Impacts of science journalism on public understanding of science

January 1st, 2016

This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


Science journalism at newspapers, magazines, and in documentary TV formats contributes significantly to public understanding and knowledge.  Yet informal learning from these sources varies considerably by educational background.  In addition, as audiences shift to mobile technology as a platform for using and consuming science journalism; learning barriers related to motivation and technological competency will increase significantly.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Science journalism and forms of learning

A number of studies find that attention to newspaper and magazine coverage of science is positively associated with various forms of knowledge.  In these analyses of nationally representative survey data, respondents who report closer attention to in depth forms of science journalism in print or online score higher on quiz like questions measuring their understanding of basic scientific facts and of concepts.  This relationship holds after controlling statistically for a number of demographic and other confounding influences. The findings relative to television are mixed.  Attention to documentary science programming such as PBS NOVA is positively related to greater forms of knowledge, while TV news attention is unrelated (Besley & Shanahan, 2005)(Nisbet et. al, 2002)(Nisbet & Goidel, 2007).


The conclusions from these studies is consistent with a large body of related research examining the relationship between forms of news use and political learning.  This research suggests that other important forms of knowledge are likely gained from in-depth science journalism and reporting.


These other forms of learning include participatory knowledge i.e. how a citizen can get involved and have a say in decisions related to a scientific topic. Knowledge in this area makes it easier for individuals to voice their preferences, draw attention to perceived problems, and to express their ideas on possible solutions Eveland & Scheufele, 1999).


A second important dimension of knowledge gained from in depth science journalism is understanding of science as an institution.  This includes how scientists conduct their work and resolve disagreements; the role of scientists and their organizations in societal decision-making including how scientific advice is used in policymaking, the political activities of scientists and their political allies, and public perceptions of expert agreement. Other forms of likely learning outcomes include practical or consumer literacy; ethical or moral understanding related to an issue such as stem cell research; and localized understanding of how an area of research or a scientific topic links to local ecosystems; policy decisions; or economic developments (Nisbet, 2010).

Given science journalism has historically tended to portray science and scientists positively and at times uncritically, studies find that heavier attention to this genre at newspapers, magazines, and on television is correlated with a more positive view of science.  This relationship is thought to be both direct – i.e. by way of framing and portrayal–and indirect by way of increased factual and procedural understanding (Nisbet et al, 2002);(Besley & Shanahan, 2005)(Nisbet & Goidel, 2007).

Gaps in learning by education

Importantly, however, the relationship between science journalism and knowledge is contingent on several different types of background factors.  First, in research on education-based knowledge gaps in media use, several decades of studies consistently find that college-educated audiences acquire knowledge from newspapers and magazines more efficiently and more easily than their non-college counterparts, even at similar levels of news attention.  Television shows like NOVA or the Science section of the New York Times tailor their content to highly educated audiences. As a result, learning effects for lower-educated audiences are likely to be minimal, even if these audiences happen to tune in to NOVA or read an article in the New York Times   (Eveland & Scheufele, 1999)(Nisbet & Scheufele, 2009).

Gaps in learning by competency and motivation

Second, recent studies find that as audiences increasingly access content by way of mobile technology, college-educated news consumers gain more in terms of learning and participation than their non-college educated counterparts.  The reason is that higher educated users feel more competent in using mobile technology and can draw on similarly confident friends and acquaintances for advice and suggestions (Campbell & Kwak, 2010).

Third, even among the highly educated, preference gaps exist.  Given the many media choices available to audiences, unless they have an already strong interest in science-related content, they can very easily avoid this content all together.  The implication is that as audience selectivity and content choices increase, only those audiences with strong interest in science journalism will take advantage of the content (Prior, 2005).

Gaps in learning by perception

Finally, apart from knowledge gaps, there are also values gaps in the influence of science-related journalism on attitudes and perceptions.  Under conditions where a science-related issues such as climate change or stem cell research become the subject of partisan or religious debate, audiences will apply their political or religious identity to screen out information and arguments with which they disagree.  As a consequence, as coverage of an issue such as climate change increases in news attention, differences in perceived scientific agreement and risks is also likely to increase (Ho, Brossard, & Scheufele, 2008; (Nisbet, 2005)(Nisbet & Scheufele, 2009).


Besley, J.C. & Shanahan, J. (2005).  Media attention and exposure in relation to support for agricultural biotechnology.  Science Communication, 26, 347-367. Abstract available at:

Campbell, S. W. and Kwak, N. (2010), Mobile Communication and Civic Life: Linking Patterns of Use to Civic and Political Engagement. Journal of Communication, 60: 536–555. Abstract available at:

Eveland, W. P., & Scheufele, D. A. (2000). Connecting news media use with gaps in knowledge and participation. Political Communication, 17(3), 215-237. Full text available at: – Connnecting news media use with gaps in knowledge and participating – Eveland and scheufele.pdf

Goidel, K. & Nisbet, M.C. (2006).  Exploring the roots of public participation in the controversy over stem cell research and cloning.  Political Behavior 28 : 175 –  192.  Abstract available at:

Ho, S. S., D.Brossard, & D. A.  Scheufele (2008). Effects of value predispositions, mass media use, and knowledge on public attitudes toward embryonic stem cell research.  International Journal of Public Opinion Research 20 : 171 –192.

Nisbet, M.C. (2005). The Competition for Worldviews: Values, Information, and Public Support for Stem Cell Research. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 17, 1, 90-112. Abstract available at:

Nisbet, M.C. (2010). Civic Education About Climate Change: Opinion-Leaders, Communication Infrastructure, and Participatory Culture. Commissioned White Paper in support of the National Academies Roundtable on Climate Change Education. Washington. Full text available at:

Nisbet, M.C. & Goidel, R.K. (2007). Understanding citizen perceptions of science controversy: Bridging the ethnographic-survey research divide. Public Understanding of Science, 16, 4, 421-440. Full text available at: .

Nisbet, M.C. & Scheufele, D.A. (2009).  What’s Next for Science Communication?  Promising Directions and Lingering Distractions.  American Journal of Botany, 96 (10), 1767-1778. Full text available at:

Nisbet, M.C., Scheufele, D.A., Shanahan, J.E., Moy, P., Brossard, D., and Lewenstein, B. (2002).  Knowledge, reservations, or promise? A media effects model for public perceptions of science and technology.  Communication Research, 29, 504-608.  Full text available at:

Prior, M. (2005). News v. Entertainment:  How Increasing Media Choice Widens Gaps in Political Knowledge and Turnout. American Journal of Political Science, 49 (3): 594-609.  Full text available at Prior news vs entertainment – how increasing media choice widens gaps in political knowledge and turnout -Markus .pdf