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583419

research-article2015

PUS0010.1177/0963662515583419Public Understanding of ScienceSumm and Volpers

P U S

Theoretical/research paper

Whats science? Wheres science?


Science journalism in German
print media

Public Understanding of Science


116
The Author(s) 2015
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DOI: 10.1177/0963662515583419
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Annika Summ and Anna-Maria Volpers


University of Mnster, Germany

Abstract
This article examines the current state of science coverage in German print media. It deals with the following
questions: (1) how the main characteristics of science journalism can be described, (2) whether there is a
difference between various scientific fields, and (3) how different definitions of science journalism lead to
differing findings. Two forms of science coverage were analyzed in a standardized, two-part content analysis
of German newspapers (N=1730 and N=1640). The results show a significant difference between a narrow
and a broad definition of science journalism. In the classic understanding, science journalism is prompted by
scientific events and is rather noncritical. Science coverage in a broad sense is defined by a wider range of
journalistic styles, driven by non-scientific events, and with a focus on the statements of scientific experts.
Furthermore, the study describes the specific role of the humanities and social sciences in German science
coverage.

Keywords
science coverage, science journalism, scientific disciplines, content analysis

1. Introduction
The relevance of science journalism is underlined not only by the evolution of special science sections (Bader, 1990) and the steadily increasing number of scientific content broadcasted via all
types of media but also by the remarkable scientific debate on science communication (Schfer,
2011: 404, 2012: 653654). Scientific findings in this specific field are now more relevant for
society than ever considering the important, complex issues of the present age, such as climate
change, energy turnaround, and the global spread of virus infections. These issues can neither be
understood nor handled without scientific knowledge and findings. In this context, journalists also
fall back on scientific data, facts, and experts. But scientific disciplines are highly differentiated
and specialized. The audience, which consists mostly of non-specialists, is not familiar with these
Corresponding author:
Anna-Maria Volpers, Department of Communication, University of Mnster, Bispinghof 914, D-48143 Mnster,
Germany.
Email: amvolpers@uni-muenster.de

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Public Understanding of Science

specific features and thus is hardly able to understand and interpret scientific output or estimate its
relevance (Weingart, 2005). The benefits of scientific research and its applied approaches often only
become visible after years have passed. What science might consider a breakthrough could be seen
as irrelevant or not newsworthy from a journalists perspective (Badenschier and Wormer, 2012: 59;
Dunwoody, 2008: 1920). It is apparent that science and journalism follow different ideas and
decide on different criteria. For communication science, it is therefore relevant and necessary to find
out how science journalism can be characterized at the present time. This requires analyzing media
content: What scientific issues and disciplines are newsworthy? How are these issues presented, for
example, what reporting style is used? Moreover, one can focus on the process of journalistic selection: How are scientific topics covered, and which criteria are relevant for the selection process?
Which sections in the newspaper typically feature scientific content? These questions lead us to the
core questions: Does science journalism operate differently than journalism in general (Kohring,
1997) and how can its unique features be described (Badenschier and Wormer, 2012).
In this context, there is still a necessity for further research (Schfer, 2011: 407). In this article,
findings from two extensive content analyses are presented that we believe can be used for further
scientific debates on the public perception of science (Lewenstein, 1995) and the relationship
between journalism and other societal fields, such as politics or economy (Weingart, 2005).
The current science coverage in German print media was examined to shed light on the types of
media content that can be rightfully classified as science journalism and the definition of science
journalism that accompanies this classification resp. conception. This differentiation leads to a
discussion of the empirical approach: How can scientific content be identified, and which criteria
is it based on?

2. Theoretical background and research questions


Definition of science journalism
It is necessary to understand how the term science journalism is used and which content can be
identified as science journalism. This might seem trivial at first sight, but proves to be more complex upon closer examination. Although it is relatively easy to pinpoint the science journalists
journalists who work explicitly for the science section, for a science magazine or program, or who
report mostly about science (Blbaum, 2008; Hansen, 1994)it is far more difficult to specify
what science journalism in turn exactly is: it could be either all content that is placed in the science
sections or content that is explicitly written by science journalists.
Wormer (2008) suggests that science journalism in the classic sense must be distinguished
from the broader definition (p. 4512). Classical science journalism is narrowly defined as the
journalism, which covers scientific findings, projects, and conferences; in other words, scientists
determine the content. This kind of science journalism appears within the science sections or in
special-interest magazines, science programs on TV, or radio. Classical science journalism is only
occasionally found within other sections or on the front pages; in these exceptions, the issue usually has a special newsworthiness (Wormer, 2006). Nobel prizes, space missions, and breakthroughs in stem cell research have this potential. This definition is consistent with Gpfert and
Ru-Mohl (2006: 11): Traditionally, science journalism is assumed to cover the natural sciences,
technology, and medicine. The broader definition of science journalism, in turn, refers to coverage
that may also arise from interesting phenomena in daily life or from general news (such as scientific explanations behind a tsunami) (Wormer, 2008: 4512). And general news can turn into science journalism when the journalist refers to scientific expertise, cites studies, or includes scientific
actors in the story to help explain certain events and incidents. In doing so, the journalist who uses

