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Elective: Science, Media, and Society 2


Admission requirements

This course is only available for students in the BA International Studies who have succesfully completed the second year elective course.
The number of participants is limited to 25.


Climate change. Genetically modified foods. Flu pandemics. Obesity. Post traumatic stress disorder. Science issues of global proportions affect our lives as citizens of this planet. Journalists may help us make sense of these issues, enabling us to make informed decisions about policy and about our personal lives. This course looks at the science–media–society nexus, focusing on news media as an intermediary between science and society.
The course will bring critical sociological and rhetorical perspectives to bear on current developments and controversies in this field. The way news media, policy makers, scientists and citizens deal with risk and uncertainty will be a major issue. Special emphasis will be put on the challenges to traditional expertise and authority posed by the internet and social media.
The major assignments will consist of a fact-check report and a final paper. Fact-checking requires the students to assess the accuracy and reliability of a published science news item. Drawing on the mandatory literature and on an additional literature search, the final paper addresses the way a science issue has been reported by the news media.
Please note: an interest in news media and in the social implications of science issues are required, a background in the natural sciences is not.
Weekly overview:
Week 1: Introduction. Science in the news: global trends. Models of science communication: top-down or participatory? Fact-checking: research skills.
Week 2: Uncertainty. Reporting practices. Controversy, consensus, and objectivity. Climate change. Choosing your baby’s sex.
Week 3: Risk society. Policy decisions and public outrage. Global epidemics. Food safety. Air pollution.
Week 4: Social construction. Psychopaths. Depression. How experts and news makers shape mental disorders.
Week 5: Framing. Spreading the message: multinational companies versus NGOs. GM foods. Nuclear energy.
Week 6: Expertise. The crisis of authority. Vaccinations: the Internet, vernacular authority, and expertise.
Week 7: Story telling 1. News as narrative. Heroes, villains, and victims. Cancer survivors.
Week 8: Story telling 2. Science as narrative. The cholera detective. Murder & the bystander effect.
Week 9: Fraud. The failure of peer review. Journalists as watchdogs. Stem cell research. How social psychology handled the Stapel scandal.
Week 10: Work-in-progress. Evaluating the fact-check reports, drafting the final papers.
Week 11: Consultation.
Week 12: Conclusion.

Course objectives

The elective courses for International Studies are designed to teach students how to deal with state-of-the-art literature and research questions. They are chosen to enhance the students’ learning experience by building on the interdisciplinary perspectives they have developed so far, and to introduce them to the art of academic research. They are characterised by an international or comparative approach.
Academic skills that are trained include:
Oral presentation skills:
1. to explain clear and substantiated research results;
2. to provide an answer to questions concerning (a subject) in the field covered by the course
a. in the form of a clear and well-structured oral presentation;
b. in agreement with the appropriate disciplinary criteria;
c. using up-to-date presentation techniques;
d. aimed at a specific audience;
3. to actively participate in a discussion following the presentation.
Collaboration skills:
1. to be socio-communicative in collaborative situations;
2. to provide and receive constructive criticism, and incorporate justified criticism by revising one’s own position;
3. adhere to agreed schedules and priorities.
Basic research skills, including heuristic skills:
1. to collect and select academic literature using traditional and digital methods and techniques;
2. to analyze and assess this literature with regard to quality and reliability;
3. to formulate on this basis a sound research question;
4. to design under supervision a research plan of limited scope, and implement it using the methods and techniques that are appropriate within the discipline involved;
5. to formulate a substantiated conclusion.
Written presentation skills:
1. to explain clear and substantiated research results;
2. to provide an answer to questions concerning (a subject) in the field covered by the course
a. in the form of a clear and well-structured written presentation;
b. in agreement with the appropriate disciplinary criteria;
c. using relevant illustration or multimedia techniques;
d. aimed at a specific audience.


The timetable is available on the BA International Studies website

Mode of instruction

Lecture, seminar style discussion and supervised research.

Course Load

Total course load for the course: 10 EC x 28 hours= 280 hours, broken down by:

  • Hours spent on attending lectures and seminars: 2 hours per week x 12 weeks = 24 hours

  • Time for studying the assigned readings and for preparing writing and presentation assignments: 104 hours

  • Fact-checking assignment: 32 hours

  • Time to write a final paper (including reading / research): 120 hours

Assessment method

Assessment and weighing

Weekly writing and presentation assignments (20%); fact-checking assignment, in two-person teams (30%) and a final paper of approx. 3000 words (excluding tables and bibliography) (50%).
The final paper will be based on the mandatory readings complemented by the student’s individual literature search. In the paper, the students will critically assess media coverage of science issues in the light of the theories discussed in class.

To complete the final mark, please take notice of the following: the final mark for the course is established by determining the weighted average.

To pass the course, the weighted average has to be 5.5 at least.


In case of resubmission of the final essay (insufficient grade only) the final grade for the essay will be lowered as a consequence of the longer process of completion. The deadline for resubmission is 10 days after receiving the grade for the final essay.


Blackboard will be used. For tutorial groups: please enroll in blackboard after your enrolment in uSis
Students are requested to register on Blackboard for this course.

Reading list

All required readings are available through the e-journals section of Leiden University Libraries or can be downloaded from the Web.
Week 2
Sumner, P. et al (2014). The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study. The Lancet, 10 December 2014 (8 pp.)
Hargreaves, I., Lewis, J., & Speers, T. (n.d.). Toward a better map. Science, the public and the media. Swindon: Economic and Social Research Council. (NB: read pp. 6-53.)
Week 3
Vasterman, P., Scholten, O., & Ruigrok, N. (2008). A Model for Evaluating Risk Reporting: The Case of UMTS and Fine Particles. European journal of Communication, 319-441.
Week 4
Clarke & Gawley, (2009). The triumph of pharmaceuticals. The portrayal of depression 1980-2005. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research 36, pp 91-101.
Saguy, A.C. & Gruys, K. (2010). Morality and Health: News Media Constructions of Overweight and Eating Disorders. Social Problems, 57, pp. 231–250.
Week 5
Maeseele, P. (2010). On Neo-luddites led by Ayatollahs: The Frame Matrix of the GM Food Debate in Northern Belgium. Environmental Communication 4, 277-300.
Week 6
Boyce, T. (2006). Journalism and expertise. Journalism Studies 7, pp. 889-906.
Gazan, R. (2013). The Hammer of Hawking. The Impact of Celebrity Scientists, the Intent of Extraterrestrials and the Public Perception of Astrobiology. First Monday 18, nr. 6
Week 8
Weldon, R.A. (2001). An “Urban Legend” of Global Proportion: An Analysis of Nonfiction Accounts of the Ebola Virus. Journal of Health Communication: International Perspectives 6, pp. 281-294.
Week 9
Allchin, D. (2002). Scientific Myth-conceptions. Science Education 87, pp. 329-351.
Week 10
Haran, J. & Kitzinger, J. (2009). Modest witnessing and managing the boundaries between science and the media: A case study of breakthrough and scandal. Public Understanding of Science 18, pp. 634-652.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Dr. J.P. Burger


The deadline for submission of the final essay is 9 June 2017.