Friday, July 11, 2008

Scientists and the Mass Media

The recent issue of Science has an article about

which summarizes the result of a survey of 1354 researchers in the United States, Japan, Germany, United Kingdom, and France. The results show that media contacts of scientists in these top R&D countries are more frequent and smooth than was previously thought.

In all five countries, the biggest part of scientists who had contact with the media in the past 3 years rated the impact of those contacts on their careers positively: 46% of the respondents perceived a “mostly positive” impact, whereas only 3% found the impact to be “mostly negative”. Overall, 46% of the respondents perceived a “mostly positive” impact of their interaction with journalists. 57% of the respondents said they were “mostly pleased” about their “latest appearance in the media,” and only 6% were “mostly dissatisfied”.

I find it interesting but also slightly worrisome that such a large fraction of scientists considers media contacts to be beneficial for their career. It would be good to know whether the perceived benefits are actual benefits.


  1. Obvious comment is that I expect a strong selection bias- most scientists have little to no media contact, and those who have frequent contacts seem to me far from representative of their profession, at least in my experience.

  2. Hi Moshe,

    The survey covered people at various stages of their career. Though this affects how often scientists talk to journalists

    "Frequency of contact with journalists was clearly associated with leadership functions and research productivity"

    It does have little relevance for the percieved benefits

    "By cross-tabulating, we were able to check that, with one exception, concerns and perceived benefits were not significantly correlated with scientist’s management roles and number of publications. The one exception was that for researchers with lower rank (no management position, few publications) “possible critical reactions from the heads of department or organization” were somewhat more important than for researchers with higher rank"



  3. Hi Bee,

    In as I have no access to the article you site I truly have no real basis for comment. However, this contact with the media and ones career would simply seem to point to the aspect of being a celebrity or not. I would suspect with most scientists that such contact and therefore exposure would be brief and with it the notoriety being the same.

    As we know there have been few scientists which one could call truly famous from the general public persona point of view. I suspect if you asked the average citizen to name a few scientists they might site Einstein or Hawking from more recent times with perhaps Newton, Darwin, Galileo and a few others from the past.

    The true nature and therefore consequence would then logically seem to be expected to come from their colleagues or people more directly able to affect their careers; and as such I don’t think it would have the same degree of impact that this so called ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ have on others and in different circumstances (unless of course it lands you a T.V. show).



  4. I'd guess that the 6% mostly dissatisfied were scientists doing controversial experiments on animals where the media wants to get quotations to make up a "balanced" article about the suffering to mice etc., being used in experiments. Another example of bad reactions might be case of genetically modified foods. Another is nuclear physicists designing safe waste disposal sites.

    The journalists in the UK generally sell-out to popular prejudice, which is popular reading, so the first part of the article (maybe 95% of the text) is about the "warnings" by envirnomentalist groups about how the animal experiments/genetic modification/nuclear waste dump is (1) unnecessary, (2) cruel and barbaric, and (3) just done to keep the evil cientists in jobs.

    The final paragraph of the article, maybe only 5% of the overall text, presents the quotation from the scientist who is defending the "evil" research. Often the quotation is chopped off a bit by the editor, and therefore makes the scientist appear callous and arrogant in so briely dismissing the vast amount of negative stuff from expert environmentalists/humanists/propagandarists.

    With the exception of that kind of doomsday article victimising those scientists, the treatment of science in the media is generally biased in the other direction, and hails any claim by scientists as ingenious and factual, even before it has been fully substantiated by other scientists. Every scientist working on cancer who puts out a promising paper gets positive media coverage, for example. Good news always sells well in medical science, just as bad news always sells well in the science of animal experiments/genetic modification/nuclear waste dumps.


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