Home / Education / Media Literacy / The Public’s Understanding of Research and the Role of Mass Media

The Public’s Understanding of Research and the Role of Mass Media

Cheryl K. Olson, Sc. D.
Lawrence A. Kutner, Ph.D.
Center for Mental Health and Media, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA

Absolute Genius with Dick and DomABSTRACT:

Electronic media provide opportunities to educate the public on science concepts and the nature of scientific inquiry. Scientific literacy is increasingly important to function in society. Mass media (especially television) are the public’s primary source of information on science and medical research. Developing effective media-based educational programs is more complex than it appears at first blush. This paper describes the need for sophisticated approaches to such programs and the evolution of a multifaceted project directed at both the general public, using local television news and the Internet, as well as a complementary program for journalists to help them report on science more accurately and effectively.

  • Citation
  • Authors
Olson, C., & Kutner, L. (2008) Using Electronic Media to Educate the Public About Science: Coping With the Evolving Media Landscape. Media Psychology Review. Vol. 1(1)

Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson are the authors of the recent book on the impact of video games on childhood development Grand Theft Childhood. They are co-founders and directors of the Center for Mental Health and Media, based in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and both on the psychiatry faculty at Harvard Medical School.

Larry KutnerLarry Kutner is the author of five previous books about child psychology and parent-child communication. He wrote the award-winning weekly New York Times “Parent & Child” column, was the “Ask the Expert” columnist for Parents magazine, and has been a columnist and contributing editor at Parenting and Baby Talk magazines. He’s a licensed psychologist and a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, which awarded him its National Psychology Award for the best newspaper writing about psychology in the United States. Kutner was recently awarded the 2008 American Psychological Association Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for his Contribution to Media Psychology for work in developing, refining and implementing applications, methods and procedures that had significant effects on the public and field of media psychology. lkutner [at] hms.harvard.edu

Cheryl K. Olson
is a public health researcher and practitioner. She’s a former teen issues columnist for Parents magazine, and was the Principal Investigator of the first federally funded, large-scale research project to take an in-depth look at the effects of electronic games on preteens and teenagers. She has served as a health behavior consultant to a number of non-profit organizations and corporations, as well as to government health agencies in the United States and in Europe. She is also an award-winning video producer and writer. colson[at] hms.harvard.edu

They have been married for 20 years, and have a teenage son who plays video games.


There is a great danger in the present day lest science-teaching should degenerate into the accumulation of disconnected facts and unexplained formulae, which burden the memory without cultivating the understanding (Everett, 1870).

Since Joseph David Everett’s time, making sense of science has become an ever more complex, yet essential task. Everett’s concern is reflected in recent efforts to distinguish science literacy, involving specific factual knowledge or skills, from scientific literacy, which refers to the process of critical, creative thinking and the nature of scientific inquiry (Maienschein,1998). In other words, science involves both knowing answers and asking questions. School curricula tend to focus on teaching science and technology facts. However, reasoning skills based on an understanding of scientific concepts and processes are particularly important for citizens of our rapidly changing world (Holbrook & Rannikmae, 2007). “Civic scientific literacy”—understanding scientific terms and constructs in the daily news, and grasping the gist of scientific disputes and policy options and their potential effects on society—is seen by some as critical to the functioning of a democracy (Miller, 1998).

This article reports on the thoughts behind and progress to date on an outreach program that uses electronic media, including local broadcast news and the Internet, to help both the general public and journalists gain a greater appreciation of science, the scientific method, and the relevance of those areas to their everyday lives.

Public Interest in Science and Health Research

What do nonscientists currently know about scientific concepts? The most comprehensive data on the American public’s knowledge of and interest in science comes from the biennial Science and Engineering Indicators report from the National Science Board of the National Science Foundation. From 2001-2006, annual surveys found that 83% to 87% of Americans had “a lot” or “some” interest in new scientific discoveries; in 2006, 47% claimed to have “a lot” of interest, the highest percentage to date (National Science Board, 2008). Interpretation of these surveys is complicated by uncertainties about what definitions members of the public have in mind when they think about science and technology, and how lumping the two together may affect responses (National Science Board, 2008).

Interest seems highest, however, in new medical discoveries. The National Science Foundation (National Science Board, 2002) found that about two-thirds of respondents were “very interested” in new medical discoveries. (The next-closest item, local school issues, found 59 percent “very interested.”) According to the 2006 Pew Research Center for the People & the Press’s Biennial News Consumption Survey, 24% of respondents claimed to closely follow health news; 15% closely followed science and technology news. Women dominated the former group, and men were disproportionately represented among the latter group (Kohut et al, 2006). However, a study by Brodie et al. (2003) drawing on 39 surveys found that health news was equally appealing to men and women.

