Humans are currently experiencing an information overload. We are bombarded with information from the moment we start our day; texts from friends, social media updates, and news headlines stream into our consciousness at an unprecedented volume. Of course, this deluge has associated costs and benefits. On the one hand, we are better connected and better informed than ever before. On the other, we consistently have to sort through the information we receive in order to find truth, make decisions, and form opinions. Uptake of information can be influenced by a number of factors, including trust in the information sources, presence of misinformation, personal characteristics such as age or gender of the sender and receiver, and the channel by which someone receives information (Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007). Thus, it is not only important to consider what information is being provided to a particular audience but how, when, where, and by whom. The way in which information is communicated is important, as it can change people’s attitudes towards a particular issue, and should therefore be considered carefully.
The role of information and the ways in which it is communicated to diverse audiences is gaining attention within environmental resource management. Recent findings suggest that in order to ensure better dissemination and application of environmental information, scientists must consider the human dimensions (Sale et al., 2014). For example, researchers examined trust among stakeholders in the Great Barrier Reef to determine how interpersonal relationships impacted information use (MacKeracher, Diedrich, Gurney, & Marshall, 2018). Another study analyzed the preferred information channels of stakeholders, and how those preferences influenced their patterns of information-related activities (Wilkins, Miller, Tilak, & Schuster, 2018). The renewed focus on social influences affecting information use is necessary for improving science communication.
Effectively communicating information becomes particularly important during potentially conflicting environmental processes, including establishment of Marine Protected Area (MPA), which was the focus of this study. While increasingly common in Canada, especially with the rise of global conservation targets, MPAs can be a polarizing topic. The effectiveness and social equity of MPAs is occasionally called into question, particularly in settings that rely heavily on marine resources for income and subsistence (De Santo, 2013). To address misconceptions and misgivings surrounding MPAs, considerable time and energy must be spent prioritizing the human factors during establishment proceedings and understanding which methods of communication will contribute to a greater uptake of relevant and reliable information, and ultimately, for support of MPAs. However, studies have yet to fully understand the role of information within a marine protected area consultation process, despite its importance in shaping people’s behaviours and attitudes.
It was due to this knowledge gap that I began research for my Master’s project, which concluded in a report titled: “Information source and channel preference in marine policy development: A case study of the Nova Scotian Eastern Shore Islands Area of Interest consultation process” (Moreland, 2020). In my study, I aimed to answer the following questions: how do stakeholders use information during an MPA consultation process? Do issues of trust and misinformation impact their information-related activities? My case study focused on the Eastern Shore Islands Area of Interest (ESI AOI) consultation process, which evolved throughout the study period. To address the research questions, I completed a literature review and conducted 10 semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders within the consultation process who represented five stakeholder groups. I wanted to determine their information use patterns, who they trusted to provide them with accurate information, how they handled misinformation, and what role they believed information played within this dynamic context.
The study results were illuminating. First, despite the diverse backgrounds of the interview participants, an overwhelming majority used information in the same way: they shared it to anyone in the consultation process that they felt should be aware of it. Not only was this activity seen as a “duty,” as part of the role they fulfilled as a primary stakeholder, it was also a way of promoting transparency and facilitating communication. Second, trust and misinformation significantly affected the stakeholders’ use of information during the consultation process. While accurate information and trust in sources were certainly important factors in the consultation process, mistrust and misinformation had a greater influence on stakeholders’ information-related activities. Many participants commented that the historical context of mistrust of government in the area and timing missteps were the primary stumbling blocks during the consultation process.
As an outcome of this study, I considered how marine resource managers can capitalize on synergies among stakeholders and address community complexities in order to communicate environmental information effectively and achieve marine conservation targets. I identified five recommendations that may benefit future marine policy consultation and implementation processes, specifically relating to information dissemination, information use, and trust in information.
First, managers should proactively assess the information needs of stakeholders that may arise during consultation processes and plan accordingly. This approach requires significant time and effort, as likely each community or region will have different priorities. However, this step is necessary for building a strong foundation among stakeholders and managers. Second, opportunities should be offered for stakeholders to form interpersonal relationships with each other. By doing so, tensions can be reduced and trust will be promoted during the consultation process. Third, attention should be given to appropriate timing of meetings, information dissemination, and engagement opportunities. Timing can make or break a consultation process and due attention should be given to this factor. Fourth, the impact of misinformation on consultation processes should be recognized, specifically misinformation spread via social media. This issue is likely to grow in complexity as society becomes more digitally connected and it is important to understand the potential challenges that lie ahead. Finally, continued support for information sharing among stakeholders should be provided. When appropriate (e.g., when information is not confidential), information sharing can promote understanding and transparency among stakeholders, which is especially beneficial during a potentially conflicting process, such as can occur during the creation of an MPA.
The results of this study highlight important implications for information dissemination during marine policy processes and for environmental decision-making more broadly. Perhaps the most critical outcome was the importance of context in determining trust in sources and the role it plays in effectively communicating environmental information. Information use and uptake is subjective, and varies from person to person. The context in which information is communicated, the medium, the source, and even individual personal history, will influence information use. Acknowledging this complexity and integrating it into the methods of communication with stakeholders will help in knowledge transmission and will aid in building more effective working relationships within resource management.
De Santo, E. M. (2013). Missing marine protected area (MPA) targets: How the push for quantity over quality undermines sustainability and social justice. Journal of Environmental Management, 124, 137-146. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2013.01.033
MacKeracher, T., Diedrich, A., Gurney, G., & Marshall, N. (2018). Who trusts whom in the Great Barrier Reef? Exploring trust and communication in natural resource management. Environmental Science and Policy, 88, 24-31. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2018.06.010
Moreland, H. (2020). Information source and channel preference in marine policy development: A case study of the Nova Scotian Eastern Shore Islands Area of Interest consultation process (Unpublished master’s report). Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Nutley, S. M., Walter, I., & Davies, H. T. O. (2007). What shapes the use of research? In Using evidence: How research can inform public services (pp. 61-90). Bristol: The Policy Press.
Sale, P. F., Agardy, T., Ainsworth, C. H., Feist, B. E., Bell, J. D., Christie, P., Hoegh-Guldberg,…Sheppard, C. R. C. (2014). Transforming management of tropical coastal seas to cope with changes of the 21st century. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 85, 8-23. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2014.06.005
Wilkins, E. J., Miller, H. M., Tilak, E., & Schuster, R. M. (2018). Communicating information on nature-related topics: Preferred information channels and source trust. PLoS ONE, 13(12), e0209013. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0209013
Author: Hali Moreland