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The MMR vaccine: public health, private fears
The MMR vaccine: public health, private fears

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10.10 Conclusions

Hargreaves, I., Lewis, J. and Speers, T. ‘Towards a better map: Science, the public and the media’, Economic and Social Research Council.

We now return to three questions central to our inquiry. First, what do we, as a public, need to know about climate change, MMR and genetic media research? Second, what have most of us learnt from media coverage about these issues? And third, to what extent does our study suggest a model of media and public understanding which might be used to create a more informed public? Since the science based stories we have tracked each have their own distinctive features, we will begin by considering them case by case, before suggesting some more general Conclusions.

Climate change is part of a long running news story, told by a mix of scientists, politicians, environmentalists and interest groups. If the idea of the greenhouse effect in causing global warming was once seen as controversial, we now see the weight of scientific opinion confirming it. This movement towards consensus is generally reflected in media coverage (with a few dissenting voices).

Media coverage of climate change often refers to its causes, and there is a fairly high degree of public awareness that human activities such as deforestation and fossil fuel emissions are said to cause climate change. What is less apparent in news coverage is a focus on the scientific process involved, such as the nature of the greenhouse effect. The absence of this explanation is reflected in public understanding: most people clearly don't know what the greenhouse effect is or how it works.

This is not, perhaps, surprising. What is more interesting is how people use information to construct an explanation. Ideas with little media presence – such as the mechanics of the greenhouse effect – are unlikely to filter through, and yet many people still feel able to make knowledge claims. They appear to do so on the basis of the presence of often repeated associations in media coverage: in this case, between the thinning ozone layer and the greenhouse effect. Thus what is, in media coverage, merely a juxtaposition (under the general heading of human-made environmental problems) undergoes a cognitive leap in public understanding, so that it is understood as a casual relationship.

Many scientists would feel that this is a problem, and that people ought to know the simple mechanics of the greenhouse effect. But does it really matter if they don't? From the perspective of democratic citizenship, it could be argued that such knowledge is unnecessary. For citizens to understand and act on the issue, they only need to be aware of the causes and consequences of climate change, so that they are in a position to judge what measures might be taken to combat it.

On this count, our study does suggest that certain repeated themes about causes and consequences are filtering through, although there is also a degree of confusion that appears to come from lumping environmental problems together. This may make it difficult for many people to judge the specific merits of climate change proposals. Some policy makers might argue, for example, that the connection many people make between nuclear power and climate change is fallacious and thus profoundly unhelpful.

But one could also argue that if people are somewhat undiscriminating in their assessment of the relationship between environmental problems – from air pollution to nuclear waste – the rather muddled picture that emerges does have a certain coherence. Most people are able to make links between a range of human activities that have a negative environmental impact. If past generations happily embraced industrial consumerism in blissful ignorance of the environmental consequences, they no longer do so with quite the same disregard.

And yet it remains questionable how far this awareness translates into active citizenship. Most people, when prompted, express concern about climate change and felt the government should do more to tackle it. However, when polls ask people to say, unprompted, which issues concern them, environmental issues barely register (in a Mori survey in December 2002, environmental issues came 19th on the list of issues facing Britain, below trade unions and inflation). In this context, we would suggest that if there is a gap in media coverage and public understanding of climate change, it is not a simple absence of scientific understanding. The problem, we would suggest, is more a question of emphasis.

Firstly, while the predictions coming from the UN committee on climate change (amongst others) are dramatic and catastrophic, most of the misery is likely to fall on countries in the third world. The effects of climate change on Britain are seen as far less alarming. While the media often discuss the consequences of climate change, media coverage on this issue – as on many others – is often somewhat parochial, with many casual references to its more benign effects. This may explain why the issue of not generally seen as as important. This may also partly explain why broadsheet readers, whose newspapers have a more international focus, are more concerned about this issue. The challenge here is to make the sheer scale of potential global damage that climate change may inflict a major and recurrent news story. An emphasis upon the specifics of the science of global warming is not likely to be especially helpful in this context.

Second, most people need practical rather than technical information. The widespread use of scientific shorthand – notably terms such as ‘greenhouse gases’ or ‘fossil fuels’ – assumes rather than communicates an understanding of the causes of climate change. At the risk of simplifying the complexities of environmental impacts, it would be more helpful to use more direct language, to specify the kinds of activities that most contribute to climate change and what might be done to limit them.

Of the three stories we looked at, the MMR debate most clearly became a news story in its own right. The story's script was undoubtedly influenced by the ghost of the BSE controversy. Was this another case, reporters’ asked, of mainstream science and the government rushing prematurely to the defence of the status quo? The story followed a widely repeated pattern, in which a maverick researcher and concerned parents questioned scientific officialdom, with the Prime Minister and his young son becoming personally involved as the government resisted calls, amidst declining public confidence, to offer an alternative to the MMR jab.

Our study revealed that the main elements of this story – the alleged link between MMR and autism, the Prime Minister's refusal to disclose whether his son Leo had been given the MMR jab and subsequent the fall in public confidence -became widely known. Indeed, the extent of public knowledge on this issue demonstrates the power of the news media to inform. What made this story stick, we would suggest, was the consistency of the messages across different media and the speed with which it became a matter of public interest rather than simply a debate between scientists.

The downside, in this instance, was that the overall framework used to tell the story was so powerful that it created a perception of a divided scientific community with two conflicting bodies of research. This perception was undoubtedly exacerbated by Tony Blair's refusal to comment, which, however justified, made the Government's endorsement of the MMR jab ring hollow. Most people were thus unaware of the flimsiness of the link between MMR and autism (based, as it is, on a speculative claim rather than any empirical research) and that the great weight of research has failed to find any such link.

There is much to debate here about the media coverage of an issue in which a decline in public confidence (unlike the BSE case) actually creates new public health risks from outbreaks of measles, mumps or rubella. It seems fair to say, in retrospect, that the scrutiny of those supporting MMR was not matched by a rigorous examination of the case against it. Our main concern here, however, is what it tells us about the role of the media in public understanding. In short, the consistent telling of a story – particularly one with echoes of other stories – clearly influences public understanding.

And it is the broad themes of the coverage – rather than the details – that establish the building blocks for people's understanding and opinions. There are also important questions about the way in which the government and others arguing in favour of the single jab pursued their argument. Did they make best use of individual and ‘emotive’ cases, like their opponents. Were scientists willing to set aside their distaste for the cruder aspects of the debate in order to convey their point of view not only clearly, but consistently and repeatedly?

We saw much less consistency in the media coverage of cloning and genetic medical research. Coverage here, by contrast with MMR, tends to be dichotomous, focusing on either the medical potential of stem cell research or the ethical risks associated with cloning. The ‘great promise’ or ‘concern’ frameworks both have their own well-rehearsed conventions, one focusing on cutting edge medical breakthroughs and the promise of healing currently untreatable conditions, the other pointing with alarm to the Frankenstein excesses of irresponsible scientists. Accordingly, although many people confess to a lack of confidence about this issue, they appear to be aware of both potential and risk.

When it comes to public understanding of Government policy on this issue, our survey suggests widespread ignorance of what is or is not permitted – even though the House of Lords ruling on this issue in 2002 was given modest but fairly widespread media coverage. Indeed, public ignorance on this issue demonstrates the extent to which details of a story can pass people by. As we have seen with the other two stories, public understanding comes from the generality of often repeated media frameworks rather than one-off stories.

Are the public well informed enough to contribute to the debate about what the Government should sanction in this field? Since public opinion on this issue is clearly influenced by the context in which it discussed (we were able to manufacture a significant shift towards an optimistic view simply by a small alteration to the order in which we asked questions), it would not appear to particularly well-grounded. And yet surely this is an issue in which society as a whole – rather than a group of experts – should decide where to draw the line?

The irony is that this was, in many ways, the most science-driven story of the three we looked at. It was much more likely to be reported by a science or specialist correspondent, and much more likely to include scientists as sources. And although there were more stories, overall, on this issue than the other two, the public don't feel informed as a consequence. What this strongly suggests is that more science in the media does not leads to greater public understanding. On the contrary, it may be that, for better or worse, the best way to engage the public is actually to make it less of a science story.

What emerges from our analysis of all three stories is a much clearer sense of the relationship between the media coverage of science and public understanding.

  • The news media clearly play a role in informing the way people understand science. Our study suggests that most people are aware of the main themes or frameworks of media coverage of science related stories. Information that is subsidiary to these themes, be it part of the background to a story or information that does not recur (such as the passing of legislation) is unlikely to get across.

  • These themes or frameworks are then used as building blocks for people to make sense of an issue. This can, in practice, be a fairly crude cognitive process, and while these building blocks can be put together in ways that facilitate public understanding, many people ignore the fine print and assume connections between things simply because they are often juxtaposed in media coverage. Similarly, a journalistic convention (such as the balancing of two views) may, if repeated often enough, be interpreted literally as reflecting parity of research evidence.

  • People are more likely to become engaged in a science story if it appeals to a broader public interest. This is particularly the case if the story has a straightforward and consistent narrative (as the MMR story did). In these cases, key moments in the narrative (such as Tony Blair's reluctant role in the MMR story) may be especially significant in public understanding.

  • We find little evidence to support the idea that the presence of more science, scientists and science specialists in the media will increase the public understanding of science. On the contrary, a ‘science for science's sake’ approach seems the one least likely to generate public engagement and therefore public understanding.

  • Following on from this, we would suggest that the idea of public interest is central to engaging the public in science stories. We need to ask what it is important for citizens to know about science in a democracy. In short, why should people be interested in science if what they think has no effect on a broader policy level? If there is to be greater public accountability in support for science – which most people say they want – it is therefore important to establish what kind of information is necessary for people to make a valid contribution. What matters here, we would suggest, is not so much the science itself, but establishing clear connections between science, policy and the broader public interest.