A comparative analysis of the coverage of science news in Cape Town newspapers
The 21st century is less than a decade old, but it is already evident that South Africans will need to improve their scientific literacy (that is, their knowledge about science, the environment and health) if they are to become active citizens in a world which is dominated more and more by complicated scientific and technological advances. It is a world in which average people are increasingly required to understand and make appropriate local decisions regarding numerous scientific debates, including alternative energy sources, climate change and new medical techniques. For most South Africans, the press is their main source of science news. Thus, a huge responsibility rests on the shoulders of newspaper journalists to empower their readers with scientific knowledge and to share the excitement that comes from discovering more about how the universe works. It is within this context that the question arises as to how Cape Town’s newspapers cover science news. Having determined from a review of the literature that a large knowledge gap existed in this field, it was decided to conduct research about science coverage in three daily newspapers (the Cape Argus, the Cape Times and Die Burger) and three weekend newspapers (the Saturday Argus, the Sunday Argus and the Saturday edition of Die Burger) in Cape Town. The quantitative research method of content analysis was employed in order to provide statistical evidence for the study’s problem statement, namely that science news is covered very differently in the six newspapers. This exploratory comparative analysis formed the bulk of the research. The qualitative research methods of surveys and in-depth interviews with the newspapers’ specialist science writers were then used to address the thesis of the study, namely that the science writers are “gatekeepers” (as predicted by the theoretical model of gatekeeping) and that their education, knowledge, interests, beliefs about science, attitudes towards their reporting, and interactions with editors within the newspaper structures determine the science coverage in their newspapers. Thus, this study asks (primarily) what science is covered, and (secondarily) why. The content analysis yielded a wealth of information which confirmed that the six newspapers cover science news very differently, while the surveys and interviews with the science writers validated the prediction that they are the dominant (but not the only) influence on the coverage of science in their newspapers. This study’s goal is to provide a comprehensive comparative overview of the coverage of science news in Cape Town’s newspapers, which will not only create a foundation for future research, but will also provide useful information for the six newspapers, their science writers and editors. Key words: Cape Argus, Cape Times, Cape Town, Die Burger, environment, gatekeeping, health, journalism, media, newspaper, reporter, Saturday Argus, science, South Africa, Sunday Argus, technology.