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Dispelling media stereotypes: What do scientists really think of journalists?

Garry Wayne Gibbs

Date of submission: September 1, 2003
Supervisor: Dr Jeff Gavin

1.1 Background
There is strong evidence to suggest that journalists have a low rating in the eyes of the public and, crucially, among scientists. A survey of more than 1,400 scientists and journalists for Worlds Apart found scientists’ largely negative perceptions of journalists was “a disturbing recurrent theme”.
1.2 Aims

The aim of this exploratory study was to establish if scientists are influenced by negative media stereotypes of journalists. The research question, therefore, was concerned with if stereotypes affected participants.
1.3 Method

92 undergraduate students studying for Bachelor of Science degrees at the University of Bath completed a questionnaire requiring them to draw a journalist and to give their opinions on journalists
1.4 Results
The general consensus was that journalists tend to be insensitive to peoples’ feelings and can appear rude and pushy, regularly intrude into privacy and can use unscrupulous, unprincipled methods. The participants’ perception of journalists was narrow as the drawings were mostly of male newspaper journalists, which are reinforced in film, TV and fictional stereotypes.
1.5 Conclusion

Negative media stereotypes of journalists appeared to have influenced the participants. Future research would utilise a better-designed questionnaire and a bigger sample of more senior scientists to better measure opinions and perceptions with a more comprehensive and meaningful pilot study.

I dedicate this to Mr David Gleave, who taught me English literature and language at Ysgol Isaf Friars, Bangor, north Wales, in the 1970s. Thank you for introducing me to a beautiful language and for encouraging me to use it properly.
Many thanks, also, to all the staff offering help in the psychology department at the University of Bath and to the students who participated.

I embarked on this exploratory study early in the summer of 2003 and shortly after that news of the death of Dr David Kelly, a government scientist who was an expert on weapons of mass destruction during the Gulf War in Iraq, broke all over the world. Suddenly, the relationship between scientists and journalists became one of the talking points and an issue of great importance. Dr Kelly appeared, in many respects, to be the stereotypical scientist, and BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan appeared, in many respects, to be the stereotypical journalist.

Do not remember the former things,
Nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I will do a new thing,
Now it shall spring forth
Isaiah, Chapter 43, Verses 18 and 19
Table of contents

Introduction and background 1
Aim and hypothesis 8
Method 10 Introduction 10
Design 10
Sample 11
Materials 11
Pilot study 12
Ethical considerations 12
Procedure 12
Results 14
Discussion 21
Conclusions 31
References 33
Bibliography 38
Appendices 41

Introduction and background
If God himself reached down into the muck and mire, he could not raise a journalist up to the depths of degradation!
– The old country doctor in Nothing Sacred, a 1937 journalism film written by Ben Hecht
I can tell you what it’s like to work for a newspaper. Imagine a combine, one of those huge threshing machines that eat up a row of wheat like nothing, bearing right down on you. You’re running in front of it, all day long, day in and day out, just inches in front of the maw, where steel blades are whirring and clacking and waiting for you to get tired or make one slip. The only way to keep the combine off you is to throw it something else to rip apart and digest. What you feed it is stories. Words and photos. Ten inches on this, fifteen inches on that, a vertical shot here and a horizontal there, scraps of news and film that go into the maw where they are processed and dumped onto some page to fill the spaces around the ads. Each story buys you a little time, barely enough to slap together the next story, and the next and the next. You never get far ahead, you never take a breather, all you do is live on the hustle. Always in a rush, always on deadline, you keep scrambling to feed the combine. That’s what it’s like. The only way to break free is with a big story, one you can ride for a while and tear off in pieces so big, the combine has to strain to choke them down. That buys you a little time. But sooner or later the combine will come chomping after you again, and you better be ready to feed it all over again.
– Ray Ring from the novel Arizona Kiss (1991)