A Pew review of news stories and categories that attracted the most interest in the past two decades (Robinson, 2007) found that health and safety news attracted a middling amount of attention. Science and technology news attracted below-average attention, despite the public’s ranking of scientific achievements (such as NASA’s program to put a man on the moon) as among the greatest of the 20th Century. The discrepancy may reflect differences in the perceived relevance of medical science as compared to other fields.

Why the public appreciates science, but shows little interest in news about science, is readily understood. Science lacks narrative, and often lacks practical application. And news about science and technology, no matter how well-written, has the great liability of being inherently difficult to comprehend. (Robinson, 2007, page 30)

Combined data from state and national public opinion surveys suggest a high level of support for medical and health research, with 79% agreeing that the federal government should fund basic science research, “even if it brings no immediate benefits” (Woolley & Propst, 2005). Fifty-six percent ranked “more money for medical and health research” as a very important national priority.

However, support for general government actions may not translate into support for specific policy proposals. For example, Timberlake, Lock and Rasinski (2003) found broad support for increased government spending on drug control, but divided opinion on whether to invest in law enforcement or rehabilitation. Perceptions and beliefs about fairness, blame and individual choice in drug use and addiction play a role. Because of this, some have called for public education on the nature of addiction that incorporates the latest scientific findings—put simply, that addiction is not a moral weakness but a brain disease (Leshner, 2001).

It’s clear that the public is strongly interested in the issue of drug abuse. In a 2001 survey, one in nine Americans (11%) identified drugs/alcohol as their most important community problem. Only education (14%) and crime and violence (12%) ranked higher; in rural areas, drugs ranked first. Ninety percent agreed that drug abuse is a serious problem in the nation, and one-quarter viewed it as a crisis. One-in-five Americans said drug abuse has caused problems in their family and more than half worried that a family member could become involved with drugs (44% were “very concerned) (Pew, 2001).

Science and Health in the Media: Myths and Opportunities

There is such an opportunity for sensationalism that newspaper reporters in particular are rarely able to keep their imagination in restraint, and the average literature they produce on the subject is about as thoroughly untrustworthy as it can well be.

— “Psychiatry and sensationalism,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 29 July 1899

The century-old quote above shows that scientists and physicians have long been (often rightly) critical of inaccuracies and sensationalism in media reports. Unfortunately, a significant amount of today’s science and health-related media content is confusing, misleading or downright wrong. Poor reporting can, for example, lead viewers to misconstrue research results, dangerously halt medical treatment, or turn to unproven “cures” (Shuchman & Wilkes, 1997). Selective reporting can also reinforce myths, such as the belief that mentally ill persons are dangerous (Angermeyer & Matschinger, 1996) or that cocaine dependence is due to “one’s own bad character” (Link et al., 1999), which can in turn affect policy.

In addition, the portrayal of science and researchers may influence public support for brain and addiction research, and interest in science careers. Both children and adults hold clear stereotypes of scientists. When asked to draw a picture of a scientist (Chambers, 1983; Steinke et al., 2007), children typically draw a man with glasses, wearing a lab coat, often with “crazy” hair or other “mad scientist” features (though many girls drew female scientists in newer studies). When asked, children most often named television shows, cartoons and movies as their primary source for images of scientists. In a National Science Foundation survey (National Science Board, 2002), more than a third of adults with less than a high-school education believed that “scientists are apt to be odd and peculiar people”; those who watch the most television seem most prone to these stereotyped views (Gerbner & Linson, 1999).

However, intelligent news coverage has led to needed changes in health and research policies and legislation (Shuchman, 2002) and television programs have repeatedly shown themselves—intentionally or accidentally—to be highly effective health and science public education tools. Even entertainment programming content has been shown to influence health-related knowledge and behaviors, such as family discussions and choices about health care, deciding to visit a doctor or clinic, or encouraging others to seek help (Singhal & Rogers, 2003; Brodie et al., 2001).

Mass Media as a Source of Science Information

One perhaps puzzling aspect of sensationalism in medical reporting is that the reports published in scientific journals may be so cautious in tone as to be considered dull, while the same research reported in the lay press may be sensationalized. While the professions of journalism and science each have well-defined standards to encourage accuracy, fairness, and balance in writing, the process sometimes yields a product that, when scientists and journalists interact, conforms to the ideals of neither good science nor good reporting (Ransohoff & Ransohoff, 2001).

The National Science Board’s biennial reports also combine data from various surveys on the public’s sources of science and technology (S&T) information (National Science Board, 2008). As of 2006, 49% chose television as their primary source for current event news in general, and 39% for S&T information in particular. The Internet was the second-most-cited S&T information source (23%). However, most people turn to the Internet for information on specific scientific issues (53%), with television a distant second (19%).

