Monday, February 15, 2010

Getting the point to the public

an argument for framing in science journalism

I am aware that I'm about to step into a full on forum war *dons his flame-retardant lab coat*, and that as a student I may be passing far beyond my area of expertise. However, I need to take issue to a post by DrugMonkey today. 

His post was mostly concerned with anonymity on the internet, but what bothered me was this:

Poor Matt Nisbet takes his lumps around these parts because his academic field is spin, sorry framing. This is the process within professional communication whereby the strictest and most precise depiction of the current state of knowledge about objective reality is...undervalued. Undervalued relative to driving home whatever broader themes and ideas the communicator happens to favor. Undervalued relative to rounding up votes on "your side", regardless of why such voters may favor your position.

I just launched into an independent study project to figure out how to do science journalism properly. One of the concepts that resonated most strongly, as someone concerned with effectively explaining science to the public, is framing. DrugMonkey's idea of equating framing to spin, and of communicators only pushing for 'votes', seems to belittle the role of science journalists. 
The problem science journalists run into is that, while objective reality is what really matters, most people don't care. Clearly and cleanly telling people about some new advancement just isn't enough to get the interest of people who aren't already interested

I'm going to go a little taboo here, and pull a (liberal sprinkling of) quotes from a paper by Nisbet.(1) Using the perceived enemy as my back-up maybe isn't the smartest plan, but whatever, I really like these quotes.

Historically, a prevailing assumption has been that ignorance is at the root of social conflict over science. As a solution, after formal education ends, science media should be used to educate the public about the technical details of the matter in dispute. Once citizens are brought up to speed on the science, they will be more likely to judge scientific issues as scientists do and controversy will go away. In this decades-old "deficit" model, communication is defined as a process of transmission. The facts are assumed to speak for themselves and to be interpreted by all citizens in similar ways. If the public does not accept or recognize these facts, then the failure in transmission is blamed on journalists, "irrational" public beliefs, or both.

There's the objective reality we all want, and as scientific types (I wonder how many non-science types are readers of ScienceBlogs?) we like to let the data speak for itself. Let's rephrase journalists there to whoever happens to be the talking head trying to convey the facts.  But the problem remains the same, people don't all interpret information the same way.

People like to use another construct called a schema to help make sense of the news.
(A schema is) a psychological structure that individuals use to receive, filter, and process information and to integrate new information and experiences into coherent clusters. A schema is a collection of knowledge, previous experience, and attitudes toward a subject (or attitude object) that an individual invokes when confronted with new information or a new event.(2)

Even worse, if they aren't already interested in the topic, they probably won't even read the story. This is where the skill of the communicator comes in. They have to make people care about something they normally wouldn't care about.

Effective communication will necessitate connecting a scientific topic to something the public already values or prioritizes, conveying personal relevance. And in people’s minds, these links are critical for making sense of scientific information. 

This is where framing comes in. Frames in a science story help convey the new research results in a way that people will understand.

You can't just go around making people's brains explode with super-cool new discoveries. You've gotta ease them into it. The frames Nisbet outlines (pic) can be used to organize a story to make sure the information gets across, because a dry reporting of the facts probably won't keep the reader past the second paragraph. 

This is, of course, all from the perspective of someone who wants to inform and educate. Not spin and misconstrue. But I think it's important to keep the tools and the possible results separated. 

1) Nisbet, Matthew C. and Scheufele, Dietram A. “What’s next for science communication? Promising directions and lingering distractions”. American Journal of Botany. 96. 10 (2009): 1767-1778.

2) Augenbraun, Eliene et al. “Adult Science Learning from Local Television Newscasts”. Science Communication. 28. 2 (2006). 216-242.


  1. My students and I had an interesting discussion recently on the balance between sticking absolutely to the objective facts of scientific research, and making your story more interesting by losing some of the nuance. When communicating to the public, the students agreed that interesting was better than nuance. As you say, if you don't grab 'em, they 'aint gonna learn anything.

    Have you seen this recent article in Nature? -

    That is one wicked comment thread on Nisbet's blog.

  2. Yeah that whole site is out of control right now on the topic of anonymity.

    The other thing I'm slowly finding out by going through the literature is that the big, hard-hitting, revolutionary feature..... doesn't work.

    If the idea is so new to people, even if they're captivated the whole way through the story, the only thing they'll learn is that the scientific concept you are talking about *exists*.

    It is almost better to go with a series of small articles if you want teach, but good luck convincing your editor to give you the space...

  3. Have you read Randy Olson's Don't Be Such a Scientist? I was Randy's teaching assistant in grad school and really think that his approach to science communication works well with students.

    And I agree that many scientists are bad communicators. I see it at conferences and when researchers come to our campus to talk to undergrads and the lay public. Even my science students that go to conferences remark on the poor quality of many of the talks.

  4. I haven't read it, but I'll definitely look into it! Thanks for the help, and the helpful comments!