Public Understanding of Science
21(8) 1019 –1022
© The Author(s) 2012
Reprints and permission:
P U S
The underestimated public:
Comment on Lehmkuhl et al. (2012),
“Scheduling science on television”
University of Mannheim, Germany
In their article “Scheduling science on television”, based on the project “European TV science pro-
gramming”, Markus Lehmkuhl and his colleagues supply us with valuable data about the condi-
tions and the status quo of specialised science programming in European television. Their approach
leads away from a science-centred perspective which “repeat[s] over and over problems science
faces with journalism” (Lehmkuhl et al., 2012: 3); instead it focuses on a media-centred perspec-
tive which explains the status quo of science programmes as output of organisational decisions.
“From this perspective, a television science programme for example can be neither a reflection nor
a distortion of what is going on ‘out there’ but is, rather, a reflection of the practices of workers
guided by established editorial concepts” (Lehmkuhl et al., 2012: 3).
The present study offers very useful and thought-provoking findings. They help us to understand
why certain science programmes, though they may be normatively preferable, have no chance of
survival on the market. Thus, the media environment and the motives and expectations of the audi-
ences appear to be significantly independent variables and anyone interested in the communication
of science and public understanding of science has to adapt to these general conditions. So far, so
good – from a pragmatic point of view.
But from a theoretical point of view I could also invert the causality. That means I could also
consider the media environment regarding science (for example the scheduling of science pro-
grammes) as a dependent variable and I could even consider the expectations of the audiences as a
dependent variable. From such a perspective, of course these factors still serve as constraints for
science programming. But the question – based on the research of Markus Lehmkuhl and col-
leagues – is now how the current status quo of science programmes and audience expectations
could be explained by other factors. Given the same media environment, the topic “science”,
including the social sciences and humanities, without doubt is treated very differently compared to
politics or economics. That means: It cannot be the media environment alone. Regulations, sched-
uling, commercial vs. public television, market segmentation are important categories to describe
the success and the dispersion of science programmes, but they cannot entirely explain why science
in television has developed as described today, and why certain formats as for example edutainment
are quite successful and others, such as information programmes, far less so. Why, for example, don’t
Matthias Kohring, University of Mannheim, Department of Media and Communication Studies, Rheinvorlandstrasse 5
(507), 68159 Mannheim, Germany.
454952PUS21810.1177/0963662512454952Public Understanding of ScienceKohring
1020 Public Understanding of Science 21(8)
we have a regular news magazine called “Science and Society” which covers the manifold interde-
pendencies of science and other societal areas in Germany today, for example? We do have such
magazines for political and for economics topics and “even” for culture “of course”, but why not
for science? This observation seems strange considering that modern society is characterised as
thoroughly academicised and standardised due to scientific rationality.
For me, the crucial concept which allows us to shed some light on the status quo of science in television
which adds to the factor “media environment” is the concept “public”. I would like to address three issues:
• the concept of the public as expressed by science programmes themselves
• the relationship between the public and the scientific system
• the expectations of “the” public as expressed in interviews.
The concept of the public as expressed by science programmes
Not so long ago I was teaching a class about science on German television. The students’ task was
to present a certain format and to analyse especially the role and the concept of the public in these
programmes. The result was obvious and at least for me, quite shattering: The typical spectator of
a science programme is conceived of as the typical visitor to Disneyland; he is intellectually unam-
bitious, wants to be surprised and flabbergasted and accepts his role as pupil and the hierarchical
superiority of the scientist. Science, on the other hand, is presented as a neutral producer of com-
plex and superior knowledge, generated by unbiased persons who are enthusiastic about their work
and profession and delighted by their wanderings through the realm of scientific truth.
I do not want to say that this cannot be true – at least sometimes. But it is obviously a distortion
if not a caricature of how science and scientists work today and what their motivations are. It may
be a necessary motivating self-perception for scientists. But this also allocates a certain social posi-
tion for the so-called lay public.
My first thesis is that this social positioning of the public can help to explain the characteristics
of science programming on television. In the end, this specific idea of the public leads to a certain
media environment for science programmes and will be conserved by these media structures. If
you want to break up these structures, you have to break up this conception of the public.
The relation between the public and the scientific system
One reason for the social positioning of the public described before lies in science itself. Science is
maybe the only important social area without its own public. In the nineteenth century we still had the
amateur taking part in scientific discourses. With the professionalisation of science, these amateurs
were excluded from the discipline. Since then, the primary public of scientists consists of scientists. As
long as its function remains to produce cognitively proven knowledge, science is not dependent on the
participation of a broader non-scientific public. This is totally different in the political and economic
systems, where every decision can generate very direct and immediate feedback. In these social areas,
the broad public is a participating public, which has to be respected by the decision makers.
I would like to point to the fact that non-participation – or to put it differently: the exclusion – of
the public removes the most crucial criteria for attention to and interest in science, which are practical
experience and an experienced relevance to everyday life. The blank position of a participating
public was filled with a concept which is close to home for scientists and also comfortable: the
concept of a public which has to be educated.
