How news coverage affects public trust in science

News media reports about scientific failures that do not recognize the self-correcting nature of science can damage public perceptions of trust and confidence in scientific work, according to findings by researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) and the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York.

Person wearing a face mask seated on a park bench reads the newspaper while holding head in concern.

News stories about science follow several specific narratives, the researchers write in a new study in the journal Public Understanding of Science. One is that science is “in crisis” or “broken,” a narrative driven in recent years by reports of unsuccessful efforts to replicate findings in psychology, a rise in retractions, failures of peer review, and the misuse of statistics, among other things.

“Attempts and failures to replicate findings are an essential and healthy part of the scientific process,” says co-author Yotam Ophir, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Buffalo and a former postdoctoral fellow in APPC’s science of science communication program, where the work was conducted. “Our research shows the need for journalists and scientists to accurately contextualize such failures as part of the self-correcting nature of science.”

In an experiment, nearly 4,500 U.S. adults were assigned to read one of four different types of news stories about science or a control story. The study finds exposure to stories highlighting problems reduced trust in scientists and induced negative beliefs about scientists. Greater effects were seen among people who read stories saying that science was in crisis or broken.

“We’ve identified a tendency in news coverage to overgeneralize the prevalence of problems in science and take them as an indicator that the enterprise as a whole is broken,” says co-author and APPC director Kathleen Hall Jamieson. What the experiment found, she added, is that “exposure to news that mistakenly concluded that because something has gone wrong science is in crisis can unjustifiably undercut confidence in science.”

Read more at the Annenberg Public Policy Center.