Thursday, January 03, 2013

The brave new world of science communication

In a new Perspectives piece in Science, my colleague +Dominique Brossard and I discuss the challenges and opportunities created by the constantly changing information environment modern science is currently facing.  Most importantly, we highlight examples of new empirical social science research that indicates that the interplay between audiences, science (journalism), and new modes of communication produces far more complex outcomes than many commentators (and scientists) initially assumed.

It would be naive to assume that communicating science online is about citizens consuming the equivalent of TV or newspapers through online channels.  Instead, we’re moving into a new world of audiences interacting with each other and with journalists to repurpose and reinterpret the content they encounter.  As a result, we’re no longer dealing with “mass” media in their traditional sense, but with messages that are socially contextualized through Facebook “likes,” retweets and reader comments (1).  Long story short, online communication about science produces a complex interplay of interpersonal exchanges, science journalism, and audience reactions that social scientists are only beginning to understand.

And the solution is not just about shifting more science content online.  We’re moving into an online environment that rapidly morphs blogs, microblogs, social media, web sites of traditional news outlets, video channels and a host of other tools of online communication into a constant stream of information and conversation.   Science needs to have an authoritative, fact-based voice across all of these channels, regardless of how dynamic they might be.  And it needs to enter the conversation with a clear understanding of how to best engage all members of society in a meaningful discussion about an increasingly complex set of scientific issues.

Unfortunately, the decline of traditional science journalism has to be a concern, in this context.  And news organizations are in the middle of sorting our new business models that allow them to create enough revenue online to produce high-quality science journalism.  NBC's Alan Boyle's Cosmic Log is just one successful example. But complementing science journalism with science information that is produced "by citizens for citizens" is not necessarily a bad thing.  Traditional news outlets, such as the New York Times or Nova Science, have never been targeting or able to reach general cross-section of the population with their science content.  As a result, recent research has shown widening gaps between the least- and most-educated strata of the population when exposed to similar types of traditional science content (2).  And some of the new forms of online communication about science that involve interactions among citizens, journalists and sometimes even scientists have in fact been shown to narrow knowledge gaps across different strata of society (2,3).

Similarly, the recent hype surrounding social media may be less than productive.  In fact, social media often produce “echo chambers,” as some researchers have called them (1).  As a result, Facebook groups or pages focused on science often preach to the already converted, i.e., those who like science in the first place.  And those folks tend to befriend others who are like them.  In other words, people tend to talk to people who think like them in social media environments, and social media don’t necessarily help communicators connect with many new audiences.  But again, solid social science research is only beginning to emerge, and it suggests that the processes surrounding science communication in social media environments is much more multifaceted than most of us would intuitively assume.

One thing is for certain: Traditional media will not remain traditional media for long.  They will be forced to reinvent themselves in this brave new world of communication.  We’re already seeing this for newspapers and TV stations who offer much of their content across platforms and with more and more audience involvement. We will also see new and creative ways of monetizing online content and therefore maintaining high quality (science) journalism.  But those models will only emerge if we rely on the insights from social science in fields, such as communication research, to help us understand how audiences use and interact with the information they find online.

Most commentators agree that media are in the midst of an intense period of change, but also argue that we should wait to see where the dust settles. Unfortunately, science journalism will not have that luxury.  We live in a (media) world where the dust is not going to settle for a long time.  What we really do need is a systematic collaboration between the sciences and social sciences to figure out how to use these new communication tools for a productive dialogue about science without some of the unintended consequences that our Perspectives piece is only beginning to hint at.


(1)  Scheufele, D. A., & Nisbet, M. C. (2012). Online news and the demise of political debate. In C. T. Salmon (Ed.), Communication Yearbook (Vol. 36, pp. 45-53). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.) 

(2)  Cacciatore, M. A., Scheufele, D. A., & Corley, E. A. (forthcoming). Another (methodological) look at knowledge gaps and the Internet’s potential for closing them. Public Understanding of Science. doi: 10.1177/0963662512447606

(3)  Corley, E. A., & Scheufele, D. A. (2010). Outreach gone wrong? When we talk nano to the public, we are leaving behind key audiences. The Scientist, 24(1), 22. 

Additional Resources:

Slideshare presentation on the topic I gave last month at the 5. Forum Wissenschaftskommunikation in Dresden, Germany.

A Science and (New) Media primer (courtesy of UW-Madison's scimep lab; unless linked directly, reprints available upon request):

Anderson, A. A.; Brossard, D.; Scheufele, D. A. (forthcoming). Nanoparticle-related deaths: Science news and the issue attention cycle in print and online media. Politics and the Life Sciences.

Anderson, A. A., Brossard, D., Xenos, M., A.; Scheufele, D. A.; Ladwig, P. (forthcoming). Crude comments and concern: Online incivility's effect on risk perceptions of emerging technologies. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.

Cacciatore, M. A., Anderson, A. A., Choi, D.-H., Brossard, D., Scheufele, D. A., Liang, X., Ladwig, P., Xenos, M., & Dudo, A. (2012). Coverage of emerging technologies: A comparison between print and online media. New Media & Society, 14(6), 1039-1059. doi: 10.1177/1461444812439061

Cacciatore, M. A., Scheufele, D. A., & Corley, E. A. (forthcoming). Another (methodological) look at knowledge gaps and the Internet’s potential for closing them. Public Understanding of Science.

Li, N., Anderson, A. A., Brossard, D., Scheufele, D. A., (forthcoming). Channeling science information seekers' attention? A content analysis of top-ranked vs. lower-ranked sites in Google. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.

Liang, X., Anderson, A. A., Scheufele, D. A., Brossard, D., Xenos, M. A. (2012). Information snapshots: What Google searches really tell us about emerging technologies. Nano Today, 7, 72-75. doi: 10.1016/j.nantod.2012.01.001

Runge, K. K., Yeo, S. K., Cacciatore, M., Scheufele, D. A., Brossard, D., Xenos, M., Anderson, A. A., Choi, D. H., Kim, J., Li, N., Liang, X., Stubbings, M., & Su, L. Y. F. (forthcoming). Tweeting nano: How public discourses about nanotechnology develop in social media environments. Journal of Nanoparticle Research.

Xenos, M. A., Becker, A. B., Anderson, A. A., Brossard, D., Scheufele, D. A. (2011). Stimulating upstream engagement: An experimental study of nanotechnology information seeking. Social Science Quarterly, 92(5), 1191-1214. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2011.00814.x