Media as a messenger of science news

By Heidi Li

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Brossard used TIME’s cover on human cloning to show how images in media can affect our attitudes toward science news. Image courtesy of http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,20010219,00.html

COLUMBIA, Mo. — People who saw the two babies on the cover of TIME magazine might not think cloning is a terrible thing. It’s just an example of how the media influence the way we view scientific innovations, and now the internet has pushed that wave even further, according to Dominique Brossard, professor and Chair in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Brossard spoke at the “Decoding Science” event, this year’s Life Sciences and Society Program at University of Missouri on March 15. She addressed the changing picture of media, and how media affect public opinions on scientific innovations. Brossard has been devoted to researches on public opinion related to controversial scientific issues for a long time, and her research with her colleagues on stem cell controversy has been well acknowledged by her peers.

In her speech, she firstly showed the important role of online media as a new messenger of science news. Those online media include Google, blogs, YouTube, and other social media platforms.  She illustrated the communication power of new media with a video about climate change on YouTube, which drew over 6 million views. Data have also shown that among people aged 18 to 34, about 40 percent rely solely on the internet for science news, and they are the ones who could influence policy making, Brossard said. “We do have to keep in mind that where the game is played now,” she said.

Dominique Brossard gave a speech on media and its relationship with public attitudes toward scientific innovations. Photo by Heidi Li

In the second half of her speech, Brossard explained how the media could affect the public attitudes through elements such as frames and social norms, and how to make our audience trust what we are explaining. Common elements of frames include headlines, images and so on, and they can provide powerful mental shortcuts for people to make sense of what they read in science news. Brossard also stressed that people tend to accept more information from sources they deem trustworthy, and universities are perceived as the most reliable sources in science news.

In addition to the frames, Brossard pointed out social norms as another mental shortcut for people to trust their sources and comprehend scientific innovations. Social norms referred to all kinds of influence people get from their social environment, such as what we hear about from others. She said that studies have shown that emotional and rude comments on online science news may make viewers think the articles are biased.

When asked about possible misinformation on the Wikipedia in a Q&A session, Brossard answered she thinks Wikipedia can still have a good influence on the public as long as people keep trying to contribute correct information. “I think Wikepedia can be a great tool,” Brossard said.

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