New research uncovers how we consume science news

The reliability of media content remains a considerable challenge, and with fake news now a part of the every day lexicon, it has perhaps never been harder for people to get reliable information, even as we’ve never had so much of it freely available as we do today.

A recent study from the Pew Research Center highlights the challenge faced when trying to ensure citizens get accurate information, especially about scientific topics.  The study found that most Americans rarely actively seek out scientific news, and instead get it by happenstance from more mainstream publications.

Interestingly, this is despite readers having a generally low opinion of those sources in terms of their accuracy and reliability.  For instance, they regard specialty sources such as museums, science magazines and scientific documentaries as having the highest likelihood of reporting science accurately, with just 28% of respondents believing the mainstream media are likely to.

Unscientific reporting

The respondents reported a number of key problems with the way science is reported in the media, including:

  • Reporting findings that don’t hold up to scrutiny
  • Failing to discern between high and low quality research
  • Jumping to conclusions about how findings apply in real-life

Interestingly, despite recent research suggesting that many researchers spin their findings, this study finds most people pin the blame on this onto journalists rather than academics.

The study then explored any differences between those who are actively engaged in science and those who are not.  There were around 17% of respondents who were active consumers of science news.  They tend to get their news from multiple sources, both directly and via the social channels of such publications.  These people are also more likely to go to museums or to have science related hobbies.  They were also more likely to have participated in a citizen science project.

“With significant science-related issues at the center of public debates, there are ongoing questions about how the public gets information about science topics,” the researchers say. “We find a core group of Americans who are active science news consumers and this group is distinctive in how they use and evaluate science news. Some science-related information also reaches a large segment of the public through other avenues, including informal learning venues, such as museums, and science-related entertainment media.”