Media, Science, and Society: Course Details

Course Description: This course discusses why scientific, health, and environmental issues are covered in particular ways in media. We will also examine how these messages impact people’s attitudes, opinion, knowledge, and emotions about science, health, and the environment.

Questions To Consider

  • How do issues of power, culture, gender, and race influence science and media coverage?
  • How do our political, social, and religious identities interact with our understanding of science?
  • How does the way that media “frame” science impact the way that we interpret science?
  • What responsibility do media and scientists have in communicating the ethical issues surrounding emerging science, such as artificial intelligence?
  • Do movie portrayals of science and scientists have a real-world impact on our attitudes?
  • How can a media campaign affect science-based behaviors, such as vaccination?
  • We will address topics like artificial intelligence, vaccination, energy resources, climate change, and evolution.
Word Cloud of the Sylllabus

Course Learning Outcomes

  1. Observe, understand, and evaluate science, health, and environmental communication in mass media.
  2. Explain how the communication of science impacts the individual as well as society.
  3. Develop social science research skills. Apply social science theories to study the nexus of media, science, and society. Research a specific media, science, and society topic of your choosing, with the research guiding the production of a paper.
    • The paper is either: (a) a feature-length (or creative nonfiction) journalistic story on a scientific issue, (b) an academic review of a science-based film using theories and concepts from class, or (c) a news media framing analysis of a scientific issue.

Weekly Modules

  • Welcome Week – Defining “Media, Science, & Society”
  • Week 1 – Science Literacy and Public Understanding of Science
  • Week 2 – Science, Power, and Identity in History and Today
  • Week 3 – Framing and Science
  • Week 4 – Science Journalism, Public Perceptions of Science Journalism, Satirical Presentations of Science
  • Week 5 – Scientists as Celebrities, When Non-Scientist Celebrities Enter Science Debates, and Public Perceptions of Science Entertainment
  • Week 6 – Science in Entertainment
  • Week 8 – Religion and Science
  • Week 9 – Political Identities and Science
  • Week 11 – Trust in Science, Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories in Science
  • Week 12 – Psychological Biases and Science
  • Weeks 13-14 – Public Communication Campaigns

Development of Professional Skills

Information Literacy

  • Gather, evaluate, assess, and properly use research sources.
  • Critically assess the intent, value, rigor, bias, and credibility of information sources
  • Access diverse information through focused research and active reading.
  • Recognize and synthesize multiple perspectives to develop innovative viewpoints.
  • Analyze one’s own and others’ assumptions/biases and evaluate the relevance of contexts when presenting a position.
  • Nearly everything that you do in this class involves moving closer to these information literacy objectives.

Reading Comprehension

The ability to understand and remember what you have read. The ability to apply this comprehension to the evaluation of new contexts. Quizzes, reflection papers, engagement and enrichment activities, the midterm, and the final paper will help you hone these skills.

Written Communication

The ability to assemble and present empirical evidence to make reasoned arguments in writing. Reflection papers, engagement and enrichment activities, the midterm, and the final paper will help you hone these skills.

Course Evaluation

Engagement and Enrichment Activities45%
Midterm Exam15%
Idea Pitch Paper5%
Final Paper20%

Engagement and Enrichment Activities

Below are some sample assignments from the course.

Public Communication Campaign

Goal: Design a campaign about an environmental, health, technology, or science issue. You very likely will need to create a campaign in the future; it may not be in environmental, health, and science, but the concepts and processes are still the same. For example, you could be asked to do a campaign for social influence (ABC influence), fundraising, recruitment, products/sales, or politics. This assignment is designed to help you: Practice brainstorming a target audience and secondary audience, practice message design, practice applying theory to a campaign, and practice creating a campaign evaluation plan.

In the final two weeks of classes, we culminate our learning with the execution of a public communication campaign plan. It’s the student’s turn to decide what we need a public communication campaign for.

1. Establish the Issue and Document the Need (10 points): Describe an environmental, health, or science issue that you’d like to make a campaign for. Why is there a need to address this issue? You must find data, evidence, and/or polling information that supports your argument for why this issue needs to be addressed.