The main difficulty I have faced as a professional journalist writing scientific reports in academia has been in properly exercising that slow, rigorous, disciplined and painstaking process of first preparation in terms of reading, re-reading, checking and double-checking and then qualifying and referencing everything as I write. The eminent American psychologist Steven Pinker, who filled in an adapted version of one of the questionnaires used in this study privately for me, wrote that journalists’ personal weaknesses included being, “lazy and unoriginal” (Appendix 1). I prefer to think that journalists have a natural narrative flow that needs to be expressed spontaneously and without too many restrictive rules and conventions to slow down and hinder it. After all, newsworthy events happen quickly and spontaneously and the public require reports about them that are just as quick and spontaneous.
Both scientists and journalists, of course can make mistakes, and the consequences of making those mistakes can be catastrophic for the reputations of both sets of professionals. Both must be confident that the methods that they employ ensure accuracy and clarity.
The scientific approach gives the completed work credibility, of course, but my journalistic training taught me to get the facts and tell them simply. Referencing and qualifying was of little importance. It helped if my account was simple, punchy and economical. If it was accurate and balanced, if it informed and entertained and crucially, was delivered on time, then I had done my job well and I deserved my by-line and my salary. The laboured preparation carried little or, often, no significance. Indeed, it got in the way of the writing process and could even make the copy turgid and inaccessible.
I can now see the relevance and the value in academic writing and can appreciate that it is often necessary (not least in this dissertation!) I am, therefore, now a journalist who understands the way that scientists work and write. I have worked with both journalists and scientists and now understand that they have entirely different approaches to getting at the truth and then telling it but often aim to achieve the same results – to explain and inform, and they both strive for accuracy and clarity.
This exploratory study will look at how scientists perceive journalists and will examine whether they are influenced by media stereotypes of journalists.
It has come about partly because I am a journalist who has worked on regional morning, evening and weekly newspapers and I am genuinely fascinated about how I am perceived by the scientists I come into contact with and about how any stereotypes may affect their perception of me and it has also come about because I am aware of the tension between scientists and journalists because of the high levels of distrust and disapproval among scientists about how journalists report on their work and the unscientific methods they regularly use.
It has also come about because of what I have read about the way the public perceives scientists. It interested me that much less has been written about the way the public perceives journalists and, crucially, very little has been written about how scientists perceive journalists. I wanted to address this imbalance.
I will make recommendations in this dissertation about how the questionnaire – which I am calling the Draw A Journalist Test – (Appendix 2) can be further adapted and used in any further research to establish a more complete and reliable picture of how scientists perceive journalists and whether stubborn media stereotypes do persist in the minds of the scientists and whether they may hamper communication between the two. It will then be for others to work on addressing how to eradicate the communication difficulties between the two and to dispel the media stereotypes and myths and arrive at a more mature and sensible relationship between the two sets of professionals.
A “stereotype” is a generalisation about a person or group of persons. We develop stereotypes when we are unable or unwilling to obtain all of the information we would need to make fair judgments about people or situations. In the absence of the “total picture,” stereotypes in many cases allow us to “fill in the blanks” (Gary M. Grobman, 1990).
The public’s image of scientists is itself a matter of concern among those in the scientific community. Some scientists claim that the media is largely to blame for negative stereotypes which depict them as Dr Frankenstein-type mad despots, at worst, and unfashionable, eccentric and isolated “geeks” and “nerds”, (Thomas E McDuffie, 2001) at best, who busy themselves in secret working on nasty formulas for evil new creations and dangerous new drugs and inventions that all threaten civilisation as we know it.
According to one study, scientists are portrayed more negatively than members of any other profession on prime-time entertainment shows. They are more likely to be killed or to kill someone. In fact, the study found that 10 per cent of the scientists on fictional TV shows get killed and 5 per cent kill someone (Gerbner 1987).
Research, however, has indicated that the public has a much more positive perception of science and scientists than the scientists themselves may think.
In Science and the Public (2000), a study sponsored by the Wellcome Trust and the Office for Science and Technology, 84 per cent of the public thought that scientists made a valuable contribution to society. Three-quarters thought that science and engineering were good careers, and that science, engineering and technology would provide more opportunities for the next generation. Two-thirds thought that scientists want to make life better for the average person.
Eight out of ten people agreed that Britain needs to develop science and technology in order to enhance its international competitiveness and 72 per cent agreed that, even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research that advances knowledge is necessary and should be supported by the government.
Concerns, however, were raised over the use of science and the ability of society to control science. When asked whether they thought the benefits of science are greater than any harmful effects, the response was that 43 per cent agreed, 17 per cent disagreed, and a third preferred to give no opinion.
And some negative stereotypes about science and scientists appear to persist stubbornly. For instance, Children as young as eight are being put off the idea of becoming scientists because they see them as “middle-aged white males who never have fun”.
Researchers from the SCIcentre, the National Centre for Initial Teacher Training in Primary School Science at the University of Leicester, surveyed between 4,000 and 5,000 children in Leicester and Perth, Australia.
When asked to draw a scientist, children – from the age of eight or nine – were likely to draw a white male, with facial and/or eccentric hair, wearing glasses and a white jacket, (Jarvis, 2000).
Journalists, because they are involved in communicating science to the public, play an important role in the diffusion of innovations and
public acceptance (American Opinion Research, 1993; Chappell & Hart, 1998; Peterson, 1996) and crucially important in this process is how they perceive scientists.
To learn how journalists and scientists perceived one another, Chappell and Hart (1998) sampled 2,000 journalists and 2,000 scientists. They discovered that neither group believed it was doing a good job of explaining science to the public.
In the United Kingdom The Science Media Centre has been set up to bridge the gap between them to better communicate the facts and the Government has identified a problem and responded by setting up a select committee to consider science and technology. They have published a report, Science and Society (2000) offering support to COPUS, the committee on the Public Understanding of Science, and recommending measures to bring about clearer and more harmonious relationships between scientists and journalists.
“Scientists and journalists come from two different worlds. One side is characterised by a methodical and precise assessment of data from close analysis over an extended time period. The other side wants simple, direct and speedy answers uncluttered by qualifying statements. The two groups are naturally suspicious of each other,” Gascoigne and Metcalfe (1997).
