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The Link? “Going Broad” with Darwinius masillae

Fronting the NY Times today is a preview of a bold new strategy for engaging hard to reach audiences on science. As the NY Times describes, today’s media event that unveils the fossilized remains of the monkey like creature Darwinius masillae features a unique collaboration between the History Channel, the open-access journal PLoS One, and the American Museum of Natural History.

Along with today’s publication at PLoS and the media unveiling at AMNH, there will be a two hour documentary on Monday at the History Channel, an exclusive arrangement with ABC News to appear on Good Morning America, Nightline, and World News, and a high end multi-media Web site. In addition, publisher Little, Brown plans to ship 110,000 copies of a book on the find titled simply The Link. The History Channel says it paid a record price for the two-hour documentary, which will subsequently also air on BBC and the German broadcaster ZDF.

Today’s event–a publicity tsunami relative to traditional science communication practices–is part of what my co-author Dietram Scheufele and I call in a paper under review “going broad” with public engagement. It’s a strategy that’s necessary in today’s fragmented media world and one used across other sectors of society and commerce. “”Any pop band is doing the same thing,” Jorn H. Hurum, the lead scientist on the Darwinius masillae project tells the NY Times. “Any athlete is doing the same thing. We have to start thinking the same way in science.”

Below the fold is how we describe this emerging “going broad” trend in the section of the paper that recommends several bold new innovations in science communication.

My chief concern about today’s announcement is that it might extend into hype, a reservaton also noted in the NY Times article. The careful balance between innovation in public engagement and the avoidance of hype is something that we also address in the working paper. In particular, when this type of “going broad” strategy is applied around a single discovery or finding rather than a broader scientific subject or body of research, the probability of hype is deeply magnified. More on that later. But for now, go below the fold for our description of the “going broad” strategy.

“Going broad:” Beyond elite audiences. As mentioned earlier, some critics argue that it would be unethical to take advantage of strategic communication tools in order to make scientific issues more relevant and accessible to a general public. But recent data on potentially widening knowledge gaps suggests that it may be unethical if we did not use all communication tools at our disposal in order to connect with hard-to-reach audiences (Scheufele & Brossard, 2008).

Many traditional approaches to public communication about science, for instance, have inadvertently favored elite audiences. In fact, some previous attempts to connect across diverse sections of the public have resulted in widening gaps between the already information rich and the information poor. This is partly due to the likelihood of exposure. Almost 40% of college-educated respondents, for instance, visited a science or technology museum in 2006, compared to less than 10 percent for respondents with a high school education or less (National Science Board, 2008).

As a result, museum exhibits, science Web sites, traditional science documentaries, and similar outreach efforts may inherently favor elite audiences. Widening gaps between the information rich and information poor are also a function of the way issues like nanotechnology and biotechnology play out in public discourse. In their research on “knowledge gaps,” Phil Tichenor and his colleagues (1970) found that audiences with high socioeconomic status (SES) showed much stronger learning effects from health related information than low-SES audiences. This effect is in part due to the fact that TV shows like PBS’ NOVA or the Science section of the New York Times tailor their content to highly educated audiences. As a result, learning effects for mass audiences are minimal, even if these audiences happen to tune in to NOVA or read an article in the New York Times.

What are needed then are media strategies for “going broad” with science-related content, generating attention and interest among non-elite audiences. Surveys, for example, show that local television news remains among the dominant sources of public affairs-related information for the American public (Pew 2008b). Therefore, in order to reach non-traditional audiences, scientists and their organizations need to be on local television news. To do so, major national communication efforts should be closely coordinated across local media markets, with specific scientists, institutions, or organizations serving as the local angle and spokespeople. An alternative model is the example of Climate Central, a non-profit partnership between journalists and scientists who produce climate science stories for syndication at local television outlets across the U.S. (Brainard, 2008).

New documentary genres and storytelling techniques are also an important mechanism for going broad. Surveys in the U.S. show that programming at the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and Learning Channel constitutes the largest and most diverse audience for science-related content. More than 40% of respondents across educational levels, gender, age, religious background, and ideological orientation say that they “regularly” view these channels. In comparison, 10% or less of respondents across these groups regularly watch PBS NOVA or subscribe to Scientific American, Discover, Nature, or Science magazines (Pew 2006). Specific to the environment, the box office success and media visibility in the U.S. for the 2009 major motion picture release of Earth, a theatrical version of a series that originally aired on the BBC and Discovery Channel, is further evidence of the wider appeal of these new documentary genres.

A recent National Academies (2008) project that pairs scientists as consultants on major motion pictures and television series is also a step in the direction of going broad and reaching new audiences. In similar fashion, an initiative led by physicists used the 2009 major motion picture release of Angels & Demons as a way to capitalize on the summer blockbuster’s focus on particle accelerators and anti-matter. The project organized local lectures in 45 locations across the U.S. and Canada and launched an educational Web site “Angels & Demons: The Science Revealed.”

Long used as a strategy for engaging the public on public health issues (Kaiser,2004; Montgomery, 2007), active involvement with Hollywood in the construction of messages about science can lead to a range of outcomes including informal learning, enhanced interest and attention to science in news coverage and other media, the modeling of positive behavior related to environmental sustainability or energy use, the favorable framing of controversial issues such as the teaching of evolution in schools, or even a spike in news or policy attention to a scientific topic such as climate change. Web platforms such as the Angels & Demons site facilitate incidental exposure to science among individuals using search engines to find more information about the film.

Other important media outlets for expanding audience reach include comedy news programs such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Studies have documented the ability of these programs to engage younger, harder to reach audiences about political candidates and election campaigns, shaping their political attitudes and levels of political knowledge (Feldman, 2007; Feldman & Goldthwaite-Young, 2008). On science, a recent Pew (2008c) analysis finds that The Daily Show includes comparatively more attention to science and technology topics than the mainstream press and significantly more attention to climate change. These programs also generate buzz online with heavily-trafficked and forwarded clips on hot-button science topics such as evolution, genetics, climate change, or stem cell research. Additionally, both shows frequently feature scientists and science authors as interview guests, for example Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Greene.

Given that satire and comedic news are increasingly preferred media formats for younger audiences, more research is needed on the potential for using this style of humor as a tool for public engagement on science. Little is known, for example, about the comparative effects of science information communicated in satirical form compared with the same information communicated in traditional science media. Greater understanding in this area would inform not just media strategy but also the incorporation of humor and satire into the production of documentary film, Web, and museum content.


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