Science Needs a Storyline

The question is not if, but how scientists should frame their research

Journalists choose an angle for every story they write. Should scientists do the same when explaining the import of their research to reporters and the public? In a column at The Observatory last week, Earle Holland argued it would be better if they left that to the pros.

Holland cites two recent research articles on science communication that we published as respective co-authors. Unfortunately, Holland renders the false impression that the two pieces are highly contradictory. In fact, they are strongly complementary, and both support the case for scientists learning to better explain their work. By favoring a conflict narrative over context, he sacrifices accuracy for a good storyline, distorting the nature of a major area of research in the social sciences.

Holland, who directs the research communications office at The Ohio State University, considers his trade journalism. As a senior figure among public information officers (PIOs), he argues in a chapter in the Field Guide for Science Writers that the first priority for PIOs should be to serve their readers by operating as honest brokers who augment the ability of the traditional news media to report on scientific studies. PIOs, according to Holland, should follow norms of careful and independent reporting, crafting their news releases as if they were traditional media stories, emphasizing accuracy and context.

Yet in his Observatory column, Holland violates many of his own long-standing recommendations.

In the first peer-reviewed article (pdf), Nisbet and Scheufele synthesize past research on how the public makes sense of and participates in science-related controversies. They also discuss the ethics and goals of public outreach and detail six types of communication initiatives that can be sponsored by science organizations, government agencies, and universities. One of their recommendations is that universities provide communication courses and new interdisciplinary degree programs for scientists and students. Not every scientist has the motivation, time, or the ability to work on public outreach, but these courses and degree programs provide knowledge, skills, and confidence for those who do.

Nisbet and Scheufele also recommend that science organizations and universities invest in careful formative and evaluative research, identifying trusted information sources across audience segments, as well as the “frames” of reference that different audiences apply in making sense of a complex topic. Effective public communication “is not a guessing game, it is a science” they note.

Finally, Nisbet and Scheufele warn that “public communication and engagement should not be conceived of as simply a way to ‘sell’ the public on the importance of science; or to persuade the public to view scientific debates as scientists and their allies do.” Any efforts to do so are “likely to only reinforce existing polarization and perceptual gridlock.” The goals of public engagement should be to promote public dialogue, build trust, and enable wider public participation in collective decision-making.

In the second peer-reviewed article (pdf), Brossard and co-authors at the University of Wisconsin report on a survey of U.S. scientists, documenting the frequency of their contacts with the news media and their motivations for engaging journalists. The study offers good news: Roughly two out of three scientists had at least one contact with journalists in the three years prior to the survey, and more than a quarter had over five contacts. Not unexpectedly, senior scientists interacted more frequently with journalists than their junior colleagues. Formal communication training was the second strongest predictor of such interaction, however. An additional motivator was the belief by scientists that their media outreach would boost technical, practical, ethical, and social understanding and contribute to debates about policy. However, concerns over negative publicity or possible sanctions from their peers were not a statistically significant influence.

Audience research, not journalism

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.

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.

By arguing that communications should be left to public information officers and not to scientists, Holland simplistically defines a complex issue in terms of conflict, pitting one group of researchers against the other. Reducing the argument to a question of “to frame or not to frame,” is not just simplistic, but also scientifically inaccurate. Perhaps worse, Holland reports on technical research articles without interviewing the researchers involved. Somewhat embarrassingly, he also fails to recognize that the two teams of researchers are long time collaborators, and that Scheufele and Brossard are colleagues in the same department. No doubt, if we were on the faculty at Ohio State, Holland the reporter would likely get a call from Holland the public information officer.

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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.