New Swedish report looks at links between media reporting of science and public confidence

Press Release 9 December 2014.

For a majority of the Swedish population, the mass media is the most important source of information about research. When public confidence in scientists and research dipped for a couple of years around 2010, the Swedish organisation VA (Public & Science), together with the SOM Institute at the University of Gothenburg, decided to investigate whether the way the media reports science could be one reason for this decline in confidence.

A report has now been released on Misconduct and confidence – media reporting of science and public confidence in research, which analyses three questions:

  • Does public confidence in science and research decrease as a result of media reporting of scientific misconduct?
  • Is there a connection between the nature of the reporting of science and research (positive / negative news) and the public’s confidence?
  • Is it primarily the nature of the media coverage that affects public confidence in research, or are there other, more important, factors?

The report also explores how research is reported by the major Swedish news media. An analysis of articles and features in the Swedish daily newspapers (Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet, Göteborgs-Posten, Sydsvenskan, Aftonbladet, Expressen, GT, Kvällsposten, Metro) and the Swedish public service TV’s main news programme (SVT Rapport) aired at 19.30 shows that investigative journalism or special investigations into research did not feature at all in the studied media, during the period September 2002 to 2013. Medicine is the field that gets by far the most coverage while pedagogy and the humanities are given the least media coverage.

Public confidence in science and researchers is an important issue in today’s knowledge-intensive society. Attitudes towards research affect the foundation on which research-based knowledge is able to reach out to the public, and their demand for it. Attitudes are also of importance when it comes to determining the level of public investment in research and the conditions for dialogue and collaboration between researchers and society at large.

According to the report, the general level of public confidence in researchers in Sweden remains at a high level, with 64 percent of respondents claiming to have a high or very high confidence in researchers. However, the level of public confidence in research varies a great deal between the different research disciplines. While a majority of the Swedish public has a high or very high confidence in the three research disciplines medicine, technology and science, a mere third reports having a high or very high confidence in pedagogical research and the humanities. Forty percent claims to have a high or very high confidence in research within the social sciences.

The study included a content analysis of news items about scientific fraud or misconduct but was unable to identify a clear connection between increased media coverage of scientific misconduct and declining public confidence in research.

“The nature of the media coverage seems to have less impact on public confidence; the most important factor is for people to be exposed to news about research. In simple terms, it better to have negative news coverage of research than no coverage at all,” said Maria Lindholm, Director of Research at VA.

The report is part of a project called Science in Society, in which VA (Public & Science) together with the SOM Institute at the University of Gothenburg have been studying the public’s attitudes to science and researchers since 2002. The report was written by Dr Ulrika Andersson, who is leading the study at the SOM Institute. The study is financed by the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation.

For more information contact:

Maria Lindholm, Director of Research, VA (Public & Science) +46 708-67 66 77, or [email protected]

Ulrika Andersson, Survey Manager, SOM Institute, +46 708-39 19 60, [email protected]

A summary in English of the results of the survey on Research misconduct and confidence in research is available here. The full report is available in Swedish only.

See also New VA study reveals negative news about research is better than none

 


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