The Media-Making of Stephen Hawking
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
-- Guest post by Declan Fahy, AoE Science and Culture Correspondent (Twitter @fahydeclan)
The media largely failed to give a measured account of its role in Stephen Hawking’s life and career when it reported the physicist's seventieth birthday last week, I argue in an article published today at the Columbia Journalism Review, in its science section, The Observatory.
The piece, headlined "Media Made Hawking Famous," argues that the enormous public profile he enjoys would not have been possible without careful image-building over several decades in the media. The first paragraph of the article reads:
"The extensive coverage of Stephen Hawking's seventieth birthday on January 8 focused on the physicist's status as the world's most famous living scientist, but journalists largely avoided commenting on the major force that created his celebrity: the media themselves."
The piece also comments on one consequence of Hawking’s fame: the tensions his high profile has occasionally caused within his field. The article notes: “Other physicists have been, at times, ambivalent about his reputation, because of what some of them see as his having a public profile that is out of proportion to his scientific merit.”
Two interesting cultural works about Hawking are being released to coincide with his birthday. The first is a newly-published biography, Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind, by Kitty Ferguson. In a review at Salon, Laura Miller said the book does well to explain Hawking’s theories, but finds it more difficult to explore the intersection of his life and science. The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, called it “an intelligent and readable biography". The second cultural work is a new exhibition of Hawking’s life and work, featuring newly-commissioned photographic portraits, that will open later this month at London's Science Museum.
The rest of the Columbia Journalism Review article can be read here.
Declan Fahy is Assistant Professor at the School of Communication, American University, Washington, DC. Read other posts by Fahy and find out more about the MA program in Journalism and Public Affairs and the doctoral program in Communication at American.