, Volume 64, Issue 4, pp 479–502 | Cite as

„Visible scientists revisited“: Zum Zusammenhang von wissenschaftlicher Reputation und der Präsenz wissenschaftlicher Experten in der Medienberichterstattung über Infektionskrankheiten

  • Markus LehmkuhlEmail author
  • Melanie Leidecker-Sandmann


Die vorliegende Studie beschäftigt sich mit der Auswahl wissenschaftlicher Experten durch den Journalismus. Aufgeworfen wird die Frage nach dem Zusammenhang zwischen wissenschaftlicher Reputation und medialer Präsenz wissenschaftlicher Akteure. Als Indikator für wissenschaftliche Reputation wurde das individuelle Zitationsprofil genutzt. In quantitativen Inhaltsanalysen der Medienberichterstattung über drei gesundheitliche Risikophänomene zwischen 1993 und 2015 wurden sämtliche wissenschaftlichen Akteure (N = 378) erhoben, die in den Beiträgen zu Wort kamen. Unsere Analyse zeigt entgegen früheren Befunden, dass die journalistische Auswahl nicht zugunsten von Experten mit geringer wissenschaftlicher Reputation verzerrt ist. Stattdessen spiegelt die Auswahl das Reputationsgefälle innerhalb der Wissenschaft annähernd wider. Jedoch ist die Orientierung an wissenschaftlicher Reputation kein allgemeines journalistisches Auswahlkriterium; sie bleibt begrenzt auf die Wissenschaftsressorts. Darüber hinaus selektieren Nachrichtenmagazine renommiertere Wissenschaftler als z. B. Tageszeitungen.


Reputation Quellenselektion Bibliometrie Wissenschaftliche Experten Mediale Sichtbarkeit 

“Visible scientists revisited”: on the relationship between scientific reputation and the public presence of scientific experts in mass media coverage of infectious diseases


Journalists’ selection of sources determines, among other things, which positions on a subject of coverage become public or how controversial the subject appears. Due to its free choice of sources, journalism becomes an important player in public decision-making processes. Our study focuses on scientific experts as a source of journalistic selection processes. Referring to Goodell (1977), we raise the question of the connection between the scientific reputation of scientific actors and their media presence. Concretely, we ask whether journalists use scientific reputation for orientation (and/or legitimacy) in their source selection.

As far as we know, there are only very few studies, mostly old ones, that deal with the role of scientific reputation as the basis for journalistic source selection. With one exception, their results suggest that there is at most a weak correlation between a scientist’s scientific reputation and public presence. From this overall finding, we derive two hypotheses, namely

H1: The presence of scientific experts in media coverage is biased in favour of scientific actors who do not have a particular scientific reputation.

H2: Scientific reputation is not a criterion for the journalistic selection of scientific experts.

To test our hypotheses, we conducted quantitative content analyses of the media coverage of three health risk phenomena: antibiotic resistance, the flu pandemic, and Ebola fever. Our media sample consists of six news media, namely three national quality newspapers, two news magazines, and one news agency. We analysed the news media coverage on these issues every four years over an analysis period from 1993 to 2015. In sum, we coded 784 articles. Among others, we collected all the scientific actors referred to in these articles, which amounted to 378 scientific experts. In order to ascertain the scientific reputation of these experts, we identified bibliometric indicators, which are considered to be the most reliable indicator of reputation. An analysis of the PubMed Europe database identified the number of publications per actor and the number of publications related to antibiotic resistance, the flu pandemic or Ebola. In addition, the average impact of each thematically relevant publication was determined. In order to establish a comparative value that reflects the position of a scientific actor within the relevant scientific community, the average impact of all research published in the field was determined. The individual publication profiles were determined with the help of a specially developed Python script, which uses the API of PubMed to retrieve the data automatically. To validate the results, the number of publications and h‑index were compared with hand-picked results from Scopus database in a random sample of 120 scientific actors. The number of publications correlated with r = 0.72, the h‑index with r = 77.

To classify the scientific actors identified in the media coverage, we adopted Habermas’ “centre-periphery model” (1992) and subdivided scientific actors into a so-called “centre” and a scientific “periphery”. As a key differentiator between these groups, we operationalize the criterion of scientific reputation. The highest reputation (within a field of research) is associated with the scientific centre, the lowest with the periphery. We locate the centre and periphery as two opposite poles, the transition being fluid. The position of each scientist can be determined by his/her scientific reputation at a variable distance from the centre or periphery.

Our analysis shows that scientific experts play a major role as sources of reporting. Nearly 50% of all statements in the media coverage are made by them. Further, we were able to show—contrary to our first hypothesis—that media coverage is not dominated by scientific actors who do not have a thematically relevant reputation. In this respect, media coverage is not biased, but approximately reflects the reputation gap within science. In addition, we examined whether or not scientific reputation is a journalistic selection criterion, i.e. whether the public presence of scientific actors with a comparatively high reputation may be understood as a journalistic achievement. Here, our findings point to a differentiated pattern: We find no evidence that the journalistic selection practice is generally characterized by a preference for particularly prestigious or “central” scientific experts. This confirms our second hypothesis. However, if we go into detail, we can see variations between different media departments: an inclination towards scientific reputation seems to be a feature of the science departments, in particular. By contrast, source selection in other media departments is clearly not associated with scientific reputation. Either journalists in these other departments do not consider scientific reputation to be an appropriate selection criterion or, more likely, they do not have the necessary expertise and/or professional routines to distinguish “central” from “peripheral” scientific actors. In addition, our analysis also points to differences between media titles. It appears that news magazines, especially the Spiegel, succeed in recruiting more prestigious scientists than the other media titles. This may be explained by the fact that, given their weekly publication rhythm, news magazines have greater time resources for research and contact. Moreover, due to their reputation among scientists, it is more likely that individual “central” scientific experts will agree to make statements.


Reputation Source selection Bibliometrics Scientific experts Media visibility 



Wir danken Kristina Schreiber für die Unterstützung bei der Analyse der New York Times und Newsweek.


Die Arbeit wurde durch Mittel des BMBF im Rahmen des Förderprogramms „InfectControl 2020“ gefördert. Förderkennzeichen: 03ZZ0804B.


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© The Editors of the Journal 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Teilinstitut Wissenschaftskommunikation/ITZKarlsruher Institut für TechnologieKarlsruheDeutschland

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