The news media is a powerful agent that translates information across the science-policy interface to inform the general public of decisions made by policy-makers. However, news coverage is all too often shaped by political or cultural biases and the realities of the news business. These realities include journalistic norms and preferences that lead to news coverage that is event-driven, dramatic, and leans toward telling both sidesof a subject. With discourses of uncertainty surrounding issues such as climate change and vaccinations, effective scientific communication is needed (Lee, VanDyke, & Cummins, 2018). Researchers are, however, only beginning to understand how the conduits of scientific communications shape the messages and reach specific audiences.
A recent study tested the perception scientists held about the negative representation of ocean-related science in traditional US media as represented by four major newspapers. Johns and Jaquet (2018) conducted a qualitative analysis of the language used to describe ocean-related science stories in TheNew York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and TheWall Street Journalbetween 2001 and 2015. They determined that scientists’ perceptions of popular media discourse as being unduly negative were unfounded. Based on coding of the phrasing used in articles from these newspapers, the authors concluded that only 10% contained “doom and gloom” language, while 27% used optimistic terms, and nearly half (45%) “mentioned potential solutions to the problems described” (Johns & Jacquet, 2018, p. 142).
In both traditional and social media, the use of specific phrasing can bring into play an aspect of communications referred to as framing. As the term implies, framing sets the parameters under which a news story is understood by the audience. Tandoc and Eng (2017) report a survey finding by Whitemarsh (2009) from southern England about the effect of using the terms global warming and climate change in social media posts.“The term global warming tends to be associated with human causes, while climate change tends to be associated with natural causes. Furthermore, Johns and Jaquet (2018) point out that the framing of ocean-related science in apocalyptic terms can “contribute to skeptics’ ability to discredit scientists as unduly alarmist” (p. 146).
Even in newspapers known for their journalistic integrity, framing language about climate change that sensationalized the issue was evident. Johns and Jaquet (2018) found “quasi-religious references to doom, decay, or death” (p. 145) along with immensity of the problem.
Unlike traditional media studied by Johns and Jaquet, social media provides a way for organizations to connect and share information with the public, while eliminating reliance on journalists to act as gatekeepers of information. Social media engagement allows organizations to select purposefully the way science information is framed and presented to public audiences. Social media platforms can foster two-way communication and provide organizations with the opportunity to engage with the public in real-time. A recent study has shown that the credibility of science information is influenced by the perceptions or trust individuals have in both scientists and government organizations (Lee et al., 2018).
Although there have been proven scientific advantages for using digital communication and social media platforms to transmit information to the public, research has indicated that social media platforms differ in their ability to promote scientific information to the traditional media, decision makers, or general public. In a study conducted in 2018, Twitter was examined to determine whether it simply disseminated information from scientists to other scientists (in-reach), or whether it fostered the ability to disseminate information to other scientists as well other audiences (outreach). The study found that academic scientists begin with preaching to the choir, but as they acquire additional followers and retweets on social media, their method moves further to singing from the rooftops (Côté & Darling, 2018).
This problem of reaching like-minded audiences is only exacerbated online when people can self-select news stories and coalesce in self-made communities (e.g., Facebook and Twitter). Tandoc and Eng point out that “social media users usually have strong views on climate change…so the internet is divided into climate change skeptics or activists” (2017, p. 12).
As well, the contentious issue of disinformation, or “fake news” has become a pressing concern for many national and international institutions worldwide. The global cultural shift to an increasingly digital environment has created many opportunities for people to access and share diverse information and views, but has in turn exacerbated societal vulnerability to the volume of disinformation in circulation. Disinformation appears in different forms which range from low-risk to high-risk, depending on the level of public harm it has the potential to cause. Low-risk forms of disinformation include click-bait headlines or partisan political discourse, whereas more threatening forms include interference in political processes or malicious fabrications.
Combating disinformation is a priority for many governments whose democratic institutions and processes are threatened by the corrosive nature of “fake news.” In such an environment, it is highly challenging to retain the integrity of democratic political processes and values while disinformation is undermining public trust in the online information society and digital market.
The term “fake news” has been one of the most damaging nuances of disinformation in affecting public perception of information sources. The nature of disinformation is that it almost always incorporates fabricated information within real facts, which makes it more challenging for unsuspecting readers to identify fake news from real news. A report published by the European Commission (2018) looked at viable policy approaches to counter fake news and curb the spread of disinformation online, acknowledging that “highly polarized societies with low levels of trust provide a fertile ground for the production and circulation of ideologically motivated disinformation” (p. 11).
Institutions must apply caution in approaches to combat disinformation, as poorly executed practices such as censorship and online surveillance present risks to freedom of expression and public trust in the state. Those involved in public policy debates must focus on increased transparency and accountability and encourage improved public and media literacy with an aim to enhancing trust in research evidence and public institutions, as well as digital and traditional media outlets.
Côté, I. M., & Darling, E. S. (2018). Scientists on Twitter: Preaching to the choir or singing from the rooftops? Facets,3(1), 682–694.https://doi.org/10.1139/facets-2018-0002
European Commission, & Directorate-General for Communication Networks, Contents and Technology. (2018). A multi-dimensional approach to disinformation: report of the independent High Level Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation.Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. Retrieved fromhttps://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2759/739290
Johns, L. N., & Jacquet, J. (2018). Doom and gloom versus optimism: An assessment of ocean-related U.S. science journalism (2001-2015). Global Environmental Change, 50, 142–148. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2018.04.002
Lee, N. M., VanDyke, M. S., & Cummins, R. G. (2018). A missed opportunity?: NOAA’s use of social media to communicate climate science. Environmental Communication, 12(2), 274–283.https://doi.org/10.1080/17524032.2016.1269825
O’Neill, S., Williams, H. T. P., Kurz, T., Wiersma, B., & Boykoff, M. (2015). Dominant frames in legacy and social media coverage of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. Nature Climate Change,5(4), 380–385.https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2535
Tandoc, E. C., & Eng, N. (2017). Climate change communication in social media. In Oxford research encyclopedia, climate science. New York: Oxford University Press.https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228620.013.361
Authors:Brittany DeYoung, Ailsa Higgins, and Jay Jacobson
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.