Although high-quality, accurate programs and documentaries are available on PBS, the Discovery Channel, and other outlets, they are watched by relatively few people. According to National Science Foundation surveys, people with the least formal science education are the least likely to watch NOVA—even though this group is most in need of science information (National Science Board, 2002). Far more people receive information of varying quality about health and science from the programs they watch regularly, such as local news programs.

Viewing of local cable and nightly network news all declined somewhat from 2004 to 2006. However, far more adults claim to watch local news regularly (54%) than cable news (34%) or nightly network news (28%). The internet has gained popularity as a source of news, cited by about one person in fifty in 1996, to nearly one in three a decade later; as of 2006, 31% said they sought news online three or more days per week (Pew, 2006). However, people spend less time with Internet news than television news, tending to visit headline-oriented web sites such as MSNBC, Yahoo and CNN. About 7% visited local TV station web sites regularly.

The potential of local television news. Despite increasing use of the Internet, local TV news continues to be the most popular news source among Americans of all ages; 2006 surveys found that 54% to 65% of people cited it as their major source of news (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2007). Although local news leads among all income groups, people with incomes of $30,000 or below were the most reliant on local news (74%).

This popularity suggests that local television news is an overlooked channel for reaching and educating a broad swath of the general public. As shown above, health-related topics are popular with news audiences, but local stations are limited in their ability to produce good health and science reports. Few local stations could afford to hire a reporter or producer who has specialized training in science, health or medicine, even if one were available (Aumente, 1995).

How local TV news covers health and science. Unfortunately, local television news stations are seldom up to the task of covering science or health research. In a review by Schwitzer (2004) of 840 health news stories that aired on Minneapolis-St. Paul local news between February and May, 2003, just 9% of stories demonstrated initiative by the reporter or producer; the rest were based on passively received information from news releases, journal articles or scheduled events. (A content analysis of Chicago local news in 2005-2006 found similar dismal levels of “enterprise reporting”; see Peer et al., 2007.) Most stories were headline-oriented, with little or no context; two-thirds of the stories lasted less than one minute, and over half were 30 seconds or less. Most relied on a single source, often one who had a vested financial and/or professional interest in the topic. During that period, none of the four stations employed a full-time health or science reporter. (Interestingly, two decades earlier three of the stations in this market employed full-time reporters who specialized in these areas, two of whom had doctoral degrees; the other was a registered nurse.)

This lack of understanding affected the presentation of research. For example, drugs in early stages of testing (even in mouse studies) were presented as likely to be available to the public soon, with no explanation of the phases of drug testing or approval requirements. Pribble and colleagues (2006) reviewed stories in the top 50 media markets, finding that the median length of a health/medical story was 33 seconds. Many stories included potentially dangerous advice, such as using lemon juice to prevent transmission of HIV during sexual intercourse, or failed to provide simple, useful information, such as how to prevent or respond to mosquito bites that might transmit West Nile virus.

Opportunities to improve health and science news coverage. A survey of local news directors (Just, Levine and Belt, 2001) found that half of stations had faced either budget cuts or layoffs in the previous year, although budget pressures have eased in recent years (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2007). According to the Radio-Television News Directors Association, local television newsrooms are producing more content than ever before, airing an average of 3.8 hours of news per day. News generates roughly 45% of a local station’s revenues (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2007). This means that stations are increasingly looking for ways to stretch their resources by broadcasting video news releases or other free reports from outside sources.

As early as 1988, an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that “the distribution of prepackaged video news stories can be an effective, relatively inexpensive technique to communicate health information to a large audience” (Davis, 1988). A video news release may be a more effective alternative to public service announcements (PSAs), which (when used at all) typically air during undesirable time periods. In one study (Lancaster & Lancaster, 2002), nearly half of PSAs on drunk driving produced by the Ad Council aired in the middle of the night; just 10% aired in prime time. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study (Gantz et al., 2008) found a similar pattern, and noted that broadcast and cable stations devote an average of 17 seconds per hour to PSAs, including less than 13 minutes a week to health-related content. (The study also found a trend toward paid airtime for public interest content, often with for-profit or government sponsorship, with the goal of obtaining more coverage in better time slots.) Another drawback of PSAs, various studies suggest, is that viewers often pay little attention to them and/or have trouble processing their messages (Lancaster & Lancaster, 2002).

