Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Science Communication in 20th Century Europe

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin | Projekte | Science Communication in 20th Century Europe | Linking the history of science popularization with the history of journalism! A research note.

Linking the history of science popularization with the history of journalism! A research note.

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Markus Lehmkuhl (Freie Universität Berlin & Research Center Jülich, Germany)


I will open this note with a hypothesis that concerns the reasons for a great continuity regarding judgments of science in public, especially science in media. The continuity concerns a time period reaching from the 19th century until today, probably we would find similar judgments even earlier, if we searched systematically for them.

Wherever you look, the presence of science and technology in the mass media was and still is usually judged negatively by observers: what there is in radio and television, magazines and newspapers, is too little, too superficial, too distorted. I will only cite one example of this attitude from the past. It is a welcome note for a new TV programme from the editor of the journal “Science” from 1956, who – after mocking some former science TV programmes - hoped that the new coloured broadcast programme would find “a way to interest and entertain a mass popular audience without distorting the aims and spirit of science”. (DuS 1956: 963).

This welcome note by a contemporary observer in the fifties which could be supplemented by various others from different periods has – this is my hypothesis – its origin in the disability to conceive journalism as something other than a bare mediator between science and lay audiences. Journalism is conceived rather as a sort of partner of science, as an interpreter with the ability and the duty to mediate between science and the public.
Starting from the sixties social sciences have conducted a voluminous and impressive body of science in media studies which usually conceptualised journalism as a mere mediator between science an lay audiences. Based on what science is published they normally reflect critically on the picture of science drawn by journalism ( e.g. Pellechia 1997; Kua et al. 2004; Major et al. 2004). Commonly a mismatch was observed between science-in-media and science which ought to become public. This frequently gave rise to criticism of journalism in general and its selectivity in particular. In his theoretical design of science journalism, Kohring (2005) holds the view that this model shaped, over time, almost all of English and German literature on the subject from the 19twentith until today.

If the conclusions are that similar independent from the time period observed, two interpretations are possible: First: Nothing has changed in the relation between science and journalism. Within the 20th century, marked by various sustainable fractures, the relation between journalism and the sciences is a shelter of continuity. Second: Something is wrong with the theoretical concept of this relation. My suspicion is that the latter is true.  

I argue that what is reported by science journalism can neither be understood as a reflection nor as a distortion of what is going on “out there” in the sciences. Instead, what is seen on the screen or heard on the radio, what you can read about science in magazines and newspapers has always been a reflection of the practices of workers in the organisations that have produced this content (Fishman 1982: 220). These practices are organised in the sense that a media professional who acts as a member of an organisational unit like a newsroom, cannot act professionally in any way he or she sees fit. Professional journalism action is generally embedded and it is led by decisions that enable the perception and reconstruction of the world by media professionals through the reduction of hyper-complexity (Rühl 2002: 318). Accordingly, if we link contemporary understandings of the importance and the true nature of science with normative purposes targeting journalism as transmitter of these understandings, we will always find the same: what is reported is too little, too superficial and too distorted.

My conclusion accordingly runs as follow: If we are interested in a better and more adequate understanding of the historic genesis of science in the public sphere, we inevitably have to think about journalism as an organised production of meaning, we have to link the history of the popularisation of science with the history of journalism. More precisely, we need to think about journalism as a societal institution with an own identity, and we need to research the ways by which journalism has tried to protect this identity by providing science contents. We are then in the position to ask which external factors might have been influenced the establishment of structures within journalism that can be described as specialised on science. In my opinion, this would help to overcome the science centricity of current and past approaches of science in media studies.

I will try to outline what I mean by this. I will introduce an analytical framework that may have the potential of being a suitable framework for providing promising insights into the history of science popularisation, as far as mass media are concerned. This framework has recently been applied in a large scale empirical study of TV and Radio science journalism in Europe (Lehmkuhl et. al. 2012).

The considerations start with the premise that we cannot think about journalism in general and science journalism in particular without thinking about its publics. Journalism is and has always been guided by the need to gain attention for its products (Luhmann, 1981: 318). Attention for statements depends on the informational value. A statement is only then informative if it is “new”, i.e. if it was previously unknown to the recipient (Ott, 2004). Attention also depends on the relevance to the recipient (here relevance is understood in the broad sense of being useful for the recipient). Only that, which is informative and relevant, can gain attention (Merten, 1973). Informational value is a contingent category, it depends on the context and is in the eye of the beholder. What is new and relevant for one individual, might be already known and irrelevant to another. Hence, there are endless messages which could potentially gain attention.

In order to produce messages that can gain attention, journalism sections like science sections must follow routines in their selectivity. Studies influenced by systems theory have used the term “decision-making programs” (Rühl 2002) that enable journalism’s reconstruction of the world since they reduce hyper-complexity. These routines serve to protect the bond between journalism and its audiences (Rühl 2002: 318). Lublinski (2004; 2008; 2011), who studied three German radio science programs and a news agency extensively through participant observation, called these decision-making programs “editorial concepts”. These concepts decide to a certain extent what journalism can observe and select and how it is reconstructed.

