m C D I q S T U D I E S
medial Risk and Science
Open University Press
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Philadelphia, PA 19106, USA First Published 2002
Copyright O Stuart Allan 2002
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Allan, Stuart, 1962—
Media, risk, and science/Stuart Allan.
|p. cm. — (Issues in cultural and media studies)||S CI I|
|Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-335-20663-8 – ISBN 0-335-20662-X (pbk.)||Th|
|1. Scence news. 2. Science in mass media. 1. Title.||Il.||Series.|
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|J O U R N A L I S M
I’ve heard scientists mourn the good old days, when the public believed what scientists said. I believe that blind faith is dangerous. Today’s skepticism about science comes, in part, from a sense of betrayal: ‘We believed you when you said that science would perfect the world. And look at it now.’ By reporting on science in all its dimensions, we make it real. In doing so, in letting people inside the process, it is true that we might decanonize the scientific society. But we also bring science back into the real world — where it belongs.
(Deborah Blum, science journalist)
Science, it is often said, gets a bad press. Explanations for this apparent problem, in the opinion of some journalists at least, tend to revolve around the charge that most types of science fail the test of newsworthiness. Routine science, they tend to believe, is really rather boring. It lacks the stuff of drama necessary to spark lively newspaper headlines. At the same time, some scientists maintain that on those occasions when a certain scientific development is given due prominence, it all too frequently happens for the wrong reasons. Not surprisingly, they are quick to condemn instances of sensationalist reporting — where news values have given way to entertainment values — for misrepresenting the nature of scientific inquiry, and rightly so.
‘Media wisdom has it’, writes Dunbar (1995: 147—8), ‘that news must have impact and, especially, human interest to sell papers. But when science tries to compete with the social antics of the great and the not so good, it has only limited chances of success.’ Accordingly, to critically engage with the most urgent issues at stake in science journalism is to acknowledge from the outset the uneasy tensions which exist between discourses of science and those of journalism. The phrase ‘science journalism’ can be misleading in its apparent claim to characterize a specific kind of reporting, implying as it does that che boundaries between it and other types of journalism are both
O I R I S K
well marked and dutifully respected. As even a cursory glance at a newspaper or television newscast reveals, however, this is anything but the case in practice. Scientific endeavours are typically highly complex affairs, and any attempt by journalists to impose narrative order on them in the name of a ‘good story’ is to necessarily risk engendering compromises. Precisely how the threads making up the fabric of science reporting are interwoven in a given news account is as much a matter of subjective interpretation of ‘what’s at stake for society’ as it is of any self-proclaimed ‘objective’ methods of reporting.
This reference to the fabric of science reporting is a useful one for our purposes here. Over the course of this chapter, I shall aim to give several of its dangling threads a firm tug. It is my hope that in doing so some of the unspoken assumptions underlying ongoing debates about science journalism will come unravelled so that we may be better placed to understand — and challenge — them in the chapters to follow.
Science and society
‘Society’s relationship with science is in a critical phase,’ declared a report by the British House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology in March 2000. The report, titled simply Science and Society, drew upon evidence collected over a yearlong inquiry into the widespread perception that there is a serious crisis of public confidence in the biological and physical sciences and their respective technological applications. In the course of presenting its findings, the report identifies a range of issues which resonate, to varying degrees, in public debates across a range of different national contexts. As such, it will be used here as a springboard of sorts for the discussion to follow.
Underpinning this apparent crisis in public confidence is a paradox. At one level, the report states, ‘there has never been a time when the issues involving science were more exciting, the public more interested, or the opportunities more apparent’ (Select Committee on Science and Technology 2000). These claims are supported with reference to the results of recent opinion survey studies, as well as with regard to the growing salience of popular media output addressing scientific topics, among other factors. Nevertheless, on another level, ‘public confidence in scientific advice to Government has been rocked by a series of events, culminating in the BSE [or “mad cow disease”] fiasco; and many people are deeply uneasy about the huge opportunities presented by areas of science including biotechnology and information technology, which seem to be advancing far ahead of their
a cursory glance at a newsthis is anything but the case highly complex affairs, and order on them in the name of compromises. Precisely how
:porting are interwoven in a subjective interpretation of oclaimed ‘objective’ methods
rting is a useful one for our I shall aim to give several of that in doing so some of the ?bates about science journalEtter placed to understand —
al phase,’ declared a report by on Science and Technology in ince and Society, drew upon to the widespread perception fidence in the biological and 1010gical applications. In the :ntifies a range of issues which across a range of different •e as a springboard of sorts for
c confidence is a paradox. At been a time when the issues )ublic more interested, or the tee on Science and Technology erence to the results of recent Il”d to the growing salience of topics, among other factors. fidence in scientific advice to events, culminating in the BSE ple are deeply uneasy about the fence including biotechnology be advancing far ahead of their awareness and assent’ (Select Committee on Science and Technology 2000), Precisely how this enhanced level of public interest corresponds, in turn, with what the report describes as an ‘increasing scepticism about the pronouncements of scientists on science-related policy issues of all types’ is the subject of much debate.
In the view of the select committee’s members, which included several distinguished scientists under the chairpersonship of Lord Jenkin of Roding, ‘public unease, mistrust and occasional outright hostility are breeding a climate of deep anxiety among scientists themselves’ (2000). Interestingly, the report signals from the outset its commitment to exploring anew the varied sources of these tensions. Identified as being one of the more influential sources, as might be anticipated, is science journalism. Public attitudes to science, the report points out, are shaped by an array of institutions situated across the breadth of society, not least by the teaching of science in schools. Once people leave the education system, however, the news media become their principal sources of information about science. Therein lies the problem in the eyes of scientists. According to the select committee report, many scientists tend to be convinced that journalists ‘have it in for them’, that is, that the ‘cherished freedom of the British press works against them’.
In order to unravel the complexities of science journalism, the committee distinguishes between three different types. First, there is the specialist scientific press, where news reports are written by scientists for other scientists. Second, there is the work of science journalists, namely specialist correspondents employed by mainstream news organizations. They will usually conduct their own journalistic research into a science story so as to ensure due accuracy in their handling of the facts. Third, there is the work of nonscientific correspondents. These journalists, namely by dint of circumstance, typically find themselves writing about a scientific development as a general news story. In so doing, the report maintains, they may subject the story to very different set of values and criteria’ than might be otherwise expected from a specialist science reporter.
In comparing the activities of the latter two types of journalists, the report highlights several factors which together help to explain why the information about science being presented by the news media is not as effective as it might be. These factors begin with the simple observation that science reporters are first and foremost concerned with their role as a journalist, as opposed to that of an educator: ‘Their primary aim, as with any journalist, is to get stories into the paper or programme, in fierce competition with other journalists.’ This determination to see the scientific world in terms of news stories leads, in turn, to an undue emphasis being placed on those kinds of events that satisfy the news organization’s editorial policy.
Science and news, the report suggests, tend to be ‘a poor fit’, namely because ‘newsrooms deal in simplified stories put together in haste, preferably with two opposing sides or views’. One witness before the committee is cited as recalling the following instructions of a BBC Radio 1 news producer prior to a live interview: ’20 seconds, professor, and no long words.’ Moreover, when priority is given to clashing viewpoints, especially when they are sensationalist ones, familiar notions of balance and fairness can be decisively undermined. The committee heard ‘vehement criticism’ of the practice, for example, where the news media ‘give equal weight to the scientific consensus and to a minority view, whether in the interest of balance as they see it, or simply because confrontation makes good copy’. Particularly revealing is the report’s contention that this crisis is at its most severe where scientific definitions of ‘risk’ are concerned.
