December 10, 2023

The media can distort scientific consensus

The media can distort scientific consensus

W.Academic experience is not only required in times of a global pandemic. The generalization of scientific knowledge, on which political decisions and their general evaluation can be based, can only be done by science itself to a limited extent. It has to be conveyed, and this happens when it is captured and discussed in the media. The relationship between science and the media has its own problems: complex issues not only need to be simplified in order to reach a wide audience, they are often portrayed in such a dramatic way that the person is interested in them. The warning about problematic developments turns into a prophecy of the end of the world, and the various assessments in detail turn into a scientific argument.

Media selection criteria do not correspond to science standards. If scientific findings are captured and presented by the media, this may lead to a distorted picture of science. A recently published study looks at the extent of media bias in science-related reporting. In particular, it asks whether and how scientific consensus in specific subject areas is represented in media reports. The consensus, as one might expect, does not fit well with the press reports, it is impersonal and dramatic and thus: uninteresting. However, it can be very important for assessing factual issues and as a basis for decision-making.

Great agreement on certain topics

Even if consensus in science is not absolute and seldom permanent, it does exist. The study identifies ten topics on which broad consensus can be found: from the economic impact of migration to vaccination safety and climate change to independence from central banks. A total of 300,000 reports on these topics were taken from six daily English language newspapers, one news agency, and copies of three television news channels. With the help of a trained algorithm, this amount of data is automatically scanned to determine if expert opinions have been cited. The selection was then manually coded and evaluated with regard to the question of whether or not it reflected the consensus of scientific experience on the topic.

It is not only unlikely that the consensus will be reported in the media because the conflict looks more interesting. There is also a note that media reports strive for “balanced” coverage. This means, however, that deviant positions are presented even in subjects where there is broad agreement. Roles are created for Combat Experts who sometimes have to search hard for them. This gives the impression that there is more opposition than there really is.

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