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Reporting of Social Science in the National Media

Reporting of Social Science in the National Media

Carol H. Weiss
Eleanor Singer
with the assistance of Phyllis Endreny
Copyright Date: 1988
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Reporting of Social Science in the National Media
    Book Description:

    Policy makers, as well as the general public, are often unaware of social science research until a story about it appears in the national media. Even in official Washington, a staffer's report on social research may go unnoticed while a report in theWashington Postreceives immediate attention.

    This study takes a systematic and revealing look at social science reporting. How do journalists hear about social science, and why do they select certain stories to cover and not others? How do journalistic standards for selection compare with social scientists' own judgments of merit? How do reporters attempt to ensure accuracy, and how freely do they introduce their own interpretations of social science findings? How satisfied are social scientists with the selection and accuracy of social science news?

    In Part I, Carol H. Weiss addresses these questions on the basis of personal interviews with social scientists and the journalists who wrote about their work. Part II, by Eleanor Singer, is based on an analysis of media content itself, and compares social science reporting over time (between 1970 and 1982) and across media (newspapers, newsmagazines, television). These two complementary perspectives combine to produce a thorough, realistic assessment of the way social science moves out of the academy and into the world of news.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-553-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. 1 The Nature of the Study
    (pp. 1-18)
    Carol H. Weiss

    This book takes a systematic look at the reporting of the social sciences in major media in the United States: what the media choose to report and how well they report it. The original idea for the inquiry came from a series of studies I have been doing on the influence of social science on public policy (Weiss 1974, 1977; Weiss with Bucuvalas 1980; Weiss 1983, 1987). In the course of those studies it became clear that an important way in which policymakers hear about social Science, even in their own areas of specialization, is through the mass media. Although...

  4. Part I Interview Study

    • 2 Processes of Reporting
      (pp. 21-54)

      TheNew York Timesfor April 9, 1985, carried a story in the Science Times section headlined, “Study Stresses Pre-School Benefits.” Written by Larry Rohter, it gave the results of a follow-up study of poor black children in Harlem who at the age of 4 had entered early education programs in the New York City public schools. The researchers—Martin Deutsch, Theresa J. Jordan, and Cynthia P. Deutsch of New York University’s School of Education—found that the youth, aged 19 to 21 at the time of the follow-up interviews, were twice as likely to be holding jobs as a...

    • 3 How Journalists and Social Scientists View the Reporting of Social Science
      (pp. 55-74)

      We want to know what accounts for the pattern of reporting of social science that appears in the pages of newspapers and newsmagazines and on television news. Part of the answer must lie in the attitudes and values of journalists and what they think about the social sciences. The degree of training and understanding that they have of the social sciences must also have an effect. Social scientists’ attitudes probably play a part, too—how they feel about current reporting, their willingness to cooperate with reporters, and their judgment of stories in which they have appeared. These are the topics...

    • 4 A Search for Factors That Make a Story Good
      (pp. 75-92)

      Social scientists made judgments about the quality of the story that reported their research or quoted their statements. This chapter undertakes a statistical analysis to identify factors that are associated with their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the story.

      Previous research has examined the accuracy ofsciencenews stories. (In several of these earlier studies social science made up some fraction of the science news, but usually not more than one third.) Media researchers have found relatively few factors that are associated with better ratings of the story by the scientist-source. Among them are whether the origin of the story was...

    • 5 Social Science Not Covered by the Media: Reporting of AAAS Meetings
      (pp. 93-116)

      So far we have looked at social science that the media have reported. What about social science that the media ignore? How do we identify the kinds of social science that are routinely neglected? It seems important to find out whether there are patterned regularities in media attentiveness—whether, for example, coverage varies by such factors as social science discipline, kind of information, renown of the social scientist, topic of investigation, or channel of dissemination. Are there certain types or styles of social science that are likely to be reported and others that are generally excluded?

      The major obstacle to...

