Research Summary

Protecting the Great Barrier Reef: analysing the impact of a conservation documentary and post-viewing strategies on long-term conservation behaviour

The Connection Between Environmental Documentary Viewing and Conservation Behavior

Environmental Education Research

Inspiring people to take pro-environmental behaviors is a complex task. To inspire conservation behaviors, documentaries can have a much broader reach than other types of environmental experiences, such as ecotourism. Documentaries could contribute to how humans perceive and interact with the environment. While not everyone can afford to participate in ecotourism activities, a well-made nature documentary could potentially engage a large number of viewers nearly as much as an encounter in the natural environment would. However, whether conservation documentaries could impact viewers’ environmental knowledge, attitudes, and intentions to engage in conservation behaviors is not clear. This study investigated whether a conservation documentary, followed by post-viewing, action-oriented messages, could facilitate a positive shift in the viewer’s environmental attitudes, knowledge, intentions, and long-term conservation behavior.

The researchers used the theory of Community-based Social Marketing (CBSM) in this study. To transform intentions into behavior, CBSM focuses on identifying and targeting real and perceived barriers that could prevent an individual from performing environmentally responsible behaviors. This theory is considered a hybrid of social marketing and psychology.

The authors chose to undertake a longitudinal, or long-term study, and recruited undergraduate and postgraduate students in tourism degree programs at the University of Queensland, Australia, for their research. In total, 64 undergraduates and 118 postgraduates participated in the study. Of the 182 participants, 72% were foreign students from China, and 72% had never visited the Great Barrier Reef. Participants first viewed a marine conservation documentary about Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, The Sea and Me. Before watching the film, participants took a survey to measure baseline environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. Immediately following the film, participants took another survey to gauge any changes in knowledge, attitudes, and conservation intentions. Participants were then divided into 4 different groups, each of which was given a different type of follow-up messaging. One group had access to a Facebook group that posted marine conservation information, photos, and petitions. Another group was given a help sheet that listed 13 easy, inexpensive ways to take conservation action. A third group was given the help sheet and access to the Facebook group. The fourth group received no follow-up. Ten weeks after viewing the documentary, all participants were emailed a third survey, which aimed to measure longer-term shifts in conservation behaviors. Of the original 182 participants, 84 completed the follow-up survey ten weeks after watching the film. The researchers used statistics to analyze the data.

The findings suggest that using documentaries with follow-up support strategies could have enduring impacts in the viewer’s environmental knowledge, intentions to take pro-environmental behaviors, and conservation behaviors. Results indicated enhanced environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behavioral intentions for most participants immediately following the documentary screening. Participants were most committed to conservation measures immediately following the screening and then declined over time. However, the group that received no follow-up measures declined more sharply than other groups.

At the 10-week mark, only the groups that received follow-up messages reported any positive changes in conservation behaviors. The type of message—Facebook posts versus help sheets versus a combination of the two—made little difference in terms of behavior change.

The results of this study cannot necessarily be applied to other populations in other contexts. Students of the research sample may have responded differently to the study than other demographic groups. The study also relied on self-reported behaviors, which can be unreliable. Respondents’ self-reported behaviors may not have reflected their actual behaviors. Additionally, the low response rate for the 10-week follow-up survey may have impacted the validity of the results.

The authors recommend using well-made conservation documentaries to help spark pro-environmental behavior change, but that it’s important to follow-up after the film. Tailored follow-up messaging is important for longer-term behavior change, though the type of engagement is less important.

The Bottom Line

While visiting a natural area may be out of reach for many, documentaries are an accessible way to engage individuals and potentially increase the adoption of conservation behaviors. This study explored whether viewing conservation documentaries and then receiving action-oriented, follow-up messages encouraged changes in pro-environmental attitudes, knowledge, and behaviors. The researchers found that only those documentary viewers who received any kind post-viewing conservation messages demonstrated longer term behavior change. This indicates that documentary viewing alone may not have any positive long-term impacts on viewers. However, when coupled with follow-up messages that offer easy suggestions for how to act, documentaries may have long-term, positive impacts on viewers’ environmental attitudes, knowledge, and behaviors.