Informal Learning Through Science Media Usage

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    Informal Learning Through Science Media UsageMichaela Maiera, Tobias Rothmunda, Andrea Retzbacha, Lukas Ottoa & John C. Besleyba Institute for Communication Psychology University of Koblenz-Landau, Landau,Germanyb College of Communication, Arts & Sciences Michigan State UniversityPublished online: 16 May 2014.

    To cite this article: Michaela Maier, Tobias Rothmund, Andrea Retzbach, Lukas Otto & John C. Besley (2014) InformalLearning Through Science Media Usage, Educational Psychologist, 49:2, 86-103, DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2014.916215

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  • Informal Learning Through Science Media Usage

    Michaela Maier, Tobias Rothmund, Andrea Retzbach, and Lukas Otto

    Institute for Communication Psychology

    University of Koblenz-Landau, Landau, Germany

    John C. Besley

    College of Communication, Arts & Sciences

    Michigan State University

    This article reviews current research on informal science learning through news media. Based

    on a descriptive model of media-based science communication we distinguish between (a)

    the professional routines by which journalists select and depict scientific information in

    traditional media and (b) the psychological processes that account for how media recipients

    select, process and integrate such information. We argue that science literacy and media

    literacy in laypersons can be promoted by combining insights from the research on mass

    media production, laypersons reception processes and the interplay of both. Moreover, we

    point out potential obstacles and biases in the process of science communication and suggest

    strategies to prevent such problems using media-based elements of science communication.

    Focusing on traditional news media in the main parts of the article, we conclude with

    reflections on how online sources might change the interplay between information demand

    and supply.

    Societies around the world evolve and develop on the basis

    of scientific research and empirical findings. They apply

    new healthcare methods, introduce new technologies and

    new products, and adopt new laws for goals such as envi-

    ronmental protection. The substantial impact of scientific

    innovations on individuals and society makes it desirable

    for the public to have adequate information about the scien-

    tific process and get engaged in public debates about sci-

    ence. The communication of scientific ideas and insights is

    therefore an essential concern of modern democratic socie-

    ties and mass media, particularly news media, provide an

    important means of enabling such communication (Mende,

    Oehmichen, & Schroter, 2012; J. D. Miller, Augenbraun,Schulhof, & Kimmel, 2006; National Science Board, 2012;

    Nisbet & Scheufele, 2009; Nisbet et al., 2002; Pew Project

    for Excellence in Journalism, 2010).

    Whereas formal scientific learning happens traditionally

    in schools and universities, media use provides an opportu-

    nity for informal scientific learning that is neither bound to

    educational environments nor limited to preselected or

    privileged segments of society. Different media formats

    (e.g., reports, science shows, documentations, fictional sto-

    ries) in different outlets (e.g., newspaper, radio, TV, Inter-

    net) can promote informal scientific learning. Although a

    lot of opportunities for informal scientific learning are now

    provided by online content that is shared and distributed

    from peer to peer (e.g., Wikipedia) or directly by scientists

    (e.g., via social media), we focus on professional news

    media, that is, mass media formats that are edited by profes-

    sional journalists. There are three main reasons for this

    focus. First, survey data provide evidence that traditional

    media (e.g., TV, newspaper, magazines, documentary film)

    are still very important sources for laypersons information

    about science, even though the Internet has rapidly

    advanced as an information tool (e.g., Dudo et al., 2011;

    National Science Board, 2012; Nisbet & Scheufele, 2009;

    Scheufele, 2013). Second, there is still very limited empiri-

    cal evidence on how the increasing relevance of online

    information changes the usage and understanding of

    science-related contents (Brossard & Scheufele, 2013).

    Third, literature from the political domain indicates that the

    traditional media have kept their influence in the online

    world, whereas evidence of offline effects for online con-

    tent are much less common (e.g., Leskovec, Backstrom,

    Correspondence should be addressed to Michaela Maier, Institute for

    Communication Psychology, University of Koblenz-Landau, Fortstr. 7,

    76829 Landau, Germany. E-mail:

    EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGIST, 49(2), 86103, 2014

    Copyright Division 15, American Psychological AssociationISSN: 0046-1520 print / 1532-6985 online

    DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2014.916215




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  • & Kleinberg, 2009). In this regard, it seems likely that

    much of the most-read online science content is written by

    journalists working for organizations that maintain an off-

    line presence. Therefore, we focus on informal science

    learning through established news media in this article and

    tackle the question how online opportunities might reshape

    science processes in the concluding section of the article.

    Our goal in this article is to propose a descriptive model

    of the relationship between the media system providing

    journalistic formats for science communication and

    laypersons learning processes based on the reception of

    science news content (see Figure 1). In this model of

    media-based communication, we outline the processes by

    which journalists select and depict scientific information as

    well as the processes that account for how individuals

    select, process, and integrate science information. The ben-

    efit of the proposed model for the understanding of media-

    based science communication is threefold. First and most

    important, our model aims at improving both science liter-

    acy and media literacy in laypeople by providing epistemic

    knowledge about the processes through which informal

    learning is facilitated by science news. The model describes

    important phases in the process of knowledge transition

    from the scientific representation of knowledge to

    laypersons mental representation of scientific insights.

    From the perspective of Educational Psychology, the under-

    standing of (a) news media production logic, (b) the

    laypersons reception processes, and (c) the interplay of

    both can provide an important basis for the development of

    science literacy and media literacy in laypersons (Chinn,

    Buckland, & Samarapungavan, 2011). The apparent need

    for these literacies arises from the idea that the pace of

    knowledge production continues to increase, and thus lay-

    persons will increasingly face issues involving assessments

    of scientific evidence and for which they may need to make

    a decision (e.g., when choosing between different medical

    treatments, consumer products, or political candidates).

    A second benefit of our model results from the fact

    that scientific knowledge is characterized by features such

    as vagueness, reliance on probability assessments, and