Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
Question: What is the most surprising thing that you’ve learned from your research?
Matthew Nisbet: Well I think one of the more surprising things and this is something that I’m going to be following and blogging about, is some of the reports that have come out of the Pew Research Center. In these analyses they’re looking at what exactly are people talking about at blogs, in this new media ecosystem, whether it’s blogs, whether it’s independent media, whether it’s Twitter or whether it’s Facebook. Where is that content coming from?
And in one particular study that they looked at they looked at the media ecosystem surrounding Baltimore, Maryland and in that study what they found is roughly on average 90% of the topics that were being talked about at blogs or other independent media originated with traditional news organizations—in particular either the local newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, or the national newspapers and their online version. That tells me that while a lot of people claim that the traditional media is no longer relevant, in fact, we fundamentally rely upon the traditional media, the role of the traditional journalist as an independent professional news gatherer to inform ourselves and it is the fabric of what we discuss online and without the traditional news… that traditional news gathering process we really wouldn’t have a lot of good content and we wouldn’t have a lot of original reporting elsewhere online.
The other really interesting thing is more recently they looked at the major blogs and they looked… an analysis of the major blogs, public affairs related blogs and they looked at what those blogs are discussing and where they’re links are going to. And in more than 90% of the topics discussed in the links were back to the traditional media. And that is also interesting because people claim now that the blogosphere now has this ability to control the news agenda. Well that is not necessarily the case. The blogs are still influenced and they’re still driven by what is being reported at the New York Times or on the broadcast news or on the cable news networks or political talk radio. It’s that they take that content and they sometimes refocus it. They redirect it. They shape that agenda to either be in a certain ideological direction. They might reframe the significance and the information that is being reported on, or they might take the agenda of the traditional media and focus in on just a few topics—whether it’s foreign policy, climate change or a particular political scandal.
Question: Now that there are so many specialized and niche purveyors of the news, do Americans know less about general things than they used to?
Matthew Nisbet: You know, there's a couple things to think about when you’re considering the tendency towards self-selection and self-exposure to different topics and public knowledge. One is that going back three or four of five decades to the 1960s when we’ve asked in surveys quiz-like questions about the public’s knowledge of the most basic political facts or the basic facts about issues related to science or the environment inevitably the public scores very low in these fundamental quiz-like surveys about either public affairs literacy or science literacy. So that hasn’t changed, and in fact what we’ve seen over the last 15 years is that public knowledge and public scores in those types of questions remain relatively stable. It’s a question though whether that is the best measure of public knowledge or of civic culture.
One of the things that we’re seeing is actually not necessarily a decline in basic public knowledge, but a real problem at getting public attention and elevating public concern about many different issues. The environment is a great example or climate change is a great example and this is a problem really fundamentally of choice. It’s the great paradox of the age of engagement that today we have more information choices about public affairs, politics, science, health, medicine, the environment than any time in history. Yet if you as a consumer of information or as a member of the audience or an individual lack a preference or a motivation to engage with that news and information on a regular basis you can completely avoid that information. It’s not top-of-mind and it becomes that much more difficult then to really raise the type of political will necessary to get things done in this country on issues like climate change, immigration, social security, healthcare, you name the public problem.
Recorded on July 28, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman