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Chris King# and Fiona Hyden* find that UK national papers cover more Earth science than physics and chemistry rolled into one.

Geoscientist 22.05 June 2012

A survey of UK national newspapers in late 2011 has shown that, while the great preponderance of science stories cover health/medical and environment/ecology, Earth science accounted for more stories than physics and chemistry together.

Our survey focused on ‘quality’ newspapers, since they contain a higher proportion of science content than the popular tabloids1. Eight newspapers were chosen to give a broad representation of newspaper coverage across this end of the newspaper market: The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Times, The Independent on Sunday, The Mail on Sunday, The Sunday Telegraph and The Sunday Times. The papers were surveyed over three separate weeks spanning a five-week interval in late 2011 (weeks beginning 9 October, 23 October and 6 November).

Images (two): Diagrammatic findings of the 2011 survey set against those of the 2003 survey.

Pie 1
pie 2


We indentified 170 science articles covering 148 different stories and subdivided them according to the following categories:
  • Health/medical
  • Environment/ecology
  • Biology
  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Earth science
  • Technology
  • Public understanding of science

This survey repeated a similar analysis of the same newspapers carried out in March/April 20032 where 200 science-based articles covering 151 different stories were identified and categorised. The findings of both surveys are shown in the pie-charts.

The graphs show the following:
  • that the very high percentage of ‘health/medical’ stories recorded in 2003 had increased to more than half of stories by 2011 (54%);
  • the number of stories about ‘Earth science’ had increased in 2011, to 10% of all the stories;
  • while no stories related to chemistry appeared in the 2003 survey, ‘chemistry’-related stories comprised 2% of data in 2011;
  • the numbers of ‘environment/ecology’- and ‘physics’-focused stories remained similar;
  • the percentage of stories related directly to ‘biology’ and to ‘technology’ approximately halved (to 7% and 5% respectively);
  • the percentage of ‘public understanding of science’ stories reduced from 5% to 1%.

As the two surveys were taken eight years apart, one sampled newspapers from spring and the other from autumn, so it seems fair to combine the data to give a perspective on the UK newspaper coverage as a whole over this time. The results of the two surveys taken together give a rank order of:
Health/medical (47%)
  • Environment/ecology (17%)
  • Biology (11%)
  • Earth science (8%)
  • Technology (8%)
  • Physics (4%)
  • Public understanding of science (3%)
  • Chemistry (1%)

These results need to be set against the percentage of science-related stories found in UK newspapers overall. One of the newspaper articles covered by the 2003 survey contained the following observation: ‘The ratio of ‘arts’ to ‘science’ writers on most broadsheets is still something in the region of 20:1. It’s very rare for serious science stories to fight their way on to front pages.’ ‘There is no escaping the fact that science is a difficult thing to cover. Any half-trained reporter can hammer out a story on child poverty, immigration or archaeology. It’s rather more difficult to attempt something on superstrings, RNA interference, or nanotechnology’ 3.

This comment is supported by the findings of the Science Museum Media Monitor1 that, between 1946 and 1990, science stories occupied only around 5% of the total space in UK newspapers. Similar levels of science coverage were found elsewhere; Greek newspapers contained 2% science stories 4; US newspapers contained 2% 5; and the Australian press, 2.9% of science-related stories 6. Most of these surveys also found the high level of medical/health coverage identified in the UK surveys 1,4,5, while the Italian press also showed high levels of biomedical coverage7.

Of course ‘quality’ newspapers are only one of the media outlets available today, and the balance of science stories appearing elsewhere in the media, such as on the radio, Internet or TV, may reveal a different story. However, a survey of European TV coverage found that only 8% of stories (218/2676) were science-related 8, a similar coverage to the 5% in UK newspapers, reported above.


While we may regard it as ‘good news’ that Earth science content of UK newspapers is greater than that directly related to biology and much greater than that given over to physics and chemistry, this is no time for the Earth science community to sit on its laurels. A recent survey of communication by academic staff to the public 9 across 13 European countries including the UK, found that “that popular science publishing is undertaken by a minority of academic staff and to a far lesser extent than scientific publishing” (p48). Similarly, in a paper entitled: Scientists are talking, but mostly to each other10, Suleski and Ibaraki found “that reliance on journal publication and subsequent coverage by the media as the sole form of communication en masse is failing to communicate science to the public” (p115).

Thus, although Earth science is doing relatively well in coverage by newspapers in this country, we could and should do more to communicate our science to the public more effectively.

Authors’ Note

Both UK newspaper surveys were undertaken as part of the work of defending the position of Earth science in the English National Curriculum for Science; the first prior to the 2007 revision of the curriculum and the second as part of the debate around the current revision. The revised National Curriculum for Science will be taught in maintained schools from 2014 onwards.


  1. Bauer, M, Durant, J, Ragnarsodottir, A & Rudolphsdottir, A (1995) Science and Technology in the British Press, 1946 – 1990 London: The Science Museum
  2. Hyden, F & King, C (2006) What the papers say: science coverage by UK national newspapers School Science Review 88(322), 81-86
  3. Rusbridger, A (2003) Making sense of Life The Guardian 3403 London: The Guardian
  4. Dimopoulos, K & Koulaidis, V (2003) Science and technology education for citizenship: the potential role of the press Science Education, 87, 241 – 256
  5. Pellechia, M (1997) Trends in science coverage: a content analysis of three US newspapers Public Understanding of Science, 6, 49 – 68
  6. Metcalfe, J & Gascoigne, T (1995) Science journalism in Australia Public understanding of science, 4, 411 – 428
  7. Bucchi, M & Mazzolini, RG (2003) Big science, little news: science coverage in the Italian daily press, 1946-1997 Public Understanding of Science, 121, 7-24
  8. León, B (2008) Science related information in European television: a study of prime-time news Public Understanding of Science, 174, 443-460
  9. Bentley, P & Kyvik, S (2011) Academic staff and public communication: a survey of popular science publishing across 13 countries Public Understanding of Science, 201, 48-63
  10. Suleski, J & Ibaraki, M (2010) ‘Scientists are talking, but mostly to each other: a quantitative analysis of research represented in mass media’ Public Understanding of Science, 191, 115-125