WAcademic expertise is not only required in times of a global pandemic. The popularization of scientific knowledge, on which political decisions and their public assessment can be based, can only be taken over by science itself to a limited extent. They need to be conveyed, and this happens when they are picked up and discussed in the mass media. The relationship between science and the mass media has its own problems: not only do complex issues have to be simplified in order to reach a wide audience, they are often dramatized so that someone is interested in them. A warning about problematic developments turns into a prophecy of the end of the world, different assessments in detail turn into a scholarly argument.
The selection criteria of the mass media do not correspond to those of science. If scientific findings are picked up and presented by the mass media, this can lead to a distorted public image of science. A recently published study examines the extent of such media bias in science-related reports. In particular, it asks whether and how scientific consensus in specific subject areas is thematized and represented in media reporting. Consensus, one might expect, does not fit well into journalistic reporting, it is undramatic, impersonal and thus: uninteresting. However, it could be very important for assessing factual issues and as a basis for decision-making.
Great agreement on certain topics
Even if consensus in science is never absolute and seldom permanent, it does exist. The study identifies ten topics on which a broad consensus can be found: from the economic impact of immigration to vaccination safety and climate change to independence from central banks. A total of 300,000 reports on these topics were taken from six English-language daily newspapers, a news agency and the transcripts of three TV news channels. With the help of a trained algorithm, this amount of data was automatically examined to determine whether expert opinions were even quoted. A selection was then coded manually and evaluated with regard to the question of whether or not it reflects the consensus of scientific expertise on the topic.
It is not only improbable that consensus is conveyed in the mass media because conflict appears more interesting. There is also an observation that media reports strive to achieve “balanced” reporting. This then means, however, that deviating positions are presented even on topics where there is broad agreement. Roles are created for counter-experts who sometimes have to be laboriously searched for. This gives the impression that there is more dissent than there actually is.
The results of the media analysis largely correspond to expectations. Almost half of the reports cite experts, but these only partially relate to the scientific knowledge relevant to the topic. The fact that there is a majority agreement on factual issues is explicitly mentioned, but only in three percent of the reports.
Frequent references to consensus on vaccination issues
There are differences between the topics: indications of consensus of over ten percent are relatively common on vaccination topics, the safety of genetically modified organisms and, above all, climate change. The picture becomes even more sobering when one asks whether both the consensus and a specific, supportive expertise are named: This is only the case in less than one percent of the reports. After all, references to both science in general and recognized knowledge have increased since the 1980s.
It cannot be taken for granted that the mass media should even take notice of scientific findings. Circulation and audience rating are at least as important to them as truth. However, they only make partial use of their leeway to question the prevailing opinion: when reporting on vaccinations and climate change – contrary to fears to the contrary – the orientation towards the scientific majority opinion (except for the station “Fox News”) clearly predominates when it comes to nuclear energy and genetic engineering, on the other hand, the criticism.
This pattern fits in that deviations from the scientific consensus usually do not refer to contrary opinions from science, but to those from politics. In this way it is obviously possible to combine the seriousness of science with the arrogance of politics in such a way that in the end a product that is suitable for the media is created.