How journalists deal with scientific uncertainty and what that means for the audience
Author: Sharon Dunwoody – School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States
Friederike Hendriks – University of Munster
Luisa Massarani – Coordinator, Brazilian Institute of Public Communication of Science and Technology
Hans Peter Peters – Forschungszentrum Jülich
Journalism excels at communicating what we know but finds it difficult to communicate what we don’t know. That makes communication of uncertainty both important and problematic. In this roundtable panel discussion, four scholars who have contributed to the illumination of uncertainty communication will tackle two dimensions of the problem: (1) how journalists construct uncertainty statements in their stories and (2) the ways in which non-specialists “make sense” of those representations. Hans Peter Peters will focus on the meaning of scientific uncertainty in journalistic decision-making, and the rhetorical use and interpretation of uncertainty in journalistic stories. He will argue that journalists sometimes ignore scientific uncertainty while focusing on it at other times. Friedrike Hendriks’ research shows that uncertainty communication can inform readers’ trust judgments. Readers’ trustworthiness evaluations of experts who communicate scientific information – as reflected in ratings of integrity and benevolence – depend on the expert’s disclosure of such uncertainty-evoking information as study limitations and ethics. Sharon Dunwoody will reflect on narrative strategies that may more accurately convey to audiences the positions of experts on contested science issues. She will argue that, while conventional reporting practices tend to increase perceptions of uncertainty, strategies such as “weight of evidence” and “weight of experts” may allow audiences to develop a more accurate perception of the uncertainty of truth claims. Finally, Luisa Massarani will comment on our conclusions and, as someone with practical science communication experience, will help the audience apply panelists’ comments to real-world situations. Format: After a brief moderator introduction, panelists will have approximately 8 minutes each to make a main point. We will then devote the rest of the session to audience discussion.
Presentation type: Roundtable discussion
Area of interest: Applying science communication research to practice