Opening up the Mass Mediation of Social Science

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The mass media play an important role in communication between science and society. They are an obvious channel for the dissemination of science to the public, an arena for the negotiation of issues of risk, trust, and priorities relating to science, and a seismograph for cultural or political concerns that feed back into the production of science. Given the enormous importance of the mass media in relation to science, science communication scholars and media studies researchers have devoted a great amount of attention to various aspects of mass mediation processes and products, but almost always across sharp analytical distinctions between science and the media, or between the representatives of these domains, namely, researchers and journalists.

But how useful are these distinctions in helping us to understand concrete practices or relations in the mass mediation of science? Instead of conceiving of the mass media as a monolithic institution, perhaps it is time to open this ‘thing’ up and look directly at the wide variety of people and practices that shape stories circulated by the media. In my own work on the mass mediation of social science, I have explored how particular texts and relationships came into being. I followed the traces of connections between texts, persons, symbols, information and communication technologies, the articulation of ideals, and other types of entities. I tried always to avoid easy distinctions between pre-established groups such as researchers and journalists and sometimes outright refused to see communication as a flow from scientists via the media (and its gate-keepers) to the public. I wanted to be open to the variety of agencies and activities that are important to actors in practice.

By this means, I gained access to a diversity of stories of the mass mediation of social science. Some of them dealt with the fate of social scientific knowledge claims when they became the basis of media texts. For instance, I told the story of a researcher, who regularly writes essays for a particular newspaper. By comparing his media texts with a conference paper he had written, I saw how the researcher himself translated his social scientific knowledge claims, re-interpreting historical anecdotes and inverting examples. The researcher was so familiar with popularization techniques that the editor rarely made changes in his texts. But in letters to the editor, he was accused of being too colourful and of distorting historical evidence. Since the accusation came from a journalist, we are a far cry from the image of scientists as truth-seeking and journalists as sensationalist.

I also looked at how particular media texts are put together. They are not routinely produced by a media machinery operating in accordance with a particular media logic. Instead, each time a story is created, elements have to be aligned in new ways so that people, framings, anecdotes, ideals, and other types of elements fit in the collective. The framing of a given story has to fit with the interest of the editor (or the editor’s interest has to be aligned so that it fits the story). Or maybe statistical facts have to be aligned to confirm a framing on a story (or the story has to be aligned so that it fits statistical numbers).

Furthermore, I have told stories of the construction and negotiation of different kinds of expert positions. One researcher was constantly called on for comment. He would be asked about just about anything, it seemed. The telephone emerged as absolutely central to the establishment of a ‘professional relationship’ between journalist and this researcher. They had never met in person, and the journalist told how it is central to her work that expert sources have their cell phone number on their web page. Even at night or when he travelled, she could always get hold of this professor on his cell phone, and the professor told about how he always gave priority to phoning journalists back, and asked his colleagues to do the same.

Another story looked into a particular relationship between a researcher and a journalist, who had a common interest in ’practice’. The journalist saw the researcher as a gateway to a lot of interesting ’real life’ stories. He gave her access to his empirical material, invited her to meetings and conferences, and gave her a lot of information about possible stories. Interestingly, they had two ways of working together (and working with others). In some instances, the journalists would produce long texts where the researcher was allowed to contribute with a very complex vocabulary and in other instances they would use the same researcher in a very traditional way, to produce one expert statement for use in a simple news article – much in the same way as the ‘professional expert source’ mentioned above.

‘Conflict’ is not inherent to the relationship between journalists and researchers. I have told one story about conflicts between researchers and journalists, where a researcher felt abused by ‘the media’. But my thesis also presents stories where conflict was not present at all. And it contained a story where conflict was not between a researcher and a journalist, but between a professor and his colleagues. This professor positioned himself as a fan of applied research, as sympathetic to the media’s news criteria, and as good at offering evidence-based advice and securing grants. In this way, he was positioned against some of his colleagues, who were constructed as highflying, internationally oriented, theoretical nerds. In this case, then, researchers were positioned as ’typical academics’ by their colleague, not by journalists.

So what do these stories tell us? They show us how unstable professional positions can be, how dynamic relationships in the public sphere are, and how the content of media coverage is negotiated from day to day. They teach us that mass mediation is not automated, and that there are not just many positions to occupy but many ways of establishing positions and relations, and many ways of negotiating the inclusion of elements into the collectives which are the precondition for media texts to come into being.

Ursula Plesner recently defended her doctoral dissertation ‘Disassembling the Mass Mediation of Research – A study of the construction of texts, relations and positions in the communication of social science’, Roskilde University, Denmark. She is now an assistant professor in innovation communication at the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark.