Ms E. Barış Altıntaş, Correspondent, Today’s Zaman Newspaper, ‘’ Challenges regarding science communication in the Turkish media”;
UNESCO Science Policy Ministerial Meeting 2012 Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina 22-23 November 2012Challenges regarding science communication in the Turkish mediaE. Barış Altıntaş, Today’s Zaman correspondentFor those who are interested and want to learn more about science, the communicationof science in Turkey takes place through popular science publications of theTurkish Scientific and Technological Research Academy (TÜBİTAK) and otherscientific journals.The sales figures for TÜBİTAK publications are encouraging (45,000 monthly sales for the mainpublication Bilim Teknik 20,000 clicks a day and more than 12,500,000 popular science books),and about five or six other popular science magazines published by private companies. Theirsales differ but NTV Bilim (15,000) which was published by the Doğus Group shut down lastyear due to low profits. They also have a history journal called NTV Tarih which sells about38,000 monthly according to the average figure from 2011. NTV, the news network, alsobroadcasts science shows.International documentary networks such as National Geographic or the Discovery Channelare also widely available for TV viewers, with subtitles or in Turkish. These stations musthave an influence on contributing to overall science literacy, however no data or evendiscussion as to their effects are available.For the general public not necessarily interested in following science magazines, science isusually communicated through the general media. This is highly problematic because not asingle Turkish newspaper has a science section (although three have supplements) or sciencereporters. Research in the field is limited, but Ankara University researcher Çiler Dursun, wholed a TÜBİTAK supported research program on science journalism in Turkey, hascomplained that the media has been mostly uninterested in science journalism programscarried out by the academia. Well-known media figures of major newspapers show no interestin science journalism as a topic, nor do they see it as a field to develop themselves or theirreporters.(**In response to a query earlier I made earlier this year (March 2012), the WorldFederation of Science Journalists (WFSJ), shared its records regarding the rate ofparticipation from Turkey in an online science journalism program. According to the datasorted by WFSJ’s IT staff based on IP numbers, Turkey had the highest rate of participationin this program. However, I could not find any journalists who took the course. It laterbecame evident, upon talking to Ms. Dursun, that participation was required or supported inscience journalism programs in the Ankara University’s Communications department. Theowners of those IPs were all students. As such, the mystery was solved.)
How is science covered?As a general rule, science related news stories usually are included in the last page to fill upspace, or to promote a product. In fact, research conducted by İrfan Erdoğan – the mostextensive study so far -- in 2007 indicates that editors do not give much thought to the issue, ifany at all.According to Erdoğan’s findings, editors in Turkish newspapers rarely think about“communicating science” to masses. Even if they think about it, they don’t want to havespecial science sections as some newspapers in the West have.However, scientific information that is in free circulation always appears in newspapers.Every newspaper includes this sort of information – sometimes for the purposes of marketingor promoting a product – whether knowingly or not. Advertorials are increasingly morefrequent in newspapers. Science communication in this way usually comes in the form of amixture of myth and fact.Of 35 newspapers (including local and national) only three (8.6 percent) have sciencesupplements. Two of these are concentrated on “science and technology” and the third one isa health supplement. But the content quality of these supplements is not very different fromthe general newspapers, and they are also replete with advertisements.Erdoğan’s research has found that newspapers include science related news only when there isa story that editors deem to be interesting. When something internationally important happens(such as the experiment at CERN, the discovery of the Higgs boson, or Turkey’s organtransplants) they will include it. They will also allocate space for science when there is notmuch going on in politics, according to editor responses.Why not include science?Editors cite lack of science literacy among their staff; lack of a separate science department;lack of reader interest; and not enough space as other political or social events take up muchof the newspaper as the chief factors to exclude science stories. Local publications usually saymost science related topics are not relevant to their specific regional readership. Does thismean that the media in Turkey doesn’t see the right to scientific information as a fundamentalright? Possible, given the low interest shown by the established media in science journalismprograms. Similarly, media organizations, such as the Medya Derneği (Media Association),which offer training on democracy, ethics or media professionalism, do not include sciencejournalism in training programs.It is natural then -- since editors do not usually see it as the media’s responsibility to informreaders about scientific developments -- that the content of scientific coverage is not up toscratch. In most cases, researchers in the area have pointed out, science related stories arechosen based on very different motives, such as protecting the interests of a special group.Media structure as an obstacle to free science reporting
Mainstream newspapers, televisions and radio stations in Turkey are owned by groups that arevery active in many sectors from energy to health or automobiles, petroleum and gas. This hasserious consequences for the communication of science. Almost all science related storiesprotect the interests of some dominant group or industry.This is not likely to change soon, because reporters and journalists in the mainstream mediadon’t bring this up for discussion. Experience indicates that a science or environment relatedstory that runs against the interests of a particular industry will be omitted.Group interests and qualityThe content of science related stories in the media produces myths/untruths about how seriousdiseases can be treated (in the form of medical news) or markets a product. Sensational topicsare also chosen by editors. An example could be a story from Radikal in 2008when Turkey banned smoking in closed spaces, which was found very controversial at thetime. The story had the headline “Hitler also banned smoking,” and did not include any factsand figures about tobacco related deaths, simply presenting the development as afreedoms/rights issue.Health is indisputably the most covered science-related field in the Turkish media. Accordingto Erdoğan’s study, 59.3 percent of all science related stories that appeared in localnewspapers were about health news (among 112 newspapers). This was followed by 10.1percent of science content associated with religion, 5.2 percent technological inventions, 4.7percent environment and 4.1 percent history. The rest was made up of computers, education,science conferences, medicine, agriculture and sociology. The percentage of healthrelated science news included in the three main newspapers, over the past six months, 95.6percent of 1034 news stories about science communication were about weight loss, dietingand nutrition. When covering other topics editors usually chose discoveries or inventions thatwould be easy to read about, and somewhat sensational. (Invention of a bionic eye, or cookiesfor astronauts from butterfly powder ie.) Most health news highlights a miracle product.Like health news, IT news usually come in the form of hidden advertising. The connections tothe industry are strong. Several studies have found that there are sharp increases in thenumber of computer /technology products news in the media during the days of CEBIT (anannual International IT and telecommunications fair). These stories mostly include themanufacturer’s name and the web site information of the manufacturer.Science as ideology or productConservative newspapers usually convey science communication under sections such as“mother and child,” “living,” or “family.” They also include frequently stories that stress the“scientific” aspects of Islam (such as a story on there is mention of DNA in the Koran) orstories that claim that evolution is not real. There are stories about the benefits of fasting inRamadan (putting forward highly suspect claims such as it helps detoxing, or is good forulcers). This is a dangerous zone, for it provides for great miscommunication andmisrepresentation of science.Headline examples for science news
To given an example of how science is communicated in the mainstream media, variousheadlines that emphasize a sensational aspect and attempt to capture reader’s interest ratherthan being informative.Headlines for some science related stories from the Turkish press-- We have gained three kilograms (as a nation)-- Journey to the mysteries of the brain-- Thought power moves robot arm-- Traveling longest distance on minimal fuel -- iPhone to work on solar energy -- Female inventors stay on top -- Cure for cancer found! -- Margarine is good for the heart! -- Phoenix traveled to Mars on Turkish boron -- Robot Titan puts on a show for studentsMore serious topics – such as the politics of science, health and technology – are almost nevertouched. Issues such as doctor/patient or patient/nurse relationship, problems with access tohealth services, management of chronic illness or protective health patterns are almost neveror rarely covered. Structural relations between medicine and related industries are also nevercriticized, or even mentioned, by the mainstream media. Environment related stories alsooften fall victim to industry interests.Quality of news: Sources used in science reportingSources used by journalists can give a good idea about the quality of science reporting inTurkish newspapers. In this arena, the local press appears to be doing much better than thenational press. But as a general rule, both in local and national media, men of religion arerelied on extensively, and in most cases no sources are cited at all.According to Erdoğan’s research, journalists take statements from university professors andlecturers (55 percent), vs. 61.5 percent /nutrition/diet experts (61.5 percent) and medicaldoctors (19.2 percent) for the mainstream media.The mainstream media also relies on clerics and men of religion (9.6 percent)in science communication. [For example, an article about the detriments of smoking or oneon environment science can quote the leader of the religious community the newspaper ispart of.]Swiss scientists. The press often relies on this ambiguous source while reporting on science--actually often referred to as a joke now, by many Turkish speakers. Citations such as“According to Swedish scientists,” “Research by British scientists proves...” are verycommon.Other sources used by reports include the internet (42.7 percent), news agencies (27.2percent) and university press releases (11.4 percent) in the local press, followed bymagazines (4.1 percent), public agencies or civil society organizations (3.8 percent),newspapers (2.5 percent), television (2.5 percent), academic articles and bulletins (2.2.percent), books (1.3 percent), radio (0.9 percent) and others (0.9 percent).
The mainstream media also relies extensively on the internet, news agencies, publishedarticles, radio, television and scientific conferences. The common tendency here is to preferstories that have been packaged into a bundle previously by someone else.Was Turkey too late getting into science journalism business?According to Dursun, one major reason behind most of the issues in the Turkish mediaregarding science journalism is Turkey’s late start to a state programs seeking to strengthenthe ties between the public and science or to increase science literacy and create a positiveattitude towards science among the public as well as to open the formation of science andtechnology policies to democratic participation.TÜBİTAK for the first time seriously included a policy to increase awareness about scientific,technological and innovative developments and increasing science literacy starting in 2004.Although it has long been a publisher of popular science magazines (Bilim ve Teknik, 1967)and books, it first seriously adopted increasing science awareness as a strategy in its NationalScience and Technology Policy Strategy Document: 2003 -2023. TÜBİTAK’s foundation, in1963 following the 1960 coup d’état was also a late step. Science production and scientificapproach only found state support in Turkey after TÜBİTAK’s establishment. Ensuring thatthe general public understands science is a fairly new development in Turkey that started inthe 2000s in Turkey. Dursun also notes that the launch of various science publications by themedia has also been a late development. (Most of them in the early 2000s, Bilim ve Ütopya in1993).Science literacy among young peopleTÜBİTAK conducted its first extensive research regarding science literacy in 2006 through asurvey where 1033 respondents aged 15-24 in 47 provinces responded to various questions.The survey results indicated that young people in Turkey are as interested in science as theirpeers in Europe. TÜBİTAK’s research also tested knowledge of scientific subjects. The rateof correct answers was 51 percent, compared to 70 percent in Europe in the same age group.Research on Science Journalism in Turkey1) Çiler Dursun of Ankara University is currently leading the second phase of a major project,supported by TÜBİTAK, on the visibility of science news in the media. The results of theproject have not yet been made public, since the second phase has not ended. The resultsshould be available on TÜBİTAK’s open-access system online.For a summary of the situation by Dursun, see articlehttp://www.kurgu.anadolu.edu.tr/dosyalar/28.pdf (in Turkish).
2) A link to the TÜBİTAK supported study on science communication conducted in 2007 byİrfan Erdoğan can be found here: http://www.irfanerdogan.com/kitaplar/gaztclk2007book.pdfThis remains the most comprehensive study available to date (at least, of which, we haveaccess to its results). This link is also in Turkish.3) Evolution remains as one of the most frequently covered science topics in Turkey, mostlyas part of Turkey’s religious – secular debate. A highly detailed analysis of a study spanning alengthy period in which six newspapers of different religious leanings were examined isavailable in English.(http://www.academia.edu/239640/Representations_of_Evolutionary_Theory_in_Turkish_Press_Media) The researchers are Gülseren Adaklı, Murat Gülsaçan and Ömer Gökçümen.