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«Edited by Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS & SCIENCES Science and the Media Please direct inquiries to: American Academy ...»

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Alternately, we could determine a threshold measure of CSL and examine the proportion of adults who attain that level. For this purpose, a careful analysis of various combinations of potential correct and incorrect responses sugT H E ROL E OF T H E M E DI A IN THE ELECTRO N IC ERA 49 gested that individuals with a score of seventy or higher would have a command of a set of basic scientific constructs that would allow them to read moderately sophisticated popular science material such as the writing in the New York Times Tuesday Science section and make sense of most of the basic ideas. This level of scientific literacy is still insufficient for head-to-head discourse with a scientist, engineer, or professional in the field, but it represents an ability to read the vocabulary of scientific ideas and to understand at a lay level the nature of scientific inquiry. Using this threshold measure, the percentage of American adults who scored seventy or higher on the CSL increased from 10 percent in 1988 to 29 percent in 2008. (See Figure 1.) Given this pattern of growth in CSL over the last two decades, it is appropriate to consider how the media influence adult CSL in the United States.


We live in the midst of a revolution in communication technologies and media availability and utilization. The sixty years since the end of World War II have witnessed the introduction of television, computers, satellites, transistors, optical fiber, wireless communication, and the Internet. Who would have thought that both our children and our parents would be sending us digital pictures over the Internet?

Citizens of advanced technological societies like the United States have never had access to so much information so inexpensively and have never been able to communicate with so many other individuals over vast distances so quickly. The Internet has become the library for the global village, and evidence suggests that it is being used for a variety of purposes, including the acquisition of scientific and medical information. To understand these broad generalities, it is useful to look at some specific patterns of change over the last twenty years.

Using data collected by the Pew Research Center since the early 1990s, it is clear that reading newspapers in print has declined from 58 percent in 1994 to 34 percent in 2008. (See Figure 2.) The readership of weekly newsmagazines has declined even more sharply, and these results are often cited to mean that American adults no longer read. But an examination of television viewing patterns shows that adult viewing of network television shows has dropped more drastically than the reading of print newspapers, falling below the market share held by local television newscasts and cable newscasts. The major growth in the last decade has been in the use of online news sources—including online newspapers—and these sources are heavily reading-oriented. The recent National Endowment for the Arts report (2007) on reading points to a troubling decline in the ability of many young adults to read complex material, but a review of the data from Pew and from other national studies suggests that many adults are reading more material online.

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Source: Data for 1988 through 1999 from NSF Science and Engineering Indicators surveys.

(See Miller, 2004, 2010.) Data for 2004, 2005, and 2008 from Science News Studies. (See Miller, Augenbraun, et al., 2006; Miller, 2010.) Figure 2: Patterns of Media Use, 1993–2008 Percent

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Source: Data from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. (See Pew, 2006.)


The 2007–2008 Science News Study1 included all of the items necessary to measure CSL and an extensive set of items concerning media use and information acquisition. Many of the items replicated questions used earlier by Pew and others, and some new questions were developed to capture adult involvement in reading and posting blogs, seeking and printing digital information, sharing digital pictures and information, and seeking information for specific medical, travel, or other questions. Because the 2007–2008 study included all of the items necessary to measure CSL and media use, it is possible to examine the relationship between media use and CSL empirically.

Before formally analyzing the impact of various media on adult CSL in the United States, it is useful to examine briefly the rates of adult usage of various media reported in 2007. (See Table 2.) Approximately a third of adults reported that they watched a network television newscast three or more days each week. Thirty-six percent indicated that they read a science or health magazine regularly, and 30 percent claimed to have read one or more science or health books in the preceding year. Half of adults claimed to read a print newspaper at least once a week, although only 34 percent reported to Pew in the same year that they read a print newspaper three or more times each week.

(See Figure 2.) Only 11 percent of adults reported that they read a newsmagazine regularly, suggesting that the market for week-old news is declining.

At the same time, nearly 70 percent of adults said that they looked for current news information on the Web during the preceding year, and 67 percent said that they looked for specific kinds of non-news information—maps, directions, and weather—on the Web during the preceding year. (See Table 2.) Sixty percent of adults reported that they have access to a computer at home or at work and that they have looked for health information on the Web during the preceding year. Half of American adults indicated that they have printed information from the Internet at home or at work, demonstrating that the Internet is becoming a reference resource for a wide array of purposes.

Fifty percent of adults reported that they have a high-speed link from their home computer to the Internet, which undoubtedly facilitates the use of video materials and the downloading of printed materials. Approximately a quarter of American adults reported that they read an online newspaper at least once each week and seek news information from a website three or more days each week. (See Table 2.) Thirteen percent of adults indicated that they sometimes look on the Web for science information.

1. The 2007–2008 Science News Study is a three-wave national probability sample of 960 adults conducted online by Knowledge Networks (KN). The KN national sample is selected on a probability basis and households with a home computer connected to the Internet (now about 65 percent of households) are asked to complete two or three online surveys each month and are compensated with points that translate into the purchase of goods and services similar to frequentflyer miles. Individuals in households without an online computer are offered an MSN box that allows them to use a television set and a local telephone line as a connection to the Internet.

