Getting science skeptics to read more climate change news: An experiment

If newsrooms want climate science skeptics to read and share news about climate change, researcher Renita Coleman recommends they do this: Leave the terms “climate change” and “global warming” out of their coverage.

“Research seems to show that these are trigger words for skeptics,” said Coleman, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “This is what we found would trigger them to stop reading and immediately become hostile, [believing] ‘Oh, the story is biased or the media organization is biased.’”

Coleman is the lead author of a new paper investigating strategies to help journalists reach people who don’t believe in science. He and his colleagues conducted experiments that showed small changes in the way journalists cover climate change could potentially lead to substantial changes in the way skeptics engage with news.

In the experiment, after reading news stories that combined the three changes below, skeptics said they would likely seek out and share more news about climate change. They also said they would likely take steps to help mitigate the damage.

  • Replace “climate change” and “global warming” with the word “weather.”
  • Avoid mentioning who or what is causing climate change.
  • Very focused on solutions, or what the public can do to prepare for or adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Coleman said he discouraged journalists from taking this approach with all climate change stories. But they should consider doing it with a few, he and his co-authors explain in “Achieving a Science Skeptic: How Climate Change Adaptive Framing Generates Positive Responses Through Knowledge, Persuasion and Perceived Behavioral Control, published May 19 in Communication Research.

Other researchers working on the study were Esther Thorson, a journalism professor at Michigan State University, and Cinthia Jimenez and Kami Vinton, two doctoral students at the University of Texas at Austin.

“It’s not an ethical violation by any means to say nothing about what’s causing climate change,” explains Coleman, who, before entering academia, worked 15 years as a reporter, editor and designer at newspapers and magazines in Florida and North America. Carolina. . “Every story has things left behind, right? Leave this once in a while. Not all the time — sometimes.”

By making these changes, journalists can encourage more people to read and share their work, he said.

“It’s very important to reach these people who we don’t reach,” he continued. “We are not going to convert people who don’t believe climate change is man-made to believe. But we can make them want to read more information and talk to other people about it instead of shutting it down.”

To study the issue, Coleman and his colleagues recruited a sample of 1,200 US adults and asked them to read news articles about climate change and then answer a series of questions. They confirmed about half the people who participated were climate science skeptics.

The sample includes individuals from various demographic backgrounds. Three-quarters were white, 13.1% black, 4.3% Hispanic, 1.5% Asian, and 2.8% identified as “other”. In terms of education, 43% had a high school education or less, 30% completed some college, 16% had a bachelor’s degree and 11% had taken graduate-level courses or earned a bachelor’s degree.

The sample also represents different political ideologies. Nearly 37% of participants identified as Democrats, 26.8% were Republicans and 36.7% reported being Independent.

The authors recruited participants using Qualtrics, an organization that manages a group of people representing various demographic backgrounds who have agreed to complete an online survey. The researchers collected response data from September 23, 2019 to October 2, 2019.

For his experiment, Coleman created four stories about climate change based on actual news coverage. Participants were randomly assigned to read one of them.

Two of the stories focus on high temperatures in Missouri. Two reported marine flooding in Orange County, California. Each pair of stories is visually similar — for example, the articles are one page long, have no photos and are purported to be from The Associated Press. But they differ in terms of framing and word choice. One article in each pair blamed climate change and global warming while another avoided those terms and emphasized solutions such as preparing for changes in weather and sea levels.

The title for each pair is worded differently:

couple 1

Man-made global warming is pushing sea levels higher, say experts

Expert: City of Orange County must accelerate adaptation strategy for ocean encroachment

couple 2

With drought and heatwave ahead, Missouri grapples with the impacts of man-made climate change

Adaptation on the agenda as Missouri grapples with a hotter future

After reading their assigned article, participants responded to online questions about the article and their responses to it. One question, for example, asked participants to rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “I was annoyed by the story because it seemed to be trying to influence the audience” and “With this story approach people can do something to stop it. damage from [the issue featured in the story].”

Another question asked participants about the likelihood they would take this action in the future:

  • “Support spending taxpayer money to address these issues in the ways described in this story.”
  • “Elect elected officials who support this kind of planning.”
  • “Support described efforts to deal with [the problem featured].”

After analyzing the responses, the researchers realized that the framing and language of the news articles did make a difference. “Removing any references to what is causing climate change reduces the perception that news is trying to manipulate or persuade readers,” they wrote.

They added that “removing any reference to the causes of climate change and emphasizing the ability to adapt increases the degree to which people perceive themselves to be efficacious, responds more positively to the idea of ​​working together to protect us all and stop the damage, and that plans to adapt can work.”

The authors also note the importance of “emphasizing the word ‘adapt’ and its derivatives, which imply adjustment, modification, mitigation, and revision — all incremental changes that are easier to achieve than fundamental and transformational changes.”

Other scholars have shown that the language journalists use — and the repetition of certain words and phrases — can influence an audience’s interpretation of issues. Dietram Scheufele, Taylor-Bascom Chair in Science Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a 2019 interview with The Journalist’s Resource that “journalists have to be very careful, when it comes to endorsing one term or another.”

Scheufele explains that in 2014, White House science adviser John Holdren pushed for a new term to describe the impact of rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases on the planet. Holden argues that “global climate disturbances” capture phenomena more accurately than “global warming” and “climate change.”

Coleman and his colleagues’ work builds on previous research that suggested avoiding the term “climate change” could help generate support for sending humanitarian aid to areas hit by natural disasters. Climate science skeptics who participated in the experiment “reported greater justification for not helping victims when disasters are linked to climate change,” according to a paper published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science in 2016.

Coleman, Thorson, Jimenez and Vinton note their study has several limitations. The big one: Their experiment involved only two story pairs.

“Climate change has many specific problems and future studies should create and test more stories on different climate topics,” they wrote.

Also, their findings apply only to the sample of people who participated, not the US public as a whole.

Still, Coleman said, the findings offer important insights into how science skeptics engage and interpret news coverage of climate change. Future research, he added, could look at how skeptics respond to changes in framing and story language on other contested topics.

Coleman and his colleagues have experimented with similar changes to news articles about vaccines and found that vaccine skeptics respond to changes in a similar way to how climate science skeptics respond to changes in climate change coverage. The researchers presented their findings at the Association for Journalism and Mass Communication Education conference in 2020.

As scholars continue to investigate the matter, Coleman urges news outlets to consider what they might do to create the perception among some groups that they are trying to encourage their audience to take a certain attitude toward an issue. Not everyone is aware of how journalists do their job, he added.

“We do not [public relations] and we don’t advertise, but that’s not something people always get,” he notes. “We need to think a little more nuanced, if you will, about things like what we do to make people think we’re trying to persuade them when we know we’re not.”

If you’re looking for more help covering climate change, please see our tip sheet on journalist mistakes and how to fix them and our tip sheet on extreme weather reporting.

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