Jochen Pade, Klaus Schlüpmann

Science on Televivion

"What is it, that TV-spectators are watching, when they join in on a science program? Producer's aspirations: elitism on one side, levelling tendencies on the other? Where are the actual functions, the actual facts and consequences of science and technology in the virtual public games? Some 110 hours of screening of various (mostly german) broadcasts lead to the conclusion that there is a lot to learn about television in the science programs and little about science. Is the public image of science a "science fiction"?

Often enough it has been argued that natural science and technology are fundamental ingredients of our modern societies. A democratic society could not react adequately to scientific and technical developments if its citizens were not sufficiently informed, which implies information about scientific and technological content, procedures and orientations, about the social determination and organisation of scientific and technical labour and, above all, about the impact of scientific developments and technical innovations. Besides the educational system and to some extend within it, the mass-media represent by far the most important source of information about the subject. The mass-media have a key position in determining the relations between the public and a presumed 'subsystem' of science and technology.
In this context it is interesting to ask how science is represented on television. Which information is transmitted to the public about science? Which (if any) criteria are given for the assessment of science and its importance for society?
In view of these and more questions we have tape-recorded about 220 'scientific programmes' during two periods (january-march 1996, march-mai 1998) with a total time of 110 hours. 80% of the programmes were telecasted between 17.45 and 23.00 and their duration ranged between 15 minutes and one hour. About 80% of the productions are periodicals, mainly magazine programmes, but there are also historical, highly topical or entertainment programmes. 60% of the presentations deal with several subject matters. The content is mainly technical, medical and environmental subjects. Often a subject can simultaneously be qualified as sociological, political, socio-economical or socio-psychological.
During about 10-15% of the broadcasting time physics subjects were treated, partly in short films (a few minutes) in magazine programmes, partly in monothematic longer broadcasts. In the following we concentrate on these physics productions. A first conclusion is that physics appears to be suitable for television owing to spectacular entertaining properties aswell as to its history (largely reduced to stories around 'ingenious people'). Chaos, astrophysics, research on ice, nanosystems and comets figure as repeatedly occuring topics and seem to be telegenic.
We have looked in more detail into some presentations (chaos, nanotechnology, astrophysical questions, 'dangerous comets') in order to compare them with each other. We refer to the work of Bärbel Freud, Dietrich Meutsch (1), Didier Dufresnoy (2) and others for the discussion of general principals and research orientations. To our knowledge physics in TV-broadcasts and didactics of this specific subject have not been treated in the literature.
Recalling earlier 'picture discussions' in a pilot study on illustrations from popular science in print-media(3), we have attempted to analyse the various semantic dimensions and modes of expression in the material (sound and picture tracks in different categories such as spoken texts, music, discussion, sound live or off, views taken as total or close-up, broadcast in the studio or as field work and reportage etc.).
A few briefly summarized observations may illustrate how scientists (in our context physicists) are presented to the TV-audience. The fact that there are more male than female physicists is accentuated to the extreme by our sample: only males are represented. The specimen are shown in an extremly personalizing manner ('Professor xy conquers the leading position in nanotechnology worldwide'). Nearly allways scientific labour and results are presented as top-research, as highly important and as more than up-to-date; research workers share these qualities with their work, of course. A sensational context eventually accentuates the importance of man and work, such as pictures of an exploding volcano in an opening, in a closing or in a background trailor, such as 'quotations' from spectacular movies or indeed views of real-life accidents. The sound track often contributes with highly dramatizing effects. In an all but original manner the camera sometimes accentuates authority of a speaker with a preference to angular views from below.
Scientists in our sample in general don't seem to have thought about the way they talk, nor to care about who is their audience. They even seem to take knowledge of technical terms ('On the whole the universe is decoupled from electromagnetic forces', 'as close as ten to minus forty-three seconds') for granted. Neither do the journalists insist on further explanations. More than often the authority of a scientist is suggested to extend beyond the limits of his subject and his specialist knowledge: Physicists undertake to answer questions about politics, religion, economics, psychology and the like. We are lead to conclude that there is an unbroken tendency to present scientists on the TV-screen as neither questioned nor criticized authorities (in the visual aswell as in the auditive dimension). While their work is of utmost importance, it appears in most cases as too complicated to be fully explained in its making and in its meaning and consequences for the rest of mankind. These remarks apply to our sample 'on the average'; they are more or less accurate in many cases but not allways in all of them. Very few broadcasts contradict them totally.
Scientific communication has been compared to a diffusion proces, to a translating activity, it may appear symbolically as 'interpretation of nature', it may mean social education but also the flooding by some 'ersatz' of meaningfull knowledge (cf. 5). The various roles of journalists in the field extend from the 'popularizer' to, say, ' the independent observer'. Here are some preliminary conclusions from our sample on the communicative value of broadcasts on science and technology aswell as on the role of the journalists in the field.
1. Popularizing science is traditionally seen as a transmission activity of scientific knowledge to a greater public. But rare are the examples which ever proofed successful and that is also true for our sample. Since on TV the possibilities of 'interactive learning' are considerably restricted, the 'comprehensibility' of the presentation must be given special attention from a didactical point of view. But journalists and scientists stick to false analogies or call on apodictic statements when faced with a factual complexity. The wish to simplify leads to falsification and mystification. Actually, TV-broadcasts on science and technology, with the exception of special learning programs, allmost never extend over several, didactically well structured sessions; precise consideration and methodical thoughtl, the typical scientific instruments are sacrified to shorthand 'information' and to mere audiovisual entertainment. Image and understanding of science and technology become subject to TV-conventions and concepts in the first place and these broadcasts reflect more of the professionalism of the media workers and of their achievements than of scientific labour and of technological results or impact .
2. While more or less all programs are characterized by a basic 'lack of science', there are surprisingly big differences iin this respect. We find productions (possibly with a somewhat elitist tendency) which offer a considerably more precise presentation than others do; and their are productions aswell which emotionalize and mystify the subject thoroughly by suggestive close-ups, musical backgrounds and key stimuli. According to Didier Dufresnoy (4) French and German productions, where they may eventually be compared (ARTE) seem to differ in that the former show a greater deal of accuracy and concern with the subject as the latter do (4). From our sample we got the same impression. It would be interesting to know wether such differences persist for a larger choice of producers and subjects. This would mean a study of scientific broadcasts in different languages and countries. (A comparative survey of science news is currently undertaken by Winfried Göpfert et. al.).
3. The productions investigated by us make use of partly outdated and partly rudimentary concepts of science and scientific work. The role of the scientist seems often to be given by the romantic ideal: alone, a genius, rather strange and sometimes incomprehensible like his science. Science is presented as truth, as something absolute and sure, which nevertheless incorporates elements of sorcery and magic. The impression is conveyed that science has an answer for each question, is able to get everything under control. We note that in most cases the scientists seem to help in stage-managing this picture of science; at least there is no protest. Following the politics of the Reagan era, heterodox concepts of scientific work and motivation, as presented in the 'Science Studies', have been challenged in the name of allegedly absolute standards of science ('science wars'). Television productions do generally not break a lance for differentiated views in this question. Sometimes, there are critical remarks about 'experts' and 'specialists', however, the social concepts of solving problems and of producing progress are hardly ever discussed.
4. Another model does not see science journalists primarily as bearers of scientific knowledge, but as independent observers who shouldn't act according to rules which are given by science (e.g. Matthias Kohring (6) even calls for a general uncoupling of journalistic science reporting from the concept of science popularization). Accordingly, science journalism should stimulate the independent formation of public demands on science and has to deliver suitabel orientations for social action. This function cannot be determined in the physics contribution in our sample. Indeed, as a rule the presentation tries to be as near to science as possible and seems to be led by the internal demands of the scientific issue. In most cases, the producers own positions do not become apparent. This meets with the impression of a uncritical attitude towards science and scientists in general, and in some discussions (e.g. when the scientist begins a sentence which the journalist friendly completes and vice versa) with a kind of silent complicity.
In summary, our preliminary analysis leads to the conclusion that the examples which we investigated convey neither adequate popularized scientific knowledge nor adequate social orientation. It is not primarily science or its social impact that is presented in the scientific programmes, but rather the medium television itself; in this sense, scientific programmes are more ore less kind of public relations for science.
Admittedly, these statements are somewhat oversimplified and possibly a little bit provocative. In reality, there are many players in the game and not only one or two which may be blamed. Nevertheless, to confine the discussion to the interaction of scientists and journalists seems to be meaningful in a first step due to its special importance.
Of course, there is no instant recipe to clear the deficits, but one may argue in two directions: 1) It is known that in general the working conditions of (science) journalists are quite stressful: there are to few journalists and a sometimes immense pressure of time etc.. These circumstances clearly may afflict the quality of productions; e.g. they don't allow for long and careful investigating about scientific topics and their impacts on society. A change in these production conditions would be necessary and very desirable, but it is not easy to see how it could be performed in the actual situation. 2) Science has to learn that it has debts in popularizing and that popularization is to a certain degree its own business (7). This point, at a first sight, should be easier to realize than the last. On the other hand, it would mean a change in the traditional picture of a scientist because popularization is not seen as a scientific task, in general, but as a quite inferior work.
The journalist who knows about science and is an independent, critical and professional observer; the scientist who knows about the history of his subject and social implications of his work and sees popularization as one of his first duties - it seems that we are far away from this objective.