‘When science and society cross swords,’ the report intones, ‘it is often over the question of risk.’ As it proceeds to point out, there are two dimensions to risk which are particularly significant in this context: ‘the chance of something happening, and the seriousness of the consequences if it does. How scientists choose to communicate their calculations of risk is not only a question of rigour and accuracy, but also one of politics. Acute difficulties may arise, for example, as soon as scientists undertake to formally quantify a risk, especially when they necessarily have to qualify their claims by acknowledging a degree of uncertainty Olt appears to be safe, on the basis of the following assumptions which require further research’). Confronted with such hedged assurances, journalists will more likely than not insist upon absolute certitude (‘Is it 100 per cent safe?’). Their inability to extract such an affirmation from scientists can sometimes lead them, in turn, to call into question the integrity of the actual risk calculation itself on these grounds alone. ‘By this means,’ the report suggests, ‘the stage is set for confusion, cynicism and even panic.’
Not surprisingly, various individuals and groups seeking to help secure a place for these issues on the national agenda have warmly welcomed this report. Many publicly applauded its commitment to recasting several of the all too familiar premises underpinning debates about the science—media nexus. Finding particular support among those who regard the status quo as untenable was the committee’s conviction that ‘the culture of UK science needs a sea-change, in favour of open and positive communication with the media.’ To date the government’s response to the report has been positive, if largely limited to a formal reaffirmation of its importance as a contribution to ongoing debate. In particular, the report has been credited with influencing the development of policies set out in the Science and Innovation White Paper, published in July 2001. Disappointingly, if all too tellingly; the
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|report’s publication was virtually ignored by the very news organizations it set out to challenge. In the case of the broadsheet newspapers, for example, coverage typically consisted of a single item acknowledging the report’s release, together with a brief sketch of its contents. It was then promptly consigned to the journalistic dustbin of history.
My decision to dwell on the report’s engagement with science journalism here is based on my sense that it succeeds — both by accident and by design in effectively highlighting several pressing issues in need of further attention. Reading the report ‘against the grain’, so to speak, it is possible to discern an array of tacit, seemingly ccommon sensical’ assumptions which take on a distinct ideological significance upon closer scrutiny. In the remaining portion of this section, I would like to pinpoint four sets of quesnons revolving around a specific aspect of the report’s claims. Each cluster is intended to bring to the fore conceptual issues for further discussion in the remaining portions of the chapter.
Discourses of ‘the public’
The public is becoming increasingly distrustful of science-based expertise, che report warns. What happens to this thesis if ‘the public’, understood as a singular, cohesive totality, is made to give way to a pluralized conception of publics? To recognize the tensions engendered by various discourses of ‘the public’ is, at the same time, to acknowledge that a multiplicity of publics exist where the report recurrently posits only one. If, as Williams (11958] 1989: 11) once famously observed, ‘there are in fact no masses, only ways of seeing people as masses’, then configurations of ‘the public’ similarly need to be scrutinized precisely as they support, overlap and contradict one another. In attempting to discern the hierarchical relations of social power shaping the mobilization of these competing configurations, questions such as the following are key. Specifically, who claims to speak on behalf of ‘the public’, who is identified as representing ‘public opinion’, and who falls outside of such definitions, thereby possibly threatening the interest’?
Trust in science
A guiding principle of the report is that efforts to promote greater Vtrust in science’ are consistent with the basic requirements of modern society. Do journalists, as citizens, have a responsibility to report on science in such a way as to rebuild public trust in it (in parallel with scientists who, the report suggests, should see themselves as ‘civic scientists’)? The report answers this question in the affirmative, thereby indicating its underlying dependence on
a deficit model of public understanding to anchor its claims. To clarify, its authors maintain that it is the journalist’s duty to report on scientific developments accurately so as tohelp ensure that the scientific community’s rational discourse is transmitted to the public in an impartial manner. Accuracy, in this context, is to be defined in relation to ‘the majority view’ from within the community on issues of scientific controversy: In the event that a news account does not satisfy their preferred criteria of accuracy, an official complaints procedure may be invoked against the offending journalist or news organization. ‘Who knows,’ declares the news editor of Nature, ‘we might even be fined for getting our facts wrong!’ (Dickson 2000: 921; see also Hargreaves and Ferguson 2000).
In discussing the imperatives of science journalism, the report takes issue with how the scientific world is reflected in news accounts. This language of reflection is employed to pinpoint evidence of the extent to which journalists allow certain distortions to creep into the reporting process. Such an approach, I would argue, fails to account for the ideological dynamics embedded in the reporter’s mediation of scientific controversies. That is to say, while journalists typically present a news account as a translation of reality, it may be better understood to be providing an ideological construction of contending truth-claims about reality. To deconstruct a news accounts in ideological terms, then, it is necessary to ask: why are certain truth-claims being framed by journalists as reasonable, credible and thus newsworthy while others, at the same time, are being ignored, trivialized or marginalized? Responses to this question will help bring to the fore the truth-politics of science reporting in all of their complexities.
The limits of criticism
|SCIENCE JOURNALISM I O
its precept that technological progress will ultimately translate, by definition, Itific into social progress (Miller 2001). It follows that voices seeking to call into ity’s question the apparent inevitability of this equation will risk being defined as ccu- anti-science — and hence irrational at best, or dangerous at worst (see also rom Dickson 2000). at a icial Bearing these issues in mind, we turn in the next section to explore the or factors shaping how news organizations determine whether a scientific issue
‘we is sufficiently ‘newsworthy’ to warrant public attention. see
Making science newsworthy
‘Since the earliest days of science writing,’ Friedman (1986: 17—18) sue observes, ‘the profession has been beholden to the two worlds of science and of journalism, functioning under the rules and constraints of both.’ Moreover, lal- she adds, ‘the influence of these two worlds has not been equal’, with those an involved from the journalistic side playing a more decisive role in shaping lics the development of science writing to meet their respective needs. This to contest continues today, of course, as the status of science writing as a of distinct strand of journalism is being increasingly recognized across a range uc- of media genres.
‘Over the last 30 years or so,’ as science reporters Blum and Knudson ain ( 1997: ix—x) point out in a US context, ‘science writing has been transformmus ing itself into something beyond a strange little subculture of journalism’, or namely as a profession in its own right (see also Friedman et al. 1986; -he Dornan 1988). Driving science writing as a profession, in their view, is first and foremost science itself:
the post-World War Il boom in research, the space race of the 1960s, the technologies of today that are opening the subatomic and molecular worlds at a still-dizzying pace, giving rise to a revolution in personal lat communications and in our knowledge of genetics and biology. Such ed discoveries have altered the world we all live in, and it has increasingly fallen to the media to explain the new technologies and report on their impact, good and bad.
er (Blum and Knudson 1997: x) Where science journalists once acted primarily as ‘scouts’ on a reconnaissance mission, to bridge a big divide by bringing back messages from one side to the other’, today they are unlikely to be content to limit their work to this role alone. Although they still need to perform the task of
Consistent with current debates around the public understanding of science, much is made of a ‘dialogue’ approach in the report. The assumption is that an enhanced culture of openness about all aspects of publicly supported scientific research will help to restore public trust in science. It follows, however, that the relative degree of this openness must nevertheless respect certain normative limits. Criticisms of science, the report intones, ‘whether well-founded or misguided’ on the part of the public, %nay inhibit technological progress’. Responsible criticism, by this logic, is criticism that avoids calling into question the legitimacy of technological progress by reporting views ‘held by only a quixotic minority of individuals’. Implicit here is the r’,
O I RISK
translating the abstract complexities of scientific inquiry for their audience, Blum and Knudson (1997: x) maintain that the science reporter’s role must also stretch to encompass a larger sense of public responsibility. In their words:
You can paint an awesome and adventuresome picture of space exploration with all its glittering planetary rings, but you can also acknowledge its risks and probe its failures. You can point out the medical and agricultural benefits of the new biotechnology or the mapping of the human and other genomes; but you can also question what harm may come of the new knowledge and capabilities, discuss what safeguards will be put in place, and talk about how much big science costs and who pays for it.
