When viruses make headline news

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New data from Observa’s Science in the Media Monitor

From ‘mad cow disease’ to ‘swine flu’, viruses, epidemics and pandemics have become recurrent topics in the media. But what happens when these topics are handled by journalists? And how does their treatment change? Data from the Science in the Media Monitor, the observatory on coverage of science and technology issues in the Italian daily press, offer numerous interesting insights.
Also in the case of global emergencies like the H1N1 virus, the information media tend to shift the focus rapidly to the local level. Thus, in the case of swine flu, the peak of attention came on the occasion of the first death attributed to the virus in Italy (20% of all articles) and to the debate on vaccines (15%), while the raising of the alert threshold by the World Health Organization received less attention (2%).
Another tendency is for the media to oscillate constantly between alarm and reassurance, without providing the audience with definitive conclusions. According to Massimiano Bucchi, Professor of Science, Technology and Society at the University of Trento, “in the past the media were the ‘messengers of danger’, mouthpieces for health institutions and experts which dispensed advice and recommendations through the information media. Today information consists of a melange of judgements and suggestions from researchers and doctors which almost never lead to a decisive conclusion and clear instructions for the public. The format for the discussion is predominantly that of the talk show, where what matters most is a conflict of views, rather than a solution”.
The choice of the sources interviewed also contributes to this dynamic: 59% of the experts quoted in the press on the topic of swine flu were doctors and healthcare practitioners, while much more infrequently consulted were researchers like virologists or epidemiologists.
However, this does not mean that the media pay scant attention to these matters. The data collected by the Science in the Media Monitor, in fact, dispel a myth: news about science and technology represent 13% of the articles published every year in the main Italian daily newspapers, with a total of over 9000 relevant articles in 2009, a significant increase on the previous year.

The complete results were presented in Venice on the occasion of the Sixth World Conference on the Future of Science. The Science in the Media Monitor is run by Observa Science in Society under the supervision of Federico Neresini (University of Padua). By means of an innovative computer program, every day the Monitor archives and analyses all the articles on science and technology published online by four of the main Italian newspapers (Corriere della Sera, Repubblica, Sole24 Ore and La Stampa, with the recent addition of Avvenire and Il Giornale).

The Science in the Media Monitor is the first observatory on the public communication of science and technology in Italy. It conducts detailed and systematic monitoring of the coverage of issues concerning scientific research and technological innovation in the Italian media. The Science in the Media Monitor is an initiative of Observa Science in Society, with the support of the Compagnia di San Paolo.