Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Themes in Media Coverage of Science

Scholars have attempted to identify many dimensions of inadequacy regarding how science is covered in the media. In an overview of these assessments, Dornan (1990) addresses recurring problems in science news coverage. Dornan points out that “media [has] generally ignored science and, even when they did not, they all to often sensationalized it, exploiting scientific inquiry as a source of startling narratives” (pp. 48-49). He further identifies two possible sources of this exploitation: inadequate translation and sensationalism. Dornan describes problems with translation as difficulty conveying technical science knowledge and vocabulary in a more accessible manner. Sensationalism, he posits, emerges when compelling journalistic coverage begins to stray from the ultimate goal of the scientific inquiry.

This post discusses the emergence of sensationalism and inadequate translation as themes in televised news coverage of the recently activated particle accelerator at CERN laboratories in Switzerland. First, a brief overview of CERN laboratories and the particle accelerator is offered. This is followed by an assessment of coverage and emerging themes as seen on three news networks: Fox news, ABC news, and CNN.

CERN's Particle Accelerator
As described on their website, CERN is the European Organization for Nuclear Research and is “one of the world's largest and most respected centres for scientific research” (“CERN in,” 2008). CERN is known for their openness to outside observation of experiments and research being conducted. On September 10, 2008, CERN announced the successful activation of their Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's largest particle accelerator. This particle accelerator is a machine, 17 miles in circumference, which facilitates and measures the collisions of particles in an attempt to recreate the conditions that occurred immediately after the big bang. As reported by CERN, the purpose of this massive scientific experiment is to further understanding of particle physics, the nature of matter, and the creation of the universe (“Why the,” 2008).

ABC Coverage: “Science Experiment Doesn't End World”
Reporting for ABC's “Good Morning America” on September 10, 2008, an unidentified journalist introduces a segment on the particle accelerator: “As you can see, Europe is still here; the world did not end overnight; but take a look at what was happening while all of you were safe in your beds.” This is the point at which sensationalism emerges as a recurring theme in the segment. Following this trend, footage of what appears to be the particle accelerator is shown while the journalist continues to elaborate on the “fear [that] these brainiacs [will] kill us all.” After posing questions to the audience about the dangers of black holes and sudden death, the journalist rhetorically asks, while familiar movie clips of destruction are playing, “but who doesn't love a good doomsday scenario?” Although this is followed by very brief scientific testimony espousing the safety of this experiment, a quick challenge warns the audience “eggheads can be dangerous! Who came up with the nuclear bomb?”

Justifying fears surrounding the experiment, the journalist suggests “it's hard to put minds at rest because it's tough to explain exactly what they are up to.” However, rather than attempting to explain, a brief clip shows an off camera interviewer telling a CERN scientist “if you were in a bar, and talking about your job, no one is gonna understand what on earth your talking about!” Seemingly taken back by this statement, the scientist is seen retorting, “oh I wouldn't say that, I wouldn't say that; it depends what you tell them.” The journalist in this segment avoids problems with translation by simply dismissing scientific jargon as to complicated to even understand.

After roughly two minutes covering the fears surrounding CERN's particle accelerator, ABC's journalist wraps up his report by explaining “in a nutshell: they might discover what the universe is made of; they might discover absolutely nothing; or still, they might just kill us all.” With this last statement, the journalist solidifies his report's sensationalist theme and problem with, or shear avoidance of, translation and scientific inquiry.

Fox Coverage: “Big Bang Machine”
On September 10, 2008, Fox news correspondent Bill Hemmer reports on the newly unveiled particle accelerator in a segment featured on Fox's “America's Newsroom.” Throughout the four-minute segment, a sensationalist theme is seen to emerge; although, less than what was seen in coverage by ABC's journalist. Bill Hemmer spends the majority of the segment interviewing physicist Dr. Michio Kaku about the intentions, dangers, and inner workings of the particle accelerator.

Hemmer begins by introducing the “massive particle collider” and addressing concerns that such a device will create dangerous black holes. Hemmer begins his interview with Dr. Kaku by expressing that “we want to know whether or not that's fact or fiction, or what this things all about, anyway.” Following this inquiry, a detailed explanation of the experiment is offered. Although Dr. Kaku says nothing of black holes or other dangers, Hemmer once again addresses the concern: “So all this talk about it creating a black hole, swallowing the earth or parts of the Swiss Alps, anyway, all that’s baloney?” In response, Dr. Kaku attempts to ease fears by offering a detailed explanation as to why there is no danger. Immediately following this, a 3-D animation depicts a black hole emerging from the ground and swallowing the earth. In reference to this, Hemmer asks “but you don't believe this is going to happen. Does this get us any closer to figuring out how we came to be?” This is the point in the segment when the sensationalism seems to be pushed aside for further explanation and scientific inquiry.