    • 6 Social Science Not Covered: Incoming Media Communications
      (pp. 117-128)

      In our second effort to identify the social science not reported in the media, we made arrangements with journalists in five news organizations in Boston during the summer of 1983 to save all their incoming (nonpersonal) mail and keep track of incoming phone calls for two consecutive days.¹ Lynne Sussman, research assistant, spent those two days observing at each office. The organizations were the dailyBoston Globeand the Boston bureaus ofNewsweek, Time, the Associated Press, and United Press International. The reporters who were asked and agreed to participate in the study were those most likely to receive press...

    • 7 The General Pattern of Social Science Reporting
      (pp. 129-154)

      As we have seen, social scientists cited in the media were pleased with the stories about their work. About 85 percent believed that the story was generally accurate, about 80 percent believed that the emphasis was appropriate, and, even with the limited page space and air time available, fewer than 30 percent believed that essential parts of their work had been omitted. A fair number of respondents qualified their answers with allusions to the stringent constraints under which journalists work, noting that they take these constraints into account in judging the stories that appear. They recognize that the media are...

    • 8 In Which We Conclude, Seek to Improve, and Take Stock
      (pp. 155-172)

      There is an old story about a gambler who went to the casino every night to play roulette. Every night he played and every night he lost. Finally, a friend took him aside and said, “Don’t you know that wheel is crooked?”

      The gambler said, “Sure, I know.”

      The friend said, “Then why do you keep on playing?”

      “Because,” said the gambler, “it’s the only wheel in town.”

      If the social sciences want to get their messages to a mass audience, then the mass media are pretty much the only wheel in town. Although there are wobbles and glitches in...

  5. Part II Content Analysis

    • 9 How Much Social Science Do the Media Report?
      (pp. 175-208)

      The first part of this book has been based largely on the perceptions of the actors involved: social scientists who are cited in the news, or whose research is reported there, and some of the journalists who do the reporting. They talk about what they do, why and how they do it, and how satisfied they are with the results. But from the outset, we recognized that there is another source of knowledge about social science reporting, since the actors’ perceptions may not tell the whole story. Consequently, we were also interested in the patterns of social science news that...

    • 10 Social Scientists as Sources
      (pp. 209-224)

      All reporters, from the cub reporter to the seasoned veteran, must go to others, to the designated actors, for their material. Roshco (1975), following Lippmann and James, has observed:

      [T]he mass-media reporter is prototypically an observer, describing the issues others frame, the problems they raise, the solutions they offer, the actions they take, the conflicts in which they engage. Thus, the nature of news as a form of knowledge makes the reporter dependent upon news sources for most of the knowledge he will transpose into media content.

      Sports reporters may be allowed on the playing field, but they don’t engage...

    • 11 The Quality of Social Science Reporting
      (pp. 225-254)

      Robert Darnton’s richly evocative “Writing News and Telling Stories” (1975) develops the thesis that while “the context of work shapes the content of news … stories also take form under the influence of inherited techniques of storytelling,” and he concludes, “as [the reporter] passes through his formative phases he familiarizes himself with news, both as a commodity that is manufactured in the newsroom and as a way of seeing the world that somehow reached theNew York Timesfrom Mother Goose.” Other analysts of why news is the way it is have sought to explain it by reference to a...

    • 12 Some Implications of the Findings
      (pp. 255-260)

      The good news from this study is that most social scientists were satisfied with the coverage they received in the national media. And, further, social science in the media is easier to read, and often more interesting, than the social science research reported in scholarly journals. The bad news is that this readability is often achieved at a price and that individual satisfaction is no guarantee of collective quality.

      In this concluding chapter we talk briefly about four problems in the reporting of social science, as well as about the roots of these problems and some proposed remedies.

      1. Social science...

  6. Methodological Appendix
    (pp. 261-274)
  7. Bibliography
    (pp. 275-284)
  8. Index
    (pp. 285-296)