A word of warning for scientists: don't appear on talk-shows. Not only would you probably run into a magician, you might even be mistaken for one, which is much worse. And do not ask the press, the radio and television to put their magical mentality aside: the media are condemned to it. It is not just a matter of what the audience wants. It is the cause-effect relations the media constantly have to establish that have per se something "magic".
This study analyses the image of Italian space activities given by national dailies in the period from February 2001 to July 2002, in order to understand Italians' view of "Italy in space". It also considers the role that space scientific research can play in the communication strategies of Italian space activities in the upcoming years and the possible ways to improve its image through mass media.
In the field of scientific communication in Europe, science centres have gained increasing importance over the last ten years. Italy, beyond the City of Science in Naples, is also planning the set up of more science centres throughout the country. Their hands-on style makes them something between a museum and a fun fair and, beyond the issue of merit, no doubt the success of many science centres also depends on the fun offered. It is important then to be able to assess to what extent people can actually make use of the proposed themes. This report tries to point out the dialogue opportunities between science museums and people1. A questionnaire has been submitted to two scientific secondary schools in Trent and Busto Arsizio (Varese) as a pilot study in this research. A research of this kind should not limit itself to museums, because public opinion on scientific subjects is also influenced by more popular and widespread media such as newspapers and television. Together with people, museums should therefore also be able to make good use of these media and offer opportunities for investigating and going into detail about given topics that the other media deal with without leaving enough time for thinking them over.
Over the last few years the media and especially television have focussed on presumed health emergencies such as mad-cow disease, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the Di Bella cancer-cure case and the Lipobay case. Topics such as these have a strong emotional impact on public opinion and subscribe to the dictates of the ratings rather than following the more or less prescriptive rules of scientific communication. In a highly competitive environment, if the ratings prevail against information, it is obvious that news follows the rules of fiction, health reports become mere entertainment, and moderation and accuracy give way to triviality, overstatement and alarmism. The loyalty of the target audience becomes the ultimate aim of the communicator, because that is what the advertisers are interested in. There is no point in blaming the journalists, though they too share the responsibility of this phenomenon. The mechanism seems to be exactly the same for all kinds of "emergencies": immigration, criminality, weather changes, new diseases, war. The format prevails over the event. Communication depends less and less on the topic and more and more on the medium, the debate on GMOs being no exception.
No field of western society has remained untouched by the events of September 11. Lastly, science and science communication are also bearing the consequences. During the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Denver, Colorado, on February 15, 2003, the major international scientific magazines, faced with the bioterrorism alarm and the fear of seeing important information fall in the wrong hands, announced their intention to resort to an unprecedented security measure: preventive self-governance. They consider the Statement on Scientific Publication and Security as a manifesto of the sense of responsibility that the scientific community feels about global terror. In part four, after recalling the 9/11 tragedy, the 32 publishers, scientific associations and scientists who signed the Statement (among which also the directors of Nature and Science) stated that "On occasion an editor may conclude that the potential harm of publication outweighs the potential societal benefits. Under such circumstances, the paper should be modified, or not be published".
"Weapons of mass destruction" is the word of the year 2002, at least according to the American Dialect Society, an association which has been studying the English language in North America for more than one century and which yearly chooses the word having more relevance to American society and information. The word of the year 2001 was "Nine eleven", and the passing of the baton was very significant. September 11th has actually marked an extraordinary media watershed in the debate on the dangerousness of weapons of mass destruction. The bioterrorist threat, for instance, seems to have gained ground in newspaper pages and in programme schedules - and therefore in people's houses - together with anthrax letters terrorising America. However, though this lethal powder has remained confined beyond the Atlantic, fear has rapidly spread throughout the world, including Italy. (Taken from the book "Armageddon Supermarket" - Sironi Editore)