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the scientific information oftentimes is not even aware of the fact that she is behaving like a science
journalist (Hmberg, 1987; Long, 1995; Wormer, 2008).
Schfer (2011) elaborates another important categorization, distinguishing the science coverage
that operates in a popularization mode from the science coverage that operates in a mediatization mode (p. 405). Articles written in the popularization mode reflect the communication among
scientists, except that the coverage is intended for an audience using mass media. The popularization
mode is thus stimulated by the scientists themselves; the coverage is typically based on scientific
sources and topics that do not have direct social relevance. These types of articles are usually found
on the science pages in leading media. In contrast, articles written in the mediatization mode
include discussions of scientific issues related to political actors, non-governmental organizations
(NGOs), or critical citizens. These articles do not really deal with the presentation of scientific
findings; they can be found in non-science sections and are written by journalists who do not specialize in science journalism (Schfer, 2011: 405). Bucchi and Mazzolini (2003) agree in the assumption
of a dualism of daily press science coverage: on the one hand a science-popularization (located
on the science and health pages) and on the other hand science-as-news (located on the news
pages) (p. 21). They surmise a basic difference between these two types of coverage. The first type
is characterized by a coverage focusing on biomedical research, described as straightforward,
consensual, and as bringing improvements to peoples lives. A wider range of scientific fields
being covered specifies the second one. This type comes along with a more critical coverage,
including the discussion of research-attributed risks. In the context of his studies about scientific
experts, Peters (1994: 169) also distinguishes between two modes of journalism handling science:
The perspective journalists choose can be either science-oriented or problem-oriented.
Thus, there are several authors assuming two basically different types of science coverage and
journalism with regard to dealing with science issues. The article on hand takes on this differencemainly described theoreticallyand examines this assumed difference empirically. In the
following, we distinguish between a narrow and a broad definition of science journalism. This
concept follows the classifications of Wormer (2008) and Gpfert and Ru-Mohl (2006) described
above. Their argumentation considers a practical journalism. We also choose this perspective,
which influences our methodological concept. In doing so, we try to recover the theoretical difference in actual science coverage. This approach is useful and gainful for several reasons. In the end,
this could be a contribution to theory grounding with regard to the field of science communication.
On the one hand, science coverage reflects how journalists and editorial offices understand science
and prepare science for the public, what kind of issues they declare as science, and what kind of
issues are handled as typical daily news. On the other hand, science coverage determines the public
perception and understanding of science. Presumably, the audience perceives scientific issues,
which are highlighted on science pages in another way than those scientific issues that are more or
less hidden in the day-to-day coverage.
This argumentation leads directly to the question, Can the sole appearance of scientific actors
as so-called experts be referred to as science journalism? Journalism in general relies more and
more on experts (Nlleke, 2013), and scientists in particular are gladly used as experts (Albk
etal., 2003). These scientific experts are occasionally used to explain scientific facts. But far more
often scientists act as experts, providing background information, opinions, and interpretations of
non-scientific issues (Albk etal., 2003, Albk, 2011).

News coverage of science in (print)media


The frequent presentation of science in the media reflects journalistic interests that are closely
linked to public interests. The media might determine societys impression of science. In other

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Public Understanding of Science