There is strong evidence to suggest that journalists have a low rating in the eyes of the public and among scientists. In a MORI poll, cited in Corrado, (2001), 75 per cent of people said they would expect journalists not to tell the truth and only 18 per cent said they would expect them to tell the truth, slightly better than for politicians but much worse than for the “ordinary man/woman in the street”. The figure for how people perceive scientists, on the other hand, was 22 per cent expecting them not to tell the truth and 65 per cent expecting them to tell the truth.
In surveys on honesty and ethics, journalism as a profession traditionally fares badly, only 43% of the public felt they could trust journalists working for national newspapers to provide accurate scientific information. Crucial to this particular study, though, only five per cent of scientists felt that they could. (MRC News, October 2002).
Indeed, Scientists generally have a fear or suspicion of the media, especially if they have had little experience with the media. Such inexperienced media performers “essentially distrust the media and doubt the media’s potential to help their science. They are particularly fearful of misrepresentation, inaccuracy, and loss of control and see the media as exploitative and manipulative” (Gascoigne and Metcalfe, 1997).
Scientists are uncomfortable with the lack of depth in news articles and broadcasts and with having to explain very complex subjects in sound bites. In return, journalists aren’t satisfied by the cautiously worded, verbose, or technical responses they sometimes get from scientists (FACSNET Science and Technology, February 18, 2003). In America, A survey of more than 1,400 scientists and journalists for Worlds Apart found that scientists’ largely negative perceptions of journalists was “a disturbing recurrent theme.” First Amendment Center surveys of clergy, businesspeople, military personnel and even politicians over the past five years found none as distrustful of journalists as scientists. Only 11 per cent of the scientists surveyed said they had a great deal of confidence in the press (Worlds Apart, 1998).
Beliefs and attitudes are related according to Mason et al. (1991) who quote Koballa (1988) as stating that a person’s belief is often associated with a characteristic towards an object and that belief forms a person’s attitude. It is a person’s set of beliefs that influences his/her attitude towards an object. Therefore, if a set of beliefs is negative, then the attitude towards the object is negative. “As in the case with preservice teachers who believe that science is difficult and reserved only for men in white lab coats, their attitudes toward science is negatively influenced. A negative set of beliefs by preservice teachers could affect and possibly damage future classroom students’ beliefs and attitudes towards science” (Mason et al, (1991). The same can be said about scientists’ view of journalists.
In film and fiction, scientists have traditionally been represented as mad, bad, evil, godless, amoral, arrogant, impersonal, and inhuman. At best, they were well intentioned but blind to the dangers of forces they barely controlled. From Faust and Frankenstein, to Jekyll and Moreau, to Caligari and Strangelove, cultural archetypes reflected ancient fears of tampering with the unknown or unleashing the little-understood powers of nature.
In From Faust to Strangelove Roslynn Haynes (1994) examines the image of science and its practitioners in western fiction over some seven centuries. Some of the literature reflects our fear of science – the unknown and the unknowable, and translates this fear into hostility towards those who practise it. This was seen in the attitude of the general public to alchemists whose researches were directed to attaining the unattainable, and whose secrets were closely guarded. Many of the literary stereotypes that Dr Haynes identifies depict scientists in negative terms, which have “not only reflected writers’ opinions of the science and scientists of their day, they have in turn provided a model for the contemporary evaluation of scientists and, by extension, of science itself.”
Journalists in popular culture have been traditionally represented as either amoral or immoral scoundrels who peddle gossip to satisfy the baser instincts of readers and will, “stop at nothing and hurt anyone to get that must-read
Item” (Saltzman, 2003) or moral crusaders who fight for justice and protect their sources, sometimes at great personal cost to them as they face losing their friends, losing their livelihoods, losing their liberty or even losing their lives. War reporting, especially in the Gulf War recently, has helped to emphasise the risk and heroism sometimes involved in simply reporting the facts and the recent controversy between the Government and the BBC over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and, more particularly, over the suicide of weapons expert Dr David Kelly has further highlighted the importance of press freedom and ethics when covering scientific issues. The judicial inquiry into Dr Kelly’s death has placed the reporting methods of journalists when covering sensitive scientific issues under the public spotlight.
“The ideal newsroom protagonist, judging by fiction and film from the first half of the twentieth century, brought reporter and detective together in one person. The reporter and the detective both were considered hard working and highly moral, even when breaking the law. Both insisted on remaining loners and working by their own idiosyncratic rules. And both mixed with high-hatters and hoi polloi; they, like the heroes of Vern Partlow’s song ‘Newspapermen,’ revelled in ‘corruption, crime and gore.’” (Ghiglione, 1991)
Today’s reporter in fiction is often an echo of the Front Page reporter of the 1930s. A reader of science fiction learns that the newspaper reporter of the future is either an anachronistic oddity competing with more influential, more celebrated intergalactic television newscasters or a non-reporter who makes up the news. “It is the male reporter – the often hard-living, fun-loving, irresponsible reporter who does anything to get the story first – that has become the standard by which we judge others in the profession.” (Ghiglione, 1991).
This study used a questionnaire with first demographic data followed by an adaptation of the Draw A Scientist Test DAST (Chambers, 1983) and then open questions requiring participants to express opinions.
The Draw A Scientist Test DAST (Chambers, 1983) was designed as a standard measure to get an accurate indication of children’s stereotyping of scientists.
A drawing-based methodology was used in this study as previous studies into how children perceived scientists which had asked them to draw one had provided particularly rich and meaningful data (see Barman, 1996, 1997; Fort and Varney, 1989) and it was hoped that equally rich and meaningful data would be gathered in this study.
Both qualitative and quantitative methodologies, then, were used in this study with a combination of drawings and text, to give added depth and meaning to the data. Closed questions were used to gather basic demographic data and open questions were used to elicit personal opinions and viewpoints.
Open questions concerning the personal attributes and weaknesses of journalists were included specifically to enable the participants to state what they really thought of journalists in relation to their personal characteristics. This data was considered crucial in establishing if negative stereotypes were influencing them.
2.1 Aim and research question
The aim of this exploratory study was to establish how scientists perceive journalists and to examine if they are influenced by media stereotypes. The research question, therefore, was concerned with negative media stereotypes of journalists and if these affected the minds of the participants in this exploratory study.
It was hypothesised that negative media stereotypes of journalists do exist in film, TV, and fiction and that these would influence the minds of participants in this exploratory study.

