Modern public policy is often influenced by the news media. Frequently we see policy issues either set aside or placed centre-stage depending on the ways in which they are covered in the media. This post will look at the role of news media and social media, specifically scientific, in the policy process, as well as the effects of the decline of traditional science journalism on a networked policy process.
The media can have significant influence on policy decisions. A majority of policy makers consider news media to be the best source of information on both national events and events in their own districts (Yanovitzky, 2002). The media also influences the way the public sees issues, having an effect on what people want from their elected representatives, and ultimately impacting the way they vote. The various influences at play in this network need to be taken into account to understand the formation of policy (McNutt & Wellstead, 2010).
So when it comes to science news, what kind of information are policy makers and the public getting?
When talking to the media, scientists face a number of issues that affect the way their research is communicated. Journalists have to make a readable story out of scientific information, sometimes at the expense of objectivity (Kennedy, 2010; Russo, 2010). As well, scientists can find it difficult in interviews to speak successfully to the diverse readership of news media. However, many scientists feel that, despite the challenges, the public has the right to know about science research, particularly if that research has been publicly funded (Russo, 2010). Sharing the scientific process can have a humanizing effect on science and scientists, giving the public more realistic expectations about scientific processes and results (Russo, 2010). Ultimately, effectively communicating their research is a skill scientists should cultivate so it can be done effectively, particularly as the structure of media changes.
With the advent of the Internet news, there has been a significant downturn in traditional news media in recent years, with many newspapers closing down altogether. Because of this, the traditional media are shedding full-time science journalists, and those who remain have a heavier workload (Brumfiel, 2009; Palmer, 2009). As traditional media falters, researcher-run blogs and websites are growing in both number and readership. This development could be detrimental to the future of thoughtful, fact-checked, research-heavy, independent science journalism (Kennedy, 2010). Unlike an independent news media, blogs are often written by scientists, increasing the chance for bias in articles about their own research (Brumfiel, 2009). There is also the risk that media will splinter into progressively more specialized niches, so people read only the news they seek out, never encountering views that challenge their own (Palmer, 2009). Additionally, Kennedy argues that the lack of authority and professionalism in the blogosphere means that untrue information is often picked up and repeated until people accept it as scientifically defensible truth (2010).
The shift in science communication, however, also has positive potential. Blogs enable scientists to immediately post their research and findings, making timely information available for free via the Internet rather than in subscription-only newspapers and magazines (Brumfiel, 2009). The immediacy of the medium increases the potential of blog topics to inspire the research of others, receive comments from colleagues and non-scientists alike, and enter into discussion or debate with one another. Princeton, Harvard, Nature, Ars Technica, and various respected scientists and journalists are beginning to use blogs to communicate science information, lending credibility and influence to this form of scientific reporting (Brumfiel, 2009).
The issue of climate change offers a poignant example of the role that media can take in the policy process, to the detriment of science. The relationship between climate scientists and the media has been bumpy at best. With high-profile criticism resulting from the release of private emails between climate researchers at the University of East Anglia and the admitted error about the retreat of Himalayan glaciers reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, climate science has taken a beating in recent years. However, according to an article published in Nature (Climate of fear, 2010), all is not lost. This article suggests that through media training for scientists and relationships with credible public-relations firms, the science-media relationship can improve and better inform the policy process. Russo (2010) even suggests that, in some circumstances, improved relationships with the media can benefit a scientists’ career.
McNutt and Wellstead (2010) state that the Internet has significantly increased governments’ potential to employ information to manage policy processes and influence policy outcomes. This article explores the concept of nodality, that is, the proximity of an actor to the centre of a policy network. Within a virtual policy network such as now exists between policy makers, scientists, and the media, governments should act strategically by recognizing how nodality shapes the network. They must be aware of what influences are acting on both the information they are getting and the network through which they receive it, to ensure they continue to govern effectively (McNutt & Wellstead, 2010).
It is clear science journalism is in a state of transition. Policy networks are becoming more complex, incorporating a greater number of actors. It is still too soon to tell how science journalism will adjust to these changing circumstances; however, it is clear that new strategies need to be developed to ensure the effective communication of scientific research. In an increasingly information-rich world where policy and decision-making rely more and more on science information, we need people that can communicate this information to the public and policy makers effectively. There is no doubt that the communication process is changing, so we need to ensure that the information the public and policy makers are getting is accurate and relevant.
Brumfiel, G. (2009). Supplanting the old media? Science journalism is in decline; science blogging is growing fast. But can the one replace the other. Nature, 489, 274-277. DOI: 10.1038/458274a
Climate of fear. (2010). Nature, 464(7286), 141. DOI: 10.1038/464141a
Kennedy, D. (2010). The future of science news. Daedalus, 139(2), 57-65. DOI: 10.1162/daed.2010.139.2.57
McNutt, K., & Wellstead, A. (2010). Virtual policy networks in forestry and climate change in the U.S. and Canada: Government nodality, internationalization and actor complexity. Policy & Internet, 2(2), 33-59. DOI: 10.2202/1944-2866.1036
Palmer, J. (2009). Is the Internet to blame for the decline of science journalism? And can blogs fill the void? Bioephemera. Retrieved from http://scienceblogs.com/bioephemera/2009/03/19/is-the-internet-to-blame-for-t/
Russo, G. (2010). Meet the press. Nature, 468, 465-467. DOI: 10.1038/nj7322-465a
Yanovitzky, I. (2002). Effects of news coverage on policy attention and actions: A closer look into the media-policy connection. Communication Research, 29(4), 422-451.
Authors: Jordan Cook & Danica Crystal
This blog post is part of a series of posts authored by students in the new graduate course, “The Role of Information in Public Policy and Decision Making,” offered at Dalhousie University.