Media plays a significant role in shaping the public discourse on, and understanding of, environmental issues by spreading information quickly and widely. For contentious issues such as climate change, the way messages are framed has been found to be critical, because it affects people's willingness to act. Less understood, however, are the ways in which different representation styles of messaging and attributions of responsibility influence perceived risk, emotions, and learning. In particular, media can convey messages through sensationalist or neutral representational styles and attribute responsibility for the environmental issue to human or natural causes. This study addresses this important gap in understanding of climate change communication through an experimental research design with 72 students at a German university.
The researchers investigated the use of different representation styles and responsible agents used in brochures about local climate change impacts. They used invasive species as the focus of the information presented and examined perceived risks, emotions, and learning with participants. The issue of invasive species was chosen because it represents an immediate local effect of climate change as different climate patterns can create less favorable conditions for native plants and more favorable conditions for once-foreign ones. Also, invasive species cause problems for some people by triggering allergic reactions. This choice of an immediate, local problem allowed the researchers to control for other factors that may influence perception of climate change, such as immediate versus long-term consequences and local or global scales.
Some central questions guiding this study included: (1) Does a sensational style of communication lead to a higher perception of risk and stronger negative emotions than a neutral representational style? (2) Do different responsible agents (nature versus human) elicit different emotions, and do they alter risk perception? (3) Does a sensational style, along with different responsible agents, influence how much and what type of information is learned?
The study employed a 2 x 2 experimental design, meaning the information that the brochures presented varied in terms of their representation style (sensational or natural) and responsible agent (human or natural). One example of sensationalist messaging included, “Pollen enters our lungs deeply and is very aggressive,” versus the neutral style that explained, “Pollen enters our lungs and can be aggressive.” To vary cause attribution, brochures explained either that humans distribute seeds and pollen of invasive plants (humans responsible), or that birds, wind, and waterways distribute them (nature responsible). Before participants read the brochures, the researchers used a survey to assess each participant's prior knowledge of climate change and invasive species, as well as prior risk perception. The students read five brochures that displayed the same variations in representation style and attribution of causes. The first brochure centered on local effects of climate change, such as temperature and rainfall, and the others addressed four different invasive species. The students promptly rated their emotions and perceptions of risk after reading each brochure and then completed a post-test that assessed learning outcomes.
Prior perception of risk was moderate across participants, while prior knowledge of climate change, assessed by participants' self-rating, was generally low. The researchers controlled for the effect of some differences in prior knowledge on learning outcomes. Perception of risk for each participant was determined by numerous items, such as items assessing impacts on humans, impacts on species, and general perceived risk.
The study found that perception of risk was higher in sensationalist-style conditions than neutral-style conditions. Negative emotions, comprised of sadness, anger, and guilt in the analyses, were also stronger in sensationalist-style conditions than the neutral-style conditions. Representation styles affected anger and sadness, but not guilt. To the surprise of the researchers, they found no effect of responsibility attribution on negative emotions. Increased perception of risk was also found to enhance negative emotions, mediating between the representation styles and resulting emotions. The sensationalist style raised both perceptions of risk and negative emotions.
Participants in the sensationalist-style conditions performed better on the learning tests than those in the neutral-style conditions. In open-ended questions, those in the sensationalist-style conditions also expressed a relatively greater number of negative statements than those in the neutral-style conditions, but there was no effect of attribution responsibility on negative statements. When considering the interaction between style and attribution, participants in the sensationalist-natural causes conditions made more neutral statements than those in the sensationalist-human causes conditions.
Although the relatively small sample size of this study limits its generalizability to a larger population, the results offer an exploratory contribution to understanding the effects of message framing on public perception in the environmental education field. The researchers assume their results from this experimental study with brochures may be generalizable to information texts used in websites or newspaper articles, because the features, not the medium, likely influence risk perceptions, emotions, and learning.
The Bottom Line
<p>Variations in representation styles of information about climate change can have strong effects on risk perception, emotions, and learning. Using a sensationalist style can affect greater knowledge acquisition than presenting the same information in a neutral style. A sensationalist style, however, can also influence the development of negative informational aspects and trigger negative emotions. Mentioning human causes, as opposed to natural causes, of the negative effects of climate change creates a more negative overall perception of climate change and its impacts. Although a sensationalist style enhances learning, it also reduces the complexity and balance in information that people recall. These findings present a dilemma: While sensationalism is effective in some aspects of learning, it can create a negative bias that may also inhibit action.</p>