Dealing With Scientific Uncertainty: Coverage Of Antibiotic Resistance In The German Press 1993-2013
Author: Evgeniya Boklage, Free University of Berlin, Germany
Co-authors: Markus Lehmkuhl, Anne Beier
Present paper is the study of representation of scientific uncertainty in the coverage of antibiotic resistance in the German quality press over period of twenty years. The problem of antibiotic resistance is simultaneously a serious public health concern and a complex scientific matter. The exact mechanisms, which lead to its rise, are not fully understood and there is still a considerable degree of scientific uncertainty involved. While the research community considers permanent presence of uncertainty about scientific findings intrinsic, this can create considerable difficulties for journalists reporting on scientific issues. Often, media workers are criticized for inadequate representation of uncertainty of scientific claims, which appear as more certain than they really are.
Using content analysis we studied 594 articles on the subject of antibiotic resistance, which appeared in six quality German newspapers between 1993 and 2013. The main focus of our research was on how journalists communicate the uncertainty associated with antimicrobial resistance, its development, causes, and possible consequences. We evaluated the precision of communicated statistical and factual information, analysed quoted sources and the statements they made as well as examined the linguistic constructions of uncertainty. In the next step we applied thematic analysis of scientific literature using Web of Science to gain an overview of the state of research on the subject of antibiotic resistance. Lastly, we measured the statements about the risks of antibiotic resistance which appeared in the press against the scientific claims in research literature.
Our study has found that the complexity of the issue of antibiotic resistance and associated with it uncertainty are not fully grasped by journalists. Similarly, the ways in which journalists and scientists deal with statistical and factual information differ. Journalists often rely on absolute numbers as well as dubious statistical constructs to represent the risk of antibiotic resistance.