Overall, the segment develops slight sensationalism. However, it balances this with detailed information about the experiment and what it means to the scientific community. As a result, one may expect to experience more problems with translation due to the large amount of technical information being conveyed. Contrary to this expectation, Dr. Kaku provides detailed analysis of the experiment using laymen terminology, visualization, and analogy. In addition, Hemmer carefully clarifies and paraphrases difficult concepts in a simplified manner. Hence, translation is not an issue due to the style of data presentation and the attentiveness of the journalist.

CNN Coverage: “Big Bang Machine Kicks Off”
In contrast to coverage by ABC and Fox news, CNN's Atika Shubert presents a two minute segment on the particle accelerator with little to no sensationalism and pays special attention to bridging the gap between science and the public. Specifically, using behaviors encouraged by Dornan (1990), Shubert is concise, uses fairly short and simple explanations, and provides subtle analogies and simplifications to aid understanding. Unlike previous news segments, risks and criticisms are briefly discussed and responded to with explanations from CERN.

Speaking over rapidly moving footage of the particle accelerator, Shubert describes the machine as “the biggest scientific experiment, ever,” and continues by explaining: “The goal? Trying to understand the secrets of the universe by recreating the moments just after the big bang.” This straightforward and concise description sets an informative tone for the rest of the segment. Continuing with this approach, Shubert provides a more detailed elaboration of the machine and explains its purpose is to “recreate conditions less than a microsecond after the big bang.” Furthermore, her language and method of description are very concise, detailed, and presented in an accessible manner. Shubert addresses problems of translation by using imagery, short sentences and terms, and by conveying the information herself rather than through scientists.

Following this, Shubert recognizes “detractors” which have expressed the concern of black holes. In response to this, she asserts, “CERN says this will not happen” and explains that although “a microscopic black hole is possible . . . it would be too small and too unstable, winking out of existence in a matter of seconds.” Another concern she addresses is that of the cost, $5 Billion, being a waste of money. In the defense of science, Shubert remarks “understanding how the universe works, these scientists believe, is worth the cost, and the risk.” Contrasting greatly with the other reports on criticism, this journalist acknowledges the concerns briefly and relays explanations and justifications from CERN.

A final look at the news coverage of CERN's particle accelerator as presented by three news networks reveals varying degrees of two emerging themes: problems with translation and sensationalism. On one extreme, ABC's segment provides a sensationalist perspective of CERN's particle accelerator while avoiding any need for effective translation by dismissing the information as too complicated to even understand. On the other hand, CNN's segment provides a very detailed description of the experiments location, cost, method, and function. This is done with almost no sensationalism and pays special attention to effective translation. Somewhere in the middle, we find the segment presented by Fox news to be almost evenly balanced with sensationalism and scientific information. Furthermore, attention to translation is visible through the careful words of Dr. Kaku and the manner in which Bill Hemmer responds to complex terminology. These observations illustrate Dornan's (1990) suggestion that problems with translation and sensationalism are emergent themes in news coverage of science, which can lead to exploitation of scientific inquiry. As seen in this analysis, the more that sensationalism and poor translation emerge, the more scientific inquiry is ignored or abused for the purpose of creating compelling journalism. Fortunately, we have also seen that science is not being ignored and journalism interested in scientific inquiry has not been entirely lost.


CERN in a nutshell. (2008). Retrieved September 10, 2008, from

Dornan, C. (1990). Some problems in conceptualizing the issue of “science and the media.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 7, 48-71.

Why the LHC. (2008). Retrieved September 10, 2008, from


Marj said...

Huh. Who would have that that Fox would have ended up in the middle ground of anything?

I have a theory. News coverage of scientific events is inadequate due to the same reason that news coverage of nearly everything is inadequate: supply is dictated - at least in part - by demand. In other words, we as news consumers aren't quite up to snuff when it comes to seeking out scientific news. Poor translation occurs because we put the "news" in charge of bridging the huge gap between the expertise of leading scientist and Joe Schmoe watching TV. Sensationalism occurs because we like science fiction better than science. We'll tune in to see "Particle Accelerator Might Destroy Planet," but not "Particle Accelerator Interesting for Legitimate Reasons." Which means ABC/FOX/CNN gets to sell that much more advertising time. Follow the $.

Here's what confuses me: did anyone really think that the scientists behind the world's largest particle accelerator would have switched the thing on if it was actually going to cause a black hole that would swallow up the earth? Because I would just assume that they're smart enough to know better.

jrinvictus said...

Oh man, you are a 20,000 times better writer than I could ever be. Maybe that's why God gave me all the good looks.

Did you look at the BBC's coverage? I would be interested to see what their take on it, my guess would be that it was the most middle of them all. I'm not too surprised by the fact that Fox was most middle. They tend to be compared to the others, it just seems so over the top because they are really the only main stream conservative media outlet.