3.1 Introduction
This research lent itself to self-administered questionnaires since anonymity and confidentiality of information given by participants were considered necessary attributes when investigating the issues. In order to maximise the collection of data within time and financial constraints, the use of questionnaires as a measurement tool is recommended (Oppenheim, 1992). Other survey methods of data collection, such as the mailing of questionnaires or interviewing, were disregarded since response rates are traditionally low and distribution is costly.
It was decided that an observation study was unsuitable for this exploratory study as it would have caused ethical problems regarding undisclosed observation or intervention of any kind, It would have been impractical to replicate, and it would have been difficult to control other variables, which might have influenced the study.
A totally qualitative approach, using interviews and/or diary observation or case studies was also considered but it was decided that these can often involve recall of earlier history, and are therefore unreliable. It was also decided that a close relationship between the participant and the researcher could introduce bias, and a more limited sample, which usually occurs when this approach is taken, would have lacked generalisability. It was also considered too time-consuming and expensive.
The Draw a Scientist Test DAST (Chambers, 1983) was adapted so that respondents drew a journalist instead. Brief demographic data was gathered in the questionnaire along with opinions in a more qualitative section of the questionnaire with open questions.
3.2 Design
This exploratory study used a questionnaire with first demographic data followed by an adaptation of the Draw A Scientist Test DAST (Chambers, 1983) and then open questions requiring participants to express opinions.
Their responses were then coded and descriptive statistics were gathered using SPSS (Statistics Package for the Social Sciences) Version 8.0 for Windows and some qualitative analysis – counting key recurring words and paraphrasing and quoting individual opinions expressed. Significance was not analysed but general trends in the data were.
3.3 Sample
The sample consisted of 92 undergraduate students at the University of Bath, 56 studying BSc (Hons) Psychology (61 per cent) and 35 (38%) studying BSc (Hons) Natural Science. One participant did not fill in their subject of study on the questionnaire.
Of these, 72 (78%) were female and 20 (21%) were male. A total of 52 were aged 20 (56%), 20 were 19 (21%), 15 were 21 (16%), three were 22, one was 28 and one was 31-years-old. They were recruited using opportunity sampling through the University of Bath. Students of subjects not regarded as scientific would be eliminated under the exclusion criterion.
3.4 Materials
The questionnaire consisted of three separate sections: demographic, the drawing and the qualitative open-ended sections.
A brief demographic survey constituted the first part of the questionnaire since such information is generally perceived by participants as less intrusive and less taxing to disclose (Fife-Schaw, 1995, in Breakwell, Hammond and Fife-Schaw).
Questions requiring information regarding age, gender, subject of study, and whether or not they considered themselves to be scientific were included in order to obtain the general features of the sample.
The most common technique for assessing students’ images of scientists is the Draw-a-Scientist Test (DAST) developed by Chambers (1983). In using DAST, investigators ask students to reveal their image of a scientist through a drawing. To provide a reliable and efficient format for analysing students’ drawings, Finson, Beaver, and Cramond (1995) developed the Draw-a-Scientist Checklist (DAST-C). Each item on the DAST-C represents a stereotypic characteristic derived from reviews of literature relating to students’ images of scientists. The more items checked on the DAST-C, the more stereotypes that appear in a student’s drawing
A similar technique was employed in this exploratory study but in this, participants were asked to draw a journalist. The drawings in this study were not coded in accordance with Finson, Beaver and Cramond’s checklist, however but under 16 categories including gender of the journalist, mood, posture, appearance etc. They were told that it was for a research study and was not going to be graded and that artistic skill was not important but personal opinion was.
The final section of the questionnaire required participants to answer open questions, some of which asked them to express opinions directly, i.e. “What are the attributes of a journalist?” and “What personal weaknesses does a journalist have?” Key recurring words in the answers were counted and paraphrased and some opinions expressed were quoted in this report.
3.5 Pilot study
A brief pilot study was conducted involving a few participants in order to determine item ambiguity or objections to content and to monitor any inconvenience or embarrassment caused to participants. Fellow students on the MSc in Science, Culture and Communication were also asked for feedback on the questionnaire. Validity and reliability issues, however, were not piloted.
The results of the pilot study did not indicate the need for any alterations after feedback forms from participants (Appendix 3) were analysed.
3.6 Ethical considerations
Ethical approval from the faculty ethics panel was sought and granted with no reservations, and senior lecturers at the University of Bath gave their permission before potential participants were approached and asked to participate.
3.7 Procedure
The nature and object of the research was discussed with senior lecturers at the University of Bath and permission was granted for the researcher to attend lectures at the convenience of the college.
The researcher introduced him to participants and they were subsequently informed that the purpose of the research was to investigate how scientists perceive journalists. The students were assured of the confidential and anonymous nature of the study and that participation was entirely voluntary. Each participant was thanked for their help and any questions about the study were answered by the researcher.

