Americans learn about science from the internet; Brits watch TV

Two surveys of public attitudes towards science reveal national differences

Ipsos Mori, a market research organization based in London, just released a report on of public attitudes towards science, revealing some surprising results about media consumption. Namely, that Brits are more likely to learn about science from television programs than from newspapers or the internet.

Of the 1,749 British adults surveyed, and 315 youths between ages 16 and 24, 59 percent of them got most of their science news from television. Only 23 percent named print news as their primary source and even fewer—just 15 percent—read online newspapers or websites.

These results are interesting beyond their role as a litmus test of what media forms people flock to; they also signify the engagement of the audience for science news. Television, and to a lesser extent print newspapers, are largely “passive sources” of information—places people who are not necessarily interested in science, or seeking out science news, will end up catching information alongside other more general programming.

The most commonly cited online outlets included some traditional sources, like the BBC website’s science pages, but it also included places like Google News, which attract a reader who is likely tracking a subject and willing to sort and sift through information to locate the best source.

Though they don’t seek out their science news actively, more survey respondents felt poorly informed (55 percent) than well informed (45 percent) about science and research developments. Survey respondents blamed this on the press, rather than bad media consumption. Most (71 percent) said they “think that the media sensationalizes science,” while just over half said journalists “only occasionally hold relevant qualifications in science.” Nineteen percent said journalists “never” hold appropriate qualifications.

But a similar survey of Americans found that, for the first time, the internet has surpassed television as the primary source of science and technology information.

Last month, The National Science Board, the governing board of the National Science Foundation, released its 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators, which includes a chapter on media habits.

In the NSB’s survey, most Americans (43 percent) listed the internet as their primary source for science and technology news, up from about a third in 2010. While television still remains the primary source for general news and current events, fewer learn about science from TV. “About 32% of Americans reported that television was their primary source of S&T news in 2012, down from 39% in 2008,” read the report.

There is “scant” evidence, according to the researchers, about how American readers evaluate the science and technology media they experience. (The report cites a single 2006 Pew study, which found that most internet users who actively seek science information “do not always assume that the information they find there is accurate.”) Attitudes of news consumers are a nebulous thing to quantify and correct, but the British report suggests a solution: fewer journalists, more scientists. “[Fifty-eight percent] think that scientists currently put too little effort into informing the public about their work, while [53 percent] think that scientists should be rewarded for doing so,” read the report.

Asking scientists to evaluate and communicate their own research to the public brings its own set of ethical dilemmas—namely, how someone promoting their own research can accurately and objectively describe it, especially to a group of news consumers who may not be able to fully evaluate the merits of what they read.

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Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis. Tags: , , , ,