Precision or persuasion? The science of communicating environmental crises

Precision or persuasion? The science of communicating environmental crises
© Getty images

Most of us believe that we have the capacity to discern real from fake news, and important from trivial news items. We also presume that journalists and media outlets will support our efforts to tell fact from fiction.  Yet, examples of the opposite are increasingly common, especially in environmental news.  

For instance, on May 6 the U.N. released a devastating report about our planet’s biodiversity and how nearly 1 million species may face extinction from human activities.  Yet, within the first few days, only three of 26 primetime media outlets in the U.S. covered the news at all, and only two of 15 of Canada’s top English language newspapers had frontpage stories about the report.  Instead, the birth of the royal baby Archie dominated the news cycle.

The reality is that media outlets are failing to cover, highlight and contextualize news about environmental crises, like climate change, in ways that support and build the capacity of readers to understand the issue and its implications. 

ADVERTISEMENT

This failure can have important consequences because the media’s impact goes beyond informing us; media coverage also can shape values, attitudes, preferences and even policies.  Indeed, an analysis of a 25-year period showed that changes in public preference and adoption of new legislation were preceded by heavy coverage within major outlets like the New York Times and the Guardian.

Although coverage and placement of news stories are fundamentally important considerations, the manner in which issues are presented — or “framed” — matter enormously too.  Framing subtly alters the presentation of information in ways that highlight aspects to increase salience. A large body of evidence illustrates how both verbal and non-verbal tactics, such as word choice or images, profoundly influence our preferences and decisions.

Media outlets recognize the importance of framing. The Guardian, an independent UK newspaper, recently decided to shift the frames that it uses to shape public opinion, cultivate a sense of urgency, and move readers to action on key issues like climate change.  In an updated style guide released in May, the newspaper gives recommendations for “scientifically precise” terms to better communicate urgent environmental issues.  

Climate change, the guide states, ought now to be described as a “climate emergency, crisis, or breakdown”, “global warming” as "global heating;" "climate skeptic” as a “climate science denier". Why?  To avoid sounding “passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity,” explains the Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner. “People need reminding that the climate crisis is no longer a future problem – we need to tackle it now, and every day matters.” 

Improving communication by adopting scientifically-precise language is an appropriate and laudable goal, but the Guardian’s steps seem most intended to reframe the issue to raise concern, rather than address precision per se.  The recommended word choices are no more scientifically precise than the alternative terms.  For example, the editors recommend using “wildlife” instead of “biodiversity,” despite the fact that both terms are well-vetted in the scientific literature.  What is likely to differ, however, is the way the words resonate with the public — a framing issue. 

ADVERTISEMENT

In this case, the Guardian is employing what is called “emphasis framing,” in which specific words are deliberately selected to emphasize particular aspects of an issue — with the intent to influence opinion. For instance, research on the effects of using “global warming” versus “climate change” suggests that the different words made a distinct difference in how people interpreted the actual problem at hand. In this case, both Republicans and independents are less likely to believe climate change is real when it is referred to as “global warming” instead of climate change.

While there is nothing inherently wrong or manipulative about framing, the practice is most skillfully done when supported by empirical research that demonstrates how specific words being used actually influence preferences and opinions.  In other words, if we mandate use of particular frames, there should be a body of evidence to support that mandate. A failure to be evidence-based might increase the likelihood or severity of polarization, conflict and confusion in an environment when readers are already struggling to discern important from trivial news, and real from fake news.

Conversely, choosing words that are scientifically precise, easily understood and widely accepted by a broad audience may temper such polarization and promote a more holistic understanding.

Precision and persuasion matter and both can affect outcomes. By advocating for the use of and thoughtfully deploying certain words and terms based on evidence and framing research, media outlets like the Guardian have opportunity to engage wider audiences and spur action by the public and decision-makers alike.  

Josephine E. M. Martell is the associate director for research development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University.  

Amanda D. Rodewald is the Garvin professor and senior director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University and faculty fellow at Cornell University's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future

Views expressed in this column are theirs alone and do not represent those of these institutions.