The War, the Anna Nicole Media Frenzy, and the Brief Agenda Status for Global Warming
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."
In the week following the Friday, Feb. 2 release of the Fourth IPCC report on global climate change, few if any Americans reported that global warming was the issue they were following most closely. Instead, the public turned its gaze back to the war in Iraq, while others, especially women ages 18 to 29, were distracted by the media frenzy over the death of Anna Nicole Smith. The trends are reported in the first release of Pew's media interest index, an innovative new project matching audience data to weekly content analyses of the top news stories.
Things were only marginally different the week of the IPCC report. As I detailed at the time, the IPCC report represented history's most definitive statement of scientific consensus on climate change, yet despite the best efforts of scientists, advocates, and several media organizations to magnify wider attention to the moment, the report still only scored a modest hit on the overall news agenda.
Given the modest news attention and the many competing events, Pew audience data indicates that during the week of Jan. 29, among news stories, just 11% of American adults reported paying heaviest attention to global warming. These results show just how small the attentive public might be for news about the issue, especially when competing against events in Iraq and/or the steady gristmill of infotainment.
Moreover, as I have described previously, news attention once again displays a deeply divided "Two Americas" when it comes to the science and urgency of the issue. Democrats were nearly twice as likely to report following the global warming story than their Republican counterparts.
All this adds up to the dire need for new communication strategies and media platforms to break through to the public on global warming.
1. As I've detailed at this blog many times, one major step is discovering methods for framing the old issue of global warming in ways that make it personally meaningful and relevant across diverse segments of the public.
2. Another strategy is to start to harness the power of "entertainment education," turning celebrity culture towards positive effects rather than the traditional displacing role of mind numbing distraction.
3. Finally, as I will start unpacking over the next few months, science advocates need to start to think of communication efforts as a "two step flow" of information, targeting not mass audiences directly, but rather reaching citizens indirectly by way of "opinion-leaders." These individuals do not necessarily hold formal positions of power or prestige in communities, but rather via conversation and strength of personality, serve as the connective communication tissue that alert their peers to what matters among political events and social trends.
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