Physics: big impact, little news
At HFML-FELIX, physics is one of our central topics of interest. But what does the general public know about physics and the ways in which it supports and impacts our daily lives? Many people know that questions about planets and stars, and mysterious objects like black holes, fall into the realm of physics, but are they aware that big themes like nuclear energy, the 5G network, and solar cells are based on technological developments that rely heavily on physics research? An interdisciplinary team of researchers from Radboud University and Leiden University have published new research on the portrayal and framing of physics in Dutch newspapers. PhD student Sanne Kristensen is lead author of the study, which is published in the Journal of Science Communication.
"I am an experimental condensed matter physicist, working hard to understand the magnetic and electric properties of materials called multiferroics. I think it is exciting and interesting to study these materials, but I rarely see topics related to my research reported in the news. When I talk about my research to family and friends, they often dismiss it as being too complicated, or not relevant to society. Something seems to be missing in the communication between physicists and society. How can we improve this and more widely share the excitement and relevance of physics research?
Sanne explaining her work in the laboratory
To take concrete steps towards answering these questions, we studied the current status of physics communication in the Dutch media. Our research team was an unusual mixture of physicists, linguists and science communication experts, from the science and arts faculties of Radboud and Leiden universities. We used our combined expertise to analyse the physics content of five major Dutch newspapers over a recent two-year period; a total of 698 news articles. One of our striking findings was that more than half of the articles were about topics in the field of astronomy and astrophysics, while other fields, such as plasma physics, and molecular and atomic physics, received barely any media attention. This imbalanced representation of physics in the news does not promote awareness of the great variety of physics topics, or give insight into how many of today’s technological innovations originate from different areas of physics research. Considering that the readers of the news articles are a very diverse group, we can assume that they have very diverse interests. Offering a larger and more balanced selection of physics news could therefore increase the enjoyment of the public in physics.
Another of our findings was that physics in the news is mostly framed as being difficult. Out of all the articles that indicated a difficulty level, 70% described the physics as being difficult, rather than easy. Earlier research suggests that this framing of physics as difficult or complicated is likely to have a negative effect on readers’ interest and willingness to engage with physics in general. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that people sometimes switch off when I try to tell them about my own physics research.
This physics communication project has been an important part of my PhD. Our findings have helped us to learn more about effective communication strategies for scientists, and I hope that our research will be valuable for others who want to improve the public perception and understanding of physics. I am interested to find out more about the relation and communication between physicists, press officers and journalists, and the motives of journalists to select certain physics topics and scientific sources, but this is something for the next step."
The matter of complex anti-matter: the portrayal and framing of physics in Dutch newspapers, Sanne Willemijn Kristensen, Julia Cramer, Alix McCollam, W. Gudrun Reijnierse and Ionica Smeets, Journal of Science Communication 20(07)(2021)