Framing Your Scientific Messages to a Non-Science Audience

A blog article by Ben Wyman, M.A., and Ashlie Reker, Ph.D.

It’s no secret that communicating our messages, thoughts, or intentions to various people is difficult, and communicating scientific messages, discoveries, or theories to the public is perhaps the hardest of all. Scientific communication is incredibly important, and difficult to accomplish as seen throughout scientific fields and across the globe.

For example, look at the messaging around climate change or the Covid-19 vaccines. The dangers of a warming planet have been communicated time and time again over the past several decades with little movement on the needle of public opinion to address the problems. The Covid-19 vaccines, while proven to be highly effective, still get pushback from a large part of the world’s population. Clearly just publishing facts isn’t enough.

Scientific communication is described as communicating a scientific idea to the mass public, generally through the media. The importance of news media in covering and explaining complex scientific issues is paramount and it is through this media coverage that the public becomes informed and educated. However, it can be difficult for experts to communicate their messages to a public that is ignorant of their research and expertise.  Furthermore “it is important to understand media representations of science communication because of the medias’ power to set the agenda for… thinking about scientific issues”.1

Public speaking

In the communication field, one of the prominent theories proposed to address this disconnect between experts and laypeople is message framing. A frame, as described by Goffman in 1974, is a “set of simple elements that organize the perception of a given situation. Framing is how those elements tune the interpretation of a phenomenon”.2

Or put simply, a frame is a way for a researcher to craft their message to their target audience.

Oftentimes framing is done unintentionally, and we are all guilty of framing our conversations with friends, families, and co-workers to get our message across in the way that is most likely to guarantee the successful outcome of our goals.

Schudson (2012) argues that it would be “humanly impossible to avoid framing” because every narrative or account of the world “necessarily presents some things and not others; consciously or unconsciously, every narrative makes assumptions about how the world works, what is important, what makes sense, and what should be”.3

In my research on climate change communication, there is a clear failure to effectively frame scientific messages and warnings. Most often in environmental news reporting or in outreach from environmental advocacy groups, the messages elicit fear with descriptions of environmental disasters of catastrophic proportions.

These fear messages are labeled apocalyptic rhetoric by communication scholars because of the biblical metaphors of the apocalypse and end of the world imagery (Foust and O’Shannon Murphy, 2009). Unfortunately, while this strategy has shock value, the effect on motivation and care quickly recedes since climate change is framed as “out of our hands; a matter of biblical fate, or a force of nature.”4

Climate apocalypse

Additionally, scientists and advocacy groups do not stick to a consistent message – not shocking considering how vast and complicated the effects and outcomes of climate change are – however, the lack of a steady message is a significant detriment to affecting change on the audience.

A more successful approach would incorporate a consistent message of pertinent information that would resonate with individuals on a personal level to affect the audience towards action. This example holds true in any scientific field or scientific communication strategy.

Concise information, followed by clear and targeted goals is the most effective way to frame any message you need to communicate with your target audience.

To use framing when crafting the messages you wish to communicate, it is imperative to first decide what is the most salient point. Think of it as a pyramid, at the top is the most important information, and then it flows down to less important details. What does the public, or your audience, absolutely need to take away from this message?

Once you have that goal set, it is important to consider the target audience and what level of exposure they have to your field. For example, are you communicating to investors for more funding, giving a lecture, or giving an interview to discuss the medical breakthrough you worked on?

Be sure not to overload your message with jargon, complex statistics, data, or themes that will be sure to go over the heads of your audience. While science is incredibly complicated and difficult to simplify, your communication to diverse audiences does not need to be.

It is essential to remember that the public does not possess your expertise or even knowledge of scientific vocabulary, therefore framing the message in a way that is simple, succinct, and to the point of your goals is paramount. Otherwise, you risk your message being misconstrued, or even losing your audience entirely.

 

1 Wyman, B. (2017) News Media Coverage of Climate Change Impacts on Native Maine Brook Trout.

2 Davis, P., and Russ, R. (2014). Dynamic Framing in the Communication of Scientific Research: Texts and Interactions. Journal of Research in Science Teaching.  hhttps://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/tea.21189

3 Schudson, M. (2012). The sociology of news. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

4 Foust, R., and O’Shannon Murphy, W. (2009). Revealing and Reframing Apocalyptic Tragedy in Global Warming Discourse. Environmental Communication, Vol. 3, Issue 2. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17524030902916624

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