Focussing on three massive scientific issues - climate change, genetics and the MMR vaccine - researchers in the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University, looked at the way the topics were reported by print and broadcast journalists and at the public's knowledge of the issues.
The new survey, conducted by Professor Ian Hargreaves, Professor Justin Lewis and Tammy Spears, with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), will re-ignite a heated debate about the way the media covered the MMR controversy and the way journalists deal with minority voices within science.
While journalists have vigorously defended the amount of space given to Dr Andrew Wakefield's concerns about the MMR vaccine, nearly half the British public appear to disagree. 48% of those surveyed felt that on matters of public health, journalists should wait until other studies confirm findings before reporting alarming research. 34% however felt that concerns like those of Wakefield's are newsworthy and should be reported.
Professor Justin Lewis, one of the authors of the survey, said: "The survey confirms that the news media play a key role in informing the way people understand issues such as the controversy around MMR. While Wakefield's claims are of legitimate public interest, our report shows that research questioning the safety of something that is widely used should be approached with caution, both by scientists and journalists.
"This is especially the case where any decline in confidence can have serious consequences for public health. The research also has implications for the debate about fairness in journalism, suggesting that legal definitions of impartiality in broadcast journalism should not be interpreted in a simplistic fashion."
The study examined 561 media reports on MMR over a seven-month period. 56% of these stories were concentrated in one month between 28th January and 28th February 2002 - described by many scientists as a media 'feeding frenzy'.
The focus of the story was the possible link between the MMR jab and autism, a fact mentioned in over two thirds of the articles. While the bulk of evidence showing that the vaccine is safe was used to balance the autism claims in half the television reports, only 32% of the broadsheet press reported this.
The report says: "Attempts to balance claim about the risks of the MMR jab tended merely to indicate that there were two competing bodies of evidence."
The report provides an in-depth assessment of the media's role in the public understanding of science. As well as the MMR controversy, it examines the media's coverage of climate change and genetics and illuminates the link between science, journalism and the public. It shows that changes in the level of scientific knowledge occur very slowly, even when media coverage is intense, and identifies the types of "theme" which successfully arouse public interest.
"We find little evidence to support the idea that the presence of more science, scientists and science specialists in the media will increase the public understanding of science. On the contrary, a 'science for science's sake' approach seems the one least likely to generate public engagement and therefore public understanding."
The research was carried out between January and September 2002 and involved two national surveys of over 1,000 people and an analysis of 2,214 newspaper, radio and TV stories.