(Blum and Knudson 1997: x) It is this shift from ‘translating’ science for members of the public so as to, in turn, render problematic its underlying precepts that is crucial in this regard. Science writing, if for many of its practitioners the most deeply satisfying form of journalism to learn, is one of the most difficult to get right.
Science typically appears in the press as ‘an arcane and incomprehensible subject’, Nelkin (1995) observes, around which there is a certain ‘mystique’ that implies it is to be properly regarded as a ‘superior culture’ with a ‘distanced and lofty image’. Far from enhancing public understanding, she argues, ‘such media images create a distance between scientists and the public that, paradoxically, obscures the importance of science and its critical effect on our daily lives’ (Nelkin 1995: 15; see also Duct and Garg 2000; Shachar 2000). Indeed, of the various beats newspaper reporters regularly cover, the science beat is one of the most challenging. ‘In most other speciality beats,’ as Rensberger (1997: 8) of the Washington Post points out, ‘reporters become familiar with a modest body of knowledge (how a city council functions, for example, or the rules of baseball) and turn to the same few, first-name-basis sources every day.’ The science reporter, he adds, seldom enjoys this luxury, having instead to come quickly up-to-speed on a host of emerging events or issues as they surface from one day to the next. Breaking science news is very difficult to anticipate: ‘Today the story may be •a claimed advance in treating cancer, tomorrow it may be explaining atmospheric chemistry and, for the weekend, the latest experiment in fusion power research’ (Rensberger 1997: 8). As quickly as the issue changes, of course, so will the reporter’s perception of which potenrial sources of information are likely to be most appropriate for the news item being prepared.
One of the telling realities of writing about science for a daily newspaper,
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|according to Rensberger, can be found in the mailroom. There, he argues, one will typically find that the ‘mailboxes of the science and medical reporters will be among the most stuffed’ (Rensberger 1997: 7). Demands on the science reporter’s time and attention are as constant as they are vociferous. In Rensberger’s experience, such demands are likely to arise from individuals and groups in all walks of life, but especially from people associaced with Suniversities, corporations, think tanks, government agencies, advocacy groups, independent research institutions, museums, public relations agencies, hospitals, and scientific journals’ (1997: 7). The sheer volume of these efforts to capture the newspaper science reporter’s interest necessarily means that she or he has to assume a ‘gatekeeper’ function in the newsroom. That is to say, the science reporter will have to decide on a routine basis ‘what developments in the real world get into the news, and hence reach the public’. This gatekeeping function is obviously fraught with difficulties, not least where the reporter’s proclaimed objectivity is concerned. ‘After all,’ Rensberger (1997: 11) argues, ‘of the dozens of stories we could do on any given day, we reject most or all possibilities. In this we exercise our opinion as to what is a good story’ (see also Saari et al. 1998; Kiernan 2000; Malone et al. 2000).
And what makes a good science story, in Rensberger’s opinion? In essence, he maintains that the following five criteria — in combination, and to varying degrees from one story to another — are especially valued by newspaper science journalists:
• Fascination value: Rensberger (1997: 11) writes: CThis is the special commodity that science stories, more than any other kind, have to offer. People love to be fascinated, to learn something and think, “That’s amazing, I didn’t know that”.) By this criterion, then, dinosaurs ‘may be the quintessential fascinating topic for science writers’.
• Size of the natural audience: here Rensberger is referring to the number of newspaper readers who are already aware that they are interested in following a news story about a given topic. ‘If the story is about a common disease that everyone had had or fears getting,’ he declares, ‘the natural audience will be larger than for a rare disease’ (1997: 11).
• Importance: the subjective quality of any attempt to assess importance is readily acknowledged by Rensberger, although he suggests that to ‘judge a story idea on this point, you would try to decide whether the event, or finding, or wider knowledge of the event or finding is going to make much of a difference in the real world, especially in that of the average newspaper reader’ (1997: 11—12). Following this logic, ‘AIDS is important, bunions are not.’
- Reliability of the results: to pinpoint this criterion, Rensberger poses the question: ‘Is it good science?’ The single most useful guideline for determining reliability, he argues, is science’s ovvrn peer review system. This system, he writes, Cis a time-tested way to minimize the odds that a misunderstanding is promulgated to the world at large. Science writers who ignore the system risk misleading their readers and embarrassing themselves’ (1997: 12; see also Young 1997).
- Timeliness: ‘The newer the news,’ Rensberger (1997: 13) states, ‘the newsier it is.’
Staying with this last point about timeliness, it is interesting to note that the temporal specificity of the previous four factors is also significant in this regard. That is, their timeliness becomes apparent when considering some of the additional examples Rensberger gives to further illustrate his criteria, such as his claim that newspaper readers will attach a much higher fascination value to black holes over meteors. Today it is much more likely to be the other way around. Fears about the potential risk of a giant meteorite obliterating life on Earth are receiving extensive coverage in the news media, as well as treatment in Hollywood films such as Deep Impact (1998), Armageddon (1998) and the like (see also Mellor 2001c). Similarly, his claim that Creutzfeldt—Jakob disease registers at the low end of the scale with regard to the size of its ‘natural audience’ is, sadly, no longer the case due to public anxieties about the human form of BSE or ‘mad cow disease’.
The processes of selection indicative of one news organization will be at variance with those of others, of course, but shared assumptions about these and related criteria of hrwsworthiness’ recurrently underpin these daily negotiations. News coverage of science tends to favour certain areas of scientific inquiry over and above other areas, a pattern which is usually observable from one newspaper or news broadcast to the next. The process by which certain scientific developments are rendered ‘newsworthy’ while others, in contrast, are deemed unworthy of attention, is the outcome of a complex array of institutional imperatives. Journalists, together with the other individuals involved in the work of processing news in a particular news organization (editors play a key role here), bring to the task of making sense of the social world a series of ‘news values’. These news values are operationalized by each newsworker, as Hall (1981) suggests, in relation to their ‘stock of knowledge’ about what constitutes ‘news’, If all ‘true journalists’, he argues, are supposed to know instinctively what news values are, few are capable of defining them:
Journalists speak of ‘the news’ as if events select themselves. Further, they speak as if which is the ‘most significant’ news story, and which )ses the ‘news angles’ are most salient, are divinely inspired. Yet of the millions deter- of events which occur every day in the world, only a tiny proportion n. This ever become visible as ‘potential news stories’: and of this proportion, a mys- only a small fraction are actually produced as the day’s news in the rs who news media.