The noteworthy quantitative data is presented below, some of it in tables, and the qualitative data is summarised.
Would you classify yourself as scientific?
Yes No Undecided
Total 46 38 Eight
Percentage 50% 41%
Psychology students (56) 30
Natural science students (35) 7

In which medium does your journalist work?
Newspapers TV Magazines Internet Radio
60 23 5 2 1
65% 25% 5%

Would you consider being a journalist?
Yes No
26 58
28% 63%

Would it be a hard job?
Yes No Undecided
60 11 21
65% 12%

An equal number of “scientific” and “not scientific” participants (10 each) said that they would consider being a journalist. More (17) of the psychology students than the natural science students (nine) said that they would consider being a journalist and twenty females and six males said that they would consider being a journalist.
4.1 Differences between male and female students
A total of 54 (58%) of participants said their drawings were male, 32 (34%) female, and six were undecided. For “Which gender do you think of first when you think of a journalist?” 53 (57%) said male, 28 (30%) female and 11 were undecided. Eighty participants (87%) then said that gender did not matter, with only six (6.5%) saying it did and six were undecided.
A far higher percentage of females drew female journalists than did males. Of the 72 female participants, 31 drew female journalists, whereas only one of the 20 males drew a female journalist.
Interestingly, fewer of the females (only 26), however, said that it was a female that they thought of first when thinking of a journalist but one more of the male participants said female in this category.
When asked if gender mattered, three females and three males said that it did.
4.2 Differences between natural science and psychology students
19 of the 56 psychology students drew a female and 13 of the 35 natural science students drew a female. Slightly fewer (15) of the psychology students said that it was female that they thought of first when thinking of the gender of the journalist and when asked if gender mattered, the six students who said that it did were all psychology students.
4.3 Differences between “scientific” and “not-scientific” participants
15 out of 46 “scientific” participants drew females and 12 out of 38 “not scientific” participants drew females. Again slightly fewer of them (13 psychology and 10 natural science) said that it was female that they thought of first when thinking of the gender of the journalist and when asked if gender mattered, more of the “not-scientific” participants thought that it did (four) than the “scientific” (two).
4.4 Analysing the drawings
The drawings were coded in 10 categories. These were: the mood of the journalist, the posture, whether or not there was writing on the drawing, whether or not the journalist had tools, whether or not there were symbols of technology, whether or not the journalist was tidy, whether or not the journalist had facial hair, whether or not the journalist was smiling, whether or not the journalist was smoking, and whether or not the journalist wore glasses.
Participants then stated which gender there journalist was and which medium he or she worked in, which gender they thought of first when thinking of a journalist, whether this mattered, whether they would consider being a journalist, and whether or not it would be a hard job to do.
In most drawings, 57 (62%), the journalist appeared to be happy. Only four were unhappy and in 31 of them it was impossible to gauge the mood of the journalist.
The journalist was standing up in most drawings, 81 (88%), with just four sitting and seven undecided. There was writing on 33 of the drawings (36%). In 75 drawings (81%), the journalist had tools and in 45 (49%) there were symbols of technology such as cameras or tape recorders.
The journalists were generally tidy and smartly dressed, with 59 (64%) of the drawings depicting tidy journalists and only five depicting untidy journalists. Also, only five of the journalists had facial hair.
Nearly half of the journalists were smiling. Only five of them smoked. Nearly half, 44 (48%) wore glasses.
The participants all had five minutes to complete their questionnaires and none of them asked for extra time to work on their drawings. There was explicit activity in many of the drawings, with the journalists seeming to be in the act of reporting with pens and notebooks poised (others implying that action was about to happen and the journalists may have been preparing for action) and most carried at least a pen and a notebook.
Ten of the drawings have been included in Appendix 4.
Drawing one seemed in many ways the most representative of the majority of respondents’ views of the typical journalist. The journalist wears glasses and seems business-like and professional. The male Internet journalist in Drawing two, however, seems a radical departure from the mainstream stereotypical representation. He is surrounded by symbols of new technology including a laptop computer and he is sitting down, interacting with the technology rather than with another human being face-to-face. He does not look particularly masculine or well dressed and is a symbol, perhaps, of the future for journalism.
Drawing six is of a male newspaper reporter who does not appear to have embraced new technology. It is remarkable for the quality of the drawing alone, as it is a particularly powerful and vivid depiction of a haggard and weary journalist. Drawing seven is a complete contrast. It is of a female journalist working across a variety of media carrying a can of Red Bull drink and wearing a fashionable casual dress with a giant flower on the front. She seems very happy and energised (perhaps by the Red Bull!) and seems approachable and friendly.
• Male and works on a newspaper
• Is generally in quite a good mood
• Is generally quite tidy, usually wearing a suit and tie
• Does not have facial hair
• Smiles quite a lot
• Rarely, if ever, smokes and could well wear glasses
• Carries tools with him, such as a pen and a notebook, though he is much less likely to carry technological tools, such as a camera or a tape recorder
4.5 Strengths and weaknesses of journalists
In the second part of the questionnaire, respondents were asked to state what attributes they thought a journalist would possess, what personal strengths and what personal weaknesses they would possess in the open questions section.
The attributes most often mentioned were “a good writer” (14 times), “intelligent” (10), “curious or inquisitive” (10), and “pushy” (six),
Other adjectives, which were used more than once by respondents as attributes, were “smart and tidy” (five), “ruthless” (five), “literate” (five), “confident” (four), “good looking” (four), “nosey” (four), and “ambitious” (four).
One respondent wrote that the attributes of a journalist were, “Good nose for story. Have little loyalty. Do anything to get a story.” One said, “can spell words” and another said, “smoker” as an attribute.
The essential qualities most often mentioned were confidence (nine times), curiosity or inquisitiveness (nine), and the ability to write well (nine).
“Friendly” (seven), “outgoing” (six), “sociable” (three) and “hard-working” (five) were mentioned often along with “determined” and “persistent”. “Intelligent” and “clever” were both stated more than once.
Other adjectives which were used by more than one respondent as qualities were: “dedicated”, “ambitious”, “quick-thinking”, “persuasive”, “honest”, “literate”, “highly-motivated”, “good listener”, “cunning”, “creative”, and “a good talker”.
Some of the adjectives used as qualities, however, were also used in the category describing journalists’ weaknesses. For instance, some respondents saw “persistent”, “ambitious” and “inquisitive” as personal weaknesses rather than strengths.
“Insensitive” (11 times) was overwhelmingly the most common adjective used to describe journalists’ weaknesses followed by “pushy” (seven), “intrusive” (six), “ruthless” (five), “invades privacy” (five), and “distorts the truth” (also five).
Other adjectives used more than once were “rude”, “nosey”, “obsessed with their job”, “biased”, “immoral”, “arrogant”, “amoral”, and “selfish” “narrow-minded” and “secretive”.
One respondent said their weakness was that they, “can’t do science”. Another said, “Drinks too much or addicted to Coke”. Another said, “pawn in the big game” while another said journalists, “get a kick out of others’ misfortunes”.
It was interesting to note that some respondents rated attractiveness as an important attribute for a journalist and they emphasised a smart and tidy appearance quite often in the drawing and in the qualitative section of the questionnaire.
Journalists’ lack of respect for privacy seemed to be a common perception among respondents. The words “nosey” and “intrusive” were often used and there was a general feeling that journalists may not respect boundaries of privacy.
Another fairly common perception was that journalists are rude and insensitive, pushy and ruthless. Indeed, respondents generally stressed that journalism was a competitive profession where practitioners would have to use cunning methods to beat their competitors.
This may contrast greatly with their perception of science and how scientists operate although there is no evidence in this study to back this up. The common feeling, however, is that science is a more consensual and less competitive profession and practitioners may not need to employ the unscrupulous methods sometimes expected of journalists in order to achieve their aims.
A more controversial trend in the data was a perception that journalists “twist” the truth or “bend” the facts to suit their story and are cavalier with incontrovertible truths. One respondent said journalists “put words in your mouth” and one said they, “distort the truth and like to make stories sound good”.
Another controversial trend was the strong perception that journalists are insensitive to human feelings. Some respondents indicated that the nature of the job, where so much bad news and the more negative aspects of human nature dominate, might have made them more insensitive to human feelings.
One respondent said journalists are: “heartless, determined and rude”. Another said, “they constantly wreck peoples’ lives” while another said they are, “superficial, not genuine, untrustworthy, amoral”; another said they are, “cynical and brutal”, while another said they are, “thoughtless and uncaring”.
There was a strong feeling that journalists are clever and quick-witted people, however. One respondent said, “smart intellectually and physically”, another said “good at talking to people”, while another said “articulate, thorough, outgoing, extrovert, good-looking, serious and friendly”.
There was a general feeling that it would be a difficult job to do and many participants said that journalists tend to be particularly highly motivated and dedicated to their jobs.
There were references to long hours and an unsocial and highly demanding lifestyle, which would make a stable and settled family life particularly difficult for journalists. One participant said, “Unsociable hours, lots of meetings”, another said, “busy chaotic lifestyle, fast-paced”, another said, “High pressure, stressed”, while another said, “Highly motivated”.
Some participants commented on the fact that a journalist’s job is made more difficult because of the public perception of them as being unscrupulous and untrustworthy.
One said, “people get aggravated and can dislike journalists” while another said, “some people give journalists a very hard time”.
One participant wrote, “They don’t need to research like scientists, they just need to be able to write in an interesting way”.
4.6 Brief summary of results
The general consensus was that journalists tend to be insensitive to peoples’ feelings and can appear rude and pushy, they regularly intrude into privacy and can use unscrupulous and sometimes unprincipled methods to achieve their aims.
They are inquisitive, confident, determined, highly literate and excellent communicators, particularly in the written word. They work long hours and are used to working hard. They are sociable and extrovert in nature. They are intelligent, quick-witted and often attractive and well dressed.
Sixty of the journalists drawn worked on newspapers (65%), 23 (25%) worked in TV, five (five per cent) on magazines, two on the Internet, one on radio and one was undecided. A total of 54 (58%) of the drawings were male, 32 (34%) female, and six were undecided.
In most drawings, 57 (62%), the journalist appeared to be happy. Only four were unhappy and in 31 of them it was impossible to gauge the mood of the journalist. The journalist was standing up in most drawings, 81 (88%), with just four sitting and seven undecided. There was writing on 33 of the drawings (36%). In 75 drawings (81%), the journalist had tools and in 45 (49%) there were symbols of technology such as cameras or tape recorders.
The journalists were generally tidy and smartly dressed, with 59 (64%) of the drawings depicting tidy journalists and only five depicting untidy journalists. Also, only five of the journalists had facial hair. Nearly half of the journalists were smiling. Only five of them smoked. Nearly half, 44 (48%) wore glasses.


