Science communication vs. public relations: the potential effect of university press releases and the changing media landscape on science journalism in South Africa

Heyl, Ansa (2018-12)

Thesis (MA)--Stellenbosch University, 2018

Thesis

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: The news media has always played an important role in informing the public about scientific and technological developments, with some studies showing that the majority of the public get their information about science from the mass media (Ashwell, 2016). In today's rapidly changing news environment, it however often happens that university press releases on important discoveries are published verbatim, raising the question of whether this still constitutes science journalism or rather just a public relations exercise. South African newsrooms are of course not exempt from the sweeping changes that have characterised the media landscape worldwide, which means that journalists now have less time available to produce more content. The current media environment will also likely continue to make the practice of critical science journalism even more difficult in the future and uncritical communication of scientific results might tend to erode trust in science. In this study, an attempt was made to see how press releases issued by universities are used in the popular media in South Africa. The results show that half of the media articles analysed had a similarity of 50% or higher to original press releases issued by the four South African research universities included in the study. Qualitative analyses of the media articles and press releases also revealed that, with the exception of one article, none of the published articles contained any indication of research results being critically evaluated before publication. In addition, it was found that the source of the information contained in the articles is often obscured, or it is insinuated that a journalist at the publication produced the article, especially when content received from the institution is published virtually verbatim. This implies a lack of transparency on the side of the media outlet, which could erode the trust relationship between the publication and its audience, and ultimately trust in science itself. The high degree of similarity between the published articles and the lack of critical evaluation on the side of media outlets, could serve as evidence of a changed role of journalists from critically evaluating information received to one where they merely serve as processors of supplied information. It could also be interpreted as an indication that publishers view the institutions/universities included in the study as authoritative sources of information. The implication of these results for science communication in South Africa is that communications and public relations practitioners at universities have to realise the extent of their responsibility towards practicing and promoting good science communication in the country, so they can take up the responsibility and help bridge the growing gap between science and the media.

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING: Die nuusmedia het nog altyd 'n belangrike rol gespeel om die publiek in te lig oor wetenskaplike- en tegnologiese ontwikkelings. Sommige studies dui daarop dat die meerderheid van die publiek hul inligting oor wetenskap van die massamedia ontvang (Ashwell, 2016). In vandag se vinnig veranderende nuus omgewing gebeur dit egter dikwels dat universiteitspersvrystellings oor belangrike ontdekkings woord-vir-woord geherpubliseer word. Dit laat ‘n mens wonder of hierdie artikels dan steeds gesien kan word as wetenskap joernalistiek en of dit eerder net 'n openbare betrekkinge oefening is. Suid-Afrikaanse nuuskamers het natuurlik nie die veranderinge wat die media-landskap wêreldwyd beïnvloed vrygespring nie, wat beteken dat joernaliste nou minder tyd beskikbaar het om meer inhoud te lewer. Die huidige media-omgewing sal in die toekoms waarskynlik voortgaan om kritiese wetenskapjoernalistiek steeds moeiliker te maak en die onkritiese kommunikasie van wetenskaplike resultate kan die publiek se vertroue in wetenskap benadeel. In hierdie studie is daar gepoog om te bepaal hoe persverklarings wat deur universiteite uitgereik word in die breër media omgewing in Suid-Afrika gebruik word. Die resultate wys dat die helfte van die media-artikels wat ontleed is, 'n ooreenkoms van 50% of hoër gehad het teenoor die oorspronklike persvrystellings wat uitgereik is deur die vier Suid-Afrikaanse navorsingsuniversiteite wat in die studie ingesluit is. Kwalitatiewe ontledings van die mediaberigte en persvrystellings het ook aan die lig gebring dat, behalwe vir een artikel, geen van die gepubliseerde artikels enige aanduiding bevat dat navorsingsresultate krities geëvalueer word voor publikasie nie. Daarbenewens is gevind dat die bron van die inligting vervat in die artikels dikwels nie duidelik gemaak word nie, of dit word aangevoer dat 'n joernalis by die publikasie die artikel geskryf het. Dit is veral problematies wanneer die inhoud wat van die instelling ontvang word feitlik woordeliks geherpubliseer word. Dit impliseer 'n gebrek aan deursigtigheid aan die kant van die media-onderneming, wat die vertrouensverhouding tussen die publikasie en sy gehoor kan skade doen, en uiteindelik tot ‘n afbreek van vertroue in die wetenskap self kan lei. Die hoë mate van ooreenstemming tussen die gepubliseerde artikels en die gebrek aan kritiese evaluering aan die kant van die media-afsetpunte kan dien as bewys van 'n veranderde rol van joernaliste van waar dit voorheen was om inligting wat ontvang word krities te evalueer, na waar hulle net as verwerkers van inligting dien. Dit kan ook geïnterpreteer word as 'n aanduiding dat uitgewers die instansies of universiteite wat in die studie ingesluit is as gesaghebbende inligtingsbronne beskou. Die implikasie van hierdie resultate vir wetenskapkommunikasie in Suid-Afrika is dat kommunikasie- en openbareverhoudingspraktisyns by universiteite die mate van hul verantwoordelikheid om goeie wetenskapkommunikasie in die land te beoefen en te bevorder moet besef, sodat hulle die verantwoordelikheid kan opneem en kan help om die groeiende gaping tussen wetenskap en die media te oorbrug.

Please refer to this item in SUNScholar by using the following persistent URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10019.1/106268