Communicating Uncertainty: Media Coverage of New and Controversial Science

By Ackland, Len | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview
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Communicating Uncertainty: Media Coverage of New and Controversial Science


Ackland, Len, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


Friedman, S. M., Dunwoody, S., and Rogers, C. J., eds. (1999). Communicating Uncertainty: Media Coverage of New and Controversial Science. Mahway, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 277 pp. paperback, $32.50.

Scientists try to understand and explain how natural and social systems operate. Journalists try to separate scientific knowledge from speculation. And policy makers and the public try to figure out what to make of information communicated to them. Uncertainty, implying a lack of predictability, is at play in all three arenas, which provide the loose framework far Communicating Uncertainty.

In introducing this volume of 11 chapters, two panel discussions, and one roundtable, the editors define scientific uncertainty as the uncertainty "brought about by either a lack of scientific knowledge or disagreement over the knowledge that currently exists." They quickly add that "chapter authors occasionally employ a different definition." Indeed, the book is a veritable smorgasbord of uncertainty topics, giving readers much to choose from.

During a panel discussion climatologist Stephen Schneider explains that scientists deal with various types of uncertainty in science, all which seek to explain nature, and in science assessment, which is a best-guess process evaluating the likelihood of various possibilities. Decision-makers need such assessment in order to address real problems, such as global warming. Schneider notes that some scientific knowledge is solidly based on empirical evidence: Some exists with a moderate degree of uncertainty, and some is completely speculative. "These different degrees of uncertainty get jumbled up in both assessments and media coverage, and when this happens, a false impression is conveyed that nothing solid is known."

A major challenge for environmental and science journalists is to locate the boundaries between certain and uncertain science, a job made harder when issues such as ozone depletion or global warming become politicized.

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