A recent Pew survey (Pew, 2007) found that the public holds a more favorable opinion of local news (78% positive) than of daily or national newspapers (78 and 60% respectively), or network (71%) or cable (75%) TV news. This bodes well for video news releases. Unfortunately, most such stories available to local news stations are sponsored by corporations or hospitals for commercial reasons, and use or represent a single source or point of view. All too often, this results in marketing messages masquerading as news (Farsetta & Price, 2006; Raeburn, 2000).

A number of health organizations, foundations and hospitals provide pre-produced video news releases or video footage on health research or medical treatments to local TV stations (Pribble et al. 2006). In 1996, the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health launched an effort to provide material to local news stations that would tie in with the popular medical drama ER, with support from various foundation and commercial sponsors. The segments were at first produced by the Baltimore NBC station for its use, then later syndicated and produced by an outside company. In collaboration with ER writers, Hopkins provided expert content (and an on-camera expert) for each 90-second segment, and wrote material for a Hopkins web site. Surveys by a media research firm found that one “Following ER” segment, on HIV transmission in emergency departments, was seen by nearly five million local news viewers. However, only about 100 people per week visited the related web site and called the Hopkins toll-free telephone number for more information (Langlieb, Cooper & Gielen, 1999). There were attempts to measure effects of the “Following ER” episodes in conjunction with ER viewing (using subjects from a pool of municipal jurors), but not as stand-alone stories (Cooper, Roter & Langlieb, 2000). It is not clear whether formative research was done. The project ended in September, 2001.

One pioneer in providing science news releases is ScienCentral, originally known as the Science & Technology News Network, which has been funded by a series of major grants from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Informal Science Education. ScienCentral stories are distributed to ABC and NBC affiliate stations; they are also available on the Internet (http://www.sciencentral.com/). Stories are typically based on a single academic journal article; each video story page on ScienCentral’s web site includes several paragraphs of detail about the study.

Miller et al. (2006) attempted to assess effects of 26 ScienCentral news stories using web-based surveys of an online panel of 1,615 adults, combined with data on which stories were broadcast in various news markets. Of subjects who reported seeing particular stories, recall of story detail was greater for behavior-oriented teen stories (e.g., adolescent sleep problems or steroid use) than for stories on science facts (e.g., genetically modified cows and “mad cow” disease). Recall was worst for details of stories on genetic modification and neuroscience; the authors speculated that this may be due to lack of previous exposure to related scientific concepts (i.e., they did not fit an existing schema for most viewers).

Surveys show that it is now the norm for local news stations to have their own web site. An increasing number of sites are overseen by news directors, have newsroom staff contributing to content, and (across all market sizes) are starting to generate profits (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2007). In a 2006 market research study using web-based interviews, two-thirds of respondents had visited a local TV station web site to find out more about a story that was covered in a local newscast (Bachman, 2006). This suggests potential to further science education through linked television and web content.

The Role and Needs of Journalists Regarding Public Education on Research

Focus groups and surveys highlight some of the barriers journalists face in reporting about research. They are aware that many sources have conflicts of interest, and would like more help from unbiased independent experts. They would like help understanding common scientific/medical jargon, and concise background information to help them put good stories together (Larsson et al., 2003). Reviews of television and newspaper coverage of medical research find that risks of new treatments are under-reported, and that benefits are often framed in misleadingly positive ways (e.g., giving a relative reduction in risk instead of actual numbers) (Moynihan, 2003). Not surprisingly, most reporters lack confidence in their ability to interpret statistical data (Voss, 2002).

According to a national survey funded by the John and James Knight Foundation, lack of training is the biggest source of job dissatisfaction for journalists from all media. Two-thirds of journalists receive no regular skills training (Princeton Survey Research Associates, 2002). This is a particular problem with “beat” reporting—coverage of specialty areas such as science—because untrained journalists have trouble understanding and interpreting such news for their viewers and readers.

There are a number of respected organizations that offer workshops on science or health topics to journalists (e.g., Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland, National Association of Science Writers, Knight Science Journalism “Boot Camps” at M.I.T., Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, Casey Journalism Center on Children and Families, Association of Health Care Journalists). However, these courses are not accessible to most journalists. Some are competition-based fellowships; some are given at members-only conferences; others are aimed only at reporters who already specialize in science.

The biggest obstacle to such training is need for travel and days of lost work time. In the Knight Foundation survey, two-thirds of news executives said that the limited number of days they could allow staff to be away from work was an impediment to training. Most courses last for several days and require travel. The cost of training, even if fairly low, was also cited as a barrier.

One way to overcome these obstacles is to offer web-based training. This requires no travel and can always fit somewhere into a journalist’s schedule. According to Don Shelby, longtime anchor and managing editor at WCCO-TV (CBS) in Minneapolis, “Web-based instruction is a good idea. In order to make it work, however, you must enlist the news directors before you enlist the reporter…. You must convince the managers that there is an economic or ratings advantage in this knowledge, and/or that uninformed reporting places the outlet at risk” (personal communication).

