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Media Relations

Q&A: Matthew C. Nisbet

Environmental Issues

Framing Science

In the first of our forthcoming series of interviews with American University faculty, they share their expert perspectives on the day’s most pressing issues. Communication professor Matthew C. Nisbet explains why focusing on looming environmental disaster is not the best way to engage the public on climate change.

Q: What is "framing" and why is it important?

MN: "Framing—as a concept and an area of research—spans several social science disciplines including political communication and media sociology. To "frame" a complex policy problem establishes a specific train of thought or storyline, communicating why an issue might be a problem, who or what might be responsible, and what should be done about it.  

Framing is an unavoidable reality of the communication process, especially as applied to public affairs and policy. Audiences not only rely on frames to make sense of and discuss an issue; but journalists use frames to craft interesting and appealing news reports; policymakers apply frames to define policy options and reach decisions; and experts employ frames to simplify technical details and make them persuasive. There is no such thing as unframed information, and most successful communicators are adept at framing, whether using frames intentionally or intuitively.

The choice therefore as a journalist, expert, or advocate is not whether to employ framing, but rather how to effectively frame a message for your audience. Of course, if research on framing is applied to communication strategy, it needs to be used responsibly. Journalists, experts, and advocates alike must respect the uncertainty that is inherent to any complex policy debate and resist engaging in hyperbole or offering concrete answers when there are none. If these groups stray from accurately conveying what is conventionally known about an issue, they risk losing public trust."

Q: What, in your opinion, is the most pressing scientific issue in need of being reframed in the United States, and why does it need to be reframed (what about the communication of this issue has not worked to win over broader public support)?

MN: "Many scientists hope that the time has finally arrived in the U.S. for major policy action on climate change. Yet although the Obama administration is committed to addressing climate change, the necessary level of public engagement with the issue still appears to be missing. Studies show that the public strongly remains divided along partisan lines and that the issue remains a bottom tier policy priority for the majority of Americans.

A disengaged public means that democratic principles are at stake. Policies to address climate change will bear directly on the future of Americans, impacting their pocketbooks, lifestyles, and local communities. These decisions are therefore too significant to leave to just elected officials and experts; citizens need to be actively involved and engaged in the policy process.

Historically, in an attempt to boost public engagement, most climate change communication efforts have focused on increasing the amount of quality news coverage about climate science. Communication has been defined as a process of transmission—that is, the scientific facts are assumed to speak for themselves with their relevance and policy significance interpreted by all audiences in similar ways. Unfortunately, quality news coverage is only likely to reach a small audience of already informed and engaged citizens. Just as in other debates, such as stem cell research, abortion, or gun control, the rest of the public either ignores the coverage or reinterprets competing claims based on partisanship or self-interest, a tendency confirmed across several decades by public opinion research.

As an alternative strategy for generating greater public engagement, many environmental advocates and some journalists have attempted to reframe the issue in terms of "climate crisis." For example, Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth and in public speeches has relied on dramatic depictions of specific climate impacts, including hurricane devastation, polar bears perched precariously on shrinking ice floes, scorched, drought-stricken earth, blazing wild fires, or famous cities or landmarks under water due to future sea-level rise.

This environmental catastrophe frame, however, is either not personally relevant enough to build broad-based support for action, is dismissed as remote and far off in the future, or is easily challenged as "alarmism," shifting public attention back to a paralyzing and false narrative that emphasizes contrarian views of climate science."

Q: How would you reframe this issue to win broader public support?

MN: "Successfully reframing climate change means remaining true to the underlying science of the issue, while applying research from communication and other fields to tailor messages to the existing attitudes, values, and perceptions of different audiences, making the complex policy debate understandable, relevant, and personally important. Newly emerging perceptual contexts hold the promise of resonating with a broader coalition of Americans and social groups. Over time, these new meanings for climate change are likely to be key drivers of public engagement and, eventually, policy action.

