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Towards a better map: science, the public and the media

This is a thorough and in-depth analysis of the link between media coverage of science stories and the public understanding of science. The 56-page document was prepared for the UK Economic and Social Sciences Research Council by British media experts Ian Hargreaves and Justin Lewis, with the support of PhD student Tammy Spears.

The study, published in 2002, was based on data collected from a seven-month media analysis of over 2,000 science stories from radio, television and the press, and two nationwide surveys. It focuses on climate change, the MMR vaccine and cloning/genetic research.

Key findings include:

  • there is a clear link between media coverage and the way people understand science
  • only the broad patterns of coverage (whether a story or one side of a controversy receives more or less media attention than another) inform opinions;
  • the presence of more scientists in the media does not appear to increase public understanding of science issues; and
  • a clear and consistent narrative behind an issue helps generate public engagement.

This study continues the work that Hargreaves began in his 2000 report Who's Misunderstanding Whom? in which he discusses the idea of 'dialogue' with the public regarding science, and the possibility of enforcing a code of practice for science journalists.

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