5.1 Major findings
The aim of this exploratory study was to establish how scientists perceive journalists and to examine if they are influenced by media stereotypes.
The major findings were that the majority of participants thought mostly of male journalists working on newspapers and most drew male journalists working on newspapers.
They said that a journalist is inquisitive, confident, determined, highly literate and excellent at communicating, particularly in the written word. They are hard workers, used to long hours, sociable and extrovert in nature, intelligent and quick-witted, and often attractive and well dressed. They tend to be insensitive to peoples’ feelings and could appear rude and pushy. They regularly intrude into privacy and can use unscrupulous and sometimes unprincipled methods to achieve their aims and can sometimes be careless with incontrovertible truths and may alter them to suit their story.
The majority of participants envisaged a journalist who was happy and smiled a lot, did not have facial hair and was tidy, wearing a suit and a tie, rarely, if ever, smoked and who might well wear glasses.
Most participants said that it would be a difficult job to do and the majority would not consider being a journalist.
There was evidence to suggest that many media stereotypes of journalists from film, TV and fiction may have influenced the participants. Stubborn stereotypes about journalists being insensitive, pushy, intrusive and ruthless recurred.
And a more negative perception was that journalists “bend” or “twist” the truth to suit their story and could be cavalier with incontrovertible truths.
The majority of the drawings were of a smartly dressed male newspaper reporter who may wear glasses, does not have facial hair, smiles a lot and carries with him tools such as a pen and a notebook.
This image in the majority of drawings fitted in perfectly with one of the most popular film and TV journalists of all time, Clark Kent, ace reporter on the Daily Planet in the Superman TV series’ and the blockbuster films. Superman’s alter ego, was modelled on a real-life reporter named Wilson Hirschfeld, who reportedly once remarked that he knew no one with as much integrity as himself, (Dooley, 1987).
Much of the qualitative data in this exploratory study, however, suggested that science undergraduates might be influenced by negative stereotypes of journalists so that in their minds the morally upright and highly ethical charmer Clark Kent may, in reality, be merely a fantasy figure and real-life journalists are never quite so black and white.
This may have implications for how scientists and journalists communicate and for how scientists perceive journalists as some of these damaging stereotypes may be influencing them.
5.2 Stereotypes and the damage they can do
Our society often innocently creates and perpetuates stereotypes, but these stereotypes often lead to unfair discrimination and persecution when the stereotype is unfavourable.
Mason et al (1991) give an example. “If we are walking through a park late at night and encounter three senior citizens wearing fur coats and walking with canes, we may not feel as threatened as if we were met by three comprehensive school-aged boys wearing leather jackets. Why is this so? We have made a generalisation in each case. These generalisations have their roots in experiences we have had ourselves, read about in books and magazines, seen in movies or television, or have had related to us by friends and family. In many cases, these stereotypical generalisations are reasonably accurate. Yet, in virtually every case, we are resorting to prejudice by ascribing characteristics about a person based on a stereotype, without knowledge of the total facts. By stereotyping, we assume that a person or group has certain characteristics. Quite often, we have stereotypes about persons who are members of groups with which we have not had firsthand contact.
“Television, books, comic strips, and movies are all abundant sources of stereotyped characters. For much of its history, the movie industry portrayed African-Americans as being unintelligent, lazy, or violence-prone. As a result of viewing these stereotyped pictures of African-Americans, for example, prejudice against African-Americans has been encouraged. In the same way, physically attractive women have been and continue to be portrayed as unintelligent or unintellectual and sexually promiscuous.
“Stereotypes also evolve out of fear of persons from minority groups. For example, many people have the view of a person with mental illness as someone who is violence-prone. This conflicts with statistical data, which indicate that persons with mental illness tend to be no more prone to violence than the general population. Perhaps the few, but well-publicized, isolated cases of mentally ill persons going on rampages have planted the seed of this myth about these persons. This may be how some stereotypes developed in the first place; a series of isolated behaviours by a member of a group which was unfairly generalised to be viewed as a character of all members of that group”.
5.3 The media stereotype of a journalist
Clark Kent is one of the most obvious stereotypical journalists used in TV and film but there are many more.
From Joseph Cotton as Jedediah Leland in Citizen Kane (1941), Cary Grant as Walter Burns in His Girl Friday (1940), Kirk Douglas as Charles Tatum in Ace in the Hole (1951) to Robert Redford as Bob Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein in All the President’s Men (1976) to Cate Blanchett as Veronica Guerin in Veronica Guerin (2003), the stereotypes go on and on.
Professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, Joe Saltzman, runs a course called, “The image of the journalist in popular culture” which explores the continuing, evolving relationship between the American people and their media. It investigates the conflicting images of reporters in films and television and demonstrates, decade by decade, their impact on the public’s perception of newsgatherers in the 20th Century.
“I got interested in the image of the journalist in popular culture to figure out the impact on the public and on journalists themselves of the images in film, TV and fiction.
“I believe that most people decide what journalists are like by the images and not the reality. Few even meet a reporter, and most scientists only get to know reporters when they are interviewed on a story. Reality sometimes enforces and destroys such images, but the images, I believe, remain no matter what the reality is,” wrote Professor Saltzman in an email to me (2003).
Journalists and editors create many stereotypes and are stereotyped as well. The stereotypical journalist wears old clothes, smokes one cigarette after another and drinks coffee as if his life depends on it. Sitting lazy behind a computer (the stereotype changed here a bit over the years because originally it was a typewriter) he writes his article while at the same time following the news on the always turned-on television screen.
In an article published by the South Illinois University’s college of mass communication and media arts (cited in Akram et al, 2002) they describe the stereotype as such: “Journalists have traditionally been stereotyped as seedy and cynical. The seediness is an occupational hazard, a product of chasing tough stories through city streets, knocking cigarette ashes into the lap during hurried phone conversations, and writing interview notes on shirt cuffs”.
“Besides the stereotype that exists on how they are, there is also one on how they write. Journalists are seen as the “watchdog of the democracy”. They have to protect the helpless and the innocent by bringing their case to the public attention”.
“Pop culture is partly to blame for the stereotypical depictions, as images of the journalist are everywhere, offering examples of both the mistrust and the curiosity the public has for the profession. More often it’s the quick hits that leave an impression on people, observers suggest. They say that increasingly people are seeing packs of journalists hounding people in made-for-TV movies (and covering real-life sensational trials) than they are of the reporters whose work achieves a positive end, as in movies such as Clint Eastwood’s “True Crime”, (Campbell, 2002).
