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Positive News Coverage Bolsters Support for Science

News of a vaccine against the Zika virus boosted Americans' confidence in science—for a short time. How to make it last?
Reporters work on their laptops in Beaverton, Oregon.

Reporters work on their laptops in Beaverton, Oregon.

Can Americans be persuaded to have more faith in science? New research suggests that, when exposed to encouraging news coverage, they may be more open to making such a shift.

It reports that, in the immediate wake of a much-publicized medical breakthrough—the first human testing of a vaccine against the Zika virus—Americans expressed increased trust in science's ability to solve problems.

The bad news: This effect evaporated after only two weeks, even though intense interest in Zika continued for an additional four weeks.

"This finding opens the possibility that confidence in science could be bolstered in a more sustained fashion by regularized communication about advances made by science," Joseph Hilgard and Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center write in the journal Science Communication.

In spite of repeated attempts by political figures to dismiss findings that don't align with their agenda, the American public has consistently held a positive attitude toward science. That said, many reject scientific findings that conflict with their ideological beliefs, or even their gut feelings.

Our attitudes toward the federal government are too set in stone for such coverage to make a difference.

Given that trust in the scientific consensus is a prerequisite for taking serious action on issues like climate change, Hilgard and Jamieson decided to see if positive news coverage could shift public opinion. They decided to focus on the Zika vaccine, since that breakthrough "has clear benefits," and "vaccination does not conflict with mainstream public values or cultural norms."

They used data from the Annenberg Science Knowledge Survey, a weekly survey of 1,000 or more Americans. Respondents were asked "Which comes closer to your view: Science enables us to overcome almost any problem, or that science creates unintended consequences and replaces older problems with new ones?"

Responses over a 31-week period were compared with data on Google searches for, and news coverage of, the Zika vaccine, which peaked in August of 2016.

"For two weeks following the vaccine announcement, people were more likely to agree that science enables us to solve any problem," Hilgard said in announcing the results.

This spike in confidence was limited in scope as well as time. The researchers note that opinions about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the National Institutes of Health "did not warm" during this period, "despite the considerable increase in media representation by the directors of those agencies." Perhaps our attitudes toward the federal government are too set in stone for such coverage to make a difference.

Nevertheless, "These results suggest that it is possible to bolster the credibility of science when science provides uncontroversial solutions to problems covered by the media," Hilgard and Jamieson write. "When recent and salient news reports describe scientific progress towards solutions for salient problems, [the public] may form positive appraisals of science."

"Unless reinforced," they add, these attitudes are "likely to be short-lived." So the question becomes: How can they be strengthened during that window when people are feeling positive about science? A lot may ride on finding an answer.