Seeking and Learning: Examining Selective Exposure to Media Coverage of a Scientific Issue

Sunday, 15 February 2015
Exhibit Hall (San Jose Convention Center)
Xuan Liang, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Background: Deficits in public knowledge about certain scientific issues can negatively impact civic participation when such scientific issues surface in political discourse and policy-making. In response, scientists and policy makers have been engaged in reaching out to lay publics in an effort to build science literacy. Meanwhile, as the public increasingly turns to the Internet for news and information about science and technology, the online environment offers more diversity for the public. However, the availability of information does not guarantee information acquisition. Instead, with the proliferation of online tools, people might use their views and interests to guide their choices when seeking and avoiding information in order to construct their own, personalized information environment. The current study examines the type of information individuals select to consume in the online environment, and the causal relationship between information seeking and factual knowledge. We usethe issue of nanotechnology as a case of an emerging and fertile area of scientific and technological developments with significant social implications. Methods: This study uses a two-wave dataset from a nationwide online panel survey conducted immediately before and after the 2012 election. Wave 1 (N = 1,902 ) was fielded in October before the 2012 U.S. presidential election. 1,374 respondents from Wave 1 were also assigned to the survey in Wave 2, and 1,171 responded in Wave 2, yielding a completion rate of 85.2 percent in Wave 2. In order to untangle the causation of information seeking and knowledge while controlling for a wide variety of potential confounding factors, we employed structural equation modeling techniques in the analysis. Results: Our findings show that attention to science news on social media facilitates both attitudinally congruent and incongruent information seeking. More importantly, the type of information audiences select and are exposed to matters. Specifically, we find that seeking counter-attitudinal information conducive to knowledge gain but seeking information consistent with pre-existing attitudes suppresses knowledge levels. Conclusions: Our study offers several implications for communicating science in social settings.  First, our findings provide insights into evaluating the dynamics of information seeking and knowledge gain about a controversial scientific issue. Second, our study provides insights into the role different patterns of information seeking play in stimulating knowledge gain. Additionally, our study also refines our understanding of the role of various media in communicating science in modern information environment, where information flows across a range of media platforms.