The Project: Neuroscience Education Through Local Television News

In 1992, the National Institute on Drug Abuse initiated the Science Education Drug Abuse Partnership Award (SEDAPA) program. Its purpose, as stated on the SEDAPA web site (http://www.nida.nih.gov/SEDAPA/index.html) is “to fund the development and evaluation of innovative programs and materials for enhancing knowledge and understanding of neuroscience and the biology of drug abuse and addiction among K-12 students, the general public, health care practitioners, and other groups.” The latter includes journalists and legislators. The SEDAPA program addresses scientific literacy in general, and understanding of addiction as a biologically based brain disorder in particular. Additional goals of SEDAPA are to increase support for careers in biomedical science and for basic research (including the appropriate use of animals in research).

In 2005, the Center for Mental Health and Media was awarded a four-year SEDAPA grant to use local television news and the Internet to improve the science literacy of the general public and of journalists.

Goals of the Public Education Component

People who have knowledge of basic science facts, concepts, and vocabulary may have an easier time following news reports and participating in public discourse on various issues pertaining to S&T [Science & Technology]. Even more important than having basic knowledge may be an appreciation for the nature of scientific inquiry (National Science Board, 2002).

The public education component of our project had three overarching goals:

-Increase knowledge. The public needs greater understanding of basic facts, terms and skills (science literacy), as well as the nature of scientific thinking: forming and testing hypotheses, and assessing and applying research findings (scientific literacy). This should lead to a basic ability to judge the quality of a research study reported in the media (e.g., whether it can be generalized from the type and number of subjects involved; the meaning of correlation vs. causation).

-Influence attitudes and beliefs. The majority of the public should have positive opinions about scientific research and researchers, and find them credible sources of information. We need to build confidence that researchers generally use humane and appropriate methods (with animals and human subjects), and that basic as well as applied research often lead to knowledge that improves our health and daily lives.

-Promote supportive behaviors. The public needs to voice support for scientific research, encourage young people to consider science careers, and rationally judge and support science public policy issues (e.g., knowing the role of behaviors and brain chemistry in drug addiction helps shape opinions on prevention and treatment policies).

To promote these objectives, we proposed to reach and educate those members of the public who don’t typically seek out science programs, through a medium they already use and trust: local television news broadcasts.

Our project may help to answer the following research questions:

1) What science-related topics and formats are most attractive to local television news executives (and thus more likely to be used)? What topics or formats might attract viewers who don’t have a particular interest in science?

2) How much exposure can free science news stories receive? How might exposure and credibility of local news stories compare to a free or paid public service campaign, or a media advocacy effort?

3) What effects can high-quality local television news stories have on knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors (or behavioral intentions) related to science in general, and drug abuse in particular (including talking about the stories, and seeking further information on the Internet)?

Multinational surveys suggest that greater knowledge does not automatically lead to more positive attitudes about science (i.e., “to know science is to love it”); in fact, there is potential for the opposite to occur (Allum et al., 2008). It is therefore important to work from the viewers’ perspective instead of a “deficit model” of public understanding of science, which presumes that teaching facts to the public will allay irrational fears and boost support for scientists and scientific innovations (Sturgis & Allum, 2004). Instead of telling the public what they ought to care about, we want to help them see links between scientific research and their own goals and interests. A major challenge is to make stories about science personally relevant to viewers, since perceived relevance appears to be the primary driver of interest in health and science news (Cooper & Roter, 2000).Content that appeals to the public is also likely to appeal to local news directors, who act as gatekeepers.

We also hope to take advantage of research on ways to make science news more attractive to nonscientists. For example, Yaros (2006) explored ways to structure a science news story so that a person with little pre-existing interest in science topics would be hooked by the first paragraph and want to keep reading. Guided by an “explanatory structure building” model, his team coded content from four science and medical news stories from the New York Times, noting the main events (situation), explanatory or historical context (background), details on researchers and their institutions (credits), and comments/quotes. Coders also looked at “idea units” with scientific terms that readers needed to know in order to follow story events; in the original stories, only two of 55 such terms were explained. Yaros made minor modifications to the stories, adding more context in the lead paragraph, moving credits after situational content, and clarifying scientific ideas (with explicit explanations, or by putting them into a more familiar context). Controlling for prior scientific literacy, researchers found that the revised text significantly enhanced readers’ understanding of and interest in the content.

Many studies have found that people are better able to retain information communicated via “story schemata,” or narrative storytelling (Mateas & Sengers, 2003). A study by Machill, Köhler & Waldhauser (2007) found that a moderate amount of narrative made television news stories about air pollution easier to recall and understand; this was particularly true for viewers with less prior interest in and knowledge about the topic.

