Research literature on social sciences and the media

The disparate nature of research considering PCHSS makes it particularly difficult to find relevant scholarship: it is scattered across a wide spectrum of research fields, and searching academic databases tends to bring up conflating hits such as ‘social science approaches to science communication or ‘the economics of the media’. Scholarship directly addressing PCHSS includes quantitative and qualitative studies of media content; surveys of and interviews with academics and journalists; theoretical arguments; personal experiences and material discussing the public promotion of HSS disciplines, including ‘how to’ guides for academics interacting with mass media. The last of these are most common, recalling early literature on PCST: the widespread growth of ‘impact’ agendas (institutional incentives for academics to engage with industry, policy and wider society) have boosted this trend.

In English-speaking countries, distinctions are widely drawn between the natural sciences and those disciplines investigating human society and culture, with science generally used to denote the former but not the latter. Popular ideas about the nature of‘science’ therefore boost the status of subjects which use quantitative, experimental or technological methods, such as economics and psychology. By contrast, in continental Europe and elsewhere in the world, ideas about what ‘science’ is are more flexible and include all forms of scholarly research (as in the German term Wissenschaft), although this does not mean that disciplinary rivalries are absent (Sala 2012). While more work is still needed before we have a coherent understanding of cross-cultural differences in PCHSS, these variations in public cultures of ‘science’ probably shape which disciplines are more likely to have media visibility and status in different countries.

A great deal of PCHSS literature is written from within specific disciplinary contexts, much of which resembles the early literature on PCST in emphasising successful communication. Many articles are written by individuals, drawing upon their own communication experiences, with a central emphasis on how to get the correct message across (e.g., Tropp 2017). The public image (and status anxieties) of discipline or field X are discussed, while strategies for improvement can still centre on upbraiding journalists for sensationalism and inaccuracy and/or public for their misunderstandings (e.g., Ferguson 2015; Yettick 2015). However, in the wake of institutional impact agendas, HSS disciplines are taking engagement more seriously, while longstanding science communication organisations have broadened their remit, making skills training and information more widely available (e.g., Bastow et al. 2014; Carrigan 2019; Wilkinson and Weitkamp 2016; see also NCCPE web site2). As the term suggests, impact concerns remain very ‘deficit model’: the promotion of research activity, one-way communication and (as the term suggests) facilitation of impacts upon wider society (Chubb and Reed 2018; Terama et al. 2016). That said, how ‘impact’ is interpreted, conceptualised, measured and operationalised varies wildly across disciplines. An analysis of ‘impact case studies’ submitted to the UK’s Research Excellence Framework 2014 evaluation exercise found that clinical applications were most associated with submissions from the life sciences and ‘enterprise’ (new technologies) with physical sciences. Education and policy activities were most associated with impact in social sciences disciplines, while public engagement/arts collaborations were most common in the humanities (Terama et al. 2016).

The second theme of discussion involves content analyses of media coverage about research. The wider lack of reflection, definition or consistency about what is meant by ‘science’ means that relatively few content analysis studies can provide insights into what media coverage of HSS looks like (Summ and Volpers 2016). Among the few studies that have pursued this question, Weiss and Singer (1988) examined social sciences coverage in the American news media during the 1980s, using parallel content analysis and interview studies. They found that most coverage concentrated on the research topic (e.g., crime, parenting, relationships), with the research itself appearing in an ancillary role; of these topics, economics received the most attention. Furthermore, only seven per cent of the stories found were written by specialist science journalists, with most coverage authored by generalists, or specialists in other areas. A similar approach was taken to investigate the British situation in the following decade (Fenton et al. 1997, 1998) and this study reveals an interesting pattern of similarities with and differences from the United States. Social sciences were also rarely covered by science journalists in Britain: in fact, only one such example was found. In contrast to the US study, social issues were the most popular topic in British coverage, with economics coming next; psychology was the most frequently represented discipline. Unlike in the US, social research was itself the main focus of most stories, rather than being mentioned in passing. Most of the coverage appeared as features rather than news reports and social scientists more often appeared reactively as commentators and advisers on specific issues according to the news agenda, rather than being the principal sources of stories. Both these studies looked at how much, and where, media coverage of social sciences appeared: once again, transatlantic differences are apparent. In the US, coverage was distributed evenly across all forms of media, and levels of reporting found were far higher than in Britain, where coverage was heavily concentrated in the broadsheet (or “quality”) press.

