A crucial component of the present-day understanding of media is the extent that traditional and modern forms have become interconnected with many other aspects of our lives. Referred to as a media ecology, Lester and Foxwell-Norton (2020) note that media has expanded beyond its traditional boundaries to become inseparable from our social lives and is central for understanding many events. Perhaps as a result, the reach of media is expanding beyond regional contexts, due in part to increased user-choice in the wider media space and how the subjects of media reports are perceived or actually affect the livelihoods of readers beyond intended audiences (Lester & Foxwell-Norton, 2020). As media genres and systems adapt to changes in desired utility, they increasingly rely on emulating the communication strategies of their media peers or on implementing changes to differentiate themselves. Nevertheless, the influential power of media cannot be ignored, especially regarding the dissemination of research-based information.
Given the incredible power and influence of media, it is worrying to read assertions that in some settings there is a fundamental disconnect between public debate, policy outcomes, and science (Lester & Foxwell-Norton, 2020). Part of this disconnect can be attributed to the increasingly interactive and changing environment within the communication space. Effective sharing of information is not guaranteed, even for global corporations and media companies. While traditional institutions like governments, universities, and non-government organizations (NGOs) can still have significant influence, they can be undermined or forced to change direction by relatively small, but sophisticated operations (Lester & Foxwell-Norton, 2020). Navigating this communication space, especially with regard to conservation and conservation-related topics, requires additional expertise. In this post, we discuss several recent papers and a book chapter about traditional and social media that highlight conservation subjects and related misinformation. These publications provide insights about the relevance of the media within the larger sphere of research communication globally.
Communication Difficulties in Environmental and Conservation Contexts
Within environmental and conservation contexts, researchers may face difficulties in sharing their findings due to their perceived utility of particular communication strategies. Regrettably, communication to public audiences may be given a low priority by researchers and be viewed as a supplementary activity rather than a central component of research projects (Lester & Foxwell-Norton, 2020). Further, many researchers have tended to favour a very traditional sender-receiver model of communication, which fails to be compatible within a politicized environment and the public’s desire for dialogue. Effective outreach requires more effort and collaboration with communication specialists than perhaps has been emphasized in the past.
The news media play an important role in the public’s awareness of environmental issues in Canada. Media discourse on such issues varies widely depending on the media type or organization, their motivation to report on a story, and the stance on the issue at hand. For example, differences between reporting may depend on media ownership. As Chen (2020) notes, independent outlets may focus more on environmental impacts, compared to the economic lens favoured by their commercial counterparts. Readers should be aware that media outlets have their own agenda and inherent biases. Through news media, reporters may be able to control messages about issues communicated to the public, which in turn can affect policy outcomes and the level of understanding the public has on what is being reported (Shiffman et al., 2021). If stakeholders of an environmental issue lack important information, targeted outreach campaigns can be used to address knowledge gaps or biases in stakeholder understanding and awareness regarding environmental controversies (Shiffman et al., 2021). In this way, communication of research-based information can influence public perception. However, what happens when research-based information does not reach the public through news outlets? The recent study by Shiffman et al. (2021) illustrates what may occur. In an analysis of 102 newspapers worldwide they found gaps and biases exist in the media coverage of marine species conservation where information from some “messengers” is incorporated more frequently than others in the news accounts. Most notably, the opinions and perceptions of NGOs and activists were reported more often rather than the results of research (Shiffman et al., 2021).
In recent years, social media have become the primary source of information for many. Similar to the news media, social media can fulfil the role of mediator between researchers and the public, but the unique characteristics of social media shape and spread information in different ways (Mueller-Herbst et al., 2020). While traditional news media are sought out intentionally, social media often expose users to issues incidentally through their feeds (Mueller-Herbst et al., 2020). When combined with the diversity of social media users, this incidental encounter allows research to reach new audiences who would not normally read scientific journalism (Mueller-Herbst et al., 2020). Mueller-Herbst et al. (2020) suggest that social media’s interactive nature could solve the problem of one-way communication by presenting a mechanism for conversation between scientists and the public. However, while social media can increase public engagement with scientific research, they can also spread fringe theories and misinformation to wider audiences (Scheufele et al., 2021).
Although misinformation has always existed, social media have enabled its distribution at an unprecedented rate (Scheufele et al., 2021). Wardle (2020) defines misinformation as false or misleading information that is spread by a person who believes it is true. Scientists often think that communicating science-based evidence to the public will stop misinformation, but research shows that people tend to believe and share misinformation because it aligns with their identity or worldview, not because they necessarily lack scientific knowledge (Scheufele et al., 2021; Wardle, 2020). Social media algorithms enable dissemination of misinformation, creating echo chambers that reinforce beliefs and social identities in order to maintain user engagement (Scheufele et al., 2021). Rather than targeting individual people or beliefs, successfully combatting misinformation could instead lie with changing the social media context that enables its diffusion (Scheufele et al., 2021).
If researchers wish to be effective in outreach to the public, particularly various diverse groups therein, they need to understand the utility and impact of traditional news and social media. In order to promote public education, research-based information relevant to particular contexts should be included in media reports, especially in cases of environmental controversy. In the latter, misinformation can be common. Relying on one-way communication will not overcome the presence of misinformation. Instead, scientists need to understand and respect social contexts when framing messages disseminated in either traditional news or social media and aim for active engagement with the public.
Chen, S. (2020). Debating resource-driven development: A comparative analysis of media
coverage on the Pacific Northwest LNG project in British Columbia. Frontiers in
Communication, 5, 66. https://doi.org/10.3389/fcomm.2020.00066
Lester, L., & Foxwell-Norton, K. (2020). Citizens and science: Media, communication and conservation. In W. J. Sutherland, P. N. M. Brotherton, Z. G. Davies, N. Ockendon, N. Pettorelli, & J. A. Vickery (Eds.), Conservation research, policy and practice (Chapter 16, pp. 265-276). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108638210.016
Mueller-Herbst, J. M., Xenos, M. A., Scheufele, D. A., & Brossard, D. (2020). Saw it on
Facebook: The role of social media in facilitating science issue awareness. Social Media + Society, 6(2), 205630512093041. https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305120930412
Scheufele, D. A., Krause, N. M., & Freiling, I. (2021). Misinformed about the “infodemic?”
Science’s ongoing struggle with misinformation. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 10(4), 522-526. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jarmac.2021.10.009
Shiffman, D. S., Macdonald, C. C., Wester, J. N., Walsh, M. B., Chevalier, A., Kachelriess, D., & Friedman, K. J. (2021). Marine species conservation at CITES: How does media coverage inform or misinform? Marine Policy, 134, 104813. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2021.104813
Wardle, C. (2020, September 22). Understanding information disorder. First Draft. Retrieved from https://firstdraftnews.org/long-form-article/understanding-information-disorder/
Authors: Steven Gerk, Emily Hillman, and Michaela Mayer
This blog post is part of a series of posts authored by students in the graduate course “The Role of Information in Public Policy and Decision Making” offered at Dalhousie University.