A recently published study in Journalism, titled “The science grapevine: Influence of blog information on the online media coverage of the 2010 arsenic-based life study,” caught my eye this morning. Unfortunately, I couldn’t *access the full text of the study online or through my University library, so I requested a PDF from the author (but got the PDF much more quickly via #IcanhazPDF).
*For a study on science blogs, I think it is unfortunate that this paper was so inaccessible. As a SAGE journal, Journalism technically allows authors to post their preprints AND postprints to their personal or institutional websites.
The authors proclaimed to have discovered a bacterium, which could substitute arsenic for phosphorus to sustain its growth. The study was abruptly scrutinized by bloggers and a media storm arose. – Vestergaard, 2016
Vestergaard applies grapevine communication theory to how blogs spread information about the controversial arsenic life study in the weeks after its publication. Science blogs today serve as a platform for “informal, conversational peer review,” and often cover new scientific research more critically than do large media outlets.
While the grapevine in general is defined as transmission of rumors and gossip from person to person, the goal of grapevine communication theory is to analyze ‘the informal and unsanctioned information network within every organization’ (Mishra, 1990). […] [T]he grapevine is the most vigorous in times of stress, scandal or controversy (Mishra, 1990). – Vestergaard, 2016
This is not to say that science blogs are rumor mills. But rather that blogs serve as platforms for informal conversations whereby controversies and misinformation can be quickly debated by scientists and non-scientists alike.
Vestergaard looked at media and blog coverage surrounding the arsenic life study. She found via Altmetric data that the study generated “an unusual amount of blog attention” but only moderate attention on Facebook and Twitter. Vestergaard concluded that “attention given to the [arsenic life] study predominantly came from media and the scientific community without resonating with the broader public.”
In particular, one blog post criticizing the study, authored by biologist Rosie Redfield on RRResearch, garnered more than 90,000 “hits” within a week.
With the advent of social media, including science blogs, scientists were provided with informal communication networks accessible for the public and mass media. Science blogs especially work as ‘back doors’ and provide ‘access to the inner workings of science’ as Trench (2012) argues with reference to Latour (1987). These informal communication channels can be perceived coherently as a science grapevine, which is comparable to the commonly known grapevine in organizations. – Vestergaard, 2016
In her paper, Vestergaard analyzed how blogs about the arsenic life study influenced the nature of online newspaper coverage of the study. She analyzed 47 articles for a number of “frames” or specific themes.
Via this “framing analysis,” Vestergaard found that once Rosie Redfield’s blog reached a critical mass of attention from the mass media, news outlets rather abruptly stopped covering the arsenic life study with a “gee whiz” frame (“overwhelmingly positive description of the research”) and veered toward covering criticism of the research.
[T]he critical frames were heavily relying on blog material, while few extra sources were added independently in the news articles. Exceptions to this pattern include Carl Zimmer, who on two separate news blogs included the criticism from 12 additional researchers, and a news article on nature.com, which included three extra critical sources. – Vestergaard, 2016
Based on the analysis, Vestergaard concluded that while critical blog posts did not trigger most mass media outlets to include more original sources or engage in original debate about the arsenic life study, these blog posts did influence media coverage by providing information that mass media outlets then picked up and incorporated into their stories.
Of course, social media also served as a source of misinformation in the early days of coverage of the arsenic life study. Rumors flew around about the discovery of alien life. But critical blog posts written by scientists and science writers “were crucial in changing the framing of the story from Gee Whiz to a critical frame,” Vestergaard writes.
Vestergaard’s study challenges traditional conceptions about how mass media and professional journalists set the agenda for social media coverage of events and research. Science blogs are increasingly offering alternative perspectives that in turn influence media coverage of scientific research. It looks like science bloggers and journalists are working together to set the agenda for science news, neither being the ultimate agenda-setter.