words, the media teaches the public about science and how it functions. Furthermore, media
coverage regulates which issues and disciplines are of special interest for a broad public (Bauer
etal., 2006: 109; Nelkin, 1995). A number of studies conducted in different countries prove a
continuous increase in the media coverage of science (Meier and Feldmeier, 2005; Schfer,
2011), which is especially manifested in print media (e.g. Bucchi and Mazzolini, 2003; Clayton
etal., 1993; Metcalfe and Gascoine, 1995; Pellechia, 1997). More than this, coverage of science
evolved from weekly to daily frequency of publication (Elmer etal., 2008: 879). This is not
applicable with regard to all media or formats (e.g. TV news) (Verhoeven, 2010). The evolution
of science news coverage comes with criticism: Whereas science journalism was accused of
using dramatization, sensationalism, and a negative or anti-scientific attitude in the past
(Friedman etal., 1986; Ru-Mohl, 1984), it is now being criticized for being too uncritical
(Elmer etal., 2008: 879).
Schfer (2012: 654) points out three biases with regard to research being performed by communication scientists on science in the media: Studies often focus on the natural sciences, Western
countries (except from, for example, Dutt and Garg, 2012; Massarani etal., 2005), and print media.
A meta-analysis shows that in over 90% of research referring to science topics, only one discipline
was considered (Schfer, 2012: 665). These studies focus mainly (with 90%) on the natural sciences but also include the life sciences (especially biology with 34% and medicine with 20%)
(Schfer, 2012: 655). Schfer (2012) states, There is still a lack of studies comparing disciplines
and/or countries (p. 658).
In the following, the central findings of the content analyses on science coverage in print media
are summarized. We only consider studies that focus on science in general and not on special topics.
Inclusion criteria. In content analyses, there are huge discrepancies between what should be rated as
a science topic. Although the majority of studies favor a broad definition (cf. section Definition of
science journalism)there are only a few exceptions (e.g. Clark and Illman, 2006)and analyze
all of the newspapers sections, not all scientific disciplines are considered. For example, Bucchi
and Mazzolini (2003) define science stories
in a broad sense, and included articles explicitly reporting findings or events related to the natural sciences
or to applied sciences such as engineering and medicine, articles featuring statements by scientific experts
and articles including references to science or using science based argumentation. (p. 8)

And Elmer etal. (2008) exclude articles that review only single products and articles deemed
outside the realm of accepted science journalism (e.g., articles dealing with social sciences or
humanities, which are typically covered by journalists writing for the culture section or feature
pages) (p. 881).
Many studies are limited to the natural sciences and technology, and here, again, the life sciences and medicine are treated as natural sciences. These constraints are all too often unfounded
(Bucchi and Mazzolini, 2003; Dimopoulos and Koulaidis, 2002; Elmer etal., 2008; Pellechia,
1997). Only some studies also deal with the humanities and social sciences (e.g. Fenton etal.,
1998; Hijmans etal., 2003; Weiss and Singer, 1988). Bhme-Drr (1992), for instance, defines
science articles [as] all those articles which mention (1) a scientist or a research institute and/or
(2) a study or a research result in the headline or the first paragraph (p. 167). This definition
includes the social sciences as well as the natural sciences.
Sections, disciplines, and topics.As mentioned, a majority of science coverage takes place more
commonly in the regular news sections than in the science sections (Hijmans etal., 2003: 159). Of

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course, this varies according to the country and the type of print media being considered. Elmer etal.
(2008: 883) found that science coverage outside the science section began to increase in 2003/2004
and that it experienced an increase from 34% to 67% from 2003/2004 to 2006/2007. For example,
40% of the techno-scientific articles in Greek newspapers were found in the news columns (domestic or international), 30% were placed in the science pages, and up to 14% were sorted as business
(Dimopoulos and Koulaidis, 2002: 230). In Dutch newspapers, 67% of all science articles were found
in the news pages and 11% were located in the science sections. And quality newspapers in particular
provided well-supported science sections (Hijmans etal., 2003: 159). Italy has experienced an
increase in articles about science that are spread throughout all general sections; nevertheless, 70% of
all science articles were still found in the special sections for science coverage. And Bucchi and Mazzolini (2003) reported that science coverage is increasingly institutionalized in special sections
(p. 21). Their findings, though, are based only on the newspaper Corriere della Sera.
According to many scholars who perform content analyses, news coverage on science via print
media focuses on issues and disciplines such as medicine, health, biology, environment, and technology (Bucchi and Mazzolini, 2003: 10; Elmer etal., 2008: 885; Pellechia, 1997: 57). But we
believe that this position needs to be scrutinized for two reasons. First, the dominance of the life
sciences and the natural sciences is the logical consequence of the narrow inclusion of articles that
only consider selected scientific fields as science (cf. above). Second, the label natural science is
used in many different ways. While medicine and biology are subsumed under the natural sciences,
many studies examine these disciplines separately. Upon closer investigation, it seems that this
assumed dominance of the natural sciences (Schfer, 2012: 655) is in fact a dominance of the life
sciences or, more precisely, of the biomedical disciplines (Schfer, 2011: 404). Natural scientific
research in a narrow sense (e.g. physics, astronomy, geosciences) is less often covered when compared to the biomedical disciplines (e.g. Elmer etal., 2008: 885).
It might sound simple, but if one includes the humanities and social sciences in a study, they do
turn up (Cassidy, 2008; Evans etal., 1990: 108109; Hansen and Dickinson, 1992). Bhme-Drr
and Grube (1989) were able to differentiate between the social sciences and natural sciences; they
showed that, at the end of the 1980s, there was a significant amount (about 20%) of news coverage
on the social sciences. A more recent study from the Netherlands concluded that 56% of science
coverage was related to the social sciences and 8% to the humanities (Hijmans etal., 2003: 161).
Another Croatian study concludes similarly: 19% are related to the social sciences and 21% to
human sciences (uljok and Brajdi Vukovi, 2013: 102). By comparing newspaper sections, one
finds that the science coverage placed in the news sections is especially dominated by social-scientific content. In contrast, the news coverage in the science sections consists of the physical and
medical sciences (Hijmans etal., 2003: 165).
Triggers, sources, and controversy. It follows from these findingson the definition of science journalism and dissemination of articles in news sections and science sectionthat science stories are
often prompted by non-scientific events:
We found that empirical research is mentioned either as a primary news fact, in terms of research findings
or based on an interview with a researcher, or as a secondary news fact (e.g., in a report on a political
discussion early release of delinquents, an American study on recidivism is mentioned). (Hijmans etal.,
2003: 155)

