TP7: Effects of narrative evidence

in science news coverage of genomic research

Prof. Dr. Helena Bilandzic (Communication Studies, University of Augsburg)

Prof. Dr. Susanne Kinnebrock (Communication Studies, University of Augsburg)

This project investigates the strategies journalists use to provide evidence for scientific claims in science news and how ultimately such ‘evidencing practices’ affect the audience. Specifically, we consider narratives as evidencing practices as they allow an intuitive understanding of complex scientific issues.

In the first phase of this project, evidencing practices in German print and television news of genomic research were examined in a content analysis. Results show that almost half of the scientific  claims were accompanied by narratives. In addition, narratives did not stand alone, but were most often combined with other evidencing practices (i.e. references to authorities or data). Narratives are used to support scientific claims and only rarely to contradict them. Generally, the narratives found in science coverage have a rich narrative quality (or high level of narrativity). Three types of  narratives have emerged: stories of (1) the process of research and the course of the study, (2) scientists conducting the research and (3) people benefitting from the research or being affected by it.

The second phase of the project starts off from this differentiated view on narratives in science news coverage. Following theories of narrative processing and persuasion, we assume that different  types of stories have different effects on audiences. Also, we expect that narrativity (the way in which the plot, the structure and the language of a story are elaborated) plays a significant role. The goal of the second phase is to explore such differential effects of narratives. Three consecutive experiments with cross-sectional samples investigate the effects of narratives on recall,  understanding of scientific criteria, and the credibility of studies and researchers. We will systematically investigate the effects of the three types of narratives and of lower or higher levels of  narrativity. Narrative engagement –the subjective experience of being immersed in a story – is used as a central mediator.

By considering the effects of different narratives of science on audiences, this project explores a mode of communication that is relevant for communicating and negotiating between different cultures of evidencing. In doing so, the project supports a central tenet of the research group by providing insight into the way in which individuals interpret, learn about and accept scientific evidence. After having analyzed the dynamics between destabilizing and restabilizing forces on scientific evidence in the content analysis in the first phase, we consider the interaction and submit it to a careful test: The second phase specifically investigates the conditions under which stabilizing effects of science narratives actually occur on an individual level. The project will contribute to the fields of narrative persuasion and science communication by developing a differentiated theoretical account of media narratives and testing specific mechanisms of effects.