2. Establish the Desired Outcome of the Campaign (10 points): What do you want to influence? Attitudes, behavior, or cognition? Describe exactly how you want to influence people. What do you want people to do? How do you want people to think? How do you want people to feel? What does this campaign seek to accomplish? What are the measurable outcomes that you’d like to achieve? For example, a measurable outcome would be: one person recycles 500 lbs of glass each year.

3. Establish the Audience (10 points): Who is your primary audience? Describe them as best you can in terms of demographics (age, gender, race, income status), political identity, religious identity, and any other relevant psychological traits. Explain why this is the primary audience and how the campaign aims to influence them. Pick one secondary audience and describe them. Why are they also important to influence? Describe how this campaign may influence them.

A lot of students recall this campaign in the state of Wyoming to discourage meth use.

4. Anticipate the Challenges (10 points): What are some key psychological biases and identity issues that you think the audience may use in processing your message? Recall our Week 12 content as well as other weeks where we talk about how social, religious, and political identities impact our trust in science and expertise. How can you design a message that overcomes or mitigates these biases? What are some specific tactics to employ? Again, consider the readings from Week 12 and other course content (e.g., Week 11 about trust) that discusses how communicators can overcome psychological biases, build trust, and encourage people to process information without resistance.

5. Use Theory for Guidance (10 points): What theory will you use to guide your campaign and message design? Use one of the theories that were discussed in Week 13 video lectures, which were either the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) or the Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM). Walk me through how the theory will help you design your message.

6. Message Design and Placement (15 points): How are you going to disseminate your campaign message? I encourage you to visit the to see their campaigns to get some ideas. Click on several campaigns, scroll down to see the assets the AdCouncil has created for these campaigns. Pick one of the following strategies and execute.

  1. Thirty-second radio ad: Write a script and record the ad. Be creative! This could be a radio ad for placement on National Public Radio station (news radio) or for placement on a local radio station that plays music.
  2. Thirty-second video ad: Write a script and record the video. Be creative! This could be a video aimed for social media dissemination or TV.
  3. Infographic series: Create a series of five images using Canva or another imaging program. The images should be created for dissemination to social media and/or billboards along the highway. Please make note of which approach you use.
Many of us are seeing active public health communication campaigns about covid safety precautions.

Describe your rationale for this strategy. Why did you pick that strategy? How does this strategy help you achieve your campaign goals? Justify your decisions. Where will you place this message? What specific media outlets will it appear? Why do those decisions help you reach your target audience?

7. Evaluation (5 points): Propose ways to test the effectiveness of your messages. How do you know if the messages are influential? Finally, how do you know if your overall campaign will be successful? What qualitative and quantitative approaches will you use?

8. Write and Upload an Abstract of Your Public Communication Campaign (5 points): Briefly note/summarize all seven of the steps above in a 250-350 word abstract for your classmates to read. Upload the summary and attach the media product you create to the respective WyoCourses class discussion board titled Final Campaign Summary. You just need to post the campaign abstract and media product(s). There is no requirement for you respond to anyone else’s campaigns. This is just for you to see what other classmates have done. And, it does help to learn how to distill our campaigns into a brief abstract.

Communication Consulting on a Science/Health/ENR/Ag Issue

We learn more deeply when we are accountable to sharing the information with others and when we are asked to present or teach the information. 

First, please complete the readings for this week that review major psychological biases that people encounter when encountering information about science, health, environment, and agriculture issues.

Then, consider this scenario: Imagine you are asked by the local public health (or agriculture, or environmental) agency to give a presentation to their staff on overcoming communication obstacles. In other words, the staff needs some professional development from YOU!

You are going to educate them about psychological biases associated with communicating health (or agriculture, or environmental) information with the community. They want to do a communication campaign (e.g., public service announcements surrounding a health, science, or ENR issue). And they need your guidance on these psychological biases and how to overcome them. 

Note: this type of activity is actually something that real-world communicators and consultants do! 

Next, create slides (using PowerPoint, Canva, Google Slides, etc.) to present at this imaginary professional development session. Also, prepare a transcript or outline of your talking points to accompany the slides. 

What information should you present? You only have 20 minutes! 

First, think of your public agency. 

Second, think about a specific topic (e.g., GMOs, vaccines, climate change, etc.). 

Third, develop slides and an accompanying transcript/outline that is most relevant to that public agency using the readings. 

  • If you want to present to the public health department, then perhaps you want to focus on concepts in the Kenski (2017) article since she talks about vaccines specifically. 
  • Or, if you want to present to the public agriculture agency, then maybe the article on fear of GMOs is most relevant. 
  • Or, if you want to present to the environmental protection agency, discuss concepts from the Hardy and Jamieson (2017) article on climate changes. 
  • Or, you can look for common psychological biases present in all of the readings and review key concepts relevant to that agency. No need to focus on one reading. 
  • If you want to suggest another public agency to present this professional development opportunity to, please let me know and make a note in your submission. 

Satire Deconstructs Science Journalism

  • Goal: Recognize and identify specific criticisms about common practices in science journalism 

Watch the “Scientific Studies” episode from the satire show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Video Link Here 

Disclaimer: The video makes references to sex, uses crude humor, and uses profanity.   

As you watch: 

  1. Identify and briefly describe (in a sentence or two) each unique criticism that John Oliver discusses about science journalism. How many criticisms appear on your list? 
  1. Next, in about two paragraphs, discuss which two or three criticisms you find most pressing and concerning as a science news consumer. Elaborate on why these two or three criticisms negatively impact society. You can discuss how these faulty practices damage public understanding of science, science literacy, public policy about science, framing of science, trust in science, etc. 
  1. Finally, in a paragraph, discuss to what extent you think Jon Oliver’s satire is damaging itself to the public dialogue surrounding science. In other words, is this satire potentially causing more harm than good? Consider the arguments offered in Week 4, Video 3 lecture as well as Feldman (2017).  

Origins and ‘Cultural Evolution’ of Religion 

  • Issue: Explore connections between religion, communication, media, and social science by listening to a 50-minute podcast from NPR’s Hidden Brain (a social science podcast) 
  • Goal: Understand that researchers can study religion using social science (e.g., psychology, communication) that is inspired by evolutionary science (i.e., Darwin’s theory of evolution). Critically reflect about how and why this is challenging content and perspectives to explore. 

First, watch the video lectures from this week. Then, visit the Hidden Brain website here to stream or download the podcast. Last, answer these questions below. 

Catholic church. Photo by Kristen Landreville

Content warning: There are some references to sex and its relationship to religion.  

A note about challenging content to our identities:This may be quite challenging content for people to consider because we are deconstructing religion using psychology, anthropology, and evolutionary science perspectives. It is completely normal for people to have strong initial adversarial reactions to content that challenges or presents alternatives to their beliefs. Take comfort in the knowledge that you are human and that is very typical. This exercise is meant to encourage critical thinking about the reasons behind human behavior and human belief when it comes to religion and communication. I encourage you to put your ‘social science thinking hat’ on and remove your identity from understanding the content. Thank you for your dedication! 

  1. What role do media, communication, and symbols play in religion? You can consider the past and present. Consider music, audio, and visuals, as well as interpersonal talk and nonverbal symbols (communicating through dress or behavior). Discuss two to three specific ideas (mentioned in the podcast) about how media, communication, and symbols play roles in religion. 
  1. What role can evolutionary science play in religion? That is, what ideas can we take from evolutionary science and apply them to religion? Discuss two to three specific concepts (mentioned in the podcast) from evolutionary science and apply them to religious belief. 
  1. Think about the accommodationism concept that we discussed this week. To what extent does a religion that is more accommodating to science better serve the religion’s future success? Or do you think that a religion’s views or stances on science are not related to its future success? In particular, I encourage you to think about the discussion in the podcast surrounding the challenges that religions face in adapting to more modern secular institutions (e.g., can we consider ‘science’ a modern secular institution?).  
  1. What, if anything, did you find challenging about this podcast? For example, if you are a person of faith, what, if anything, bothered you about studying religion from a social scientific psychological/evolutionary science perspective? Why do you think it bothered you? If you are a non-believer, was there anything challenging to hear about religions? Why do you think it bothered you? 

Published by Kristen Landreville

I'm an associate professor at the University of Wyoming's Department of Communication and Journalism.

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