Elmer etal. (2008: 8) state that 40% of science coverage is triggered by an occasion that does not come
from science itself. For comparison, the Greek press had 20% of its science coverage placed outside
the science section (e.g. in the case of natural catastrophes) (Dimopoulos and Koulaidis, 2002: 220).

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Public Understanding of Science

Whereas news coverage on science in the past was criticized for being too critical and technophobic (Hmberg, 1987; Kepplinger, 1989), nowadays the opposite is true: The coverage is
assaulted for being uncritical and for becoming increasingly more so (Bauer, 1998; Elmer etal.,
2008: 885; Kohring, 1997; Secko etal., 2013: 62). Wormer (2006) states that science coverage is
the most affirmative appearance of journalism. Schfer (2011) points out, Also, the question
whether (and where) science journalism has changed and become more critical towards science is
still largely unanswered (p. 407). Controversial debates among scientists are, at first sight, not
very interesting from the journalists point of view. And these debates only seem to become newsworthy when they emerge in controversial political debates (Bucchi and Mazzolini, 2003: 13).
Furthermore, some scholars have found that science coverage outside science sections is more
controversial than in the science pages (Elmer etal., 2008: 884885). There are certain disciplines
(e.g. medicine or ecological issues) that are covered far more critically than others (Bucchi and
Mazzolini, 2003: 14; Schfer, 2009: 496).
Although the communication sciences are aware of the different news values in matters of science journalism, when compared to news coverage in general (Badenschier and Wormer, 2012),
only a few outdated research findings examine selection criteria (Schfer, 2011: 403). These findings altogether reveal the necessity for further research, especially in terms of the features of science
journalism in print media. Subsequently, these research questions therefore guide our analysis:
RQ1. How can science coverage in German print media be characterized especially with regard to
variables, such as sections, disciplines, journalistic styles, triggers, sources, and controversy?
RQ2. How does science coverage differ when referring to different academic fields (the humanities and social sciences, natural sciences, life sciences, and engineering sciences)?
RQ3. How can science coverage be differentiated depending on whether it uses a narrow or
broad definition of science journalism?

3. Methodology
This article discusses findings from two quantitative content analyses of German print media1
(N=1730 and N=1640). The content analyses also include regional and local newspapers; this
approach is not currently being done in many other studies (cf. Blbaum and Grke, 2003;
Lehmkuhl, 2003; Ru-Mohl, 1984). The spread of 15 different print titles including important
national daily published newspapers, a choice (considering regional diversity) of local published
newspapers as well as the most important German weekly news magazines, and a popular news
website offers an extensive picture of science coverage in German print media, which are not specialized on science.2
A stratified sampling approach was used to select the articles. For each media product, we randomly selected five issues per month. The selected issues of the newspapers and magazines were
completely coded, including all relevant articles. A benefit of this study is that the analysis was not
restricted to the science sections of media outlets (cf. Badenschier and Wormer, 2012; Schfer,
2010; Wormer, 2008). We argue that the coverage of scientific issues occurs in all sections of print
media (cf. section News coverage of science in (print)media), but the style of coverage differs
between different scientific traditions and for this reason also between different sections.
The two content analyses are linked insofar as they refer to the same sample of newspapers and
magazines, but cover two different aspects and therewith two different empirical operationalizations of science journalism. The first analysis covers all news concerning science research in a
narrow sense, meaning that an article must have a direct reference to actual research results or
research projects in any scientific discipline. Typically, articles covering research results (e.g. a

