Science Content Up; Readers Expect Local Media To Be Watchdogs

May 15, 2007

tBy JAN KNIGHT

New York Times' science section grows smaller while content increases, trend study shows

Although The New York Times' Science Times section grew smaller in 2000, editorial content increased while advertising decreased, according to a random sample analysis spanning 20 years.

University of Washington researchers found that editorial content in national editions of the Times' science section grew from an average of 1.7 pages in 1980 to an average of 5.4 pages in 2000. Meanwhile, advertising content grew from 0.3 pages in 1980 to five or six pages during the 1980s and1990s, and then decreased to an average of two pages per issue in 2000.

The size of the section, including editorial content and ads, increased from an average of two pages in 1980 to about nine pages in the 1990s, but decreased to an average of about seven pages in 2000.

The researchers also found that Science Times' editorial coverage reflected a broad definition of science throughout the time period studied, with the section covering topics ranging from health to archeology.

Topics receiving the most coverage shifted over time, with articles about health, medicine and behavior accounting for nearly half (48 percent) of the section's coverage in 1980 and more than half (58 percent) in 2000. Technology and engineering received the most coverage in 1985, while the physical, Earth and life sciences received the most coverage in 1990 and 1995. Within the latter category, life sciences dominated coverage each year except 1985, and most life sciences coverage focused on wildlife biology or conservation, according to the study.

The researchers examined the Science Times because studies show that it influences science coverage in other news publications and broadcasts. Further, research shows that the mass media in general provide an important source of information not only for nonscientists, but also for scientists, who turn to the mainstream press to keep up with developments in fields other than their own.

The researchers randomly selected one issue per month of the Science Times national edition for 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995 and 2000 and analyzed a total of 985 articles.

For more information, see Fiona Clark and Deborah L. Illman, "A Longitudinal Study of the New York Times Science Times Section" in Science Communication, Volume 27, Number 4 (June 2006), pp. 496 – 513.

People who watch, read the most environmental news also feel more at risk, survey shows

People who read or watch the most environment news view themselves as more knowledgeable about environmental issues and more at risk, according to a recent study.

The study presents findings from a telephone survey conducted among residents of the Ohio River valley "chemical corridor," referring to 12 poor Appalachian counties in southeastern Ohio and western West Virginia that are home to heavily polluting industries. The survey aimed to determine how people living in such areas view news coverage of environmental problems.

Respondents who viewed themselves as knowledgeable about environmental issues and considered such issues important reported reading or watching more environmental news than did those who viewed themselves as less environmentally aware and environmental knowledge as unimportant.

Further, those who more often read or watched environmental news also rated their own environmental risk significantly higher than those who reported seldom or never paying attention to environmental news, according to the study. However, the researcher did not conclude that more news use causes people to feel more at risk. Rather, he stated, "Whether risk perception is fueled by media coverage or provides a motive for viewing or reading such coverage" is unknown.

About 75 percent of the respondents rated television as very or somewhat good providers of environmental news, while 68 percent rated newspapers this way. The researcher suggested that this finding was especially important for local newspapers because "it is the local newspaper that, for many of these respondents, can address their own local problems."

But more than half of the respondents stated that their media seldom or never report on environmental problems. Yet, at the same time, 72 percent of those polled said that their local newspaper would be very or somewhat likely to report on environmental problems linked to local businesses. This counters previous research suggesting that local media might take a "lapdog," versus watchdog, role and avoid running such reports because the businesses hold local economic clout, including providing jobs.

The survey response rate was 35 percent – 453 surveys were completed out of 1,260 calls to working, non-business telephone numbers – for a sampling error of plus or minus 4.6 at the 95 percent confidence level.

For more information, see Dan Riffe, "Frequent Media Users See High Environmental Risks" in Newspaper Research Journal, Volume 27, Number 1 (Winter 2006), pp. 48 – 57.

Jan Knight, a former magazine editor and daily newspaper reporter, is a former assistant professor of communication at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu, where she continues to teach online courses in writing and environmental communication. She can be reached at jknight213@aol.com

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2007 issue.

JAN KNIGHT