For our first assignment we were asked to do a content analysis of the broadcast media to see how they reported on science. It was pitched as a very open-ended piece of work, and we were required to decide our own direction of research.
I decided to have a look at my local newspaper, the Surrey Advertiser, to see how much of the local science it reported.
As Guildford is home to Surrey University, the Surrey Space Centre (SSC), Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) and the Surrey Research Park, a significant part of the economic income is from scientific research.
Surrey is situated on the North Downs, and contains a variety of wildlife and conserved land. Surrey Wildlife Trust, the National Trust and many local conservational societies take it within their stride to keep ecosystems stable and maintain the beauty of this green county.
As science is such an integral part of the Guildford community in terms of employment and economic value, I believe it should be reported within the local newspapers.
Turns out, very little science actually is. In my study I found that from May 2012 until end September 2012, only 34 articles alluded to science. And only 15 of those reported on scientific research of any kind.
The majority of the research reported on was about medicine/health, followed closely by technology, and then environment and conservation.
Bar chart illustrating the frequency of news articles in each category in the Surrey Advertiser from May – September 2012
This is probably because they are the most relevant to the local daily life. Medicine and health are obviously very important to everyone. Environment and conservation are also top of the list as there is a lot going on with the “green movement”. The technology articles were mostly PR from the technology companies, looking to push their products.
What surprised me the most was the lack of physics reporting. Considering Guildford is home to SSC, SSTL and a very well-respected physics department at Surrey University, why is there not more physics news?
Of the two physics articles found, both fell into the space exploration category of physics. This is unsurprising as Surrey is home to SSC and SSTL, which are both concerned with space science and technology. However, what is surprising then, is that there are not more articles within the Surrey Advertiser mentioning their work. During the period reviewed in this content analysis, SSTL published 10 press releases, and only one was used in the Surrey Advertiser. “Guildford has liftoff” was published on 3rd August 2012, and related to a press release from SSTL on the 22nd of July 2012 titled “SSTL announces the successful launch of exactView-1”.
The other physics story, “Surrey pioneers low-cost space exploration” published September 14th 2012, is based on work from SSC published on September 3rd2012 entitled “Experts to test penetrator technology in space for potential exploration of asteroids or the moon”. This story however, was not sent out as a press release from SSC, but directly from Surrey University.
So why isn’t local research within the space industry of more interest to the readers of the Surrey Advertiser? It may be that the technology being developed is too difficult to communicate in layman terms. It may also be too abstract to be of interest. A lot of space technology is initially only applicable to space research. It is only afterwards that further applications of the technology are identified.
It is interesting to note that neither of the physics stories have a named author. The Surrey Advertiser does not have a specific science reporter, which may be part of the problem. It could mean that the reporter has difficulty in establishing what scientific research is worth reporting.
Another issue could be that the Universities release their press releases at an awkward time for publication within local papers. The Surrey Advertiser comes out on a Friday, and the Surrey University press releases may not come out in time to make it into the publication.
I would like to see more local science being reported, especially some of the stuff coming out of the University of Surrey. But is this because I already have an interest in science? If I didn’t, would I want to know more? Who knows…
I really enjoyed doing this study (I hope my tutor likes it too!), and this post gives a bit of a flavour of what I found. If I’d had more time, I would have liked to study the ReadingPost, to see if that outlet was equally as poor at reporting on science from Reading University. It would also be interesting to see if science is better reported outside Surrey, in towns where science is either more or less prevalent than in Guildford.