In a 2005 study (Rosenstiel et al., 2007), the average story length on local TV news was 65 seconds. The rule of thumb is to provide video news releases of 75 to 90 seconds. This suggests that only a simple narrative with one or two main ideas can be conveyed in a television news story. If we can create sufficient interest to drive viewers to the Internet for more information, we can take advantage of previous research (and our experience as journalists) to draw them in further and create the potential for change in knowledge, beliefs and behaviors related to science.

Design of Project Materials (Video and Web)

Our objective was to research, produce and distribute a total of 40 news stories plus collateral in-depth Internet material to television stations across the United States. Flights of stories would be organized around overarching topics, giving local news directors the option to use the stories individually, as week-long special health/science feature series, or as a month-long set of linked reports. We expect the news stories to be particularly attractive to stations in medium and small markets (defined metropolitan and rural areas) since unlike stations in large markets such as New York and Chicago, they are unlikely to employ reporters or producers who have specialized training in health and science. We hope to have stories aired in at least 50 of the nation’s 210 media markets.

Selecting relevant topics. Topic ideas were generated with the help of substance abuse experts at Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital. An informal panel of news directors gave feedback on the appropriateness of the topics. We initially chose “stress” as a broad topic with high perceived personal relevance. The topic is flexible enough to allow us to address (verbally and visually) important points about scientific research (e.g., understanding the research process, judging the quality of studies, appropriate use of animals in research, how basic research leads to helpful innovations, positive images of scientists). In addition, it allows us to cover key science facts about substance abuse (e.g., basic neuroscience and addiction terminology, the biological basis of addiction, behaviors that increase or decrease vulnerability to abuse and addiction).

To date, completed stories related to stress include: panic attacks and the brain; shyness (causes, myths, relationship to substance abuse, and treatments); the neurobiology of stress; insomnia (including sleep and substance abuse); stress and depression (using astronauts as an example); stress and alcohol abuse; why we crave sweet foods under stress (the opiate-like effects of sugar; includes use of mouse models); programs to promote resilience and prevent stress disorders in military personnel; and the effects of acute and chronic stress on memory.

Additional overarching topics in progress include stories related to substance abuse (e.g., how substance abuse affects risk perception among adolescents), and stories on technology and simulations in research (e.g., attempts to use technology for lie detection, and use of virtual reality to treat post-traumatic stress disorder).

Promoting the use of stories. To further encourage news directors to air the stories, each will be distributed as a “package” (a fully produced 75- to 90-second news feature story) along with additional interviews, graphics and other video footage. This will give stations the ability to easily customize each story to their station and market. Because these are feature stories (as opposed to breaking news), local news producers will have flexibility in scheduling them, making the material more likely to be used. This “evergreen” quality also makes the stories more appealing when they are viewed directly available on the Internet (as described below). We therefore avoid “pegging” a story to a single research study.

The study’s principal investigator (Dr. Kutner) has experience as a major-market television reporter, and will therefore record the voice-over narration for stories. His credentials as an award-winning health and science reporter/producer may make the stories more attractive to potential partner stations. It will also be possible for stations to strip out the narration and replace it with their own reporter’s voice, offering another option for customization.

The news stories will encourage viewers to seek further information on the Internet. Information will be housed on a project web site (www.brainlink.org), with brief lead-in material and links available for local TV stations to place on their own sites. This helps stations to promote their sites (“You can find more information about coping with stress on our web site, KPIX.com….”) and build audience loyalty.

Related Web content. The web site material includes easy-to-read print information on the topics covered in the news stories. Use of the Internet allows us to go beyond the time limits of TV news to show (via print, visuals and audio) how stress affects our lives today, how people respond to it—including through drug abuse–and how to reduce stress or promote healthier responses. As suggested by research, materials will be structured around narratives, including quotes from taken from interviews with experts and with “real people” affected by that issue. Where appropriate, this will promote and model self-care and help-seeking. The web pages include links to additional reputable information sources, such as National Institutes of Health web pages and various professional, academic and nonprofit groups, as well as recommendations for books and articles. (Where possible, this includes information accessible to persons with lower literacy levels, and information in languages other than English.) Each week’s material will be archived (and searchable) on a project “front page.” Each web page is also subjected to a SMOG reading-level test, to ensure that the content is accessible to a wide range of people (Adkins & Singh, 2001). A grade-eight reading level is considered optimal for health information. However, part of our goal is to teach new useful terminology, which often involves polysyllabic words that affect the reading-level calculation. We therefore strive for a grade 10 or 11 reading level.

