Science Communication Skills of Journalism Students

By Urycki, Deborah M.; Wearden, Stanley T. | Newspaper Research Journal, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Science Communication Skills of Journalism Students

Urycki, Deborah M., Wearden, Stanley T., Newspaper Research Journal

The role of the media is to locate and then disseminate the information that the public both wants and has a right to know. At times, access to the information is the central issue for journalists. However, when the subject matter is science and / or technology, the issue for journalists shifts from one of access to one of translation. With scientific and technical subjects, translation is access.

The jargon of each scientific and technological field is filled with terms and syntax that are not typical of general English. This makes these specialized languages analogous to dialects. There may be commonalities the two dialects share, but each varies enough from the other that the result is confusion more often than communication.

Specialized jargons serve several purposes - verbal and written shorthand, group identification and sophistication of the message. But for those unfamiliar with a particular jargon, the information encoded in it is so confusing and obscure that it is meaningless.

The public, for the most part speaking general English, must rely on a form of translation to gain access to information encoded in the specialized jargons of the sciences and technology. Journalists are commonly called upon to fill the role of translator; but, in order to fill this role effectively, they must cultivate and refine the abilities and skills needed to translate the information.

Literature review

In the late 1950s, a major study sponsored by the National Association of Science Writers measured public consumption, understanding and appreciation of science and science news.(1) Articles and commentaries from that period also focused on the best methods and techniques of communication (examples, anecdotes, and analogies) for transforming reports of basic research into interesting and literate articles directed to the layman.(2,3)

A 1989 survey asked scientists, teachers, school administrators and policy analysts, to rate the importance of 15 capabilities that should be expected of scientifically literate high school graduates. The two top capabilities were: the ability to .read and understand articles on science in the newspaper," and the ability to "apply scientific information in personal decisionmaking, for example ozone depletion and the use of aerosols." These capabilities were rated essential by 83 percent of the respondents.(4)

Research spanning the past 25 years indicates that newspaper, magazine, and television coverage of scientific issues and research falls short in providing the public with simplified versions that do not sensationalize, trivialize, or just plain misinterpret the information.

The goal of a great deal of communication research is to measure accuracy. The assessment of communication accuracy in the context of science news reporting was the objective of a 1978 study(5) which reported the level of accuracy in magazine science reporting as good because half of the articles analyzed by 10 evaluators had no criticism points that reached significance (agreement on specific criticisms by eight of the ten evaluators was required for significance at the .05 level). However, the study reported that the news weekly magazines (Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report) were criticized for problems of interpretation. The most prominent criticisms were omission of qualifying statements important for an accurate impression, failure to carefully distinguish between speculation and fact, overstating the generality of the findings, and use of colorful but inaccurate lay terminology.

William Blankenburg(6) also found inaccuracies in about half of the news stories in his study. The most frequent nontypographic errors were those of omission, misquotation, headlines, and emphasis. Other researchers have found the same inaccuracies to be commonplace in science articles.(7)

Phillip Tichenor, et al.(8) recognizing that the mass communication process is a complex network of constituents and channels, designed a study to measure communication accuracy defined as "the extent to which a message produces agreement between source and receiver. …

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