"Far more to it than appears on the surface": An historical investigation of the interface between space science and the British mass media

  • James Farry

    Student thesis: Phd


    In November 1953, the editor of the Manchester Guardian, AP Wadsworth, responded to Jodrell Bank Director Bernard Lovell regarding a complaint over an article that had appeared on the observatory's radio telescope project. Wadsworth understood there had been much collaboration between Lovell and his journalists in regard to the construction of the article and so the complaint suggested that there was "far more to it (production) than appears on the surface". Many scholars of science and the media point to the importance of uncovering the context of production from which popular science emerges in interactions between science and media actors. However, these and many other scholars also point to the difficulty of symmetrically unravelling the production context because of the complexities of such interactions and the diverse actors and agendas at play. To view and draw out these complexities, I employ the analytical flexibility and utility of space science as a lens because the production of popular space science was of interest, and valuable, to diverse scientific and media actors. I also use a broad and triangulated selection of primary sources, including from the often-elusive media context, to explore episodes of contingency where agendas and approaches are revealed.I hypothesise the notion of a 'common arena' to aid understandings of the context of production of science and the media. Within this common arena scientists, media professionals and science-mediating specialists met to negotiate the production of popular scientific representations. Scientific and media culture and science-mediating specialists sought authority over and identities within the arena through 'contributory expertise'. In such negotiations, popular scientific representations became a form of 'boundary object'. Across the middle of the twentieth century, and especially in the space age, popular space scientific representations were prestigious and high-profile and the subject of much negotiation. In many ways, the media gained much at the expense of science by redrawing the arena, exploiting science in the way that science sought to exploit the media. On reflection the arena is too simplistic a concept to support the rich narrative history and, in future, it is hoped, will be surpassed by a more constructivist encounter model that characterises interactions and developments at the science-media interface. Despite these limitations, two supplementary arguments emerge from the empirical application of the arena concept.Firstly, that the 'problem' of science and the media is historical and its origins long precede the political movement of the same name of the 1970s. In fact, the problem originated in the 1930s as soon as the traditional authority over the production arena enjoyed by scientific culture, and celebrity scientists such as cosmologist James Jeans, was challenged by media professionals. The Council of the British Interplanetary Society identified it, for example. Motivated by increased public demand for popular scientific material and intensifying competition among media industries, print and broadcasting media professionals extended their cultural authority over the common arena. This extension was facilitated because technological developments, such as satellite broadcasting, further restricted membership of the arena to those who understood the demands of media technique and were committed to serving the interests of audiences rather than science; in sociological terms arena and production authority was 'reduced' to media culture. Such developments reduced the ability of experts to directly address audiences and, thus, the influence of scientists over popular representations of science. In other words, mediation was a threat to the social authority of science. However, this problem was not mobilised into a movement because the relationship between scientific and media actors remained somewhat deferent and symbiotic. This fluidity allowed t
    Date of Award31 Dec 2012
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • The University of Manchester
    SupervisorDavid Kirby (Supervisor) & Jeff Hughes (Supervisor)


    • space science
    • problem
    • boundary spanners
    • common arena
    • interface
    • mass media
    • science
    • production

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