1. Bärbel Freund, Dietrich Meutsch (Ed.): Fernsehjournalismus und die Wissenschaften; Opladen, Westdeutscher Verlag 1990

2. Didier Dufresnoy: Place des emissions scientifique a la television. Pourquoi sont-elles peu frequentes en France?; DEA-Dissertation, CNAM, Paris 1994

3. Klaus Schlüpmann: Ausdruck gesellschaftlicher 'Verbildlichung'? Modernisierung im visuellen Material 1945-heute; AbschluàŸbericht, AGIS Oldenburg, 1997

4. Jochen Pade, Klaus Schlüpmann: Marktförmige Wissenschaft? Physik in Wissenschaftssendungen des Fernsehens; AGIS Texte 18, Oldenburg 1997

5. Yves Jeanneret: Ecrire la science, Formes et enjeux de la vulgarisation; Presse Universitaires de France, Paris 1994

6. Matthias Kohring: Der Zeitung die Gesetze der Wissenschaft vorschreiben?; Rundfunk und Fernsehen (1998) 2-3, p.175-192

7. Jochen Pade: Zum Unterhaltungswert tragen wissenschaftliche Themen nicht viel bei; Physikalische Blätter 54 (1998) Nr.1, p. 55-56

(Talk given on the 5th International Conference on Public Communication of Science and technology 'Science without frontiers - Wissenschaft - Medien - à–ffentlichkeit', Berlin, 17.-19.September 1998)
jp, ks