Households that opt for this arrangement are visited by a KN technician who installs the equipment and trains the residents in its use. The net cooperation rate for KN surveys is approximately 60 percent, using the appropriate AAPOR formula.

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An examination of the data from the Pew studies over the last two decades, together with the more recent 2007–2008 Science News Study, shows a pattern of mixed use, with most adults continuing to use a wide array of traditional

media—primarily print and broadcast—while simultaneously beginning to increase their acquisition and use of new electronic communication technologies:

computers, mobile phones and handheld email devices, wireless devices, and the Internet (Pew, 2006; Horrigan, 2007). A substantial majority of Americans has at least one foot in the electronic media pool, and large pluralities of adults are beginning to rely on the Internet for current news, weather, and health information. The growth of high-speed links to the Internet, access to betterquality home printers, and an expanding array of useful Web resources have fueled a major transformation in the ways that Americans get information.

To assess the impact of these emerging patterns on CSL and other outcomes of interest, it is necessary to develop a conceptualization or typology to characterize the major clusters of media use and information acquisition. Horrigan (2007) has proposed a ten-category typology that is loosely hierarchical and heavily descriptive. The number of categories and the absence of a clear ordinal logic among them make this typology minimally useful as part of a larger model to understand how media and other factors interact to influence a specific outcome, such as CSL.

A simpler approach is to treat the traditional media and information technologies as a group and to cluster the new electronic technologies as a second group. A confirmatory factor analysis is a method to assess whether a hypothesized clustering of items or behaviors fits the actual data. A set of seventeen items collected in the 2007–2008 study was examined in a confirmatory factor


analysis, and a clear two-factor structure emerged. Six traditional media items constituted one factor, and nine new media items loaded on a second dimension.

The two factors have a positive correlation of 0.39, indicating that more frequent users of traditional media tend to be more frequent users of new media. But the magnitude of the correlation suggests that only about 15 percent of the variance in either traditional or new media use can be accounted for by the other scale.

Using standard statistical techniques, the scores for each of the two factors were converted into a zero-to-ten scale. The mean score on the Index of Traditional Media Use was 2.1, and the mean score on the Index of New Media Use was 2.7. On balance, these results indicate that American adults use slightly more new media information sources than traditional information sources. The margin of difference is still small, but the trend is clear.


We now turn to the impact of media on adult understanding of science and technology, as reflected in the Index of Civic Scientific Literacy (CSL). To explore the possible sources of influence on the development of CSL, a structural equation analysis2 of the 2007–2008 Science News data set was conducted (Jöreskog & Sörbom, 1993). The analytic model included each individual’s age; gender; highest level of education; number of college science courses completed; presence or absence of minor children in the household; interest in science, technology, medical, or environmental issues; personal religious beliefs; and level of use of traditional and emerging informal science-learning resources. The dichotomous or threshold measure of CSL was the dependent or outcome variable. (See Figure 3.) A path model is useful for examining the relative influence of variables that have a known chronological or logical order. Each individual has a gender at birth and an age based on his or her birth date. An individual’s gender may influence his or her education, although this influence appears to be diminishing in the United States and several European countries. For most adults, educational attainment and the number of college science courses are determined by the time an individual reaches age thirty-five, although more adults are returning to formal education than ever before. An individual’s level of CSL at any specific time may be thought of as the result of the combination of these and other factors. (See Figure 3.) In a path model, chronological or logical causation flows from left to right.

2. In general terms, a structural equation model is a set of regression equations that provides the best estimate for a set of relationships among several independent variables and one or more dependent variables. For the structural analysis presented in this paper, the program LISREL was used, which allows the simultaneous examination of structural relationships and the modeling of measurement errors. For a more comprehensive discussion of structural equation models, see Hayduk (1987) and Jöreskog and Sörbom (1993). For a more detailed example of the use of this technique in the analysis of CSL, see Miller, Pardo, and Niwa (1997).

54 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA Figure 3: A Path Model to Predict Civic Scientific Literacy in the United States, 2007 The product of the path coefficients is an estimation of the total effect of each variable on the outcome variable—the threshold measure of CSL in this case. It is useful to look first at the total effect of each of the variables in this model, and then return to examine some of the specific path coefficients.

The number of college science courses taken was the strongest predictor of CSL, with a total effect of 0.77. (See Table 3.) It is important to understand this variable and its impact. The variable is a measure of the number of college science courses, including courses in both community colleges and four-year

colleges and universities. The number of courses was divided into three levels:

(1) no college-level science courses, (2) one to three courses, and (3) four or more courses. Individuals with one to three courses are the students who took college science courses as part of a general education requirement rather than as part of a major or a supplement to a major. The use of an integer measure of college science courses would have given undue weight to majors and minimized the impact of general education science courses in the analysis.

Formal educational attainment3 was the second best predictor of adult CSL (0.70). This result indicates that students gain some additional value from the full range of university courses, including other general education courses in the humanities and the social sciences. The influence of formal educational attainment may also reflect a greater respect for and acceptance of academic authority as a source of knowledge about the world.

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