September 20, 2017

Science News and Information Today

3. Niche information sources are most trusted to get the facts right about science

Americans offer a mixed evaluation of how well the news media cover science, but more say that overall they do a good, rather than a bad job. When delving more deeply, however, Americans show skepticism in the accuracy of general news outlets, instead placing more trust in specialty information sources. And, while many see problems in coverage of scientific research stemming from a range of players, when asked to choose, most Americans say the bigger problem stems from how reporters cover scientific research than from the way researchers publish their findings.

Most Americans say the media do a good job covering science news

A majority (57%) of U.S. adults say the news media are doing a good job covering science, while about four-in-ten (41%) say the news media are doing a bad job.

While this finding is in keeping with the relatively positive assessments in previous Pew Research Center surveys of how the media cover specific science topics, notably childhood vaccines, it stands in contrast to the mostly negative views Americans hold of how the news media, generally, affect the country.10

Democrats and independents who lean to the Democratic Party are more likely than Republicans and those leaning Republican to say the news media are doing a good job (64% vs. 50%). This political difference is in line with general assessments of the news media.

Older Americans are modestly more likely than their younger counterparts to say news media are doing a good job covering science (65% of those ages 65 and older say the news media is doing a good job, compared with 53% of those younger than 50).

When it comes to rating the accuracy of science information, however, Americans are most likely to say niche science sources get the facts right.

At the top for accuracy are science and technology museums, documentaries or other science video programs, and science magazines, each of which roughly half of Americans say get the facts right most of the time (either “almost all” or “more than half” of the time).

Next are the trio of government agencies, science radio/podcasts and general news outlets, which about three-in-ten adults say get the facts right most of the time. Although far more Americans (42%) acknowledge they don’t know enough about science audio programs to rate their accuracy. Among those who were knowledgeable about such radio/podcasts, the balance of opinion is these programs get the facts right more than half or almost all the time (51% of those who gave an opinion), which would outpace both government and general news outlets.

Still, it is family and friends and online discussion forums that sit at the bottom. Only one-in-six U.S. adults (16%) say their family and friends get the facts rights about science almost all or more than half the time, while about twice as many (31%) say their family and friends are accurate less than half the time. Similarly, 16% of U.S. adults say online discussion forums get the facts right about science most of the time, though about four-in-ten (41%) say they did not know enough about these sources to give an opinion.

Active science news consumers see information sources as more accurate; political differences in views of accuracy are less pronounced

Overall, majorities of active (55%), casual (58%) and uninterested (59%) science news consumers say the news media are doing a good job covering science. But when it comes to the individual sources types, active science news consumers generally have greater trust in the accuracy of each of the sources asked about than do casual and uninterested science news consumers. And particularly large differences emerge among the types of science news consumers when they are asked to rate niche science sources.

About three-quarters (74%) of active science news consumers say science and technology museums, documentaries, and science magazines get the facts right most of the time. In contrast, no more than half of uninterested science news consumers think each of these sources is accurate more than half the time. This pattern also holds when accounting for the greater familiarity that active science news consumers have with many of these sources.

When it comes to science information, liberal Democrats stand out as more likely to trust both general and niche sources for accurate science information.

Similarly, 41% of liberal Democrats say news outlets that cover a range of topics get the facts right about science most of the time, compared with 22% of conservative Republicans.

Political differences tend to be smaller than differences between types of science news consumers, however.

Many Americans see problems in coverage of scientific research stemming from scientists, the news media and themselves

Americans see a range of problems in how scientific research is disseminated and understood, but they spread the blame across themselves, the news media and scientific researchers.

Many Americans say the public’s limited knowledge about science – as well as the way the public interprets science news – are problems. Some 44% of Americans say it is a big problem that the public doesn’t really know enough about science to understand research findings in the news. At the same time, 42% of U.S. adults say the public’s tendency to jump to conclusions about how to apply new research findings is a big problem.

Still, a similar share of Americans express concern about how the media report on scientific research: 43% of U.S. adults say it is a big problem that the news media are “too quick to report research findings than may not hold up.” A smaller share (30%) says that media oversimplifying scientific research is a big problem, while another 42% say this is a small problem.

Many Americans also believe that researchers affect the quality of science news coverage. For example, four-in-ten Americans (40%) say it is a big problem that there are so many research studies being published that it is hard to distinguish between high- and low-quality studies.

Conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats are about equally likely to consider the public not knowing enough about science to be a big problem for coverage of scientific research. But, conservative Republicans are more likely than liberal Democrats to name every potential problem stemming from news coverage or scientific research as a big problem.For example, more than half (57%) of conservative Republicans think it is a big problem that the news media are too quick to report findings that might not hold up, compared with 38% of liberal Democrats. For details, see Appendix A.

When asked, however, to choose whether the bigger problem rests in how media cover research or how researchers publish or share their findings, many more Americans put the onus on the media than on scientific researchers (73% vs. 24%), as do large majorities of both conservative Republicans (80%) and liberal Democrats (74%).

  1. A 2013 Pew Research Center report documents the steep decline in public regard for media accuracy, fairness and independence over about three decades. Public confidence in the news media reached a historic low in 2016, according to Gallup surveys conducted since 1997.