The project’s success depends on persuading local TV news directors to air the series. There will inevitably be parts of the country where the stories are not aired. To extend the project’s potential reach, story content will also be listed by major search engines, such as Google. Each topic’s web page will link back to the project’s front page, allowing readers to find other topics of possible interest and visit those pages as well.

Public education and the research community. A secondary goal of the Neuroscience Education Through Local Television News project is encouraging researchers to work with the media, by modeling a positive experience. Our dual identities as academics and journalists create a level of comfort that allows researchers to ask us questions about the process of educating the public through media. As we explain the goals of the project and the need to interest producers and reporters in the topics, we also teach about the culture of television news and the constraints faced by reporters. Researchers are gradually becoming more aware of the importance of disseminating their findings to the public, including policymakers, and of the need to learn new modes of communication appropriate to non-academic audiences (McCall & Groark, 2000).

Evaluation of public education. Evaluating a mass media education effort such as this is a daunting task. Research on public health communication campaigns has often drawn on the clinical trial model, attempting to control other factors and isolate the effects of the media campaign (Hornik, 2002). It is extremely difficult to isolate specific effects of media stories, because our audiences will be exposed to multiple sources of information. Identifying whether viewers have been “exposed” to our content is complicated; we are not requesting that news directors identify us as the source of a story, or requiring that they use a story in its entirety. Also, conducting viewer surveys with a large enough sample of “exposed” subjects is prohibitively expensive.

It may be more effective to encourage multiple channels of communication moving toward the same behavioral goal (Hornik, 2002). Our news stories are therefore designed to blend into the stream of media that the public routinely views and reads, and to extend the influence of media content by encouraging social communication. We will therefore rely primarily on formative and qualitative data from representative viewers, to ensure that the desired effects are possible, and to identify unanticipated effects. Formative research is essential to understanding the factors that may make a campaign succeed or fail (Atkin & Freimuth, 1989).

We will supplement the formative data with a web-based survey, accessible via a link from news story pages. This is an inexpensive way to collect basic quantitative and qualitative feedback on the appeal, credibility, clarity and perceived relevance of our content. The drawback of web-based data collection is that it limits our pool of responders to persons who have access to the Internet and are comfortable using it. (Such persons are likely to be younger and to have greater knowledge of and interest in science.) Also, survey respondents will not be a representative sample of all web page users.

Goals and Design of the Journalist Education Component

To extend the reach of our project and the uses of our educational materials, we planned a collaboration with the National Press Foundation, a respected journalism education organization devoted to helping editors, producers and reporters better understand and explain the effects of public policy on readers and viewers. The NPF works with the Center for Mental Health and Media to develop, publicize and distribute free web-based journalist education programs on topics compatible with and complementary to our news stories. These online lessons are also intended to familiarize reporters with key elements of the scientific method (e.g., controlled studies, double-blind research, in vitro vs. in vivo experiments, statistical analysis), and with the essential underlying biology and chemistry of neuroscience.

Course content is hosted on the NPF’s web site (http://www.nationalpress.org), an already-familiar destination for journalists. The primary intended audience for these lessons is general assignment reporters and TV news producers who have little scientific/clinical background, since most science stories for local TV and radio stations and newspapers are covered by non-specialist reporters. Student journalists are a secondary audience. After consultation with NPF management regarding the success of their own journalism education programs and the demands of both reporters and editors, we decided to offer our materials primarily as audio podcasts with supplementary online written materials.

We hoped to maximize the appeal to and use of the lessons by reporters (and their news directors/editors) based on 1) the good reputation of the NPF in the news industry, 2) content that provides skills, story ideas and resources reporters can use right away, 3) the convenience and flexibility of web-based education, 4) the brevity of the material (each audio segment lasts approximately 3 minutes), and 5) the fact that the lessons would offered for free to journalists and journalism students.

The lessons are publicized by the NPF via the same channels it uses to promote its live issue-oriented seminars for journalists. (Sample NPF seminar topics include covering terrorism at home, international collaboration to improve coverage of HIV/AIDS, cancer issues, “world hot spots,” covering business and economics, and issues of surface transportation and sprawl.) We also promote the course through industry publications and web sites such as TV Spy (www.tvspy.com), the RTNDA Communicator (www.rtnda.org/communicator/current.shtml), and JournalismTraining.org, as well as schools of journalism.

The primary research question associated with the journalist education program was:
Can free web-based education enable and encourage journalists to present science and health news to their viewers/readers in ways that helps them value and understand it, to see its relevance to their lives, and to support scientific research?

