Thursday, 9 February 2012

Media coverage of ecological science: a rare occurrence

Before you started reading this sentence, when was the last time you read about ecology in the news? Probably not too recently, according to results of a new study published in the latest issue of the ecological journal Ecosphere. The study's authors, collaborators from Northern Kentucky University and Brigham Young University, noted that while the bulk of scientific studies escape the notice of journalists, ecological research in particular appears to be under-covered by the media. They set out to study this trend in more detail in order to develop recommendations for improving relationships between journalists and ecologists--with the ultimate goal of increasing public awareness of ecological studies.

The researchers were particularly interested in four main study questions: What proportion of ecological research makes its way from the academic literature into the mainstream media? Which types of media outlets are most likely to report ecological findings? When scientific research is discussed, which aspects of the studies are highlighted by journalists? Finally, are the studies that journalists find newsworthy also those that other scientists consider academically relevant?

In order to answer these questions, the researchers collected a sample of 1,513 focal studies published in the journal Ecology between 2000-2010. They then searched for instances of the journal name, authors' names, and authors' institutional affiliations in the news archive Nexis-Lexis, which collects news coverage found in newspapers, television and radio reports, newswires, newsletters, and online sources. They counted the number of times each focal study appeared in some type of mainstream media; they also noted which parts of the original academic write-up were discussed within that report--for instance, did journalists describe methodology and background content, or just the study's results? The scientists also performed searches in Web of Science, an academic database, in order to find out how many times other researchers had cited each focal study; the grand tally for each paper was considered its "impact factor" and indicated how highly it was regarded within the scientific community.

Only 26 papers--or a mere 1.7% of the total--were referenced in Lexis-Nexis; a total of 39 news stories were written on this research, indicating that some studies were covered multiple times. Interestingly, no one single topic was favored by the media; when ecological articles were covered by the mainstream press, they dealt with topics ranging from climate change to conservation to food webs. There was no consistent coverage pattern over the 10-year study period; no ecological studies were discussed in the media in 2000 or 2007, but 5.4% of papers received attention in 2003. Newspapers and newswires were most likely to feature references to ecology research, while radio and television reporters did not cover ecological science a single time over the study period. When ecology reports were covered by the media, journalists focused most often on content found in the discussion and results sections of the original academic paper; they were least likely to mention background scientific details or methodological descriptions. Impact factors were similar across all studies examined here, regardless of whether or not they were covered by the media.

These results left the authors wondering, "Why are ecological science findings so unlikely to reach the public through traditional media sources?" One reason, they suggest, is the fact that journalists do not feel attracted to ecological findings--perhaps because scientific literacy is lacking, and journalists feel uncomfortable interpreting the content of academic ecological papers. The dearth of ecology coverage may also reflect the fact that some media outlets do not maintain a dedicated science staff, and therefore do not have anyone on hand to interpret the sometimes complex analyses and relationships reported in the ecological literature. Another potential problem, according to the researchers, is the fact that journalists and ecologists often have competing interests; whereas the journalists want news that is exciting enough to attract the attention of fickle readers, scientists are more concerned with broadcasting topics that are scientifically important--those that "evaluate hypotheses and bring forth new understanding."

The remaining question, then, is how ecologists can increase the likelihood that their results will be covered by the press. The researchers suggest that a variety of changes need to be made, both by the scientists themselves and by the institutions that employ them. First of all, academics should work proactively with public information officers in order to generate press releases that are both appealing to journalists and scientifically accurate. Second, researchers should consider engaging directly with the media--whether this means making friends with a local reporter or using Internet resources such as blogs and Twitter feeds in order to advertise and promote findings. Even if these online methods don't attract the attention of news consumers, they may catch the eye of journalists and facilitate wider coverage. Third, scientists might produce their own media coverage and distribute it to news organizations directly--though of course this assumes that researchers have the time for this sort of activity in the midst of teaching, researching, writing grants, and publishing academic papers. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the authors encourage an overhaul of the academic culture, such that public outreach is valued more highly at colleges and universities. Specifically, while interactions with, and coverage by, the media are now merely considered icing on the cake, in the future these might be used when assigning rank or making promotion decisions.

Baker, M.J., Williams, L.F., Lybbert, A.H., and Johnson, J.B. 2012. How ecological science is portrayed in mass media. Ecosphere 3(1):9.

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