them- (Hall 1981: 234)
Hence the need to problematize, in conceptual terms, the operational pracs, ‘the tices in and through which news values help the newsworker to justify the selection of certain types of events as ‘newsworthy’ at the expense of -e that alternative ones. To ascertain how this process is achieved, researchers have in this attempted to explicate the means by which certain news values are embedof ded in the very procedures used by reporters to impose some kind of order •iteria, or coherence on to the social world (see also Allan 1999).
fasci- Hansen (1994: 114—15), drawing on his study of science reporting in the ‘ to be British press, suggests that the ‘most pronounced criterion of newsworthieorite ness is whether science can be made recognizable to the reader in terms of aedia, human interest or in terms of something readers can relate to’. Particularly 998), prized, as a result, are those events which illuminate the relevance of science Y, his to daily life, enabling the journalist to adopt a ‘human angle’ when conscale structing the news story. Further factors informing this process of negoticase ation include the efforts made by news sources or stakeholders themselves ease’. to influence i ournalistic judgements, as well as the relative complexity of the be at event itselE ‘The more complex or inaccessible a piece of science news is,’ these Hansen (1994: 115) writes, ‘the more “translatory work” it will require on daily the part of the journalist to make it intelligible and interesting to the as of readers.’ Time is of the essence for journalists working to conform to a daily ually production schedule, especially where deadlines are concerned. That said, •cess while a significant scientific ‘breakthrough’ may be judged to constitute vhile ‘hard’ news, and thereby warrant immediate coverage, it is much more likely of a that the science involved will be, ‘in news terms, a slow process of small the incremental developments’ (1994: 115). The ‘event-frequency’ of science, tular Hansen contends, seldom corresponds with the ‘news-frequency’ of the king reporting time-cycle:
are ‘Science’ per se is not seen as hard news, but remains part of what some n to journalists call the ‘soft underbelly’ of news coverage, and science Dur- stories tend to get squeezed out if set in direct competition with other, are, more mainstream types of news, particularly political news. With the exception of the “weird-and-wacky’ or the ‘implications-for-the individual’ types of science, science predominantly becomes ‘news’ (i.e. h moves from the domain of the specialist science sections within a
newspaper to the main news sections) if it is linked to major developments in the political or economic sphere.
(Hansen 1994: 116)
Science, it follows, usually will be the main focus of a news story only when it is directly linked to a wider issue or problem, especially one that has unfolded over the previous 24 hours. Far more typically, science provides a supplementary thematic, a so-called *oft’ news or ‘human interest’ item that is much less dependent on notions of ‘timeliness’ than is the case with ‘hard’ news items.
News values are culturally specific, and never fixed once and for all instead they are always evolving over time, and are inflected differently from one news organization to the next. Still, the ostensibly ecommon sensical’ criteria informing definitions of newsworthiness in science journalism have proven to be surprisingly consistent over the years. ‘For all of modern science’s sophisticated concepts and technology,’ Young (1997: 114) observes, ‘journalism’s traditional five ws and an H — who, what, when, where, why and how — still form the core of science reporting.’ Toner (1997) agrees, but with an important caveat:
Editors insist — and many believe — that busy readers have no time for the ‘rest of the story.’ The five ws that journalists once revered are often reduced to four. Yes, we can fit the who, svhat, where and when into the little space on the front page. But skip the why. That fifth W, after all, may only raise more questions than it answers.
(Toner 1997: 130)
This is the key issue, in Toner’s view. Science journalists who fail to ask the question ‘why’ are too often providing information that satiates people’s curiosity, as opposed to stimulating it. ‘Like a weed,’ he writes, ‘curiosity has a habit of popping up in the wrong place. It can be unruly and hard to control, It is robust and tenacious. And where one question sprouts, many more are bound to follow’ (Toner 1997: 128). It is this contagious aspect of curiosity, in his opinion, that renders it ‘such a powerful tool for journalism’. Moreover, he contends: ‘Readers, listeners, and viewers may appreciate our wit, our incisive grasp of complex issues, and the clarity of our delivery, but by planting the seeds of curiosity, we make our audience accomplices in the pursuit of knowledge’ (1997: 129).
If science items can often be, as Petit (1997: 187) suggests, the Sfurthest thing from breaking news, this can be their charm’. In discussing his experiences as a reporter interested in the earth sciences, he draws a sharp contrast between the kinds of news stories he typically writes and the more usual
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|kinds of items published alongside them in the same newspaper. ‘Like stories in astronomy, or on fossils of prehistoric people,’ he writes, ‘discoveries about the Earth’s history and behavior provide for many people a welcome and invigorating break, a mental escape from the daily diet of human disaster, political skulduggery, and crime news’ (Petit 1997: 187). Ropeik (1997), a television news reporter covering science and environmental stories, writes:
The feedback I’ve gotten in my 18 years as a journalist leads me to believe that news consumers are curious. They want to know. They want complicated things explained to them. They have a gee-whiz button waiting to be pushed. I look for ways to push it, in how I organize, how I write, and literally in the tone of voice I use as I narrate my stories.
(Ropeik 1997: 38)
As a result, he places a considerable emphasis in his reporting on being ‘simple and clear, given the brevity and mind-numbing nature of television news’ (Ropeik 1997: 38). To be effective means playing to television’s principal strength, that is, ‘to let the pictures do the talking,’ The rendering of complex scientific issues into visual images, when done thoughtfully, can spark and sustain the viewer’s interest in a way that helps to make core points register. The ‘power of pictures to tell the story’, he maintains, ‘is the television newsperson’s greatest tool’ (1997: 38).
This issue evidently strikes a resonance with Flatow’s (1997) experience in television reporting. In his discussion of the production of long-format science stories tor television, he observes:
The most challenging stories to produce are the ones in the field of science that people fthink’ they don’t find interesting like physics or chemistry, Just the mention of the words can send viewers to their remote controls. The trick, then, is to disguise the science in the piece, hide it, and spring it on the viewer suddenly. Do this by treating the topic not as a ‘science’ story but as an Agatha Christie mystery. Your scientists are not white-coated laboratory technicians but science sleuths on the trail of a suspect. Nobody can resist a good whodunit.
(Flatow 1997: 40-1)
The search for such dramatic elements, he concedes, is difficult. ‘It may also mean, he adds, •finding scientists who are good storytellers, personable on camera, and willing to submit to the rigors of television’ (Flatow 1997: 41 This last point raises a host of issues for the unsuspecting scientist, as Flatow proceeds to elaborate:
|scientists who agree to become television ‘talent’ may have no idea of the demands that may be made of their laboratory. Dozens of phone calls interrupt their work. Scripts have to be written and re-written. Schedules must be arranged. Then comes the invasion. Laboratories are besieged by hoards of camera, lighting and sound people. All work stops while those ‘TV people’ take over. Unsuspecting scientists may balk at the commotion and decide that this is not what they bargained for.
(Flatow 1997: 41)
The logistics involved in finding scientists willing and able to serve as news sources can be formidable. When asked to reflect on how they go about their daily work of identifying those ‘newsworthy’ sources deserving to be included in a news account, journalists will often claim that they simply follow their ‘gut feelings’, ‘hunches’ or ‘instincts’. Many insist that they have a for news’, that they can intuitively tell which sources are going to prove significant and which ones are bound to be irrelevant to the news item. It is this issue of how science journalists interact with scientists, then, that is the focus of the next section.