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Summ and Volpers

new medication is developed) were part of this analysis. (This includes coverage about scientific
conferences, publications, etc.)
In contrast, the second analysis is linked to all articles, which refer to any kind of scientific
research or actors. The articles selected for coding had to meet two criteria: First, the articles had
to be assigned to one of the selected disciplines, which are described further on; the articles had to
either explicitly include the appropriate terms or the articles subject matter had to be part of the
field of research of the selected disciplines. This approach proved beneficial because journalists
tend to select their topics and use other terms besides those that have been established by the scientific discourse. For this reason, we defined a set of objects of research and sub-disciplines for
each selected discipline. This approach allowed us to display the media coverage of a certain scientific issue on a broader basis. Second, the article must either have clear reference to science in
terms of a scientific actor (this includes individual and collective actors, for example, from universities, research institutions, or research departments of companies) or any other reference to science as the mentioning of a scientific discipline. We also included articles expounding the problems
of any journalistic issue with regard to scientific studies. It was important to identify how journalistic coverage forms the image of science. In order to handle the large amount of potential articles,
we selected eight disciplines (political sciences, philosophy, virology, agricultural sciences, food
chemistry, geophysics, computer sciences, and resources/recycling), which we believe dealin
their own waywith current questions, risks, or problems concerning society (see Note 2). Schfer
(2012: 654655) asserts that research about science in media is usually limited to only one scientific discipline and that relevant studies almost exclusively cover the natural sciences. In turn,
according to Schfer (2012), only very few studies take up media coverage of the humanities and
social sciences even though the latter also deal with topics relevant to society at large, receive
major funding they should be held accountable for, and are present in the mass media (p. 658).
Our presumption is that the roles of disparate scientific disciplines differ because of variations in
the manner of scientific research and the practical applicability of their results.
The variables used in the content analyses (cf. section Results) were deduced from the current
state of research described above. The characteristics of coverage are coded mainly in dichotomous
variables, that is, occurrence versus non-occurance.3

4. Results
Science in a narrow sense
Sections. Our first content analysis focused on the articles that were linked to scientific research.
We identified 1730 articles covering science news in a narrow sense in 2011 (cf. further results also
Volpers and Summ 2015). As we decided to analyze every section of the newspaper, we were able
to show that not even half of the articles (46%) considered scientific research could be found in the
science section. In other words, although we focused on articles with a strong link to science, more
than half of the relevant articles were found elsewhere than in the science sections. These articles
were spread into other sections, namely, in business (7%), miscellany (in German newspapers, this
section features short, entertaining, and sometimes odd articles) (7%), arts/entertainment (5%),
health (4%), and politics (4%). To draw profound conclusions about science in the media, one cannot only focus on the science sections. Our findings correspond to the trend of increasing science
coverage outside the science sections (cf. Elmer etal., 2008: p. 883).
Disciplines. The content analysis gave us insight into the dominance of different academic disciplines covered within a single issue. Figure 1 shows the occurrence of different scientific fields
according to the classification of the German Research Foundation. Considering only the scientific

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Public Understanding of Science

Social sciences & Behavioral sciences

21

Medicine

20

Biology & Agricultural sciences

18

Humanities

17

Physics

Geo sciences

Computer sciences & Electrical engineering

Other fields of engineering

Mathematics

Not classifiable

2
0

10

15

20

25

Figure 1. Academic fields in percentage.


N=1730; multiple coding possible.

field that dominates the subject matter of the articles, the humanities and social sciences (35%) and
the life sciences (34%) are covered far more often than the natural sciences (18%) and engineering
(9%) (5% of all articles could not be classified distinctly). Both scientific fields (humanities/social
sciences and life sciences) combined make up more than two-thirds of the coverage. Engineering
as a scientific discipline seems to be less newsworthy in comparison with the other disciplines. Our
research findings do correspond with other studies in the field of communication science (Cassidy,
2008: 233). As these results are based on a narrow definition of science journalism, they are
unexpectedespecially since many studies have excluded the humanities and social sciences in
their analyses due to their assumption that coverage of these scientific fields was deemed outside
the realm of accepted science journalism (Elmer etal., 2008: 881).
In contrast, the distribution of articles with regard to specialized sections (e.g. science, technology, health, university) does not reflect this assumption: A closer look at the specialized sections shows that the life sciences and natural sciences dominate the news coverage. In all, 72%
of the articles dealing with the life sciences and 63% dealing with the natural sciences were
placed in the science pages, whereas 59% of the articles about the engineering sciences and only
30% of the articles about the humanities and social sciences could be found here.4 This result
underlines the estimations that the humanities and social sciences are not typically published in
specialized scientific sections.
Journalistic styles. Most of the articles (82%) about science are written in a neutral reporting style
and are fact-oriented. Nevertheless, there are a few topics that are presented as interviews or as
reviews (e.g. about scientific publications). It is striking that the humanities and social sciences in
particular refer to reviews of books or other publications and also to interviews and portraits. While
the vast majority of articles referring to the life sciences, natural sciences, and engineering sciences
could be described as presenting facts in a neutral manner, the coverage of the humanities and
social sciences used a wider range of journalistic styles: Only 33% of the coverage can be described
as neutral, factual reports (compared to over 80% regarding the other scientific traditions), 19% are
commentary and opinion pieces (this contrasts with the coverage of other scientific traditions that
uses this journalistic style in only about 1% of articles), 18% are interviews (vs approximately 4%
of interviews which refer to other scientific traditions), and 12% are reviews (vs about 1% of
reviewing articles with reference to other scientific traditions) (cf. uljok and Brajdi Vukovi,
2013: 102103). Accordingly, Bhme-Drr and Grube (1989: 452) also stated that the coverage of

