Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
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Publishers: Is science a match for sensationalism?

Tactics and strategies for engaging the public

Scientists have been battling for the hearts and minds of the public for centuries, and not always winning.

To avoid being burned at the stake by the Catholic Church for heresy, Galileo had to deny that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than vice versa.

Charles Darwin was criticized by the Church of England for his writings on evolution, a battle still being fought in US classrooms today.

The tobacco industry for decades successfully discredited science and scientists whose research linked smoking to cancer. And so on.

Credibility vs. fear and anxiety

Today the battleground for scientists is social media and the digital ecosystem generally, as was described in the book “Communicating Science and Technology Through Online Video.” A series of studies showed legitimate science has a credibility problem on YouTube and other social media, specifically on the issues of climate change and covid vaccines.

Science has to be based on data and evidence. Theories have to be tested. Conclusions about evidence must adhere to ethical standards that prohibit exaggeration. For those reasons, science has a hard time competing on social media with sensationalism and misinformation that cultivate fear and anxiety. Those emotions drive big audiences and lots of ad revenue.

At the same time, one of the editors of this book developed a program that engaged members of the public in the collection and analysis of air quality data in Pamplona, Spain. Their participation in the process helped them understand the science and propose policies to improve air quality.

Images can drive engagement

Given the challenges, I was interested in the findings of another study — “Social Engagement with climate change: principles for effective visual representation on social media” — published in the journal Climate Policy.

The authors — Bienvenido León, Samuel Negredo, and María Carmen Erviti of the University of Navarra in Spain — did a content analysis of a random selection of 380 photographs, illustrations, and graphics posted on Twitter that were included in the “top tweets’ about climate change.

Among their conclusions:

  • Social media can play a prominent role in campaigns to make citizens aware of climate change.
  • Images can help to effectively raise citizen awareness of climate change.
  • Four ways to increase user interaction on social media with images about climate: show ‘real’ people (not staged images), tell a story, include a local connection, and show people who are directly affected.
  • These principles can have a relevant impact on the social perception of climate change and increase citizen participation in climate debate and action.

Stay close to home

The data about the importance of local connections were impressive. Images “classified as having a local connection received an average of up to five times more comments than images without a local connection (15 vs. 3 comments on average), almost triple the amount of likes (215 vs. 74 likes), and more than double the retweets (70 vs. 30 retweets).”

“Campaigns on social media that use imagery based on these practical and general principles can be effective in communicating the shared responsibility to address climate change issues and to foster user interaction,” the study concluded.

Vaccines and lotteries

The importance of the study above was underlined by government attempts to get more people vaccinated against the covid-19 virus.

study published on the website of the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at the vaccination rates in 15 states that had lottery incentives for people to get vaccinated. The study compared vaccination rates before and after the lotteries were announced and compared them to the rates in 31 non-lottery states. The conclusion?

“This study did not find evidence that vaccine lottery incentive programs in the US were associated with significantly increased rates of COVID-19 vaccinations.”

$1 million wasn’t enough?

The study included my home state of Ohio among those disappointing examples. In Ohio, any state resident 18 and older who had received at least one vaccine dose could sign up to enter all five of the $1 million lotteries. For students age 12-17 who received one dose, they were eligible for a four-year scholarship to any Ohio public university. (Ohio announced its lottery results here; eligibility requirements were announced here.)

I was talking about these incentive programs with my son-in-law, Fernando Duarte, who was a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York and now is a professor at Brown University.

He suggested the incentives might have been too modest. Ohio gave away $5 million and some scholarships. Maybe the state should have given away 100 or 1,000 prizes of $1 million, since the costs avoided by each additional person vaccinated would justify the expense.

Conclusion: a cost-benefit approach

Fernando’s suggestion of spending more to save more gets some support from an analysis published on the website of the Journal of the American Medical Association. It estimated the cost to the public of the covid-19 crisis and found that the short- and long-term consequences justify significantly greater public investment to reduce the impact of future pandemics.

The authors — one of whom is Lawrence Summers, a former Secretary of the Treasury and noted Harvard scholar — estimated that the covid-19 crisis has cost the US $16 trillion (with a T) in lost GDP and negative health outcomes.

“Output losses of this magnitude are immense,” the authors wrote. “The lost output in the Great Recession was only one-quarter as large. The economic loss is more than twice the total monetary outlay for all the wars the US has fought since September 11, 2001, including those in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

“By another metric, this cost is approximately the estimate of damages (such as from decreased agricultural productivity and more frequent severe weather events) from 50 years of climate change.”

They argued for “wide-scale population testing, contact tracing, and isolation” to avoid many infections and their consequences. Such a program might require “an additional $75 billion in spending during the next year; adding the cost of contact tracing might bring the total to approximately $100 billion.”

To members of Congress and ordinary citizens, that sounds like a lot of money, until you compare it to the potential benefit from avoided costs. Makes sense. A stitch in time saves nine.

Also: Tips for including scientific research in your reporting

Proving the Obvious? What Sensationalism Contributes to the Time Spent on News Video

James Breiner

This article was originally published on Entrepreneurial Journalism, and is republished with permission.
You can connect with James Breiner on LinkedIn here.