5 MMR and the media
An important dimension to the social perception of risk is how the media report an issue. Researchers at the Cardiff University School of Journalism investigated media coverage of three scientific issues with social policy implications: climate change; cloning and genetic medical research; and the MMR vaccine. The study analysed the way the media covered the MMR controversy in 561 articles over a seven-month period. Then two nationally representative surveys were carried out in April and October 2002, with the stated aim of investigating how public understanding could be seen as reflecting the nature of the media coverage.
Click to view: extracts from the ESRC report Towards a Better Map: Science, the Public and the Media. Take careful note of the way in which the information was obtained and how it is being interpreted. Note strengths and weaknesses of this type of content analysis and social science research.
Although surveys of this type inevitably oversimplify the link between media coverage and public understanding of science, the results are useful for identifying certain trends. One of the most interesting findings of the research was that there was a mismatch between the information reported in the media and the public's impression of that coverage. An attempt by the media to provide ‘balance’, by covering both sides of the controversy, created the misleading impression that there was equal evidence on both sides of the debate (39% of respondents to the ESRC survey thought so in April 2002 rising to 53% by October), in spite of the majority of evidence being overwhelmingly in favour of the safety of MMR.
The reporting of the MMR controversy is an example of the ‘myth of balance’ in news coverage. Showing both sides of the story – often considered a hallmark of good reporting – does not guarantee objectivity or accuracy. This is not to say that such coverage somehow lacks legitimacy however. The processes by which news is produced and disseminated are very different to – and often incommensurable with – the processes by which scientific knowledge is generated. In a debate as complex as that about MMR, suffused as it is with politics, economics and ethics, there is no ‘right’ way to report the issue.