Mass media can distort scientific consensus

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.

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