However, without meaningful comparisons, it is difficult to draw useful conclusions from these figures: are they high or low, and on what terms? Similarly, it is difficult to distinguish whether any of the issues raised by these studies are specific to the social sciences or are broader concerns shared in the public communication of all research. A study by Evans (1995) deals with this problem by directly comparing US media coverage of social and natural sciences. Of the total sample of research coverage, 36 per cent was of social sciences subjects, although this was not broken down into disciplinary groupings. The Science Museum Media Monitor (Bauer et al. 1995), one of the largest studies of its kind, applied a continental European definition of science as including the social sciences and reported a gradual increase in the proportion of social sciences coverage over the second half of the 20th century, by the 1990s reaching similar levels to that found by Evans. A smaller study by Hansen and Dickinson (1992) found only 15 per cent of coverage was of social sciences, but related topics such as market research, human interest and science policy/education were separated from this, leading to a combined figure of 28 per cent. Overall, these studies suggest that through the 1980s and 1990s social sciences provided a substantial proportion of media coverage of research in both the US and Britain, overtaken only by health and biomedicine. While Böhme-Dürr (1992) reported that social sciences in German print media were relatively under-represented, a more recent and comprehensive analysis by Summ and Volpers (2016) found 21 per cent of their sample covered social sciences and 17 per cent humanities, between them attracting just as much media attention as the biomedical sciences.

These findings point towards significant variations in how media cover the broader spread of disciplines across the academy, particularly once researchers start looking beyond frequencies into the distribution and nature of this content. Evans (1995) reported that social sciences were much less likely to appear in specialised science sections than natural sciences and were instead more likely to be in generalised media, as did Summ and Volpers (2016) for HSS. Directly comparing evolutionary psychology' with evolutionary' biology, Cassidy (2005) found that the field was covered less often by science journalists and more by' non-specialists, frequently appearing in features, supplements and commentary' pieces and rarely' in specialist science sections. These differences are reflected in corresponding disparities in media attitudes. Dunwoody' (1986) found that US science journalists looked down on social sciences research as less scientific, expressed little interest in it, and did not think it required specialist training to cover. Yettick (2015) explored how HSS-relevant specialist journalists — in this case, US education correspondents — rarely engage with academic experts or cite peer-reviewed research in the field. Schmierbach (2005) observe that disciplines employing quantitative and/or experimental methods, such as psychology, economics or social statistics, are more likely to be taken seriously by' generalists. Evans also found that social scientists were accorded a lower epistemic status in media reports, with natural scientists more often referred to as ‘researchers’ or ‘scientists’, and social scientists more likely to be referred to in terms such as ‘the authors of the study’ (Evans 1995: 172). Similar status issues are reported by Knudsen (2017) about the humanities, while Huber et al. (2019) analysed user comments in online newspapers, finding that HSS disciplines were often framed as irrelevant or deficient.

Fenton et al. (1997, 1998) also investigated the relationships between social scientists and media professionals, noting that social sciences were usually' covered as part of broader media agendas, by journalists with no specialised understanding of research. They' describe the relationship between social sciences academics and the media as “formal, distant and highly reliant on the role of facilitators” (Fenton et al. 1998: 70). Thirty per cent of the researchers they interviewed had worked with communications professionals, a pattern reflected in the tense and distanced interactions between researchers and journalists. By contrast, Peters (2013) found less strict demarcations between professional and popular communication in Germany than other countries and much higher rates of interaction between HSS scholars and journalists than was the case for natural sciences researchers. These contradictions can in part be explained by' thinking about the multiple roles played by researchers in public communication — on the one hand as originators of research findings and on the other as public experts (see the chapter by' Peters in this volume). Specialist science media orients towards new research ‘findings’, more easily supplied by natural sciences research; while the broader media landscape (particularly' beyond news) needs ‘experts’ able to go beyond specific findings and narrow specialisms. Peters (2013), Wien (2014) and Knudsen (2017) all find that social sciences and/or humanities scholars are more likely' to act as commentators on pre-existing news stories across a range of topics, than as the originators of coverage through the publication of research findings.

Once researchers look beyond the traditional ‘science beat’ and news, they' find coverage of HSS spread widely across other media locations including commentary, reviews, lifestyle, politics and arts/culture coverage (Summ and Volpers 2016). The research literature on this ‘soft’ media (Reinemann et al. 2012) may' therefore point towards fruitful new lines of enquiry. The apparently' contradictory nature of all these findings may' also be attributable to cross-cultural factors. Alongside Peters’ (2013) work suggesting that HSS/media relations are better in Germany than in the US, Suljok and Vukovic (2013) report similar findings for Croatia, while Vestergaard and Nielsen (2016) find HSS is covered more extensively and positively in Denmark than in the UK. Explanations are highly variable, including post-socialist bias towards HSS disciplines, ‘closed’ media markets and European, inclusive understandings of ‘science’: at present, the paucity of studies still makes it difficult to draw firmer conclusions.

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