On slippery science subjects, Internet news delivers

March 31, 2010

by Chris Barncard

Internet-based science news draws a more demographically diverse, learned and focused audience than print or television news, according to a study by University of Wisconsin-Madison communication researchers.

"Science and technology are among the top reasons people go online," says Ashley Anderson, a UW-Madison doctoral student in life sciences communication. "And those people are more diverse in age and race and more knowledgeable about science and technology than people relying on traditional media. This points to the importance of online communication in reaching a broad audience for science."

Readers of science and technology news online are twice as likely to come from non-white racial groups as consumers of print science news. The Internet virtually levels out gender differences, according to data from the Nielsen Company and Wisconsin Survey Center, while shifting upward the percentage of the audience with college degrees and completely missing those without high school diplomas.

Tracking Google search queries and Web content on nanotechnology, Anderson — along with UW-Madison life sciences communication professors Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele — analyzed who goes online for science content, what nanotechnology topics people are looking for, and what they are likely to find when they search for nanotechnology online. Their work will appear in the May issue of the Journal of Nanoparticle Research and is available now on the journal's Web site.

The researchers found that online searchers were most interested in nanobots and health topics, with specialized applications of nanotechnology cropping up slightly less often. In analysis of 19 top sites commonly found in Google searches, health-related information dominated, appearing roughly twice as frequently as technology, research and business nanotech information.

"Clearly, health is the dominant topic for nanotechnology, which somewhat restricts the discourse," Brossard says. "Obviously the technology has much wider applications."

Tracking online content about nanotechnology is important because of the specialized nature of the topic, which is less likely to be found covered in depth in traditional print or broadcast media, according to Anderson.

"Our study tracked 10 different content themes and found that different types of Web sites deal in widely different types of nano content," Anderson says.

Science sites without a particular nanotechnology focus — http://sciencedaily.com and http://nature.com — were more likely to feature stories about applications of nanotechnology in health or environment or national security arenas. Web sites aimed specifically at nanotechnology — http://nanowerk.com and http://foresight.org among them — were more likely to be reporting on policy issues such as research and regulation, while health almost disappeared as a topic. Government sites primarily focused on business information.

Topics like risks, benefits and uncertainty fell well behind the rest of the content.

"How nanotechnology is portrayed online is important because of the broad reach online media has to different audiences of science information," says Anderson. "Online media sources are the predominant information environment for specialized scientific issues like nanotechnology."