Do Scientists and Teachers Agree on the Credibility of Media Information Sources?

Article excerpt

Elementary and high school science teaching has been transitioning recently from dependency on textbooks to facilitating inquiry using multiple information sources or instructional media, including information from the Internet, print sources such as weekly newsmagazines, and science periodicals, and broadcast media like television newsmagazine shows such as 20/20 or Dateline. Popular educational approaches like constructivism and whole language have bolstered this transition, which is evident in all subject areas, but which is especially apparent in the science classroom. Today, especially with electronic retrieval, teachers and students have access to more abundant information and information sources than they did with traditional textbook approaches.

As a result, teachers and students alike are faced with numerous decisions about the information sources that they bring into the classroom or use as references. Teachers, particularly, may be concerned about questions of developmental appropriateness and clarity of scientific explanations in media. However, the question of credibility of information sources may be rarely asked as many information sources like popular news and science magazines, government-subsidized or corporate-sponsored television shows and even newspapers may be assumed to be credible resources. However, as students and teachers gain access to multiple sources of information (e.g., resources from the Internet) questions regarding the reliability and credibility of appealingly-packaged and easily accessible information become critical.

To take an example from the field of science, media presentations in the area of risks and risk assessment is an area where highly dramatic media accounts proliferate and is also an area where the general public's perceptions of environmental risks diverges markedly from experts' views (Slovik, 1987). For example, members of the general public in Slovic's classic study rated nuclear power as a higher risk than did experts, whose ratings are based on known mortality rates. By the same token, experts placed motor vehicles as the number one risk, and members of the general public rated it much lower.

The ability to make judgments regarding the credibility of various claims is considered by Benchmarks for Science Literacy (1993) to be an essential part of scientific literacy:

      In everyday life, people axe bombarded with claims - claims about
   products, about how nature or social systems or devices work, about their
   health and welfare, about what happened in the past and what will occur in
   the future. These claims are put forth by experts (including scientists)
   and nonexperts (including scientists), by honest people and charlatans. In
   response to this barrage, trying to separate sense from nonsense, knowledge
   helps.

      But apart from what they know about the substance of an assertion,
   individuals who are science literate can make some judgements based on its
   character. The use or misuse of supporting evidence, the language used, and
   the logic of the argument presented are important considerations in judging
   how seriously to take some claim or proposition. These critical response
   skills can be learned and with practice can become a lifelong habit of mind
   (p. 298).

In the interests of fostering this goal the present study compares the credibility judgments of scientists and elementary and secondary preservice teachers as they assess different sources of information, including print and electronic media. Specifically, a realistic scenario was posed in which a teacher decides to organize a science class unit around the topic of risks (personal, societal, environmental, technological, short-term and long-term, etc.) and that teacher needs more information and resources so the class can investigate the topic or risk. Preservice teachers were then asked to rate 31 different information sources on credibility. …