To further support his preferred narrative, Holland dismisses several decades of research in the social sciences on framing. “Nisbet calls it ‘framing’—I call it ‘journalism,” Holland writes.

Journalism, of course, can be very powerful in its storytelling and its ability to engage segments of the public. The very best journalists have an understanding and appreciation for their audience. Scientists—and academics generally—can learn a lot from veteran journalists when it comes to effective communication.

Yet professional experience, skill, and careful reporting can only go so far. We are all subject to our own perceptual biases, and these biases are magnified within the press office and the newsroom, where norms and organizational pressures can lead to “group think” among PIOs and journalists alike. As Nisbet and Scheufele note in their article, many traditional approaches to science coverage have inadvertently favored highly educated audiences. For example, in past research on the origins of “knowledge gaps” among the public, studies find that audiences with high socioeconomic status showed much stronger learning effects from science and health coverage than audiences with low socioeconomic status.

The reason is that outlets such as PBS’s NOVA, The New York Times, and science magazines tailor their content to relatively highly educated audiences. As a result, learning effects for wider audiences are likely to be minimal, even if these audiences happen to tune in to NOVA or read an article in the Times.

These knowledge gaps are often reinforced by universities and research institutions, which focus most of their media outreach on placing stories at these venues. In his chapter in the Field Guide for Science Writers, Holland describes 95 percent of the work of his office at Ohio State as disseminating press releases about a new scientific study or conference paper.

Not only are a select few media outlets traditionally favored, but past research shows that PIOs and journalists tend to focus on the same recurring dimensions of a complex topic such as climate change, selectively defining the problem in specific ways (emphasizing environmental ramifications over economic ones, for instance). Yet with these repetitive and selective patterns in coverage, PIOs and journalists may be doing their audiences a disservice, covering important dimensions of environmental impacts (such as disappearing polar ice and glaciers) while ignoring public health risks or local adaptation efforts—angles that are highly relevant and useful to audiences.

Research from the social sciences on framing offers a theoretical context and method for structuring communication around dimensions of an issue that might increase public attention, trust, and understanding. Frames are interpretive storylines that set a specific train of thought in motion, communicating why an issue might be a problem, who or what might be responsible for it, and what should be done about it.

Framing, it should be noted, is not synonymous with spinning an issue, although some experts, advocates, journalists, and policymakers certainly spin evidence and facts. Rather, in an attempt to remain true to what is conventionally known about an issue, as a communication necessity, framing can be used to pare down information, giving greater weight to certain considerations and elements over others.

The inter-disciplinary research on framing has many useful applications. In separate projects funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Science Foundation, Nisbet, Scheufele, Brossard, and colleagues are studying how framing applies to effective communications about climate change and nanotechnology. As part of this research, social science techniques such as in-depth interviews, surveys, and media analysis are used to systematically identify the metaphors, examples, and mental frameworks that the public, journalists, and experts use to understand, discuss, and make choices about the issue.

Following peer review and publication, this research will then inform government agencies, universities, and media producers on how to better reach specific groups within the general public, build trust, and adapt their communication efforts to non-elite audiences. (Similar research on framing and climate change was recently profiled in a cover story at The New York Times Magazine and discussed in a report (pdf) by the American Psychological Association.)

Emphasizing conflict over context

Framing is one of the most prominent explanatory models that the social sciences can apply to understanding public engagement. Researchers agree there is no such thing as an unframed message. Every form of communication relies on signals that play to socially shared schemas held by audiences. The question, therefore, is how messages are framed, rather than if they are framed. Understanding this process and translating it into practice requires research.

Matt Nisbet, Dominique Brossard, Dietram Scheufele are professors. Nisbet is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. Brossard and Scheufele are professors in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.