We can theoretically distinguish several editorial concepts guiding journalism in its relations with audiences. These distinctions are influenced by studies that focus on key decisions within science specialist units which shaped science’s reconstruction by media professionals working for these sections. These decisions affect the topic fields that are continuously monitored, the precise ways in which the news value of timeliness is applied and the “special processes of how to select and reconstruct an issue” (Lublinski 2004: 95f; 2008: 281; 2011). These latter refer to what we will call the input and output orientation of programs. Input orientation means, that events from within science guides journalism’s selectivity. Output orientation means that certain functions like education for instance or giving advice guides the selection of topics. These insights have been used to develop a typology of science reporting which was based on monitoring science journalism in Europe.

Although all types of science journalism face the task, to send regularly informative and relevant messages to their audience, they do it differently. This means, that there are different possibilities to produce such messages regularly:  Empirically, we can distinguish five types of science journalism: Each type represent similar to genres something like a way to protect journalisms’ bond with its audiences.

  1. Information journalism on science: This refers to journalism sections who are  specialised in observing news from the field of science and to choose those that seem especially useful regarding its audience, for example because the news concerns many people.
  2. Popularisation journalism. This refers to Journalism who is specialised in taking on stories, which, when seen in isolation, are not new in a chronological sense but belong in the wider context of scientific fields and condense them into new messages. This is the case, for example, in reports about the birth of black holes, the origin of humankind, the history of the theory of relativity, generally about more or less big themes in science. This journalism attempts to offer a large audience deeper insights into fields of science that would otherwise be closed to them. This kind of journalism faces a completely different problem than information journalism. The main problem lies not in the selection of relevant scientific news, but in the development of communication techniques which motivate the media user to engage with a topic relatively intensely.
  3. Journalism can also specialise in using unheard-of scientific explanation to enrich things that are, in a broad sense, part of people’s realm of experience. This type of journalism I call Edutainment, he answers questions such as, why the sun goes down, why one gets more quickly wet in the rain when running, what will happen if one places a broom stick into a specially prepared blender or stick one's head into a bubble of helium. This journalism faces the task of delivering ever surprising connections between phenomena from the everyday realm and scientific explanations and to present those explanations in a generally entertaining way. This demand is very different to the ones of the information and popularisation journalism. The selectivity of this journalism is independent from what happens in the science system. This makes it difficult to organise journalism’s observation. This is why this journalism often asks its audience for interesting questions that should be explained.
  4. Advice journalism on health or technology are characterised by the topic field, have short preparation times and give advice on, for example, healthier living. Selection of topics and processing of the selections are primarily output oriented in these programmes, selection and reconstruction are guided by the necessity to provide recipients with clear and unambiguous tips.
  5. Advocacy programmes or Environment journalism finally share similarly to advice programmes some characteristics of input oriented programmes, but are classified as primarily output oriented due to the centrality of fulfilling a specified need, which is the societal need of environment protection. Although these programmes report on recent science studies occasionally, they are primarily characterised by linking scientific expertise with political topics such as new regulations regarding water supply or saving energy or “natural” topics such as disasters.

These five different programme types stand for key decisions, which determine the frame of what actually can be selected and how the material selected can be processed. It can be applied at the item level or at the level of bigger entities as whole programmes or specialised sections within journalism. When applied to the programme level, the decision for or against broadcasting a particular programme type is key, since it has far reaching consequences. If a TV channel decided not to broadcast any information programme on science, including regular reports of science news, the channel has no need to accumulate expertise in observing and processing scientific occurrences as news. The “typification” (Tuchman 1973:116) of an occurrence by media professionals working in such a channel would transform a science news event automatically into a non-event (Fishman 1982). If a whole country lacks information programmes in TV, scientific news of any kind has only a very small chance of becoming public via TV, however intensively professional PR workers within scientific institutions may work on it. And – more importantly - scientific news have no chance of being selected and processed by media professionals who are specialised in observing and processing new scientific findings. The channel in such a case simply lacks organisational structures, which enable the perception and timely reconstruction of what is going on in the science system. The channel has to be assessed as being blind with regard to what has been typified as scientific news.

In applying typologies like the one presented here, which is applicable on different levels, we are not only able to analyse current science representations across countries. They can also be useful to reveal insights into the past reconstruction of science and its external influences. It would be highly relevant to know, when for instance journalism started to report scientific news on a regular basis. And which intra and extra-media factors may explain this extension of journalism’s observation. I think that it would also be helpful in learning more about the history of the relation between science and society, if we knew when and why journalism started to supplement the popularization of science by the use of scientific explanations as service, be it shaped as univocal tip of how to do things or be it to explain things belonging to peoples’ every day realm. This in my view would serve as an indicator for the assumption that something has changed in the relation between science and the public.

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