For example, Al Gore's more recent WE campaign has emphasized the moral imperative to to "repower America" through new energy technology and increased energy efficiency. WE campaign advertisements compare action on global warming to the struggle to win World War II or to the Civil Rights movement while emphasizing the opportunity for economic growth through investment in clean energy technology. Other WE TV spots, which feature actors as ranchers, construction workers, and auto workers, emphasize clean energy policies as leading to job creation and growth. Importantly, these ads are placed during day time talk shows, entertainment programming, and in leisure magazines, all of which reach non-news audiences who might not otherwise be paying attention to news coverage of the issue.

A second example of the moral imperative to take action is scientist E.O. Wilson's best-selling 2006 book The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. In this book, Wilson frames environmental stewardship as not only a scientific matter, but also as a religious one. In penning the book as an open letter to a Baptist minister, he acknowledges that as an atheist, he might hold a different belief regarding the origin of the earth, but he also shares a common value and respect for nature, what the Bible symbolically calls "creation."

With this frame, Wilson has engaged Christian readers and media outlets that might not otherwise pay attention to popular science books or appeals related to climate change. Paralleling Wilson's interpretation, an increasing number of Christian leaders, including Pope Benedict XVI and evangelicals such as Richard Cizik and Rick Warren, are emphasizing the religious duty to be "stewards" of God's creation.

The public health implications of climate change have also emerged as a potentially powerful interpretive resource for engaging the public. This frame makes climate change personally relevant to new audiences by connecting the issue to health problems that are already familiar and perceived as important such as childhood asthma, food borne illness; and urban heat waves. The frame also shifts the geographic location of impacts, replacing visuals of remote Arctic regions, animals, and peoples with more socially proximate neighbors and places across local communities and cities. Coverage at local television news outlets and specialized urban media is also generated.

Research I am conducting with several colleagues uses in-depth interviews and sophisticated survey and experimental techniques to further explore, identify, and test these frames across audiences. With so much focus on media portrayals and advertising campaigns, it is also important not to overlook interpersonal sources of information. A recent study I published systematically reviews how to recruit and train opinion-leaders to pass on selectively framed information about climate change that resonates with the background of a particular segment of the public and that addresses their personal information needs."

Q: Severe cut backs in mainstream news media will likely lead to even less coverage of scientific issues. What opportunities -if any- do you see in social or participatory media for improving science communication?

MN: "New forms of social and participatory media are important in two ways. First, framing is not simply a one-way process of influence from advocates, experts, and journalists to the public. On a range of issues, many members of the public use as communication resources their own personal experience, culture, or specialized knowledge. In combination with media coverage, these resources enable citizens to reason and talk about a complex policy issue in their own familiar terms, allowing citizens to participate in a "bottom up" framing of issues. Research in sociology for example has tracked how grassroots social movements use frames to mobilize members and connect groups into advocacy coalitions. With new forms of user-centered and user-controlled digital media such as blogs, online video, and social media sites, "bottom up" alternative frames are gaining greater influence in policy debates over issues such as climate change.

Second, government and foundation-led initiatives should focus on building a "participatory" public media infrastructure for science and environmental information. Most local newspapers have cut meaningful coverage of science and the environment. As a result, many communities lack the type of relevant news and information that is needed to adapt to environmental challenges or to reach collective choices about issues such as nanotechnology and biomedical research.

As a way to address these local-level information gaps, government and foundation funding can transform public television and radio organizations into community science information hubs. These initiatives would partner with universities, museums, and other local media outlets to share digital content that is interactive and user-focused. The digital portals would feature in depth reporting, blogs, podcasts, shared video, news aggregation, user recommendations, news games, social networking, and commenting.

We should think of these new models for non-profit science media as an integral part of the infrastructure that local communities need to adapt to climate change, to move forward with sustainable economic development, and to participate in the national policy debate. A community without a quality source of science information—packaged in a way that is accessible and relevant to most members of that community—will be ill prepared to make careful decisions about costs, risks, benefits, and ethics."

Nisbet on the Environment

Matt Nisbet

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