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A “Two Step Flow of Popularization” for Climate Change

Science and the Media

Matt Nisbet

February 26, 2007

Recruiting Opinion-Leaders for Science

Released in early February, the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) represents history’s most definitive statement of scientific consensus on the issue, yet despite the best efforts of scientists and advocates to magnify wider attention to the moment; the release still only scored a modest hit on both the media and public agendas. The inability of the IPCC report to break through to the public about the urgency of climate change is just more evidence that relying on traditional science communication strategies has increasingly limited returns.

Instead, other public engagement methods are sorely needed. Among options, in this column I suggest reaching the wider public not directly via news coverage, but rather indirectly by way of a “two-step flow of popularization.” This strategy, employed widely in marketing and political campaigns, involves recruiting “opinion-leading” citizens to participate in nationally coordinated efforts. These local community members would serve as information brokers, passing on messages about climate change that speak personally and directly to their peers, co-workers, and friends.

Innovative communication efforts are now more important than ever. The new Democratic majority in Congress has finally put climate change back on the legislative agenda, yet despite great optimism, it might not be until 2009 when any major policy action is adopted. For one, there remains the lingering distraction of Iraq, and the very real possibility that President Bush might veto any “cap and trade” bill that makes it to his desk. On top of all that, the close industry ties of key House Democrats, in combination with personality conflicts among several Senators might serve to significantly stall or derail any legislation. In overcoming these potential roadblocks, public opinion is likely to be the final catalyst for policy action.

Why the IPCC Report Failed as a Communication Moment

From the outset, generating major public attention to the IPCC report’s February 2 release stood as an almost impossible task. First, it was a technical backgrounder, a massive synthesis of the state of climate science. As exciting as that might sound to the small number of Americans who closely track the issue, it’s a major snoozer for the rest of the public. For journalists, not only is an authoritative distillation of past research a tough story to make exciting, but the main themes of the draft report had been predicted for a few months, eliminating any real surprises.

Though this latest IPCC report was expected to include the “strongest” language to date emphasizing the urgency of climate change, the take away conclusions that appeared in the lead paragraphs of the stories filed from Paris fell well short of major headline material. The IPCC, wrote journalists, was “90% certain that human emissions of greenhouse gases rather than natural variations are warming the planet’s surface” and that the evidence was “unequivocal.”

Moreover, the Friday scheduling of the report’s release couldn’t have been worse. The end of the week is when you strategically choose to release embarrassing news, not a major scientific report. Whether it relates to political scandal or to poor corporate earnings, any release on a Friday has a high probability of getting buried in the weekend news cycle, with the media agenda moving on to other issues by Monday.

This is exactly what happened with the IPCC report. In an analysis released by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, for the week leading up to the February 2 release, coverage of climate change only accounted for roughly 5% of the total news hole across media outlets, dwarfed by the roughly 40% of news attention captured by the combined issues of Iraq, Iran, and the 2008 Presidential horserace. Yet, in the week following the Friday release of the IPCC report, the issue quickly dropped from among the top stories, as tracked by Pew. Climate change coverage was replaced in headlines by news of the death of Anna Nicole Smith and the murder plot involving an astronaut.

In a separate analysis that matched the media trend indicators to national survey data, Pew found that not surprisingly, in the days after the IPCC’s Friday release, few if any Americans reported that global warming was the issue they were following most closely. Instead, the public remained galvanized by the war in Iraq, while others, especially women ages 18 to 29, were distracted by the media frenzy over Anna Nicole Smith.

The week earlier, in the days building up to the IPCC announcement, things were not much better. Given the modest news attention and the many competing events, Pew audience data indicates that just 11% of American adults reported paying heaviest attention to global warming, compared to the 39% following most closely the events in Iraq.

Preference Gaps and Ideological Gaps that Screen Off the Public

Despite the growth in education levels over the past three decades, when it comes to media consumption, strong “preference gaps” divide the American public, insulating even many college-educated citizens from public affairs coverage. It’s a problem of too many choices. Without a strong interest in public affairs, it’s very easy for individuals to “opt out” of any public affairs information whatsoever, paying close attention instead to celebrity news and other diversionary media.

As a result, in a fragmented media environment marked by a wide diversity of alternatives, traditional science communication efforts are likely to reach only a relatively small audience of science enthusiasts. Audience fragmentation presents a major communication challenge for scientists and their institutions, since even the most heavily publicized scientific releases are likely to go unnoticed by the vast majority of the public.

Yet the challenge grows deeper. Not only is the public divided by their content preferences, but on climate change, deep ideological rifts continue to demobilize major segments of the population. According to Gallup polls, Democrats are significantly more worried about global warming than their Republican counterparts, and more accepting of the scientific consensus. One recent Pew survey, for example, found that only 23% of college-educated Republicans think global warming is happening due to human activity, compared to 75% of college-educated Democrats.

