Framing Science

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Pew has released its annual analysis of the top 20 most followed news stories of the year by the public. Pew pairs the survey data with a summary of their weekly news agenda tracking. For regular readers of this blog, you should not be surprised that climate change fails to crack the top 20 most followed issues or the top 20 most covered topics of 2007. (See previous posts here, and here.)

Several issues appear in the top 20 agenda items that are incidental to climate change including gas prices, periodic heat or cold waves, wild fires, and even the economy. In terms of effective public communication, if you are going to raise the public profile of climate change, one challenge is to figure out how to meaningfully and accurately connect the dots on these other agenda items, drawing attention to climate change by “riding piggyback” on focusing events.

One possible strategy is for scientists and environmental groups to put carefully vetted crisis communication plans in place so when wild fires, heat waves, skyrocketing gas prices, or other focusing events occur, each group can communicate in an accurate and coordinated way about the relevance of global climate change.

For example, when the wild fires hit California earlier this year, the event could have served as a major opportunity for environmental groups to engage the public. Yet their efforts were either paralyzed or off target because of a lack of careful and thorough research and planning about exactly what the message should be and how to communicate the message in a coordinated and consistent way.

Comments

  1. #1 Trinifar
    December 19, 2007

    This is the most disturbing news media information I’ve seen in quite a while — and I’ve seen quite a bit. Climate change not even in the top 20?!

    Even conceding that Americans are not the most educated people in the world and not too interested in what is going on in other countries, I don’t believe we think global climate change should not be in the top 20 most covered news stories. I think you yourself have published information to the supporting this idea. I know others have.

    So, the blame — and this is a case where blame should be clearly allocated — lies in the corporate owners of the news media. They are either leaving the decisions on what is covered to those they’ve hired to run their news programs, in which case they need to fire them and hire people who are more responsible, or they are dictating what’s going to be “news” and what’s not, in which case we need to fire the corporate owners and take back our news so it serves the public interest.

    Still, the Guardian is the only major news outlet in the world that I’m aware of which actually has a dedicated section on the environment. The NYT has recently added, thankfully, the DotEarth blog.

    It’s worth noting too that, while ScienceBlogs has a category for the environment, it does not to my knowledge have any blog dedicated to climate change issues nor any climate scientists among its bloggers.

  2. #2 Dave Eaton
    December 20, 2007

    For example, when the wild fires hit California earlier this year, the event could have served as a major opportunity for environmental groups to engage the public.

    When a fire turns out to have been arson, though, the ‘frame’ shifts, and those tying the fire to global warming look idiotic. This diminishes respect for the messenger and the message.

    Another problem is that heat waves and high gas prices are not particularly clean demonstrations of AGW. For example, there are a variety of easily perceived political reasons for gas price increases. To oversell AGW might well be to dilute the impact of the message. The Day After Tomorrow effect, maybe.

    I wonder if this is not what has already happened to some extent. The drone of the message is incessant, and yet the problem gets no traction. Perhaps it is too much to ask people to worry about polar bears and ice sheets and a 0.6K degree warming over a century, despite the implications of these things.

    Rather than going down the dangerous road of tying specific events to AGW, which is, frankly, not easy to do and stay scientifically honest anyway, perhaps a better strategy would be to try to concretize the practical problems and solutions.

    Telling people that an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emission is needed by 2050 is too intangible. Someone (I forget where) pointed out that this would mean reducing the emissions of the entire world to that of Switzerland. (How this could be done and not return average people to serfdom is a pretty important question.) They also pointed out that China is on track to add emissions equivalent equivalent to the entire country of Germany every year for the near term. This is a bit depressing, but it frames the problem very tangibly, and exposes several post-Kyoto political issues, the most glaring being that it really isn’t a viable strategy to exempt developing countries from emission targets. And that changing all our lights to CFs probably won’t suffice.

  3. #3 MikeB
    December 20, 2007

    While its true that tying particular events to climate change can backfire, its clear that California (and other western states)have been in a state of drought for some time, with some thinking that Southern California may now be permanently ‘dry’.
    So saying something along the lines of ‘these conditions are exactly the sort of effects we are likely to see with climate change’ is honest, while hardly overstating the case. Sadly, the media will always ask the unanswerable question, while the public will ignore the problem unless it directly affects them. Framing the events in California in this way takes care of both.

  4. #4 Trinifar
    December 20, 2007

    [I removed the two links in this comment because it apparently caused it to get caught in the spam filter.]

    This is the most disturbing news media information I’ve seen in quite a while — and I’ve seen quite a bit. Climate change not even in the top 20?!

    Even conceding that Americans are not the most educated people in the world and not too interested in what is going on in other countries, I don’t believe we think global climate change should not be in the top 20 most covered news stories. I think you yourself have published information supporting this idea. I know others have.

    So, the blame — and this is a case where blame should be clearly allocated — lies in the corporate owners of the news media. They are either leaving the decisions on what is covered to those they’ve hired to run their news programs, in which case they need to fire them and hire people who are more responsible, or they are dictating what’s going to be “news” and what’s not, in which case we need to fire the corporate owners and take back our news so it serves the public interest.

    Still, the Guardian is the only major news outlet in the world that I’m aware of which actually has a dedicated section on the environment. The NYT has recently added, thankfully, the DotEarth blog.

    It’s worth noting too that, while ScienceBlogs has a category for the environment, it does not to my knowledge have any blog dedicated to climate change issues nor any climate scientists among its bloggers.

  5. #5 Randy Olson
    December 22, 2007

    It’s nice to dream of a world where the mass media could actually provide leadership and responsibility to society, but unfortunately there’s no sign that the U.S. will ever be that world. Our media are for-profit ventures, which means they go with what gets ratings. Like spending 15 out of 30 minutes on the evening news on a child abduction (happens all the time in L.A.) when the rest of the world is in conflict.

    The system isn’t going to change anytime soon, so if people really want to continue to fuel interest in global warming, there had better be major efforts directed towards finding creative solutions for how to communicate it.

    The Al Gore movie was certainly very important and effective in the short term, but unfortunately it generated a great deal of “enough already” sentiment throughout the general public. The net result is a feeling of exhaustion with the topic. Its a shame Al’s movie couldn’t have been a musical comedy that people would want to watch over and over again. Instead, its a maudlin piece about a guy who got chumped out of the white house. Too bad for global warming in the long term.

  6. #6 Trinifar
    December 24, 2007

    Randy, are you aware of the documentary that Dave Gardner is making?

  7. #7 CAMILLE M. GARFIN
    October 4, 2008

    this website is so cool i can find many ideas to write for my homework and in my news writing contest

  8. #8 Hakan
    December 16, 2008

    Nice list : )

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