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November 23, 2023

Traditional news media remains crucial for science information in social media age

Science Media Centre celebrates results of poll showing continued importance of regulated journalism.

By Fiona Lethbridge

Is there a group of people in 2023 who aren’t reached by the news media and only get information from social media? That’s what we wanted to explore in a poll conducted 20 years after the Science Media Centre was set up.

We commissioned a similar poll to mark our opening in 2002. The SMC was created back then as the scientific community’s response to media frenzies on MMR, GM crops and designer babies. The goal of the Centre was to improve the media coverage of these kinds of contentious science stories by persuading more and better scientists to engage with news journalists. 

Looking back it feels like that was a simpler time. The poll we commissioned then found that the traditional news media was the main source of information about science, making it easy for us to decide where our focus should be.

But so much has changed over the last 20 years that we wanted to find out whether these mainstream news outlets were still as significant a source of science for the British public.

We once again asked Ipsos to run a public poll for us – repeating some of the questions we asked back in 2002 and also asking some new ones to make the survey fit for 2023. We asked 2,337 adults aged 16+ in Britain where they typically get information about science from, as well as what the source is of information about science they see on social media.

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‘Encouraging’ poll shows traditional outlets still strong source of science news

For a Centre that supports and champions news journalism the results are encouraging. Traditional news outlets like TV news, radio, online news sites like Sky News and newspapers (including online or via app) were a typical source of science information for around three in four (73%) of those surveyed. 

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About half (52%) cited TV news as a source, 34% cited online non-newspaper news sites, 29% cited national newspapers, and 24% cited radio. 

These were all cited more than various other sources including science magazines, other websites like Mumsnet and The Conversation, and information from charities or campaign groups. Almost a third (30%) said social media was typically a source of science information.

We wanted to find out where the science information seen on social media was coming from – whether what people are seeing on social media is just information from friends and family, celebrities, politicians and campaigners. Happily, half (50%) of those who reported having seen science information on social media cited news media outlets as the source – and it was the main source for 34%. 

There were some differences across age groups, with more of the over-55s citing news media as the source of information on social media than those aged 16-34, but nonetheless traditional news media outlets were the most often-cited source of science information on social media for all ages surveyed.

Science news on social media often from legacy outlets

This isn’t a scientific study – it’s a modest survey, and it can’t give us all the answers. But it provides some interesting insights that we can call on to gently challenge those who might tell us that we are wasting our time working with news media if we are trying to better inform the wider public. 

Our survey suggests that information appearing on platforms like Facebook and Twitter (now X) will often come from news media outlets. Interestingly, 11% of those in our survey who initially said they didn’t typically get science information from the news media actually went on to cite traditional news media outlets as the source of the science information they were seeing on social media. This might suggest that in some cases people are still being reached by the traditional news media even if they don’t seek it out.

It’s not all good news of course – although our two surveys can’t be directly compared, many news media sources were more often a source when we did our 2002 survey. In 2002, 68% gave TV news as a source of science information (it was 52% in our new survey); 49% cited newspapers in 2002 (29% in our new survey); and 43% cited radio (24% in our new survey – though we asked about podcasts separately). So the proportion of adults reporting news media as a source of information about science is lower now than in the 2002 survey – but it nonetheless remains the biggest single source.

‘We ignore the mass media at our peril’

We all need to keep up with trends and be alive to the many new ways in which people are accessing news and information. At the SMC we are keeping a watching brief on these trends and want to continue to ‘go where the people are’ and try to ensure that the public are still able to access good experts and accurate information about science wherever they go to find it. 

But I think our results suggest we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water and prioritise social media over everything else – especially when our poll also found that across all age groups surveyed more people (55%) trust science information from the traditional news media than trust it from social media (19%).

Our data seem to suggest that the news media remains a significant source of information about science for the public, even if it is sometimes seen via social media – and that even in 2023 we ignore the mass media at our peril.

Why do we see this as good news? For all its faults and the many crimes against accurate science reporting we have witnessed over the years, journalism at its best is still trying to educate and inform as well as entertain.

Unlike the wild west of social media, journalism still strives to uphold standards and when it fails there are organisations like IPSO and Ofcom on hand to call it out. 

The SMC has become a champion of specialist science, health and environment reporting after watching at close hand how important good quality science reporting can be – and as the public inquiry on Covid plays out in the news I am constantly reminded of the responsible reporting that almost certainly saved lives.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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