When it comes to a politically controversial topic like climate change, partisan identification leads to selective acceptance of like-minded arguments and opinions. In a fragmented media system, Republicans have opted out of news venues such as the New York Times and CNN where they are likely to find a careful and nuanced treatment of the subject, and have become heavier consumers of media outlets like Fox News, talk radio, and conservative Web sites, forums where extreme ideological views cut against scientific consensus.

As a leading example, see this clip from Fox & Friends featuring former Senate Environment chair James Inhofe. The “Big Oil” Senator from Oklahoma is not alone among his Congressional GOP colleagues in adopting a continued stance of skepticism. In a recent survey by the National Journal, only 13% of Republican Congressional members polled said that they believed that human activities were contributing to climate change, compared to 98% of their Democratic colleagues. With their party leaders and favorite media outlets continuing to deliver a message of skepticism on climate change, it’s little wonder that a sizable proportion of Americans remain doubtful about the causes and urgency of global warming.

Getting Beyond the Media Noise and Partisan Messages

Disengagement is not just a Republican malaise. Among Democrats and Independents, even though they answer in polls that they are generally concerned about climate change, they still rank it very low as a priority when rated against other political issues.

Activating the wider public means more than just “getting the facts out there.” As I have emphasized in recent presentations and at my blog, part of the communication problem can be solved by figuring out ways to frame the old issue of climate change in new ways, making the complex topic personally meaningfully to segments of the public who are currently tuning out the issue. Another solution involves harnessing the power of celebrity culture and entertainment media to direct wider public attention to the issue.

Yet the media isn’t the only way to reach the public. Since the 1940s, communication researchers have recognized the importance of “opinion-leaders” in shaping public preferences, informing fellow citizens, and catalyzing behavior. Tracing the diffusion of news and advertising messages within local communities, these researchers identified a select number of individuals across social groups as key information brokers. From movies to presidential politics, a small group of citizens paid close attention to news and advertising on a specific topic, discussed the issue with a diversity of others, and appeared to be more persuasive in convincing individuals to adopt an opinion or course of action.

This early work introduced the phrase “the two step-flow of information” to conceptualize the effects of campaign and media messages as passed on to the inattentive public by way of a relatively small handful of citizens. Opinion-leading individuals did not necessarily hold formal positions of power or prestige in communities, but rather via conversation and strength of personality, they served as the connective communication tissue that alerted their peers to what mattered among political events and market innovations.

Over the past decade, the media system has changed dramatically, yet the major revolutions in information technology have made opinion-leaders even more central to the influence of communication campaigns. Not only are audiences increasingly fragmented and hard to reach, surveys show that the public is increasingly distrustful of both news and advertising as sources of information, preferring instead recommendations from friends, family, co-workers, and peers. Up against these trends, the business community appears to have rediscovered the concept of opinion-leadership, as popular magazine articles and best-selling books such as The Influentials, The Tipping Point, The Anatomy of Buzz, and Applebee’s America describe how to take advantage of “opinion-leaders,” “mavens,” “connectors,” and “buzz marketing.”

Consider how the Bush campaign incorporated opinion-leaders into its successful 2004 re-election bid. According to former Bush advisor Matthew Dowd, a co-author of Applebee’s America, strategists sent an email questionnaire to their national list of seven million volunteers, asking four specific questions about how willing volunteers were to write letters to the editor, talk to others about politics, forward emails, or attend public meetings. Based on answers to these questions, the Bush team segmented out two million “navigators” or opinion-leaders.

Contacted on a weekly basis by email and phone, these two million navigators were asked to talk up the campaign to friends, write letters to the editor, call in to local radio programs, or attend public meetings staying on message at all times with nationally coordinated talking points. For the Bush campaign, these supporters became grassroots information brokers, passing on interpersonally to fellow citizens the themes featured in political ads, news coverage, and in presidential stump speeches.

The Bush team is not unique in using opinion-leaders, as they have been a major vehicle for a wide range of communication initiatives, ranging from Victoria Secret marketing campaigns to mega-church recruitment. In surveys, opinion-leaders can be identified using short batteries of questions tapping either indicators of personality strength, or alternatively, civic-minded behavior such as local volunteering or political participation. In some campaigns, opinion-leaders have been identified observationally, with recruiters heading into communities and spotting individuals who appear to be charismatic and social connectors. Each of these methods is designed to identify individuals adept at persuasively passing on messages and cues to family, friends, and co-workers.

Recruited by national science organizations and applied to the communication of climate change, these opinion leaders might be local organizational members, science teachers, science enthusiasts, science and medicine related professionals, or citizens who are active and attentive to science issues generally. What matters is that they cut across social groups in a community.

When “surges” in communication and public attention are needed —such as surrounding the release of a future section of the IPCC report or a major study by the National Academies of Science— opinion leaders can be activated with talking points to share in conversations with friends and co-workers, in emails, in blog posts, or letters to the editor. These “scientific citizens” would not formally speak on behalf of or represent the scientific organization, but instead their effectiveness would stem from their ability as co-workers and friends to communicate climate change in a way that makes it personally and politically relevant.

Matt Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D, is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. From 1997 to 1999, he worked as public relations director for CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer.