“We don’t know yet, but that’s quite usual!” A Qualitative Content Analysis of the Representation of Scientific Uncertainty in German Online Reporting on Covid-19

Author: Tobias Tönsfeuerborn – Bielefeld University, Germany

Scientific evidence is important for dealing with Covid-19. But scientific findings are characterized by uncertainty, especially regarding the novelty of Covid-19. Media coverage of the pandemic therefore should also express the uncertainty concerning scientific findings presented. This is particularly important against the background of trust in both science and the media.

This exploratory study examines how scientific uncertainty is represented in Covid-19 reporting of six major German print media’s online subsidiaries between March and June 2020. It uses qualitative content analysis to categorize the relevant aspects represented in the context of uncertainty primarily from the material, but also from theoretical assumptions.

The goal here is to develop a typology of uncertainty representation for the specific case of Covid-19 reporting. Given its urgency, the case is not representative for uncertainty communication in general.

The analysis is still in progress, but the main categories are already available.

The first is the presented reason for the uncertainty. Such reasons found in the material were the novelty of the virus, disagreement in the scientific community, and the general incompleteness of scientific knowledge.

Another relevant aspect seems to be whether uncertainty is presented with reference to scientists. If such a reference is present, a distinction can be made between scientists who are involved in the research in question and those who judge the results from the outside.

Furthermore, the analysis shows a distinction regarding the evaluation of presented uncertainty: Is uncertainty presented as normality in science, problematized or even scandalized?

Finally, an analysis of the consequences of uncertainty described in the respective articles is indicated. So far, these include the presentation of the necessity of further research, the problematization of expectations of science, and appeals to trust in science despite uncertainty.

Further analysis will now use these categories to develop a typology of uncertainty representation in the specific case of Covid-19 reporting.

The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Insight talk
Theme: Time