The goal of these segments is to help journalists understand how scientific researchers think when they approach a problem. For example:

• Why do we care about sample size?
• What is the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy?
• Why do neuroscientists study simple organisms like flatworms?
• What’s the difference between efficacy and effectiveness in a clinical trial?
• What are p-values?
• Why does “average” mean different things to different researchers?
• Why do we “blind” some types of experiments?

This type of information is more generalizable and therefore more easily applied to a wide range of stories they might cover than podcasts that focus on biological or chemical details. Also, this level of understanding encourages journalists to ask more-sophisticated questions, and to put news stories into a useful context instead of simply repeating the information they receive from sources. It also encourages them to see non-obvious science-related stories tied to other stories they may cover.

As a way of encouraging journalists to apply what they’ve learned, most podcasts are associated with a brief, online “spot the crap” quiz in which they have an opportunity to see if they can identify common distortions and false assumptions.

Rather than lecture or offer lists of rules (Moynihan, 2003), our goal is to play into the natural skepticism of journalists, providing questions they can ask experts, and exposing common methods of distorting data. The latter is particularly important given the amount of information reporters receive on “breakthroughs” from commercial or biased sources (Lieberman, 2001). We seek to subtly educate reporters on the culture of scientific research (Hartz & Chappell, 1997) from the logic behind study methods to specific scientific meanings of everyday words (such as “significance”). We also provide insight into how researchers may perceive the motives and methods of journalists.

To date, thirteen podcasts with accompanying print content for journalist education have been completed. A subset of these have been submitted to the National Press Foundation for pilot testing. The podcast education modules will appear shortly on their web site (www.nationalpress.org).

Evaluation of materials for journalists. To assess appeal and effects of the initial set of podcast lessons, a link to a web survey will be placed on the National Press Foundation site. The survey must be brief to attract an acceptable number of responses, but will include questions on interest, relevance and appropriateness of the content, which aspects were most and least helpful, how journalists have used or expect to use what they’ve learned; it will also solicit suggestions for future content. We will make changes and additions to the journalist materials as indicated, and continue to collect feedback on each new set of materials. With the help of National Press Foundation staff, we will also solicit anecdotal data from reporters, news directors and editors.

The Effect of Evolving Media Technologies

The media landscape has changed significantly since we originally designed our project and applied for funding. These shifts have led us to make important adjustments to our approach in order to reach the greatest number of people. For example:

• Syndication methods. When we designed our project, there were two common approaches to getting video news stories to television stations: to mail out physical tapes to news departments, or to participate in a scheduled satellite feed that was videotaped by stations that subscribed. (We had originally proposed to distribute our news stories through the satellite news feeds managed by CBS and CNN, and to supplement that with mail distribution of Beta-SP format videotapes, which are still the broadcast standard throughout most of the country.) Since then, the technology for broadcast-quality “video on demand” has improved sufficiently so that organizations such as NewsMarket can make broadcast television news stories available to stations when they want them. This allows producers to scan a catalog of available stories, and download the ones that they want without waiting for a physical shipment or a satellite feed.

• YouTube. This worldwide phenomenon, begun in late 2005, has been variously characterized as a threat to broadcasters and a useful complement to them. Although it’s best known for the millions of amateur videos on its web site, YouTube has gained a following among educational institutions and nonprofit organizations as a way of reaching people whom they would otherwise miss if they only used traditional media. We are exploring developing a YouTube “channel” containing our broadcast stories and supplementary material. This will also be an easy way for television stations to embed our videos into their own web sites.

The feasibility of using web sites such as YouTube for viewing video has been brought about by the increased bandwidth now available to home computer users for access to the Internet. Previously restricted largely to corporations that paid significant monthly fees for the use of high-speed (e.g., T-1) connections, today broadband connections are used by well over half of U.S. households (Ferguson, 2007). This change also allows us to offer rolling video of our news stories on their related project web pages.

• Social networking web sites. Although social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace have existed for more than a decade, their reach and influence have blossomed over the past few years. We are exploring how we might integrate a presence on one or more of these web sites with our other outreach efforts.

Media technology is a rapidly moving target. We cannot predict with confidence what the next and potentially more efficient or effective methods of reaching the public will be, and when they will become available. For example, the dramatic growth in massively multiplayer online role-playing games, such as Warcraft, have opened up the possibility of such games developing customized advertising that integrates with its plotlines. Virtual worlds, such as Second Life, are growing in popularity, and may also incorporate media distribution components.

Despite the shifts in technology, we must remember that the core of any successful communication is a clear, compelling story that is told well.

This research was supported by Grant No. 1 R25 DA016664-01A1 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health. The sponsor had no role in study design or the preparation of this article. We thank Kenneth O. Doyle for his assistance with formative research, and Danielle DeLuca for her assistance with project management.


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