The release of the IPCC Working Group II summary report (on climate change impacts) lead to a large number of stories on climate change in the media and, inevitably, lots of requests for media appearances for climate scientists on the journalists’ Rolodex. On the same day, there was a short article in Science on the ‘framing’ of science communication.
The Science piece, by Scibloggers Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet, make the point that the way science is expressed in public makes a difference to how it is received. So much, so uncontroversial. However, it generated some trenchant counter-arguments, (and counter-counter-arguments), possibly because they start off criticising a bit of a strawman ‘scientist’ who thinks that ‘if only laypeople better understood technical complexities… controversies would subside’. It’s certainly possible that such people exist, however, they are unlikely to be found among the scientists who are active in trying to communicate to the public. However, instead of arguing about this in a rather abstract way, I thought I’d illustrate the issue by discussing three interviews I did last Thursday and Friday in relation to the IPCC WG II release.
I was asked to do three TV appearances to discuss the upcoming report: CNN (World News Tonight), Bloomberg Media (Peter Cook’s Money and Politics) and the Weather Channel. Each interview was very different – CNN and the Weather Channel pre-taped them, Bloomberg was live. CNN’s interview was from a news reporter who knew the basics, who asked questions that she was interested in and ended up with answers that were comprehensible at the level of the average viewer. The Weather Channel interview was done by Heidi Cullen who is much more versed in the topic (and has a climate science background) and is very aware both of the real issues and the fake ‘pseudo-debates’ that often surround the topic. Her questions were spot on, but possibly at a higher level than would be appropriate on CNN. In both cases, the details of the new report were of less interest than the overall message that the IPCC reports and climate science community are giving.
The Bloomberg producers (who come with a very ‘Wall Street’ focus/attitude) however, still see this as a partisan political debate and while they had a brief factual intro from their reporter, they followed it with a spokesman from CEI, Christopher Horner – author of the “Incorrect guide to climate change” (I’ve possibly got the book title slightly wrong), – and then me. As you might expect, the subsequent 5 minute ‘conversation’ was neither informative nor entertaining, and I doubt that anyone watching was the least bit swayed, intrigued or had their curiosity piqued or their prejudices reinforced. Horner zipped through his grab-bag of talking points (mostly focussed on the imagined failings of the IPCC process), which probably went over the heads of any civilians watching, while I tried to stick to the point that climate change impacts have started and will likely get worse (when I could get a word in edgewise).
So what does this tell us about the ‘framing’ of the issue? First off, the interviewee doesn’t get to change the ‘frame’ in a 5 minute TV interview – however often you are on. Instead the frame is imposed mostly from the editorial and production decisions. It’s easy to see that the CNN and Weather Channel producers see climate change story in a ‘news event’ frame, for which they get outside expertise to explain some of the finer points. Bloomberg see this in a ‘political controversy’ frame and set up their interviews accordingly. Horner would like the frame to be about ‘political/scientific corruption’ which clearly appeals to some, but since he asks you to believe lawyers over scientists, it’s unlikely to get very far (scientists are roughly 3 times more ‘trusted’ than lawyers). Given the other channels decisions’ and the House/Senate hearing a couple of weeks ago, I think that this ‘framing’ has probably had its day but will likely linger on in some corners for a while.
How do frames shift then? Despite what some might think, it is a matter of education – not of the general public though (as welcome as that would be) – but of the gatekeepers: the journalists, editors and producers. Communication efforts are much more likely to succeed if they target the people who communicate for a living, rather than the general public directly. While the overall frame for climate change has clearly moved from ‘controversy’ to ‘news event’, there are still sub-issues that advocates for specific policy changes are fighting over – those are however, more subtle and aren’t so much of a problem of ‘pure’ science communication, and so I’ll leave it for others to discuss those.