Despite the complementary nature of the work, Holland argues that Nisbet and Scheufele’s article “doesn’t jive well” with the findings of their close colleagues at the University of Wisconsin. First, Holland alleges that Nisbet and Scheufele recommend that scientists employ research on framing to become advocates for specific political issues and policies, when in fact they explicitly argue against this position. Holland then pits this false interpretation against his misleading depiction of the study co-authored by Brossard, claiming that scientists hold deep reservations about contributing to debates over policy issues. Holland asserts that their reluctance stems from a fear of social sanctions from their peers and department chairs.
In fact, the study’s results do not support these claims. Rather, as detailed above, they show that scientists as a group feel a social responsibility to communicate with the public relative to policy debates and that this partially motivates their interactions with journalists. Yet Holland concludes that scientists lack the time and expertise to either learn about or work on public communication initiatives, and that communication should be left to the professionals like him.
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.