CORDIS - EU research results

Weaving stories, explaining science – scientists and journalists on the air

Final Report Summary - NARRATIVE/ SCIENCE (Weaving stories, explaining science – scientists and journalists on the air)

Science plays an integral part in our everyday lives and yet the public is considered to be poorly informed regarding new discoveries and their social implications. This study examined science communication in the news media, which forms the main source of scientific information to the public. The aims of this project were to identify the narrative and metaphoric strategies by which scientific experts communicate their research and how narrative and metaphors are used in providing scientific explanations or in warranting arguments that experts put forward. Previous scholarship focused primarily on the printed press or news bulletins. In these reports, experts’ explanations are quoted selectively to align with the story selected as newsworthy. However, since talk-shows interviews are unscripted, this study could attend to experts’ voices and stories and identifies the role of science and media discourses in shaping the popularization of research.

The work was conducted in two major routes, thematic coding of the corpus as a whole and detailed, micro-analytical examinaiton of focused collections. The data for this study was a previously collected corpus of 150 interviews conducted with 140 scientists on daily Israeli current affairs talk-show London et Kirschenbaum (2009 to 2011). Broadcast on a national commercial channel in Israel (Channel 10) this highbrow pre-primetime news magazine is one of Israel’s key agenda-setting news broadcasts. The program is hosted by veteran journalist and presenter Yaron London and was co-hosted by Moti Kirschenbaum (departed September 25, 2015), a former director-general of the Israel Broadcasting Authority and one of the founders of Israeli television. Though focused primarily on current affairs, London et Kirschenbaum was noted for its attention to and positive treatment of science and technology topics. Interviewees were invited as commentators to provide information or advise regarding news events or as authors of the study or opinion discussed.

The current project was conducted as research-based-training in linguistics conducted via attending dedicated workshops and presentation in data sessions and research seminars. Training focused primarily on interactional approaches to language use including narrative analysis, conversation analysis and linguistic ethnorgraphy but also corpus liniguistics, functional grammar and critical disocurse analysis. Training was conducted primarily at the Centre for Language, Discourse and Communication at King’s College London and was supervised by the scientist in charge Prof. Alexandra Georgakopoulou-Nunes and Prof. Ben Rampton. Additional courses were taken in in the Social Science Department in Loughborough University, the Centre for Language and Communication Research in the University of Cardiff and the Instititude of Advanced Studies in the University of Birmingham. The key findings emerging from this program are as follows:

1. A prevalene use of narratives: Scientific experts were identified as making a broad use of narrative strategies for communicating research. The most prevalent story type identified was the first-person account (40%; n=54). But while typical of personal recollections, these stories were primarily oriented to their teller’s research projects. Though mostly un-elicited these accounts occupied a significant portion (20-40%) of the question and answer sequence in each interview. The prevalence of fully formed, un-elicited and yet uninterrupted stories indicates that stories were generally treated as a component of an adequate response. While the narratives were introduced as stories they were oriented to primarily as scientific explanations or as providing the information that the interviewers’ questions elicited. Detailed micro-analytical examination of selected stories confirmed the scientific orientation of these accounts and revealed that they were occasioned as a way of establishing speakers’ expertise or presenting their research as valid and reliable.

2. The story-worlds of scientific experts: In addition to research accounts researchers drew in their narrative on social and cultural scenarios (37%; n=57), many of which projected as familiar to the program’s audience, or natural entities that scientists investigate (32%; n=43). These entities/scenarios included genes controlling biological cells, or immune cells fighting diseases, or sub-atomic particles colliding in a physical experiment. Alongside cultural or natural-entities narratives, clinicians interviewed referenced their clinical experience as well. While most of the stories were taken from a particular domain (e.g. the clinic OR natural entities narrative) many others (43%; n=44) shifted between story-worlds. In addition to working with different story-worlds the narratives differed in their temporal organization. Many stories were structured as depictions of ongoing (31%; n=42) or hypothetical occurrences (12%; n=16), rather than as recollections of particular events. However, the future tense that is prevalent in science news reporting was rare in the narratives that experts were telling (5%; n=7). The temporal structuring of experts as habitual and generic was identified as orienting to academic rather than media genres. Micro-analysis of selected cases revealed that spatial and temporal choices reflected experts’ communicative goals in terms of framing the research that they were asked to explain.

3. Metaphors in interaction: A detailed analysis of the corpus identified 3162 metaphoric words, some combined within expressions or noun phrases. Though the talks were about science only 3% of these were identified as scientific terminology. Most (80%) were identified as conventional and only 12% were marked in the talks as figurative expressions (e.g. metaphorically speaking, this is like). However, 367 metaphoric expressions, most of which were conventional, were identified as marked by speakers as demanding confirmation (n=63), or correction (n=198), or used to correct prior metaphoric or non-metaphoric terms. Detailed analysis of selected cases indicated that while the “metaphoricity” is usually conceived as reflecting its lexical or linguistic novelty, it is in particular interactions and in relation to speakers’ communicative goals that an expression is identified as figurative or metaphorical.

4. Framing health risks: In order to examine how researchers responded to requests for expert advice (rather explaining research) this study analysed in detail a collection of their responses to requests for information regarding health risks. 143 instances of risk talk identified in nearly a third of the items (n=48) were coded for the design of questions and answers, the sources questions referenced, and the confidence expressed in responses. Most of the questions (66%) were found to elicit specific responses and cited as scientific source. However, answers were generally elaborated, qualified and to some extent structured as a narrative. Detailed analysis of selected cases revealed that the assessments delivered reflected respondents’ framing, or reframing, of the topic discussed.

5. Practical implications: Though hardly the conventional mode for foregrounding expertise, Scientists are trained and anticipated to use narratives in their interactions with the public. This study demonstrated that narratives and other rhetorical devices are frequently used to supports experts’ explanation and framing of the topics at hand. The results of this finding have been used in developing a model for a training workshop geared at experts and science graduates. Communication trainings are usually based on simulated interactions with journalists or the anticipation of their interests and responses. Based on this study, a new type of training is developed that is informed by real-life encounters rather than the media realities that experts, or trainers, simulate or anticipate.