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the social sciences contained a larger percentage of commentaries (17%) compared to the natural
sciences (3%).
The comparison between national and regional newspapers indicates that national newspapers
publish more articles commenting on science and science discourses. National newspapers obviously offer a more differentiated perspective on news coverage about science. This might also be a
question of resources.
Triggers, sources, and controversy. To answer the question Why was the article written? we analyzed
the occasions that prompted the article (e.g. publication of research data, conference, and political
events). Almost two-thirds of all articles were published after the scientists themselves published
their data and results. Articles about the life sciences were most likely to be published according to
this specific occasion (74%). This may be because topics concerning health and medicine in particular are linked to scientific publications and inventions (e.g. if new medication is brought to market).
On the contrary, only 40% of the articles covering the engineering sciences were written because of
published data or research results. With regard to this scientific field, ongoing research projects are
covered far more often (44%). In general, only 18% of the articles focused on scientific conferences
or ongoing research projects. Ongoing scientific work (except from the engineering sciences) does
not seem to be that newsworthy. The findings concerning scientific sources are similar to the findings published by Elmer etal. (2008: 886). In 67% of the articles in our study, only one scientific
source is mentioned, including statements of scientists as well. Articles refer to scientific journals in
22% of all cases and to monographs in 13% of all cases. Articles in journals are very important with
regard to the life sciences, which were above average with 41% and are cited in 23% of cases with
regard to the natural sciences (23%). The reference to monographs as a source clearly refers to the
humanities and social sciences (29%) (cf. the results of Hijmans etal., 2003: 167).
Our study confirms the findings of other studies in terms of controversial presentation of science
news (cf. section News coverage of science in (print)media). Science journalism is not presented
(in 90% of all cases) as a controversial issue. This finding is supported by the fact that articles are
usually based on only one source. Furthermore, scientific findings are judged positively.

Science in a narrow and a broad sensea comparison


To test how empirical findings differ when using different definitions of science in journalism and
thereby different empirical operationalizations, we compared articles with narrow and broad definitions of science (cf. section Methodology). As stated, the broad definition of science refers to
eight chosen academic disciplines from which we assume a particular relevance for society
political sciences: 27%; geophysics: 26%; philosophy: 14%; computer sciences: 12%; food chemistry: 9%; agricultural sciences: 8%; virology: 8%; resources/recycling: 6%.5
The findings show that this differentiation between narrow and broad definitions indeed matters. Articles with a broad definition of science were found throughout the entire newspaper; the
sections of politics (15%), business (13%), and culture (12%) were especially linked to science or
scientific protagonists. Only 10% of the articles with a broad definition were placed in the science
pages. In comparison, 41% of the articles with a narrow definition were found within the science
sections. Analyzing the differences between the definitions, it becomes apparent that both forms of
science journalism take place outside the specialized sections. Concerning the broad definition,
87% of articles were found elsewhere than in the science pages. And at least more than half of the
articles with a narrow definition (53%) were not found in the science section.6
The comparison of scientific fields shows that science journalism in a classical sense, indeed,
focuses on the natural sciences (32%). But when the broad definition is applied, it is dominated by
the humanities and social sciences (57%) (cf. Figure 2).

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Public Understanding of Science


57

60
50
40
30

32
25

21

20

20

15

10

10

0
Humanities &
Social sciences

Life sciences

Natural sciences

Narrow defintion (n = 1010)

Engineering

Not distinctly
classifiable

Broad defintion (n = 630)

Figure 2. Academic fields with regard to different definitions in percentage.


N=1640. 2(4, N=1640)=177.07, p<.001.

