Cracking the Code: A Science Media — Research Collaboration

A three year case study

This article is one of a multipart series exploring the unique media practitioner-academic research collaboration of Cracking the Code: Influencing Millennial Science Engagement (CTC) a three year Advancing Informal STEM Learning Innovations (AISL) research project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) between KQED, a public media company serving the San Francisco Bay Area, Texas Tech and Yale universities. KQED has the largest science reporting unit in the West focusing on science news and features including their YouTube series Deep Look.

The author, Scott Burg, is a Senior Research Principal with Rockman et al.

The coronavirus pandemic and recent climatic disasters have, in a remarkably short period of time, dramatically changed the way media outlets cover news, especially science news. Expanded media coverage has arguably been a fundamental factor shaping attitudes and behaviors related to climate change and the pandemic. while also eroding the public’s level of trust of media reporting and science communication. The politicization of science has blurred the lines between scientific fact and fiction. In this increasingly polarized environment, how can science media producers and journalists overcome public skepticism and distrust in science reporting, and connect more deeply with audiences?

Despite this growing trend, relatively little is known about how the public uses and processes media content. The many contexts in which audiences engage with science-related media content, their motivations, their influences, gratifications as well as their interpretations of the content are still relatively unknown. What methods and practices can science media practitioners apply to more fully engage and understand diverse and changing audiences? What knowledge and approaches can they draw from their own personal and professional experiences?

As a response in part to these trends, research in the field of science communication is on the rise. Science communication is a dynamic, interdisciplinary field of research that draws from a wide range of disciplines and encompasses a wide spectrum of scientific approaches. While the volume of science communication research has increased, and the benefits from sharing knowledge between science media practitioners and researchers should be obvious, there have been surprisingly relatively few formal collaborations between these two groups.

Over the past few years there have a few attempts to jump start these collaborations. In 2017, for example, in conjunction with the Science of Science Communication Sackler Colloquium in Washington, DC, the National Academy of Science and the Rita Allen Foundation provided seed funding for two research proposals explicitly linking science communication scholars and practitioners. Unfortunately the grants were awarded to teams that included institutional (academic) science communicators rather than science journalists. While noteworthy, this program did not appear to be the catalyst it was intended to be.

There are some inherent and perceptual barriers that make these kinds of collaborations difficult to implement. According to a 2017 National Academy of Science report, academics and practitioners operate out of different logics, “differences in defining and tackling problems, that prevail in the systems of science and practice.” Other functional and relational differences abound, such as (ironically) communication styles, work practices, methods of reporting and dissemination, rigor vs. relevance, time frames and deadlines, and interests vs. incentives.

This may in part be because the most pressing concerns of the two fields have been so different — media practitioners being more concerned with issues of craft and business, and scholars being more concerned with how journalism’s products are received by the audience. There is a robust level of skepticism within science and environmental journalism about whether the academics who study their work can provide insights that are new, helpful, and in keeping with the traditions and ethics of journalistic practice.

However, despite these concerns, there seems to be more openness now to see if some mutual benefit can be found — perhaps driven by growing frustration on the part of science journalists, producers and researchers alike with the spread of false information and distrust of both their disciplines.

A case study in collaboration: Cracking the Code

Cracking the Code: Influencing Millennial Science Engagement is a three year Advancing Informal STEM Learning Innovations (AISL) collaborative research project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) between KQED, a public media company serving the San Francisco Bay Area, Texas Tech and Yale Universities. This project, (and a related NSF Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant awarded to the same team to address STEM learning, science communication and public engagement aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic) represent one of the largest public investments in science media and science communication research collaboration. A primary goal of Cracking the Code was to develop and advance best practices for engaging and informing diverse millennial audiences on science content and information, through a combination of rigorous research methodology and professional science media knowledge and experience.

Science media producers and journalists from KQED worked collaboratively with science communication and social science researchers from Texas Tech and Yale Universities in designing and implementing surveys and pilot tests to explore such areas as:

  • Science video gender and audience disparity
  • Maximizing audience engagement through Science News headline formats
  • Whether stories about health and sex draw more female to science video
  • Public’s conceptual understanding of Covid-19
  • Covid-19 misinformation on Twitter
  • Women’s engagement and identity with science

This collaboration produced findings that will be of great interest to the study and practice of science media and science communication research alike. Equally as important, access to meetings and deliberations (before and during the pandemic) as part of a rigorous process evaluation, has provided rare and unique insights into the opportunities and challenges that these kinds of collaborations can offer to science (and other) media organizations, and research institutions.

In this multi-part series we will explore some of the project findings, and how this collaboration (implemented during a pandemic) developed, matured and was sustained over a three year period.

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