Scientists as sources
The very basis upon which the journalist is able to detect Lnews events’, as Fishman (1980: 51) points out, rests on the understanding that society is bureaucratically structured. It is this perspective which furnishes the reporter with a ‘map of relevant knowers’ for newsworthy topics. A science journalist covering a story concerning, say, the possible effects of a nuclear power plant on the health of children in a local community, knows that information officers at the plant, as well as politicians, scientists, nuclear energy lobbyists, health officials, social workers, and environmental groups, among others, will be positioned to offer their viewpoints. ‘Whatever the happening,’ writes Fishman (1980: 51), ‘there are officials and authorities in a structural position to know.’ This ‘bureaucratic consciousness’, to employ his phrase, indicates to journalists precisely where they will have to position themselves to be able to follow the time-line or ‘career path’ of an event as It passes through a series of interwoven, yet discernible phases. By this rationale, the higher up in this bureaucratic hierarchy the news source is situated, the more authoritative their words will be for reporting purposes. Journalists are predisposed to treat these accounts as factual, according to Fishman (1980: 96), ‘because journalists participate in upholding a
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|normative order of authorized knowers in society [and] it is also a position of convenience’. After all, the ‘competence’ of the source should, by this logic, translate into a ‘credible’ news story (see also Friedman et al. 1986; Dornan 1990; Gascoigne and Metcalfe 1997; Kiernan 1997; Scanlon et al. 1999).
The phrase ‘Get all sides of the story’ signifies a vital tenet of journalism that Greenberg (1997), a newspaper editor, emphasizes in his discussion of science reporting. ‘Whether a science story involves long-term investigation or quick-turnaround breaking news,’ he writes, ‘it requires well-rounded, balanced reporting that relies on the savvy and expertise of the writer perhaps more than most other beats’ (Greenberg 1997: 97). He proceeds to identify several basic sources for reporting science news stories as follows:
• Journals: the steadiest of science news sources, in Greenberg’s view, journals encourage a certain form of ‘pack reporting’ among journalists. The reason, he argues, is straightforward enough: a researcher is going to drop a bombshell, chances are it will land smack in the pages of Nature, Science, JAMA, the New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, or one of scores of other smaller but respected publications’ (Greenberg 1997: 97), Publications such as these ones are routinely monitored by the major news organizations, namely because to miss an important research story is ‘an acknowledged sin’ (see also Young 1997).
• Meetings: after journals, scientific meetings are the second likeliest place a scientist will announce a major research finding. ‘This does not happen as often as it used to,’ Greenberg (1997: 97) argues, ‘primarily because refereed journals are considered by many a purer forum in which to divulge advances.’ Such meetings are thus less likely to generate ‘breaking news’, but are nevertheless worth attending by science journalists for ‘background’ and to ‘cultivate sources’ for interviews.
• Breaking news: just like other journalists, Greenberg points out, science reporters work ‘at the whim of events’. Speaking of the situation in Los Angeles, where he is based, he states: ‘we’re poised to cover an earthquake every day, and to a lesser extent fire and floods. For science writers it is especially important to develop sources expert in such local phenomena that are likely to recur’ (1997: 97).
Press conferences or press releases: information gathered from these sources needs to be treated with caution. Greenberg argues that a wary eye should be trained on any institution or scientist publicizing their
occasionally press announcements, or contacts from public relations, yield what he considers to be a legitimate news story, even an exclusive one. As he recalls: ‘This was the case recently when, through a long, close working relationship with a public relations person at a local hospital, the Los Angeles Times was present and broke the story of the first gene therapy procedure on a new-born’ (1997: 97).
- Unsolicited calls: Greenberg expresses his advice where this type of source is concerned in blunt terms: ‘If “scientists” you don’t know want to pub lish their original “research” in your newspaper or magazine, rather than in a journal, run for cover’ (1997: 97—8).
- Own sources: a crucial task for any science reporter, indeed for Greenberg possibly the most important part of covering science, is %uilding up a cadre of reliable, informed sources that you can call for reaction and comment — both on or off the record — about any range of stories’ (1997: 98). Such a task takes time and experience, he argues, as well as ‘gaining the trust of such people through consistently accurate and well-written stories’ (1997: 98).
Overall, in Greenberg’s view, the value of a science news item will ultimately come to rest on the calibre of the sources the reporter has drawn upon to tell the story. In almost every instance, he maintains, the nature of the story determines where the reporter looks for appropriate sources. Such is not always the case, though. ‘While the rules for choosing sources on most science stories are clear,’ Greenberg (1997: 99—100) writes, ‘certain kinds of stories can render those rules as gooey as volcanic mudflows.’ Here he cites ‘the infamous “cold fusion” experiment’ of 1989 to illustrate his point, an occasion where despite the fact that many journalists were deeply sceptical of the claims being made they nevertheless gave the announcement blanket coverage as a major news event (see also Toomey 1996; Bucchi 1998).
The challenge of balancing as many authoritative sources as possible within a news account appears to be a crucial one for the science reporter. Disagreement between sources cannot always be framed in terms of ‘right and wrong’, instead sometimes it may be more accurately characterized as simply representing varied interpretations. ‘Many scientific studies’, Young (1997: 116) maintains, ‘are so complex, so difficult to do, that their findings do, indeed, lend themselves to two or more interpretations.’ The opinion of the research team, he adds, should not be enshrined in truth when others working in the same field may — quite rightly — view the results rather differently. This point is similarly addressed by Harris (1997), an environmental reporter, who argues that in the case of ‘extreme’ points of view
|lations,||among potential sources, even greater care needs to be taken to maintain|
|cclusive||journalistic balance. In his view, the kinds of voices heard at the margins of|
|g, close||a scientific consensus tend to be either ignored entirely or treated with equal|
|ital, the||weight in a news story. What is much more appropriate, he maintains, is for|
|st gene||the journalist to scrupulously situate each voice within the larger spectrum of opinion so as to enable the news audience to understand their arguments|
|source||in context. It is important to bear in mind, Harris (1997: 170) points out,|
|to pub-||that the ‘minority view isn’t necessarily wrong — just ask Galileo’.|
|er than||What motivates the scientist to take the journalist seriously? In Rensberger’s (1997: 9) experience, they simply ‘want the public to know, to|
|en berg||understand, and to be on their side in a world too often given to ignorance,|
|g up a||fear and superstition’. In discussing how science reporters interact with their|
|and||sources, Salisbury (1997) argues that the gap between them is usually not as|
|(1997:||wide as it tends to be in other areas of journalism. Indeed, in his experience,|
|raining||members of the scientific and journalistic communities are in many ways|
|vritten||‘natural allies’, sharing as they do ‘a skeptical approach to information and a devotion to discovering the truth’ (Salisbury 1997: 222). Both sides are likely to benefit from what can be a mutually advantageous relationship.|
|Il ulti-||Just as news organizations often seek to boost their audience figures by|
|drawn||drawing on reports of exciting scientific discoveries, so scientists can attract|
|ure of||political and economic support for their research by receiving favourable|
|Such||media treatment. That said, however, this symbiotic relationship can quickly|
|on||become fraught with difficulties at a number of interrelated levels. Indeed,|
|ertain||as Salisbury elaborates:|
|Here||Scientists live in a different ‘time zone’ from reporters. They work on|
|Ite his||projects for months and years, so a paper that has been out for six|
|deeply||months can still seem new to them. Conversely, in some fields it takes|
|:ment||six months to a year for a paper to appear in a journal, and by then the|
|iucchi||scientist has moved onto another topic and considers the paper old|
|ssible||news. Because scientists’ time frame is so different, they are unlikely to|
|orter.||contact the news office at a journalistically appropriate time.|
|‘right||(Salisbury 1997: 220)|
|•.ed as||In attempting to overview some of the more pronounced ones, Salisbury|
|opin-||• To scientists, the devil is definitely in the details, while journalists are|
|when||interested primarily in the big picture.|
|ather||• To scientists, disputation is part of the process of advancing under-|
|iron-||standing ever closer to truth; to journalists conflict is the source of|
|view||drama that adds zest to a story.|
O I MEDIA,
- Scientists are continually trying to build consensus, while journalists focus on the drama of pro and con.
