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The Scoop on Science Journalism

Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology. Dorothy Nelkin. W.H. Freeman, New York, 1987. 182 pp. $16.95. In Selling Science, Dorothy Nelkin—author of books on such topics as intellectual property and technological risk—tells the reader almost everything he or she might want to know about the complex relations between science and the media. On the premise that the public gets its images of and information about science from the press rather than from television, Ne

By | April 6, 1987

Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology. Dorothy Nelkin. W.H. Freeman, New York, 1987. 182 pp. $16.95.


In Selling Science, Dorothy Nelkin—author of books on such topics as intellectual property and technological risk—tells the reader almost everything he or she might want to know about the complex relations between science and the media. On the premise that the public gets its images of and information about science from the press rather than from television, Nelkin synthesizes what little is already known and goes on to produce new knowledge and analyses from her own recent investigations.

Her focus is on the "popular press," and includes national newspapers, a sample of 100 local newspapers from around the country, and national news magazines such as Time and Newsweek. On the other side, for the views of scientists about what their media image is, she has studied science policy journals and various professional journals of science, engineering and medicine. She has also interviewed public relations officers, scientists and science journalists, and has sat in on press conferences, group discussions and informal sessions in which the relations between science and the media have been discussed. In short, she seems to have left no source of information and opinion unplumbed. Nelkin gives the reader a world of facts as the basis of her analysis.

A broad view of the contents of the book can be discerned in the titles of some of the chapters: The Mystique of Science in the Press, Media Messages, Media Effects, The Culture of Science Journalism, Constraints of the Journalistic Trade, The Public Relations of Science, and How Scientists Control the News.

Each chapter contains interesting items of analysis and information. One of the numerous important general findings is that science information is frequently communicated in connection with dramatic and unusual events, such as nuclear catastrophes, alleged medical "breakthroughs," and heated political disputes such as those over creationism and technological risks. In these dramatic events, imagery replaces scientific content and hyperbole brings about premature enthusiasm for and consequent disillusionment with science.

Nelkin's research also reveals that science news has a strong focus on the competition among scientists and on its occasional outcome in fraud. Scientists are far from neutral themselves in shaping science news. As in the interferon case described by Nelkin, they actively seek favorable press coverage, hoping that public support will win them needed resources for research. Still, scientists are ambivalent about the press; they distrust it and complain about its distortions ("magic bullets," "miracle cures"). The imagery and metaphors science journalists use make a big difference in science news. Chernobyl could be described either as a "disaster" or an "event," scientific fraud as "inevitable" or "aberrant." Finally, Nelkin finds that scientists are using increasingly sophisticated public relations techniques to win support, hence the title Selling Science.

There is much more of interest to scientists in Nelkin's book. I recommend it strongly.
Barber is currently on leave from the Department of Sociology,
Barnard College, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027. He is the
author of the forthcoming book Effective Social Science: Eight Cases
from Economics, Political Science, and Sociology
(Russell Sage Foundation).

Note: See The Scientist, March 9, 1987, for an excerpt from Selling Science on how scientists control the flow of information to the media.

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