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Science in the media

Jim Secord

The literature on mass communication is very large, variable in quality, and rarely in the Whipple. Most of the important texts are available in the SPS and University libraries. The literature dealing specifically with science is small but growing quickly. Two of the better titles are Dorothy Nelkin, Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology (1987, rev. ed. 1995); and Greg Myers, Writing Biology: Texts in the Social Construction of Scientific Knowledge (1990).

There are several helpful general introductions to the study of communication. J. Curran and J. Seaton, Power without responsibility: the press and broadcasting in Britain (4th ed., 1991) is a standard text, especially good on the history and politics of the industry in Britain. Denis McQuail, Mass communication theory (1987) is a survey which introduces concepts and debates in the field.

One of the pitfalls for those new to this area is the use of the word 'popular'; for sophisticated antidotes, see the following:

  • R. Cooter and S. Pumfrey, 'Separate spheres and public places: reflections on the history of science popularization and science in popular culture', History of science (1994), vol. 32, pp. 237-67.
  • M. Shiach, Discourse on popular culture: class, gender and history in cultural analysis (1989), 1-34.
  • P. Bourdieu, 'The uses of the people', in his In other words: essays towards a reflexive sociology (1990), 150-55.
  • R. Whitley, 'Knowledge producers and knowledge acquirers: popularisation as a relation between scientific fields and their production', in T. Shinn and R. Whitley (eds), Expository science (1985), pp. 3-28.

A helpful bibliographic review is provided by Bruce Lewenstein, 'Science and the Media', in S. Jasanoff et al (eds), Handbook of science and technology studies (1995), pp. 343-360. A more comprehensive listing is in S. Dunwoody and M. Long (eds), Annotated bibliography of research on mass media science communication (Madison, 1991). Journals with articles in this field include Public understanding of science (UL); Science communication (formerly Knowledge) (UL); Science, technology and human values (UL; recent issues in the Whipple); Social studies of science (Whipple).

The general literature on the history of books and journalism is usually far better than most analyses of modern mass communication, but is too extensive to be listed here. Two classic discussions are: R. Darnton, 'What is the history of books?', in his The kiss of Lamourette: reflections in cultural history (1990), 107-135; and R. Chartier, The order of books (1994), esp. ch. 1. And don't forget the standard P. Gaskell, New introduction to bibliography (1972), still one of the few accounts which follows the development of printing technology from its origins to the early twentieth century. For a discussion in relation to science, see A. Johns, 'History, science and the history of the book: the making of natural philosophy in early modern England', Publishing history (1991), vol. 30, pp. 5-30.

Study of scientific and medical journalism, printing, publishing and reading – particularly for the period after 1700 – is just beginning. The sources for it in Cambridge are excellent (for example, several of the major publishers' archives are on microfilm), and the opportunities for innovative work are extensive.