Mass media can distort scientific consensus

Mass media can distort scientific consensus

WThere is no need for academic expertise at the time of global epidemic. The popularization of scientific knowledge, on which political decisions and their public evaluation can be based, can only be taken to a limited extent by science. They need to be made aware, and this happens when they are picked up and discussed in the mass media. Science and mass media have their own problems: not only do complex issues have to be simplified to reach a wider audience, they are often dramatized so that someone is interested. A warning of problematic developments turns into predicting the end of the world, varying assessments in detail into scholarly reasoning.

The selection criteria of mass media do not conform to science. If scientific findings are taken up and presented by the media at large, it can create a distorted public image of science. A recently published study examines such media bias in science-related reports. In particular, it asks whether and how scientific consensus in specific subject areas represents and is represented in media reporting. Consensus, one might expect, does not fit well into journalistic reporting, it is inseparable, impersonal and thus: uninterrupted. However, it can be very important as a basis for assessing and deciding factual issues.

Great agreement on some subjects

Even if consensus in science is never complete and rarely permanent, it exists. The study identifies ten topics on which a broad consensus can be found: from the economic impact of immigration to vaccination security and climate change to independence from central banks. A total of 300,000 reports on these subjects were taken from tapes of six English-language dailies, a news agency and three TV news channels. With the help of a trained algorithm, this amount of data was automatically examined to see if expert opinions were cited. A selection was then manually coded and evaluated in relation to the question of whether it reflects the consensus of scientific expertise on the subject.

It is not only impossible that consensus is expressed in the mass media as the conflict appears more interesting. An observation is also that media reports try to achieve “balanced” reporting. Nevertheless, this means, where extensive agreements are also presented on those subjects. Roles are created for counter-experts, who sometimes have to be found reliably. This gives the impression that there is more dissatisfaction than there actually is.

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