(Un)Certainty in the News: Journalists’ Decisions on Communicating the Scientific Evidence of Nanotechnology.

Title(Un)Certainty in the News: Journalists’ Decisions on Communicating the Scientific Evidence of Nanotechnology.
Publication TypeConference Paper
Author(s)Guenther, L., G. Ruhrmann, and B. Ermentraut
Affiliation (1st Author)Institute of Communication Research, Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany
Section or WGEnvironment, Science, and Risk Communication Working Group
DateFri 28 June
Slot CodeENVF1a
Slot Code (Keyword)ENVF1a
Time of Session9:00-10:30
RoomHelix Blue Room
Session TitleMedia, Science and Public Understanding/ Engagement
Submission ID4896

Media outlets are the gateway to nanotechnology for the general public. Social scientists have begun to investigate scientists’ perceptions of media coverage of nanotechnology, its current media depiction, and public understanding of this emerging technology (for an overview see Besley et al., 2008), but up to this point researchers have conducted little inquiry into the science journalists covering this issue in the media. Nanotechnology as an innovative field of research compromises both risks and benefits, with high uncertainty regarding risks (Rogers-Hayden & Pidgeon, 2007). Uncertainty is defined as an absence of scientific knowledge (Stocking & Holstein, 2009), an integral part of scientific research, as well as accurate news coverage (Schneider, 2010). Initial results reveal that journalists perceive a low level of nanotechnology coverage – one reason for that is the high uncertainty in this field of research (Wilkinson et al., 2007). When reporting on current findings, journalists can use different coverage styles to highlight the certainty or uncertainty of results (Corbett & Durfee, 2004; Stocking & Holstein, 2009). However, little inquiry has focused on the concepts underlying these coverage styles. Therefore, the reasoned action approach (RAA, Fishbein & Ajzen, 2010) is applied here as a framework to explain the depiction behavior of science journalists. According to the RAA, journalists’ coverage styles are influenced by their attitudes, the social norm and perceived behavioral control. Hence, this presentation aims to investigate these influencing factors and explain science journalists’ coverage of the (un)certainty of nanotechnology. This study is exploratory in nature, due to the lack of research on journalists’ perceptions of nanotechnology coverage, combined with the fact that the RAA has been limited in its application of investigating the behavior of journalists. As Fishbein and Ajzen (2010) pointed out, a qualitative approach suits the best to identify relevant variables and to initiate more focused research. Therefore, in-depth semi-structured interviews with science journalists (n = 21) from different media channels (TV, daily newspapers, monthly science print magazines, and weekly news print magazines) in Germany were conducted. The questionnaire was composed of open-ended questions and ratings scales to test the influential factors of RAA. Surveyed journalists held mixed attitudes towards nanotechnology, which was reflected in their depiction of this issue,, Most of them stressed the scientific uncertainty of this field in their reporting style, while a smaller proportion perceived their coverage to be balanced or highlighting certainty. Study participants mainly considered positive consequences of their depiction behavior. They mostly wanted to comply with the expectations of their peers and their audience and they identified themselves predominantly with their peers when depicting nanotechnology as certain or uncertain. Furthermore, their coverage style was influenced by scientific results and the quality of sources. In an OLS regression analysis journalists’ attitudes and the behavior of their peers were the most significant predictors for how the journalists depict nanotechnology.The results show that journalists’ decisions are overall based on own attitudes and institutional norms. Implications of that will be discussed and conclusions for further research will be drawn.

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