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Telling it like it is: A qualitative excavation of the factors that impel natural/physical scientists to serve as mass media news sources

Author: 
Wells, D. Scott
Committee Members: 
Dr. Ben Bates
Date: 
May 2013

Abstract: Scientific discoveries and technological advancements are often viewed as crucial to the growth and success of a nation. Also viewed as important are an informed public. Governed by different socio-cultural rules, the communities of science and journalism share little in common. However, the effective creation of science news typically requires interaction between scientists and journalists. Scholarly studies of the communicative engagement between the science and journalism communities suggest interactions have not been smooth, potentially hindering effective public dissemination and uptake of scientific information via the press.

Past studies of the relationship between scientists and journalists have primarily focused on the factors that impede their effective communication. This study seeks to fill a void in the corpus of scholarly literature by focusing on factors that facilitate the communicative efforts of scientists and journalists. Specifically, this study examines the creation and dissemination of science news from the perspective of scientists, who often serve as primary information sources.

This qualitative effort employs the long interview method for data collection and the Grounded Theory analytical approach. Thirty faculty researchers within the natural and physical sciences from 19 institutions of higher education were interviewed to identify individual motivations and values with respect to communicating science information to the public via the press.

Results show that both intrinsic (e.g., feeling obligated, stressing importance of research, being passionate) and extrinsic motivations (e.g., receiving attention, affecting policy, and being untrained to communicate) drive the communicative engagement. Results also show that values such as an informed public, professional relationships, and integrity are embodied within these motivations. In addition, results show that the study participants harbor multiple assumptions not only about the engagement with the press but also about the social value that might result from the engagement.