Coverage of Science in the Media


The portrayal of scientific and technological objects in the mass media plays a fundamental role in our understanding of how such issues are discussed and interpreted in the public sphere and constitute common sense knowledge. There is a wide scientific literature on this topic that combines communication theories and studies of mass media influences with public understanding of science research.

In particular, studying how mass media frame an emerging technology is important for observing definitions and associated meanings that are legitimized or stigmatized. Nuclear power has been studied in the past by an extensive body of research with findings that have revealed the negative associations and imagery (e.g. accidents, destruction, contamination, mushroom clouds, child cancer etc.) often linked with such technology; and which have been variously described by expressions like “nuclear fear” and “nuclear stigma”.

Studies in this area are focused on the idea that in the public sphere there are competing definitions, in what is a complex game played for the control of semantics in the public sphere. Considering that definitions are not just technical issues, but are a matter of framing for the purpose of opinion and attitude formation and for regulation, competing representations in the media is a field where the battle “is being waged in the arena of language, as much as that of science”.

In this context, we analyzed the impact of a major event, the disaster at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima Daiichi (Japan, 11th March 2011) on media representations of nuclear power before and after. Media representations can exacerbate people’s risk perception of nuclear power and a previous study has found such an effect in the US precisely in the case of the recent Japanese accident.

To this end, we use a combination of measurements before and after the event on a corpus of millions of news articles to detect the impact in the media and the changes in reporting of nuclear power thereafter. We focus on three particular aspects:

  1. the evolution of attention (salience) and sentiment of nuclear power, revealing the change in the overall volume of science articles covering the topic and the sentimental framing of the media coverage
  2. networks of the actors and actions linked to nuclear power along with its action clouds, allowing us to detect the shift in actors involved in the public debate around nuclear power and also discover the new actions taking place in the debate
  3. networks of topics, universities and diseases associated with nuclear power, showing the changing latent representation of nuclear power as presented by online news media.

Our findings reveal an insight into the change of framing and sentiment associated with the global media reporting of nuclear power following the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan in March 2011. Before the incident, nuclear power had a relatively positive sentiment in the media, typically framed in terms of playing a key role in the ongoing debate within countries about managing their energy supply needs. Following the incident however, there is a negative shift in the sentiment surrounding nuclear power, with the debate drifting towards the perceived risks of nuclear power and links with thyroid cancer.

While we cover a global selection of science articles on the topic of nuclear power, a more fine grained approach, focusing specifically on the debate playing out within individual countries would be of interest, and would allow for findings to be compared against opinion polls carried out by surveys.

The methodology implemented in this paper presents a comprehensive way to monitor critical events and their media ripple effects that can be potentially applied to any publicly relevant issue. Big data provides a unique opportunity to map, monitor and study public sphere dynamics with a global and longitudinal approach revealing the true ‘long tail’ of events. In the past, previous media monitoring methodology based on human coding did not fully allow to detect and distinguish such effects. The innovative character of these techniques opens up new possibilities in social scientific research.