Don’t Panic: Challenges Regarding Science, News and Comments Online

Photo: sqback/stock.xchng

A recent “Perspectives” commentary in Science on the importance of online science news – and associated challenges – has (unsurprisingly) gotten a fair amount of attention in the science communication community. Not all of it good. But I think that, at the very least, it presents a good opportunity to lay out some of those challenges and, hopefully, spark a productive discussion about how to address them. The commentary also refers to a forthcoming paper on the impact of online comments that merits some attention. Read on. (Note: This post has been updated. See section at bottom.)

What I’m Talking About

At issue is a piece by Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele, both of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW), titled “Science, New Media and the Public.” The piece notes, among other things, that most people (60 percent) turn to the internet when seeking information about scientific issues. Further, almost half of people in the U.S. get their online science news from nontraditional sources (e.g., blogs), whereas 12 percent get online science news from traditional news sources (e.g., the sites of science magazines).

This is problematic, Brossard and Scheufele argue, because the search engines that guide readers to online content can create a feedback loop that drives users to popular content – regardless of whether that content is any good.

Here’s how UW science writer Chris Barncard explains it in a piece he wrote about the Science commentary: “The search engine Google offers users suggested search terms as they make requests, offering up ‘nanotechnology in medicine,’ for example, to those who begin typing ‘nanotechnology’ in a search box. Users often avail themselves of the list of suggestions, making certain searches more popular, which in turn makes those search terms even more likely to appear as suggestions.”

As Brossard says in the Barncard post, “Our analyses showed a self-reinforcing spiral, which means more people see a shrinking, more similar set of news and opinions on science and technology subjects when they do online searches.”


Not too many people get science news this way anymore. (Photo: lusi/stock.xchng)

All that Brossard and Scheufele say may be true, but how much of it is new? In a way, the commentary “feels like it fell out of a time portal from a decade ago,” as Ed Yong put it (he’s much better with words than I am). The quick rebuttal to that is that it’s worthwhile for researchers to point out the obvious. (It should be noted that Ed has nothing against academic research on science communication, just that he felt this particular item was of limited benefit.)

But I think the bulk of the value in this piece is that it raises this question (again): What (more) can be done to raise the profile of quality science reporting (on search engines or otherwise)?

Let’s split that into two parts: 1). What (if anything) can be done to get around the Google bottleneck – that self-reinforcing search-engine feedback loop mentioned above? 2). Short of voting with our wallets (which is limiting, given the size of our wallets), what (if anything) can we do, in an organized way, to consistently draw attention to good science reporting? Annual awards ceremonies are great, but they – by necessity – can recognize only a small fraction of the good science reporting out there, and they don’t do it in a timely way.

To be clear: I have no idea what the answers to these questions are. But I think they’re fair questions. I will say that I doubt social media (or at least existing social media) can make a meaningful contribution here, particularly if our goal as science communicators is to communicate with audiences outside of our online echo chambers (where we talk, more or less, to each other). If you have any ideas, please share them in the comments here.

Comments Are Important

Brossard and Scheufele’s commentary refers to forthcoming research indicating that reader comments on online news stories actually influence how readers view the subject of the story. A paper on that research, “Crude comments and concern: Online incivility’s effect on risk perceptions of emerging technologies,” will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. (Note: The article was published online in February 2013 and can be found here.)

The study surveyed 2,338 people to determine whether and how civil or uncivil comments on a neutral online news item about nanotechnology influenced people’s perceptions of risks associated with nanotechnology. The study found that people who read the article and uncivil (i.e., rude) comments were significantly more polarized in their perceptions of nanotech risk than people who read the exact same article accompanied by civil (i.e., polite) comments. In short: online comment trolls actually do affect the way people respond to a news item, even if the news item is unbiased.

And, while the study focused on nanotechnology, the paper’s conclusion notes that “the effects of online incivility may be even stronger for more well-known and contentious science issues such as the evolution vs. intelligent design debate or climate change.” Yikes.

