Module Identifier BS25110  
Module Title SCIENCE AND THE MEDIA  
Academic Year 2007/2008  
Co-ordinator Dr Dylan G Jones  
Semester Semester 2  
Course delivery Lecture   10 lectures in the form of web-based materials  
  Practical   These sessions will be degree scheme specific.  
  Seminars / Tutorials   Students will need to set time aside to study additional materials (video, pdf articles etc) which will also be available on the web.  
Assessment
Assessment TypeAssessment Length/DetailsProportion
Semester Exam2 Hours examination based on the core materials  50%
Semester Assessment Journalistic article (1500 words)  20%
Semester Assessment Presentation and interviews  30%
Supplementary Exam2 Hours resit examination  50%
Supplementary Assessment Resubmit article, repeat presentation & interview  50%

Learning outcomes

On completion of this module, students should be able to:

Aims

Communication between the scientific community and the public is more important than ever, against a background of debates such as GM and global warming. Before we can increase public confidence in science, we need to understand how perceptions of science and scientists are shaped, not only by the news media and pressure groups, but also by fictional portrayals of scientific topics and 'threats'. This module will provide an overview of how the media influence public perceptions and understanding of science, both historically and in the present climate, and aims also to demonstrate how to communicate scientific ideas effectively and intelligibly to the public, whether directly or through the media.

Brief description

The module will:
(a) provide a historical and contemporary overview of the relationship between science and the media (both 'factual' and 'entertainment'), focussing on particular aspects and case-studies. How, and why, have perceptions changed? Is science, and 'progress' in general, now regarded as more harmful than beneficial to humanity? How do perceptions vary in the UK as compared with, for example, the US?   
(b) discuss how scientific ideas are conveyed in different types of media, including aspects of bias and propaganda.
(c) aim to teach 'best practice' in communication of science, emphasising the need for scientists to understand the views and concerns of different 'publics' as well as for these 'publics' to understand science (in line with the current policy of the BBSRC).

Content

1. Introduce the major themes and explain the different teaching methods of the course. What is science? A process of discovery rather than a collection of facts. Explain the nature of the scientific method and review the process of research (hypothesis testing); compare this with the way in which information is obtained by journalists and understood by the public.

2. Historical aspects. The early newspapers. Health was (and is) one of the major topics covered as it is of great public interest. The Victorian Age and the idea of progress as a good thing for mankind. Comparison with modern attitudes towards progress, particularly in the context of the destruction of the environment and developments in genetics. Ironically, in a 'secular' age, 'playing God' is now a common theme used in criticism of scientists.

3-6. The situation today. Problems of communication and understanding between scientists, the public and the media. Topics that scientists consider important may be ignored or presented in ways that seem sensationalised or trivialised. The nature of scientific proof is not widely understood and public perceptions of statistics (e.g. figures for risk in different contexts) may be unrealistic.
Illustrated by case studies:

7. Practical aspects. Spoken and written communication of ideas, for different audiences. Comparing articles / interviews produced in different styles. How to contact the Press, and 'how to be interviewed' for the radio or television.

8. Factual TV programmes. Studying specific programmes and discussing how they convey specific information, how they entertain, and how science and scientists themselves are represented.

9. Public perceptions: The scientist as hero and villain. How are science and scientists portrayed in the different media. Examples of scientific 'heroes and villains' from throughout the last century, e.g. Einstein as the archetypal caricature of the eccentric white-haired scientist, Christian Barnard as a hero of medicine or Steve Jones as the 'face of genetics' today. Fictional images of science and scientists on film and TV from Metropolis and Frankenstein to The Fly and Jurassic Park.

10. Trust, or lack of trust. Is it true that people today no longer trust what scientists tell them? Is this just part of the general trend of lack of faith in 'authority figures', such as politicians, or does it relate to the image of scientists in general, or to specific recent controversies such as BSE, MMR or GM? Aspects of propaganda, bias, ethics, and instances of faking scientific findings. The influence of the funding structure, and the pressures to publish (the reality, and the public perception). How can things be improved?

11. Subject specific material - Introduced by the tutor and involving exercises that are subject specific. A tutor in Genetics might introduce and focus on the GM debate whilst a tutor in Zoology could introduce animal testing, etc.

Module Skills

Problem solving Production of articles for different audiences and with different bias.  
Research skills Articles and presentation.  
Communication Articles, presentation and interviews  
Improving own Learning and Performance Articles, presentation and interviews  
Team work Since the presentations will be followed by `media style┬┐ interviews it is felt that the fairest system would be for students to produce, and `defend┬┐ their presentations individually.  
Information Technology Presentation, and use of web resources.  
Application of Number Understanding and intelligible presentation of statistical data will be included in the lectures and students will be encouraged also to include this aspect in articles and presentations.  
Personal Development and Career planning This module will not only help the scientists of the future to communicate better with the media and the public, but will also be of great relevance to those who pursue other careers in education, government/administration or, of course, the media.  
Subject Specific Skills Interview skills, writing skills.  

Notes

This module is at CQFW Level 5