The content analysis shows that a broad definition of science journalism implicates a wider
range of journalistic styles, including, particularly, commentaries and opinion-related styles.
Science journalism in a broad sense uses interviews 17% of the time (whereas science journalism
in a narrow sense only uses them 5% of the time); 5% of science coverage in a broad sense is based
on commentaries (and the narrow definition is only 1%). For further research, it might be beneficial to look at scientists in the humanities and social sciences in particular: Perhaps these scientists
are more outgoing than their colleagues in other fields, and they are therefore more willing to give
an interview. Or it could be the other way around: journalists prefer interviews to other reporting
styles when writing about the social sciences.
This result corresponds to the finding that scientists from the humanities and social sciences
themselves are often the authors of these articles. About 26% of the articles about issues referring
to the humanities and social sciences were written by scientists, while only about 1% of articles
referring to other scientific traditions were authored by scientists.
As mentioned, the use of scientific experts seems to play a major role in science journalism (cf.
section Definition of science journalism). We therefore examined which purpose can be related
to statements of scientific experts (Weiss and Singer, 1988). Statements are defined as direct and
indirect quotations that can be traced back to a scientific source.
The comparison between both definitions shows quite plainly that the broad definition of science journalism includes statements that are more often commentaries and evaluations. In contrast,
the narrow definition refers more frequently to statements that supply explanations and data (cf.
Figure 3). This finding is in accordance with Albk etal. (2003) and Albk (2011).
As mentioned, the broad definition is accompanied by different scientific disciplines that dominate the coverage. This finding is related to differences between entire academic fields. Results
show (cf. Figure 4) that the media refers to the humanities and social sciences mainly to criticize and
evaluate social problems. Natural sciences are referred to in order to explain facts and provide data.
Life sciences as well as engineering sciences are predominantly included in news dealing with practical problems and solutions. In other words, different scientific traditions are connected to different
primary purposes and thereforeaccording to journalismare of varying relevance to society.
Finally, we looked at the aspect of controversial issues in science coverage, but found no significant difference between both definitions of science journalism. Only topics referring to the broad
definition and to non-scientific occasions were presented as more controversial than those

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Summ and Volpers

60
50
40
30
20
10
0

52
36
25
14

14 14

10

18

Narrow defintion (n = 1010)

14

20

17

27

24
14

36
23

Broad defintion (n = 630)

Figure 3. Expressions related to the purposes of scientific statements with regard to different definitions
in percentage.
N=1640.

70
60
50
40
30
20
10
0

Humanies & Social sciences (n = 518)

Life sciences (n = 209)

Natural sciences (n = 345)

Engineering (n = 149)

Figure 4. Expressions related to the purposes of scientific statements with regard to different academic
fields in percentage.

following a narrow definition. One could conclude that science coverage in general is mainly not
controversial (77%).
The academic discipline determines whether a scientific issue will be presented in a critical way
(Bucchi and Mazzolini, 2003: 14; Einsiedel, 1992: 9798). The difference between scientific fields
is crucial: Although the humanities and social sciences are almost never related to risks, they are
still not presented affirmatively. Engineering sciences are most frequently presented as having a
positive impact on society; in turn, journalists often reflect on the negative consequences and risks
when writing about them (cf. Figure 5).

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Public Understanding of Science

Political sciences (n = 435)

12

<1

Philosophy (n = 230)

16

<1

Geophysics (n = 423)

24

Food chemistry (n = 151)

36

Agricultural sciences (n = 131)

Virology (n = 126)

32

13

Computer sciences (n = 198)

Harms/Risks

43

Resources & Recycling (n = 104)

Benefits

35

68

6
0

10

20

30

40

50

60

70

80

Figure 5. Expressions related to benefits and harms/risks of research with regard to different disciplines
in percentage.
Multiple coding possible.

5. Summary and conclusion


In the following, the most important findings of this study are summarized to answer the research
questions and to arrive at a conclusion in terms of further research in the field of science journalism.
Having RQ1 in mind, one can state that there are several general trends, which characterize
German science journalism. Science coverage is very affirmative and the presentation of science
more or less avoids scientific controversies. Science journalists do not refer to many sources,
probably because they do not want to complicate the story. On this note, science journalism has
an obvious functional role (Wormer, 2008), which is to communicate scientific findings to a
broad public (cf. science communication models by Secko etal., 2013). Although some scientific fields dominate news coverage, there is a wide spectrum of newsoften underestimated
coming from all scientific disciplines. Studies ignoring the considerable part of social and
behavioral sciences (21%) do not draw a proper picture of science coverage. In addition, medicine
(20%) and biological disciplines (18%), being in an exceptional position, are of great interest for
journalists because they directly affect humans and their health, giving the news enormous value.
We suggest that future studies should distinguish the life sciences from the natural sciences to
depict a more appropriate picture of science coverage. It would be interesting to analyze how
news characteristics have changed throughout the years and if there are differences between
media and nationalities.
The comparison of academic fields reveals that each discipline is mediatized in a specific way
(Schfer, 2009). A look at more abstract academic fields illustrates that with regard to RQ2, the
humanities and social sciences also have an exceptional position (Cassidy, 2008). These academic
fields are strongly associated with other sections such as politics, business, and culture. This is why
the social sciences of course come up more often in these sections than in science pages. The coverage of the humanities and social sciences deviates by using a wider spectrum of reporting styles,
especially interviews and commentaries. On the one hand, it could be concluded that journalists do
not consider the humanities and social sciences to be real sciences, and for that reason, these sciences are not published on the science pages. On the other hand, it might be possible to prove the
opposite interpretation: Because of their social relevance, they are of such an importance that they
are related to news pages as a matter of course. The typical structures of journalism and the