He added: “But the range of portrayals goes beyond a person in a trench coat shoving a tape recorder in someone’s face. In recent years, films and TV programmes featuring journalists have been almost as abundant as they were in the movies of the 1930s and 40s. Back then, newsrooms were a staple in the movies, thanks in part to journalists turning to screenwriting when movies added sound”.
“Whether viewing the press in a positive or negative light, the genre continues to reflect the importance of the news media in society,” wrote Ness (1997).
5.4 Comments and inferences from findings
The main aim of the study would appear to have been met in that there was evidence to suggest that media stereotypes of journalists exist and, more pertinently, that the participants in this study may have been influenced by them.
The results indicated that participants took a very narrow view of journalists, mostly male and working on newspapers, and stubborn media stereotypes reinforced through film, TV and fiction did persist in their minds.
The materials used adequately measured the variables under consideration and the procedure used was, again, adequate, taking into account time and logistical constraints. Improvements would be made in any future study.
Relation to past studies
This exploratory study addressed the imbalance in the study of communication between scientists and journalists as very little has been written about how scientists perceive journalists. Consequently, it was difficult to relate this study to any previous findings and impossible to compare it with any similar study in the past apart from the Draw A Scientist Test (DAST).
A key factor in this study was to examine how representative of actual scientists the undergraduates were. Another key factor centred on the debate about whether a social science such as psychology can be described as a science in a strict and technical sense or whether a pure science such as chemistry, biology, or physics would have been better for the purposes of this study.
It was highly important that only half of the total participants classified themselves as scientific, and most of the psychology students were “not-scientific”, although most, I suspect, would accept that theirs is a scientific discipline and all would accept that they are studying for a Bachelor of Science degree.
This, however, made it difficult to make accurate and reliable inferences from the data.
5.5 Problems/limitations of study
This exploratory study would have benefited from better preparation in terms of a more comprehensive and insightful pilot study leading to a more meaningful and better-designed questionnaire. More in-depth input from scientists and journalists with a particular interest in communication would have helped at the preparation stage, too. A more senior scientific sample of practising scientists in the private and public sector would have given it added significance but this was impossible to arrange given time and logistical constraints.
The specific methods used had many weaknesses, not least with regard to the sample used. It was a relatively small sample and therefore difficult to generalise from it with any degree of accuracy. The ratio of males to females was disproportionate (far more females than males) and there were far younger people than older people. It was not possible to use a “true” quota sampling method due to time limitations, so the sampling system may well have been flawed.
The procedure used was not ideal, either. A more private setting where each student would have been able to complete the questionnaires in complete privacy would have been preferable and each participant would have been given more time to complete the questionnaires and if necessary, given the opportunity to take the material home so they could contemplate the questions in greater depth before completing them. Sending out the questionnaires by post to the homes of participants might have been better as the participants would have probably felt more relaxed and better disposed to answer the questions in the privacy of their own homes. This, however, was considered impractical as some may not have returned them and could well have thrown the questionnaires away. The problem of response sets, where some participants have fixed or set reactions to questionnaires of this kind, may well have been a problem.
Another key problem concerned the use of undergraduates as participants and their generalisability to the population being studied. Sears’ (1986) concern was that the use of college students had become so routine that it was not seen as an issue of concern, and not seen by the vast majority of social psychologists as distorting their results. This was less of a problem in this study, however, because scientists usually have a Bachelor of Science degree anyway so science undergraduates can be viewed as prospective scientists and they are regular users of scientific disciplines. Also, this study was not analysing the behaviour of undergraduates but asking them for their opinions and to draw a journalist.
Another ethical factor was that the experimenter was a professional journalist and this may have biased the study.
Improvements in any future study would take into account all of these factors.
The research was carried out on the basis of insufficient design and planning as the pilot study was quick and cursory in nature. In any future study, the instruments would be tried out and revisions would be made where necessary after qualitative feedback and they would be tried out again. Other aspects of the research such as how best to gain access to participants would also be piloted.
Any future research using a student population would use a larger sample and quota and stratified sampling would be used, so that they were divided into distinct and relatively equal parts in terms of gender, age, social background and subject of scientific study to more accurately reflect the general student population. However, future research in this particular area would be more reliable and valid if it was carried out with established scientists, many of who may have had dealings with journalists or who were seeking to communicate with the public at large.
The pilot study, too, would involve more participants and a more thorough feedback questionnaire would be handed out in order to gain richer and more meaningful feedback about the questionnaires. More time would be allocated to refining the presentation of the feedback questionnaires and more qualitative analysis would be included in the pilot in order to make improvements at a later stage. In this exploratory study, no efforts were made to gather detailed data about the relevance and pertinence of some of the questions to the subject under consideration and many of the mistakes (for instance, a question asking participants if they knew of or had had any dealings with a journalist or journalists was not included in the questionnaire) were not realised until after the study had been completed.
The procedure would be altered in a future study, too, so that participants would have more time to fill in the questionnaires and would be given more privacy to encourage them to answer questions honestly. Participants would not be approached in lecture theatres but instead in their homes or in a less formal environment so that the presence of other participants in the same room could not influence them in any way. The participants would be given more time to fill in the questionnaires and to contemplate the questions and no covert pressure would be placed on them to comply with the wishes of the experimenter. Questionnaires would contain different colours or be printed on coloured paper to make them more visually stimulating and to encourage participants to respond.
5.6 Implications/applications findings have in relation to subject of study
