Analyse whether the media makes a 'positive contribution' to the public's perception of science?
Do the media -
1) Inform - Yes or No? - Why?
2) Influence - Yes or No? - Why?
3) Educate - Yes or No? - Why?
4) Enlighten - Yes or No? - Why?
5) Promote debate - Yes or No? - Why?
Does this show the media makes a 'positive contribution' to peoples understanding of science? - Yes or No? - Why?
I think that the media presents science in a way that would benefit its own purposes. In this domain, science is no different than any other arena that is held by the media. For example, the recent leaked email from scientists about the issue of climate change being "overblown." The media covered the story, but did so to further the debate/ public interest in the issue. There might have been the inclination to genuinely further the discourse, but there is another chance that the media's interest was only to feed the public fascination with a topic that was shelved when Tiger Woods' sensationalism took over. In the final analysis, the media informs when there is news to report about the nature of science. Its influence on public perception is done to enhance its own sense of image and consolidate its own control over public understanding of issues. In terms of encourage debate and enlightenment, most mainstream news outlets are more concerned with increasing advertising revenue and increasing viewship, as opposed to enhancing the complex nature of scientific discourse.
I am not sure that I would care to characterize the media in their entirely this way. There are media that responsibly report on science and educate the public. Examples might be Newsweek, The New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. Science News is an excellent publication and its mission seems to be to educate the public on scientific issues. There are no doubt many others. But there are also media that have agendas that make their reporting suspect. One example might be reporting on creationism or intelligent design. Any medium that reports on these and represents its reporting as scientific reporting is, in my opinion, reporting irresponsibly. Another example is global warming, which right-wing media have consistently denied over the years, acting as though it were a left-wing conspiracy.
One way in which I would characterize the media more generally in its science reporting is to echo the first responder's comment about not providing enough information. Much scientific research is reported in lengthy articles that contain extensive data. It does not appear that most media reporters actually read these article, or at least, if they do, they do not seem to really understand what they have read. One striking "fact" will be reported, without all the caveats and limitations that the authors of the research have explained in their writing. There are a few publications that do not have this problem, but television and radio seem particularly prone to this problem.
I would say that the media influences and promotes debate, but does not necessarily do any of the other three, or at least not particularly effectively.
The media influences people because it is the only way that most of us know anything about what's going on in science. It promotes debate because the media likes to be controversial.
However, the other things don't happen as much or as well. Most scientific discoveries or issues are complicated and technical and nuanced. The popular media do not do well with issues like that. People will not want to pay attention long enough to truly understand a difficult scientific question.
So, to me it is a positive contribution in the sense that we wouldn't know anything about science otherwise. But it's negative in that it doesn't give us great information.
The media's contribution to the public's perception of science depends on the branch of science being discussed. Science that impinges on human outcomes stimulates debates and the media's approach to such topics definitely affects the public's perception. Case in point, Paul Nowak writes,
In January, an Associated Press article about New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey signing a stem cell research bill, stated "Stem cells are produced in the first days of pregnancy and help create the human body."
The following day the Associated Press issued a "clarification" that offered the following correction: "The story should have explained that embryonic stem cells used for research are grown in a laboratory and do not involve pregnancy." The first article had already done the damage and readers formed their opinion based on that artitcle.
Another example of media not making a positive contribution to the public's perception of science is global warming. The media uses words like scientists claim which implies the scientific findings are not based on data but opinion. Often data is omitted from scientific articles or reports when presented in the media.
So, based on my experience with the media and its contribution to the public's perception of science is it does not leave a positive contributon. While some media outlets may make positive contributions, like Public Broadcasting Stations, and National Public Radio, these are few and far between, most media outlets do science a grave injustice.