- To scientists, peer review is an integral part of a process designed to reduce errors. To most journalists, allowing sources to review material before publication is an unacceptable ceding of editorial independence.
- To scientists, technical terms provide added precision and clarity to discourse. To journalists, technical terms constitute a jargon that obfuscates science and makes it incomprehensible to the general reader.
(Salisbury 1997: 222)
Given the significant number of scientists who feel that they have been ‘burned’ in some way by the media, Salisbury observes that it can be difficult to persuade them that ‘the overall benefits to the science community at large are worth the time, energy, and risk involved in dealing with reporters’ (1997: 223).
To be effective, then, science journalists need to cultivate a relationship of trust with their sources. Needless to say, the symbiotic nature of the scientist Tjournalist relationship can quickly come unravelled under certain circumstances, especially where controversial claims are involved. Speaking from his experience as a science reporter, Young (1997) warns of the ‘hidden agenda’ a scientist can bring to bear in an interview with a journalist:
The possibility of profiting from their research or a fear of losing their research funding may skew their comments or color their judgement of their work’s potential for benefiting humankind. Or they may be wedded too intensely to some cause, such as saving the environment or preventing child abuse, or even to some scientific theory.
(Young 1997: 115)
This cautionary note similarly informs Trafford’s (1997) discussion of how health reporters handle their sources. She proceeds to highlight the danger of quoting ‘everyone you talk to on an equal basis in the name of c‘ balance” [when] what you’re really striving for is fairness and accuracy’ (Trafford 1997: 137). As she points out, not every source is equal, nor should it be the case that different viewpoints be reported in equal terms: VThe reader expects you to make the first cut in evaluating the major points in a story’ (1997: 137). When it comes to handling potential news sources, then, care needs to be taken to evaluate their relative merits. Public health stories, in her experience as a health editor on a daily newspaper in the US, typically start with government officials:
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|In many ways, they [government officials] are like real estate agents: they are often friendly, knowledgeable, and sophisticated. They show you a lot of properties. They want you to be happy and they answer a lot of your questions. But remember, they are always working for the seller — namely, the government, and in some cases, the president, or the governor or major who gave them their job.
(Trafford 1997: 136)
Trafford (1997: 136) discerns several rings of sources flowing outward from this governmental realm of public health officials. The first such ring is composed of major institutions, such as schools of public health, hospital systems, medical schools, and research and policy centres. The second ring encompasses advocacy groups, including disease organizations and grassroots citizens’ groups, as well as lobby groups, which include promotional foundations and trade associations (such as those associated with hospitals or drug companies). In the third ring are what Trafford (1997: 136) calls ‘the bystanders’, that is, ‘those individuals who are more affected by a public health problem and the government’s plan to deal with it.’ Finally, in the fourth and outermost ring, is the general public.
For those science journalists committed to ensuring that their reporting fulfils this sense of public responsibility, a range of exigent issues emerge. Particularly relevant here is the danger that they will be accused of allowing the ‘subjective’ opinions of their sources to cloud what should be Sobjective’ statements of fact. But how can the science reporter establish which facts are (objective’ when their sources disagree? Describing the ‘hardships and pitfalls’ in science writing, Perlman (1997) observes:
Journals can be filled with deadly jargon. Claims for statistical significance from randomized double-blind clinical trials can be difficult to challenge. Explaining quarks, subatomic particles with their arcane attributes of strangeness and spin and color and charm, may not gladden the hearts of editors or command the column inches that every science writer knows such stories truly demand. And controversy can arise in every field of science to challenge a reporter’s confidence in his or her judgement.
(Perlman 1997: 4-5)
A science editor for a daily newspaper in the US, Perlman is adamant that the science journalist is ‘not entitled to bias or conflicts of interest’ in their reporting. In the course of making their judgements about what counts as a ‘fact’, they must eschew hype, and be sure to uphold rules of fairness in handling their sources. That said, however, Perlman (1997: 5) insists that
‘they must always recognize that merely counting yeahs and nayes in a scientific controversy fails to serve the public and is rarely a guarantee of fairness.’ In his view, good reporting entails more than writing about scientific discoveries or developments in a balanced manner. It also means explaining ‘their potential impact and their costs and benefits, even while we present the valid sides of the controversies they generate’ (Perlman 1997: 6).
Blum and Knudson (1997: 76), both science reporters, point to ‘the continuing culture conflict between scientists and journalists’, arguing that it has ‘intensified as popular reporting on science has become more extensive and more influential’, The relationship between both groups is slowly evolving, however, as the gap between their respective perceptions arguably narrows. Still, according to Blum and Knudson:
Many [scientists] remain wary of the media: they don’t want to look like show-offs; they aren’t certain the audience will understand; and when the reporter ambles in and asks whether CC). floats or swims, they aren’t sure the reporter gets it either. The whole experience can simply make a researcher nervous, and the result is sometimes obsessive focus on perfecting every detail.
(Blum and Knudson 1997: 76)
This is not to deny, though, that some improvements are being made Blum and Knudson (1997: 76) suggest that many scientists are beginning to gain a better understanding of the journalistic profession, and in so doing ‘may gain a more realistic expectation of media coverage’. Scientists and journalists, they observe, share at least one common goal: ‘to make science vivid, real, compelling, and important’ (1997: 76).
This is anything but simple in practice, of course. Jarmul (1997: 124), a science journalist, points out how reporters are trained ‘to be objective and to keep yourself out of the story’ while, at the same time, science teaches them to ‘write in an impersonal, passive voice’. Hence his call for science reporters to forget these rules, or at least to re-examine them, in order to become a ‘real person’ who can ‘connect with readers’ hearts, not just with their heads’ (Jarmul 1997: 124). This need to form points of connection is particularly important where the communication of risk is concerned, the subject of the next section’s discussion.
