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Science is a clear part of Brazil's main TV news agenda. But, as in other developing countries, scientists can do more to engage with the media.

A large proportion of the Brazilian population is interested in science and technology — data from a recent survey suggest that the percentage (65 per cent) is equivalent to the percentage of people interested in sports and culture. [1]

Is this demand being met by the coverage of science in national media, particularly television?

To answer this question — and get some insight into how science issues are dealt with — I worked with colleagues to assess coverage in Jornal Nacional (National Newscast), the Brazilian news programme with the largest audience, broadcast at prime time. [2]

One of the key findings is that science is clearly part of the Brazilian newscast's agenda, occupying about seven per cent of the programme's airtime. Jornal Nacional reaches millions of people: out of 100 viewers watching TV in Brazil while this newscast is being broadcast, 57 tune in to the programme.

This is surprising considering that there is no dedicated section for science or even a science journalist working behind the scenes to select and prepare stories. Science is simply part of the news agenda, much like politics and sports.

Science is often less prevalent in TV news in other countries of the developing world. But the Brazilian case highlights questions for debate — in a country where science output has been growing at a fast pace.

National flavour

Most reports broadcast by the Brazilian newscast focus on announcing research results and, importantly, national research. This is good news — the mass media can have a key role in making national science, still invisible in several developing countries, more accessible to the public.

The dearth of coverage for national science is a result of several factors, including, on one hand, more aggressive public relations strategies from US and European journals and, on the other hand, the reduced efforts on the part of developing country journalists to reach such stakeholders.

Another reason for the lower presence of national science in the media in several countries is the low value that scientists place on local news sources, preferring instead to speak to national or international media. This attitude on the part of scientists, highlighted by my colleague Bothina Osama, can be challenged by science journalists who choose to report in their local language.

Voice of the scientists

The study also found that researchers (rather than journals, for example) represented the main sources of the news items. In fact, the Brazilian TV news has been highlighting scientists in a role of legitimacy — their input carries significant weight even if they don't have something to add about the subject beyond what has already been reported.

On the other hand, the scientific community can lose opportunities for a key role in more challenging stories, for example in emerging diseases, as in the case of H1N1 flu.

Scientists could be more proactive in contacting the media to talk about the science of emerging diseases, for example, and what it can — and cannot — contribute to our capacity to detect and control disease. In so doing, they would use to their advantage the fact that journalists hold them in high regard.

Voice of women

Female scientists comprised a minority (30 per cent of interviewees) of the interviews broadcast in Jornal National, according to the study, a proportion that probably represents Brazilian TV news as a whole. These data do not match up with the real world, in which women represent half of the Brazilian scientific community.

The results highlight the importance of putting more effort into broadcasting a more accurate image of scientists by the mass media, in this particular case in terms of gender — a concern taken very seriously by SciDev.Net.

There is growing acknowledgement of the importance of gender for science and development. According to a recent UN report, for example, "women's contribution to development in southern nations is substantial", and therefore using "a gender lens in STI policies is essential for achieving human development and environmental sustainability".

Changing the journalistic agenda

A better understanding of how journalists cover science can help to identify some areas where work can be done to improve science journalism in Brazil and other countries in the developing world. But changing the journalistic agenda is a long-term process.

What some studies have shown, however, is that such change, at least in quantitative aspects, is possible.

A study that analysed science coverage by newscasts in five European countries (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom), for example, indicated that the number and airtime of science-related stories have increased, compared to a decade ago. [3]

The data from the Brazilian study, showing a relatively high percentage coverage of science, clearly challenge the idea that science is not of interest to journalists, the mass media or even the public. And this is something the country can build on.

Although journalists need to be better prepared when covering stories, a change of culture could be significantly sped up if scientists engaged more with the media — something that they are not yet well prepared for, in developing countries and in other parts of the world.

Training for scientists to address this could help to improve science coverage. A better understanding on how media works could also help.

We need to create a scientific culture that builds better bridges between science, the mass media and the public. This should involve challenging the idea that the mass media is not interested in science, and pushing scientists to take a proactive role in making science part of the journalistic agenda.

Luisa Massarani

Regional coordinator of SciDev.Net/Latin America and the Caribbean

References

[1] Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation and Museum of Life/Casa de Oswaldo Cruz/Fiocruz. Public Perceptions of Science and Technology in Brazil [2.1MB]. (2010)

[2] Ramalho, M., Polino, C. and Massarani, L. From the laboratory to prime time: science coverage in the main Brazilian TV newscast [591kB]. Journal of Science Communication, 11, 2 (2012)

[3] León, B. Science related information in European television: a study of prime-time news, Public Understanding of Science 17, 443-460 (2008)

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