Media and Science: How to Bridge the Attention Divide?

Research is hard work and the returns are often small. It is therefore unsurprising that it can be tempting to embellish the results.This goes some way to explain why the public image of science, and especially social science, has recently been tarnished; the biggest recent blow being the uncovering of the extensive academic fraud committed by social psychologist Diederik Stapel (New York Times, 2011).

However, regular media coverage of science also contributes to an unfavourable view of social science. Sexy, ‘funny’ or ‘surprising’ topics are favoured by the media. Most social science studies do not fit any of these categories. Therefore they rarely generate media attention.

This is not Patients at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Dhaka, Bangladesh. necessarily a deplorable state of affairs. After all, why should Joe Bloggs be interested in the little steps of progress made by social scientists? (And yes, I do believe that social science is useful on the whole.)

Nevertheless, I am concerned about two related issues.

First, if the quality of social science research that attracts media attention is worse than what most researchers produce, it will ultimately damage the reputation of all social scientists and society’s willingness to fund social science research. To return to the example of Diederik Stapel, his findings that meat-eaters are more selfish than vegetarians certainly generated media attention; yet they turned out to be a hoax.

Second, from within the academic ivory tower, it is more and more frequently assumed that small is not beautiful. Journal editors and reviewers will reject or accept papers based on whether it is a ‘significant contribution to the literature’.

I am not alone in my observation that there is a tendency to dismiss societally-relevant work because of practical limitations that studying the messy outside world invariably brings with it (Cialdini, 2009). Instead, laboratory work that yields more ‘conclusive’ results is preferred.

However, it is vital for theories to be tested in the real world. In the case of my recent study on the impact of media coverage on cancer screening, there were competing theories. On the one hand, some argued that the messenger influences the persuasiveness of a message, which would result in preaching to the converted. On the other hand, others suggested that awareness is the key factor, thus predicting a relatively large increase in the previously unscreened population.

Our findings were supportive of the hypothesis that media coverage of cancer prevention and screening mainly has an awareness raising effect. Efforts to generate positive media attention should therefore be encouraged. This may not be a surprising conclusion, but it can certainly be a useful one.

by Siu Hing Lo, alumna of the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance. Image: UN Photo / Mark Garten

Cialdini, R.B. (2009), We have to break up, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4:1, 5-6.
New York Times (2011), Fraud case seen as red flag for psychology research, Accessed online 28 April 2012

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