Each year government agencies from one country to the next publish statisti cal profiles of risk. In the case of Britain, for example, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) releases an annual surveillance report on domestic accidents. Drawing on hospital statistics, the report routinely shows that the home is a risky place to be. Results for 1999, publicly released in 2001, found that on average 76 people were killed each week in domestic accidents that year — more than died in road accidents (The Guardian, 7 June 2001).
|con-||I Stairs or steps indoors|
|at it||2 Carpet or underlay|
|1s1ve||3 A child causing obstruction or collision
4 Floor surfaces
|ably||5 An adult causing obstruction or collision
6 Walking barefoot 7 Concrete surfaces
9 Outdoor steps
|ve||Pensioners and small children were found to be the most vulnerable. ‘People can be injured by some quite unlikely items,’ commented a DTI spokes-|
|6)||person, v and more people are injured in the home than anywhere else’ (The|
|Blum||Guardian, 7 June 2001). Evidently each year about 600,000 people require|
|gam||emergency hospital treatment following collisions with other people or objects. Moreover, glossy magazines reportedly cause four times more acci-|
|rnal-||dents than chainsaws, while beanbags do more harm than meat cleavers.|
|ivid,||Over 100,000 accidents a year may be attributed to alcohol consumption, making simple tasks — including removing one’s clothes at bedtime apparently — potentially hazardous.|
|and||This type of statistical information, used by governments to help develop|
|Ches||consumer safety policy, is frequently made the subject of light-hearted com-|
|ence||mentary in newspapers. An editorial leader in The Independent addressing|
|to||the above DTI report, for example, suggests that life ‘is a dangerous busi-|
|with||ness’ (7 June 2001). ‘Admittedly,’ it observes, ‘accidents caused by sponges|
|on IS||and loofahs are down from 996 to 787, no doubt because of an admirable|
|the||government initiative, until now sadly ignored. Armchairs, too, have become less aggressive — inflicting a mere 16,000 injuries.’ It then proposes that a Royal Commission be established to investigate accidents caused by socks and tights. Humour aside, of course, the difficulties in communicating the realities of risk remain.
A risk of an altogether different nature received extensive news coverage
|fisti-||in the United States during the summer of 2001. Several different shark|
|nt of||attacks on human swimmers, taking place along the coastlines of Florida,|
The top ten causes of accidents in the home were listed as follows:
Virginia and North Carolina, were front-page news across the country. Despite being isolated incidents, many news reports alerted members of the public to the ‘dramatically increasing risks’ of swimming in the ocean, typically making vivid references to ‘a spate of shark attacks’ or ‘a wave of shark attacks’. As a result, to the extent that these separate incidents were held to be indicative of the ‘Season of the Shark’ (a Time magazine cover story headline), such reports encouraged the perception that there was an underlying pattern or trend emerging. If for some journalists there was something more than coincidence at work, however, it was ‘the dull duty of science’ — to use a phrase from a New York Times editorial — to point out that these incidents were ‘grouped together only in time and by the fact that every victim was in the water when the attack took place’ (9 September 2001). The attendant risk calculation, it follows, must be placed in context. Indeed, as the editorial goes on to point out, research from the Statistical Assessment Service maintains that 28 children were killed by falling television sets in the US between 1990 and 1997, four times as many people who were killed by great white shark attacks in the twentieth century. ‘Loosely speaking,’ the editorial observes, this research suggests that ‘watching “Jaws” on TV is more dangerous than swimming in the Pacific. ‘
While the media frenzy over the risk of shark attacks was unwarranted, the problem of how best to define what counts as a ‘risk’ — as opposed to, say, a ‘threat’ or a ‘hazard’ — remains an awkward one. The subject of considerable debate both within and beyond scientific communities, meanings of the term often varying quite dramatically from one user to the next. In its technical sense, however, risk is usually defined as the calculated probability of an adverse consequence (such as a danger, harm or loss) arising because of a specific action or process. Adams (1999: 285) identifies three broad categories of risk:
- directly perceptible risks: e.g. traffic to and from landfill sites
- risks perceptible with the help of science: e.g. cholera and toxins in landfill sites
- virtual risks — scientists don’t know/cannot agree: e.g. BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy or ‘mad cow disease’ or CJD Creutzfeldt— Jakob disease] and suspected carcinogens.
Self-described frisk managers’ tend to focus on the first two of these three categories. The reason, Adams (1999: 285) argues, is that ‘[qluantified risk assessments require that the probabilities associated with particular events be known or be capable of plausible estimation’. Scientists, as many of them are quick to acknowledge, tend to frame issues of risk in terms of probabilities
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|which are little more than confident expressions of uncertainty: ‘When scientists cannot agree on the odds,’ writes Adams (1999: 285), •or the underlying causal mechanisms, of illness, injury or environmental harm, people are liberated to argue from belief and conviction’ (see also Friedman et al. 1999; Scanlon et al. 1999).
Scientists’ perceptions of risk, one study after the next suggests, can be at serious odds with those held by members of the public. Research commissioned on public perceptions of risk by Britain’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST 1996), for example, provides a series of pertinent insights. In addition to the actual size of the risk, a variety of different factors are identified which appear to influence public perceptions:
• Control: people are more willing to accept risks they impose upon themselves, or they consider to be ‘natural’, than to have risks imposed upon them.
• Dread and scale of impact: fear is greatest where the consequences of a risk are likely to be catastrophic rather than spread over time.
• Familiarity: people appear more willing to accept risks that are familiar rather than new risks.
• Timing: risks seem to be more acceptable if the consequences are immediate or short term, rather than if they are delayed — especially if they might affect future generations.
• Social amplification and attenuation: concern can be increased because of media coverage or graphic depiction of events, or reduced by economic hardship.
• Trust: a key factor is how far the public trusts regulators, policymakers, or industry. If these bodies are open and accountable — being honest, admitting mistakes and limitations and taking account of differing views without disregarding them as emotive or irrational then the public is more likely to place credibility in them.
These factors, taken together, contribute to a better understanding of why some risks are perceived as being rnore serious than others. Each in turn highlights, to varying degrees, the significance of the media in shaping these perceptions. That is to say, confronted by scientific uncertainty where risks are concerned, c ordinary’ or c lay’ members of the public are likely to turn to the news media, in particular, for a greater understanding of what is at stake. Journalists are charged with the responsibility of imposing meaning upon uncertainties, that is, it is expected that they will render intelligible the underlying significance of uncertainties for their audiences’ everyday
experiences of modern life. More often than not, news accounts will offer the assurance that a potential risk will remain uncertain only until further research and scientific investigation are able to provide the expected clarity and certitude (see also Adam 2000).
Risk, as Hornig (1993) points out, thus becomes a deeply political issue. ‘In a post-industrial democracy,’ she writes, the social acceptability of the risks of emerging technologies is an everyday form of crisis’ (Hornig 1993: 95). In seeking to investigate the decisive influence of the media in shaping public debate over risk policy issues, she draws attention to the ways in which diverse political actors use scientific opinion to advance their interests. Specifically, she identifies two distinct approaches to the evaluation of risks, namely the ‘rationalist’ and the ‘subjectivist’ positions. Both of these perspectives incorporate — either explicitly or implicitly — an opposing range of assumptions about scientific opinion in relation to how different levels of risk are best determined.
The rationalist position, Hornig (1993: 96) maintains, ‘holds that it is theoretically possible, if sufficient data could be collected and various tech nical problems of analysis solved, to arrive at an absolute measure of the riskiness associated with any technological innovation’. For advocates of this position, this theoretical measure may then serve, in turn, as a yardstick of sorts against which the sway of public opinion and media representations may be calculated. At issue, in their view, is the need to improve risk-related decision-making by ensuring that systematic ‘distortions’ are recognized as such and set right through public education. As a result, Hornig (1993: 96) observes that from this position •media accounts of risk are typically judged on how accurately they reflect the scientific point of view and how well they contribute to public education designed to eradicate wrong thinking’.
Sharply counterpoised against this approach to risk is the ssubjectivist’ position. Here Hornig acknowledges the contribution made by various psychometric studies of risk perception to the development of this position over the past few years. Of particular import is the line of argument which holds that ‘the evaluation of risk information takes place in a social context and involves value judgements and priorities — that is, that this process is inherently subjective’ (1993: 96). Risk, it follows, is not an objective condition somehow existing outside of human observation or interpretation, 1
Rather, research undertaken from this perspective focuses primarily on the social process in and through which particular definitions of risk are constructed. That is to say: under scrutiny are these contending definitions precisely as they are being mobilized to lend credence to a particular understanding of the risk issue in question. ‘The media figure prominently in this picture’, Hornig (1993: 96) notes, ‘as they vocalize and therefore legitimize
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|some points of view (often those of established institutional news sources) and ignore others.’ This often subtle process of legitimizing certain definitions of risk at the expense of alternative ones serves to illuminate the clash of competing institutional interests. ‘News accounts’, she argues, ‘inevitably contribute to definitions-of-the-situation that serve some interests in preference to others, the journalistic ethic of objectivity (which echoes in interesting ways the rationalist notion of risk) notwithstanding’ (1993: 96).
It is hardly surprising, of course, that news coverage of risk issues is found wanting from the vantage point of both positions, respectively. If, from the rationalist perspective, news accounts are frequently blamed for distorting and politicizing ‘technical’ risk issues, Hornig maintains, from a subjectivist perspective they are often blamed for over-representing the scientific point of view in positive terms. Risk reporting, she argues, ‘seems destined to please no-one — a problem that is much deeper and more difficult than a question of whether scientific and environmental journalists get their technical facts straight, or whether media accounts are pro- or anti-technology’ (1993: 97). Of particular concern, then, is the extent to which the media help to set the agenda of public concerns, especially with regard to defining or ‘framing’ risk issues for their audiences.
In the case of her own research into public responses to media accounts of technological risk, Hornig accepts the subjectivist premise that levels of risk are contingent upon a given interpretive context. In dispensing with any idea of attempting to ‘measure’ the relative ‘degree of divergence from the “correct” interpretations’ of risk available, she seeks to study instead the arguments that underlie actual ‘lay’ or ‘ordinary’ people’s risk evaluations. Lay publics, her focus group research suggests, work with an ‘expanded vocabulary of risk’ that stakes into account a broader and in a sense more sophisticated range of factors than do rationalist measures of risk’ (1993: 98). Such factors include, for example, a ‘broad variety of considerations related to technologies will fit into and be controlled within the social system: the technologies’ compatibility with ethical principles, procedures for their regulation, where potential or alleged risks are undertaken knowingly or unknowingly, and so on’ (1993: 106). Thus to examine how members of the public negotiate the significance of the various risks indicative of modern society, researchers will need to extend the scope of their investigations far beyond the limits of rationalist evaluative frameworks, and their attendant cost—benefit analyses (see also Tulloch and Lupton 2001 ).
Critical lines of inquiry, it follows, have to recognize the importance of accounting for the media’s construction of risk as part of the lived politics of the everyday. In this context, the work of Ulrich Beck (1992a, 1995, 2000) has proven to be highly influential. Particularly consequential, for
I RI S K
example, is his conception of the ‘relations of definition’ underpinning media discourses which condition what can and should be said about risks, threats and hazards by ‘experts’ and •counter-experts’, as well as by members of the lay public. The analysis of risk, he argues, needs to account for the media’s structurating significance in the formation of public opinions about risk. To clarify, Beck (1995) accords to the media a crucial role in the organization and dissemination of knowledge about economic decisionmaking and political control vis-å-vis the uncertainties associated with risks:
The system of institutionally heightened expectations forms the social background in front of which — under the close scrutiny of the mass media and the murmurs of the tensely attentive public — the institutions of industrial society present the dance of the veiling of hazards. The hazards, which are not merely projected onto the world stage, but really threaten, are illuminated under the mass media spotlight.
(Beck 1995: 101)
Important questions therefore arise as to who in the media wields this spotlight, under what circumstances and, moreover, where it is (and is not) directed and why. It follows that it is of the utmost significance how issues of proof, accountability and compensation are represented in and by media discourses. Risks, as Beck (1992a: 23, original emphasis) writes, can ‘be changed, magnified, dramatized or minimized within knowledge, and to that extent they are particularly open to social definition and construction’. The ways in which journalists help to mediate the limits of risk, as always both in conjunction with and opposition to other institutions across society, consequently need to be carefully unravelled for purposes of analysis.
This process of mediation involves a series of procedures for knowing the world and, equally importantly, for not knowing that world as well. It is fraught with uncertainty, ambiguity and contradiction. As noted above, the preferred ‘models’ of the scientist, for example, do not ‘translate’ easily into the reportorial strategies of the journalist anxious to convey their meaning to the intended audience. ‘Risk societies’, writes Beck (1998: 19), ‘are currently trapped in a vocabulary that lends itself to an interrogation of the risks and hazards through the relations of definition of simple, classic, first modernity.’ As a result, he continues, this vocabulary is (singularly inappropriate not only for modern catastrophes, but also for the challenges of manufactured uncertainties’ (Beck 1998: 19). In the case of scientific perspectives, then, they must therefore undergo a process of journalistic narrativization before they are likely to ‘make sense’ to a public facing unknown and barely calculable risks. ‘Dispassionate facts’ must be marshalled into a ‘balanced’ news story, ideally one with a distinct beginning, middle and end, as well as with easily identifiable ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ conflicts. This struggle to narrativize the scientific world necessarily situates journalists at the point where, as Beck (1992b) observes, the antagonisms between those who produce risk definitions and those who consume them are at their most apparent. Daily newspaper reading, as he notes, becomes can exercise in technology critique’.
This is to suggest, then, that the identification of the slips, fissures, silences and gaps in media reporting needs to be simultaneously accompanied by a search for alternatives. New ways need to be found to enhance the forms and practices of science journalism in a manner consistent with today’s moral and ethical responsibilities for tomorrow Many of the salient issues discussed in this chapter relate to the “monitoring’ and ‘surveillance’ functions Beck attributes to the media as privileged sites for larger definitional struggles over the scale, degree and urgency of what are incalculable risks, In seeking to denaturalize the ways in which the media process certain voices as being self-evidently ‘expert’ or ‘authoritative’ while simultaneously framing others as lacking ‘credibility’, it is this very self-evidentness which needs to be recognized as a terrain of discursive struggle. ‘In the case of risk conflicts’, Beck (1998: 15) declares, ‘bureaucracies are suddenly unmasked and the alarmed public becomes aware of what they really are: for;ns of organized irresponsibility.’ Media institutions are very much implicated in these ‘forms of organized irresponsibility’; their representations of the ideological contests being waged over the right to characterize the consequences of risks are typically anything but ‘impartial’ or ‘objective’. Regardless of what some journalists might insist, facts do not ‘speak for themselves’, and voices calling into question scientific rationalities are not, by defimtion, ‘irrational’, ‘misinformed’ or ‘anti-science’ (see also Cottle 1998; Macnaghten and Urry 1998; Adam et al. 2000).
The next chapter’s discussion of media representations of ‘the environment’ will return to the writings of Beck on the ‘risk society’ in the first instance, before proceeding to offer an evaluative appraisal of the diverse ways in which journalists frame the realities of environmental risks, threats and hazards. A key point of departure, then, is this recognition that the taken-for-granted, seemingly common sensical assumptions underpinning the media’s preferred relations of definition are pivotal to the way we as members of the public understand, negotiate and challenge the uncertainties of today’s risk society: Indeed, as Beck (2000: xiv) observes, this society ‘can be grasped theoretically, empirically and politically only if one starts from the premise that it is always a knowledge, media and information society at the same time — or, often enough as well, a society of non-knowledge and disinformation’.
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