Obviously more research is needed to flesh out the big-picture effects of these uncivil comments, but it raises a significant question for reporters and bloggers: do the benefits of online commenting (e.g., encouraging open dialogue and debate) outweigh the costs (e.g., undermining people’s ability to absorb science news by polarizing the issue with sensational, off-topic rhetoric)?

I don’t know the answer, but I prefer allowing the comments. When in doubt, my default is always to encourage dialogue (even though it can get ugly). I’ll certainly always allow comments on this blog – though I’ll delete those I deem off-topic or offensive. But many online news outlets don’t have the resources to police their comments, or the will to weigh in – especially if it might mean alienating a segment of their readership. (On a side note, check out the comments on this online article about the comments research. I can never remember how to define irony. Does this count?)

Reminder: Science News Is Doing Pretty Well

Science news is not dead. (Photo: TexasTiger/stock.xchng)

A quick note to remind everyone that online science news is not a bad thing, and that (as has been noted before) science reporting is changing – not dying.

I talked to Karl Bates, Duke’s director of research communication, about the Science commentary the other day, and I think his take is a good one: “Concern over social media’s ‘self-reinforcing spirals’ aside, I think the internet has created more and better science coverage and a bigger audience than ever before. Sure the first story you read may have pared down the topic and be covered in dumb-ass comments, but you have choices and multiple sources. We’re now able to read three different stories on the same paper or browse the Guardian on our phones at two in the morning if we see an interesting tweet. And then, one click later, you can be on the original Nature paper.”

Bates went on to say “On balance, I favor more of everything, including ignorant comments, and think this science news environment is still way better – despite its flaws – than the pre-internet world.” Indeed! In some ways, we’ve never had it so good. So, to quote Douglas Adams: Don’t Panic.

Those Questions Again

I don’t want anyone to forget these questions, so I’m asking them again. Please think about them, and weigh in here. What do you make of these?

  • What can be done to get around the Google bottleneck – that self-reinforcing search-engine feedback loop mentioned above?
  • What can we do to consistently draw attention to good science reporting?
  • Do the benefits of online commenting outweigh the costs?

Update, Jan. 8: Before publishing this post, I had contacted the lead author of the comments study, Dr. Ashley Anderson, with a couple questions. She just responded. The Q&A is below. Anderson is a postdoctoral research fellow at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication.

Communication Breakdown: Broadly speaking, what (if anything) do you think this study tells us about the state of science journalism?

Anderson: “One of the main takeaways from our study is that the new media landscape, where traditional journalism is embedded within a number of social contextual cues, is changing how people perceive scientific issues. Science journalism no longer comprises just traditional news stories portrayed in an isolated fashion, but also information about the number of re-tweets or Facebook “likes” and comments from other audience members, among other cues. This social backdrop will only play a more prominent role in shaping public perceptions as people increasingly turn to online sources and digital devices for their news and information.”

CB: What key questions or challenges does this study raise for science communicators?

Anderson: “A key question this raises for science communicators is how to handle the comments sections of their online stories. Should commenters identify themselves when they comment? How much moderation is appropriate in comments sections? There is a delicate balance between providing a space for free and frank discussion and monitoring offensive comments. There are no easy answers to these questions, but our research shows that these audience comments can play a role in how people perceive issues.”

Also, Scheufele has written more about his and Brossard’s Science piece in a blog post here.



4 thoughts on “Don’t Panic: Challenges Regarding Science, News and Comments Online

  1. FWIW, since you ask: “that self-reinforcing search-engine feedback loop mentioned above?” Don’t know, but is it any different from similar “best seller” bias back in the Dark Ages?
    “What can we do to consistently draw attention to good science reporting?” Mention it to our own constituencies, thereby of course adding yet more positive feedback to the loop
    “Do the benefits of online commenting outweigh the costs?” It’s increasingly clear that raising the temperature reinforces prior attitudes. So take care not to do more harm than good.


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