Crisis in science reporting: is this a British thing?

A number of British media commentators have bemoaned what they describe as a crisis in science journalism. The claim is that reporting is very often sensationalist, and the choice of subject matter tends to follow fashion rather than represent the breadth of work being carried out by research scientists. Media cutbacks are also impacting disproportionately on science journalists.

One could be forgiven for thinking that this is a universal phenomenon. But a recent study of German newspapers reveals an increase in science reporting in recent years. Dortmund University media researchers Christina Elmer, Franziska Badenschier and Holger Wormer took over 4,000 science articles published during six months of observations, looked at their background and evaluated the tone of the reporting.

Research leader Wormer and his colleagues found that, although peer-reviewed journal publication remains important as a stimulus for popular science reporting, around 40% of the evaluated articles were triggered by such things as political debates and natural disasters. The majority of the articles were positive in tone, but this differs from subject to subject, with science politics, medicine and environmental issues gaining more attention.

That is pretty much a universal given, and reflects the impact of these particular topics on people’s day-to-day lives. In general terms, however, there appears to be a consensus within the German media that science sells newspapers.

Is this a peculiarly German thing? A similar study of British newspapers and broadcast media should shed some light on this.