The findings reveal much about how media stereotypes can affect perceptions. As has already been stated, it is a person’s set of beliefs that influences his/her attitude towards an object. Therefore, if a set of beliefs is negative, then the attitude towards the object is negative. The findings pointed to a narrow and often negative perception of journalists which could manifest itself as a negative attitude towards them. It is particularly noteworthy that people who are generally so young and impressionable should have such negative perceptions. The participants could be reasonably described as tomorrow’s scientists and their negative perceptions would seriously prejudice harmonious working relationships with journalists in the future.
This has implications for the Committee on the Public Understanding Of Science and other bodies whose main aim is to popularise science and make it more easily understood.
Crucial to this process is a free and robust press. Because journalists communicate sometimes complex scientific issues to the public, they play an important role in the diffusion of innovations and public acceptance (American Opinion Research, 1993; Chappell & Hart, 1998; Peterson, 1996) and they will be seriously hampered in their jobs if scientists are negatively influenced by media stereotypes which depict them as insensitive to peoples’ feelings, rude and pushy, regularly intruding into privacy and using unscrupulous and sometimes unprincipled methods.
The Science Media Centre was set up to bridge the gap between the professions and to help scientists to get their message across to the media and, of course, to the public at large.
This exploratory study shows that one of the hurdles to be overcome may well be negative media stereotypes of journalists – not to mention the negative media stereotypes of scientists which exist – and that much more work has to be done to better understand first why these negative stereotypes persist so stubbornly and secondly, why scientists are influenced by them.
Organisations like the Association of British Science Writers, which was set up to help those who write about science and technology, and its American counterpart the National Association of Science Writers would be particularly interested in the findings of this exploratory study as well as trade unions like the National Union of Journalists, the Institute of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists. Science journalists who may be members of any of these organisations will be particularly interested in the implications of this research, too, as well as some of its contents.
Descriptions of journalists in this study such as, “can’t do science”, “drinks too much or addicted to Coke”, and, “get a kick out of others’ misfortunes” will certainly interest working journalists.
5.7 Sensible suggestions for future research
Future studies should concentrate on practising scientists to establish what they really think of journalists. Both Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins (both eminent in their respective fields) were given the questionnaire to fill in informally during a literature festival in the summer of 2003 by the experimenter and it was concluded that senior and highly respected scientists like these two would be preferable as they have both had considerable experience of dealing with journalists and would have informed views on the topic. Most science undergraduates, however, would have had little or no direct experience of journalists or journalism so may be considered to be more representative of the public at large than of scientists specifically.
Future research, then would concentrate on a more representative sample and the questions asked would probe for more detail. For instance, as well as asking if participants classify themselves as scientific they would be asked if they classify themselves as artistic, too (Pinker was asked and he regarded himself as both scientific and artistic). This would give a more comprehensive and insightful picture of the participants.
Participants would also be asked to detail their experiences with journalists and some anecdotal evidence could be gathered. Scientists could be interviewed after they have been interviewed by a journalist or spoken to a journalist about a story and their feelings could be recorded in a qualitative interview.
There is a need for deeper and more insightful research into whether stereotypes do influence the minds’ of scientists. For instance, scientists could be asked to name any journalists on TV, in film or in fiction they are aware of and to explain how the characters may have influenced their perception of journalists generally. They could also be asked to comment on how they think journalists perceive them and whether or not they believe that depictions of stereotypical scientists on TV, in film or in fiction influences the minds of journalists who approach them.
Perhaps a future study could look at how scientists would like journalists to behave and how they think they actually do behave. Scientists who had had experience of dealing with journalists from print, TV, radio and internet mediums could be asked to state what differences they had noticed and differences within each category, for instance, between tabloid and broadsheet newspaper journalists, could be covered in this way, too.
An essentially qualitative future study could also establish why scientists may be influenced by media stereotypes and exactly how they are influenced. This would involve questioning them about how much notice they actually take of media influences and what kind of effects these have on them.
Such future studies could be repeated at regular intervals to monitor changes in scientists’ perceptions of journalists and this would, of course, improve its reliability. Indeed, there is plenty of scope for more detailed and meaningful research under the category of media stereotypes into perceptions of journalists and journalism from many other professions other than scientists. An interesting one would be what politicians, both local and national, really think of journalists.
5.9 Conclusions
This exploratory study was seriously flawed in the planning and in the execution stage due to time constraints and other logistical factors and consequently, its generalisability, reliability and validity may be compromised.
The question of what scientists really think of journalists was not satisfactorily answered in this study. It is, however, the first study, to my knowledge, which directly addresses the question of how scientists perceive journalists by asking them to draw one and to state opinions about them and could be adapted in future to gain further meaningful and insightful data with a more representative sample.
The evidence in this study suggested that negative media stereotypes had influenced participants. The drawings were mostly of traditionally dressed male newspaper journalists, a narrow and somewhat anachronistic perception which is regularly reinforced in stereotypical TV and film depictions of journalists like Clark Kent and Lou Grant.
The general consensus was that journalists tend to be insensitive to peoples’ feelings and can appear rude and pushy, they regularly intrude into privacy and can use unscrupulous and sometimes unprincipled methods to achieve their aims. These are typical tabloid newshound-type characteristics and present clear evidence that the regularly publicised antics of such characters and the widespread negative opinion of them and of their methods had influenced the participants.
They further concluded that journalists are inquisitive, confident, determined, highly literate and excellent communicators, particularly in the written word. They work long hours and are used to working hard. They are sociable and extrovert in nature. They are intelligent, quick-witted and often attractive and well dressed.
An improved version of the format used in this exploratory study could be used by organisations such as COPUS or the Science Media Centre to gather rich and meaningful data from scientists which could help them to address communication difficulties the two sets of professionals may be experiencing and to help promote better relations between them.

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