • Public confusion • Would vaccination actually cause the disease? • Rich and powerful people want you to be vaccinated, so watch out...

  6. REAL headlines Name that apocalyptic scourge... • Lethal beef! • Turning cows to cannibals • Meat that rots the brain! • Link between rare human brain ailment, mysterious cow disease baffles scientists • The proof - experts say it could kill 500,000 of you

  7. Sociology • Powerful social institutions • Organized, specialized, commercialized • Different work values & routines • Media build the public agenda • Science seeks to build the media’s agenda, influence story frames • So do alternative advocacy groups

  8. The Public Arenas Model • Hilgartner & Bosk, 1988 AJS • Social institutions, groups, wrestle for control of public discourse to identify social problems and frame them (e.g., as “harmful”) • Media are key gatekeepers of public discourse • more fragmented in www

  9. The Public Arenas Model • Public attention is a scarce commodity for which social institutions, groups compete • Level of attention devoted to a social problem is a function of its: • Objective make-up; plus its • Collective definition

  10. Public Arenas Model • Factors influencing collective definition... • Carrying capacity of public arenas • Media outlets; legislative committees, etc. • Dynamics of competition • Principles of selection (culture, drama, etc.) • Feedback • Communities of operatives

  11. Values & work conditions • Scientists • Empirical; methodical; seek consistency; incremental advances; high tolerance for ambiguity; consensus; long-term effort; highly technically trained; oriented to other scientists; operate in different organizational contexts but usually professional, autonomous.

  12. Values & work conditions • Journalists • News values (novelty, conflict, anomaly, immediacy, sensation); Low tolerance for ambiguity; deadline-oriented, short term; general training; accuracy; fairness; oriented to the public; professional but highly controlled behavior.

  13. Communicating risk • Objectivist view • In identifying public issues, risk should be characterized scientifically, empirically, methodically • Constructivist view • Risk is a product of different perceptions and is communicated in the context of political & social values surrounding an issue, hazard or risk factor

  14. Communicating risk • Scientists often work in objectivist frame of reference, but they have values and opinions, too. • Journalists often work in a constructivist frame or reference (also the public) • Value systems and beliefs play a role in framing science, issues, risks

  15. Some ways to improve... • Overall • Journalists need training in science • Scientists need training in communication • Partnerships between science and the media in educating the public

  16. Some ways to improve… •


  18. Bad science reporting Best Medical Blog 2009

  19. What kind of risk am I? • Risk that an individual will get a certain disease or condition over a defined period of time • ABSOLUTE • Ratio of the chance of disease in individuals exposed to a risk factor compared to risk in individuals without exposure • RELATIVE (Robert Jeffery, 1989)

  20. What kind of risk am I? • Number of excess cases of a disease or condition in a population that can be attributed to a risk factor • POPULATION-ATTRIBUTABLE (Robert Jeffery, 1989)

  21. Some ways to improve... • Day-to-day communication about risk • Consider “outrage” factors • Feelings about risk are important; people are seldom persuaded by numbers they don’t understand • Be open; engage people • “Risk” may not be the real issue • What do people want to know?

  22. Some ways to improve... • Day-to-Day • Provide a frame for understanding risk • Acknowledge uncertainty • Communities and individuals determine what is acceptable risk for them

  23. Reporting science, risk • What is the probability that people might be harmed and to what degree? • 2. What are the assumptions underlying the assessment of risk? How is the risk assessment qualified or limited? Source: Northwestern U, Medill School of Journalism

  24. Reporting science, risk • 3.What are the study’s limitations overall? What does the study NOT say? • 4. If there is uncertainty in the data, do the conclusions reflect that? • 5. Does the study consider the number of people exposed to the problem? Source: Northwestern U, Medill School of Journalism

  25. Reporting science, risk • 6. Does the study distinguish between voluntary and involuntary exposure? • 7. Are such elements as individual sensitivities, exposures to multiple hazards and cumulative effects considered? Source: Northwestern U, Medill School of Journalism

  26. Reporting science, risk • 8. Are the scientific data open to public scrutiny? • 9. How separate is the research process from the policy-making process? • 10. Who paid for the study? Source: Northwestern U, Medill School of Journalism

  27. H1N1 vaccine story 08-17-2009, CBS Early Show

  28. When Ideologic Worlds Collide • InfoWar! • Titanic battles to control the story frame among the ideologically polarized, the scientifically self-righteous, and the politically naïve. • “The first casualty when war comes, is truth.” US Sen. Hiram Johnson, 1917

  29. ClimateGateand the Hockey Stick Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the UNEP

  30. ClimateGate CBS Evening News, 12-09-2009

  31. The Fallout • Saudi Arabian climate negotiator: "It appears from the details of the scandal that there is no relationship whatsoever between human activities and climate change.” • Canada Free Press: stolen files proof of a "deliberate fraud" and "the greatest deception in history.” • Mother Jones: “…tempest in a teacup…” Source:

  32. Google “Hits” (millions) March 3, 2010

  33. ClimateGate 11-09-2009, CNBC

  34. The Fallout • There is a 20-year-old worldwide conspiracy among politically liberal climate scientists to perpetrate a huge scientific fraud • The essence of the fraud: that human activity is causing unprecedented global warming potentially threatening to all life on the planet. We need to reduce the emissions causing it • The emails and documents prove the existence of the conspiracy and the fraud

  35. FactCheck™ • “Messages show scientists behaving badly...” • Even excluding the evidence at the heart of this controversy, “…still plenty of evidence that the earth is getting warmer and that humans are largely responsible.”

  36. FactCheck™ • “E-mails being cited as "smoking guns" have been misrepresented…” • “For instance, one e-mail that refers to "hiding the decline" isn’t talking about a decline in actual temperatures as measured at weather stations. These have continued to rise, and 2009 may turn out to be the fifth warmest year ever recorded. The "decline" actually refers to a problem with recent data from tree rings.”

  37. ClimateGate •

  38. ClimateGate •

  39. ClimateGate •

  40. ClimateGate •

  41. ClimateGate •

  42. Some Conclusions • Science is not “value-free” • Science can be a “…blood sport…” when it intersects with deeply held beliefs or values (just ask Galileo) or deeply rooted economic interests that are change-averse Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics, NY Times

  43. 21st Century Challenges • 20th Century: Age of Information • Scarcity: Where to find it? • 21st Century: Age of Information Super-abundance • Super-abundance: How to separate wheat from chaff? • Caught in the middle: The Public

  44. 21st Century Challenges • Serious potential for public loss of confidence and support for science • When ideology replaces science • Needed: tools for superabundant information • Both science and the media!