Again, the change of existing structures in science programmes must start with the change of
the underlying condition, namely the non-participation of the public. In my view, participation
would mean already engaging in the all-embracing consequences of science for social life. The
majority of science programmes are definitely not designed to address this challenge. What is
missing are programmes that put science in the societal context and discuss the positive and nega-
tive outcomes of science as performed by social actors who are guided by interests – acceptable
and non-acceptable interests. That is what news media do (or should do) with politics and economics.
Such a science coverage would probably show that science is highly relevant for people and that
they should take notice of it. Of course it would be far away from programmes such as the German
programme “World of Wonders”, which has an audience of 4.6 million.
My second thesis is that science is a social system not being grounded on the participation of a
broader public. Consequently, science was free to generate its own idea of the public as an object
of education and enlightenment. As we have seen, the vast majority of the media has adopted this
idea of the public. In my first thesis I have argued that one has to break up the social positioning of
the public in the science programmes in order to attract more people. Now it becomes clear that this
is strongly correlated to a rearrangement of the relationship between science and the public.
The expectations of “the” public as expressed in interviews
My last point refers to the motives and expectations which are expressed by the members of the
focus groups described in the project report (see Lehmkuhl et al., 2010). In a nutshell, “[t]he domi-
nant motivation for engagement […] is that science provides new insights into what is completely
unknown.” That motivation is, as the authors write, “strongly connected with affective motives,
e.g. feeling fascinated, inspired, surprised” (Lehmkuhl et al., 2010: 69). It is notable that the
respondents do not expect information from television. “Instead, respondents expect popularisa-
tion and edutainment programmes from TV” (Lehmkuhl et al., 2010: 69).
The fact that respondents do not expect information “explains”, according to the authors, “why
TV lacks information programmes on science and why many respondents did not recognise a news
report on a scientific finding as something that is broadcast by science programmes” (Lehmkuhl
et al., 2010: 69). Apart from the restriction of information to “scientific findings”, this seems to be
a chicken-or-egg question: Do the expectations of the public explain the status quo of the science
programmes or do the science programmes explain the expectations of the public? I prefer the egg,
which means: The expectations of the public are influenced by the science programmes that are
offered to them. The uttered motives and expectations of the recipients correspond to their social
positioning in the programmes and they also correspond to the concept of a public which is
favoured by science. In communication science this would be called a cultivation effect.
My third thesis is that the recipients have been socialised to behave like a public that has to be
educated by science. Probably they have been socialised not only by science on television but these
programmes at least amplify this attitude.
To conclude I would like to summarise my considerations about the concept of the “public” of
television science programmes and in science. I started out with the idea that the media environ-
ment and audience expectations should be considered as dependent variables. Then I discussed the
concept of the public as a crucial factor to explain the status quo of science programmes. You could
say that it is a normative discussion about which type of public one would prefer. If we follow the
1022 Public Understanding of Science 21(8)
idea of a democratic society, the concept of a participating public seems more appealing. Seen from
the perspective of science, an inspired and enthusiastic public is something very nice and highly
preferable. But it is another question if social systems should rely on enthusiasm and fascination
which can easily turn into apathy and hostility. A participating and critical public which has an
appropriate overview of the interdependencies of science and society will generate more adequate
and reasonable expectations towards science and scientists. This is not the worst foundation for a
robust trust relationship.
In the meantime, the majority of the existing science programmes will continue to contribute to
a partly distorted image of science. In the end, these programmes could even alienate people from
science. Therefore, I would like to add another recommendation to those already raised in the project
report of the AVSA research group (Lehmkuhl et al., 2010: 110–112): It’s necessary to rethink the
concept of the public, on the part of the media, on the part of the science system and on the part of
the public itself. And, last but not least, on the part of the research about science communication. I
believe that Markus Lehmkuhl and colleagues have made a very promising move.
Lehmkuhl M, Karamanidou C, Trench B, Mörä T, Petkova K and AVSA Research Team (2010) Science in
audiovisual media: Production and perception in Europe. Funded by the European Commission’s Seventh
Framework Programme. Available at: http://www.polsoz.fu-berlin.de/en/kommwiss/v/avsa/Downloads/
Lehmkuhl M, Karamanidou C, Mörä T, Petkova K, Trench B and AVSA Research Team (2012) Scheduling
science on television: A comparative analysis of the representations of science in 11 European countries.
Public Understanding of Science, online first, doi: 10.1177/0963662511436070
Mathias Kohring is professor at the Department of Media and Communication, University of
Mannheim, Germany. In his book “The function of science journalism” (Die Funktion des
Wissenschaftsjournalismus; 1997, 2005) he gives a critical summary of the research on journalistic
science coverage in the twentieth century and develops a model of science journalism as indepen-
dent observer of the mutual relations between science and society. Further research interests con-
cern trust in media and trust in physicians.