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Summ and Volpers

education of journalists point in this direction as well: Whereas science journalists often graduated
with degrees in the natural sciences (Blbaum, 2008), journalists working for other sections studied the humanities or social sciences. Working practices of social scientists and journalists are quite
similar; journalists achieve corresponding competences to deal with research findings coming
from this scientific field (Fenton etal., 1998; Weaver and McCombs, 1980).
In this context, it becomes apparent that a broad definition of science journalism is accompanied
by a higher percentage of the humanities and social sciences compared to other academic fields.
Altogether, we conclude with regard to RQ3 that science journalism in a classical sense is associated with the mentioned characteristics and therewith some prejudices, which of course can be
criticized. But if one chooses the broad sense, the image of science journalism changes or, more
precisely, the image of science in the media. Journalists use scientific data and findings to explain
social debates or events like natural catastrophes or diseases. Scientific experts as sources thereby
play an important role. Besides being purely explanatory, interpretation and evaluation are part of
their function (Albk, 2011). Scholars, in contrast, are hardly criticized. However, they play the
role of critics toward politics, business, and society in general. Especially social scientists are associated with this role. We see the necessity for further research especially with regard to the importance and the function of scientific knowledge and the use of experts in news coverage in general.
This special, non-institutional form (Bucchi and Mazzolini, 2003: 21) of science journalism
demands attentionon the part of communication sciencesbecause it achieves a wider range
among the audience than special formats. This wider range might draw a different picture of the
sciences for the broad public.
Further research needs to answer the question, how can science journalism be defined and
which criteria are useful, from an empirical standpoint. These criteria need to be suitable for a
modern understanding of science in media. Furthermore, not only print media needs to be analyzed
but TV programs as well because of their enormous range (European Commission, 2007).
Extremely relevant online journalism should also be taken into consideration (cf. e.g. Allan, 2009).
Studies reflecting international diversity are preferable (Schfer, 2012) although this requires substantial efforts. There is still a lack of research concerning the process of news selection within
science journalism (Schfer, 2011).
Funding
The research was funded by the Bundesministerium fr Bildung und Forschung (BMBF) [German Federal
Ministry of Education and Research], grant number: 01UZ1006.

Notes
1.

2.

3.

4.
5.
6.

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Sddeutsche Zeitung, taz. die tageszeitung, Die Welt, Der Tagesspiegel,
Hamburger Abendblatt, Gttinger Tageblatt, Klner Stadtanzeiger, Schsische Zeitung, Thringer
Allgemeine, Westflische Nachrichten, Die Zeit, Focus, Der Spiegel, Spiegel Online.
The content analysis was part of an extensive research project dealing with the interaction of science,
politics, and media (cf. Blbaum et al., 2012; Scheu et al., 2014). Therefore its conception is related to
the projects specific research objective.
Up to 10 coders conducted the two content analyses at the same time. To guarantee intercoder reliability,
the coders passed an extensive training. We tested the intercoder reliability by using Holstis method.
Holstis coefficient of over .862 with variables presented in this article show that the analyses are quite
reliable.
N=1700. 2(4, N=1700)=231.53, p<.001.
N=1640; multiple coding was possible.
N=1640. 2(1, N=1640)=205.18, p<.001.

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Public Understanding of Science

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Author biographies
Annika Summ studied communication studies, sociology, and politics at the University of Mnster. She
worked for different research projects in the field of journalism studies and on the role of journalistic media
in German research policy. After finishing her PhD on freelance journalists in German TV stations, she now
coordinates the training editorial office at the University of Mnster.
Anna-Maria Volpers studied communication studies, art history, and public law at the University of Mnster.
She worked for a research project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research on the
role of journalistic media in German research policy. Her fields of research are science communication, journalism studies, and visual communication. She is now working on a PhD project on visual framing at the
University of Mnster.

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