Framing Science Fight at CJR’s Observatory

Over at The Observatory, the science blog for the Columbia Journalism Review, there’s an interesting exchange between science communications researchers and a long-standing Public Information Officer at Ohio State.  It started with a post from an Observatory staffer on a Harper’s column alleging that science was dehumanizing.  He used the article as a springboard to talk about scientists who are also advocates, and the challenges of communicating scientific research in a way that might affect action.

From there Earle Holland weighed in with a piece suggesting that efforts to have scientists communicate their research via framing – finding a context for their work that would resonate with the public – amount to advocacy and would harm their image.  He conflates communication with advocacy, and considers framing little more than spin.  He also falls back to the traditional conception of scientists as people interested primarily, if not only, in the research and not in its implications.  It reads to me very much as a traditionalist defense of science and society relations – hands off.

Where the exchange gets involved, and ultimately frustrating, is in the next post, where science communication researchers Matt Nisbet (of Framing Science), Dominique Brossard, and Dietram Scheufele respond to what they consider a misrepresentation of their work by Holland, and a further explanation and defense of their perspective (one which I share, if I haven’t been clear about it by now).  From this last post:

“Research from the social sciences on framing offers a theoretical context and method for structuring communication around dimensions of an issue that might increase public attention, trust, and understanding. Frames are interpretive storylines that set a specific train of thought in motion, communicating why an issue might be a problem, who or what might be responsible for it, and what should be done about it.”

While this can be used in the context of advocating a particular policy choice, it does not have to be.  Reporting or journalism, by its nature, is trying to say that the stories it produces have value to their audience.  In the comments to the last post, Holland makes some well written points about how he cannot see framing a science story in a way that doesn’t smack of advocacy.   Unfortunately, he’s not alone in misunderstanding the point, and Nisbet and his colleagues have yet to break through that logjam.  A story can answer for the reader “Why should I care?” without telling that reader what they should do about it.  That getting this point across has been a futile exercise with some really emphasizes the obstinate frustration I attach to science communication and how its failures lead to many of the problems in science policy of getting sufficient attention from policymakers.

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6 thoughts on “Framing Science Fight at CJR’s Observatory

  1. Nisbet may be right that all messages are “framed,” and that since framing is inevitable, scientists (or at least some of them) should learn how to do it more effectively. But I don’t think anyone has yet fully clarified the line between (praiseworthy) “honest broker” framing and (ethically suspect) “advocate” framing.

    David, you suggest here that “advocacy” begins where the speaker “tells the reader what they should do” about a situation–the Roger Pielke test. That is a good start.

    But advocates don’t just demand solutions: they also frame problems/issues as problems/issues that deserve their audience’s attention. And that can be a very political act. Since we all have limited time and cognitive resources, agenda-setting (or problem-definition) is a key moment in any individual or collective decision-making process–indeed, perhaps the most politicized.

    For example, some people are pressing me to pay attention to the cancer risks of high power lines; they want me to consider that an open issue, one deserving further thought. Isn’t that advocacy?

    I don’t have a solution to this (yet); I just want to note that working out the limits of ethical communication here is going to be complex. And since audiences are pretty good at detecting and ignoring advocacy (think lawyers), it’s worth figuring out the ethical questions in order to figure out how to be effective.

    • Great comments Jean.

      FWIW, I don’t consider “advocate framing” as automatically ethically suspect. It can present conflicts if the advocacy is done in a way that hides or downplays the advocacy, or argues for the obviousness of policy choices based on authority or knowledge that cannot dictate policy choices. Then I think it would be ethically suspect.

      I think the debate between Holland and Nisbet is that Holland doesn’t see the possibility of framing without advocacy or spinning, and Nisbet does.

      • Hey, David: You’re right, open advocacy itself isn’t ethically suspect, and since scientists are citizens, they are free to openly advocate. I think ethical problems arise, though, when scientists advocate as scientists–advocate while claiming a kind of authority as experts.

        That has bad consequences for democratic decision-making, since it doesn’t open a space for a reply, at least from non-experts. It’s like the scientist-advocate is saying: “Here’s what I think is right for you–and you don’t know enough to have the right to contradict me.”

        And I think Pielke is right that it has bad consequences for science, too.

        Again, I don’t have any answers. But my sense is that social-scientific investigations like Nisbet’s need to be complemented by some hard thinking about the ethics of communication–and effectiveness, too, on the rough ground of politics. What, for example, is the difference between “framing” and “spin”?

      • Agreed. Something that hasn’t happened from Nisbet or any of his fellow travelers is to move past the declarations that framing isn’t spinning and further explain or explore what the difference is. I’m not sufficiently confident I can do so without having something to respond to – an argument to critique about where one begins and the other ends. It’s a different question from the advocacy/broker distinction, and perhaps more complicated, since there’s not an easy functional division to make.

  2. David:

    You wrote . . . “I think the debate between Holland and Nisbet is that Holland doesn’t see the possibility of framing without advocacy or spinning, and Nisbet does.” That is both accurate and succinct. My only objection to framing is the idea that journalists ought to be intentionally using it in preparing copy for their readers. I find that to be inappropriate to the primary job of the reporter to convey information, not imply or suggest a destination that the reader should end up at. The latter is a point I’ve heard Matt allude to often. As a practical matter, it seems that the 35-plus years that I’ve been doing science reporting gives me license to suggest the propriety or impropriaty of framing in this way, especially in discourse with folks who aren’t or have never been reporters. No offense intended but it’s just my insider’s view.

  3. Pingback: Is Science Communications at Odds With Professionalization? « Pasco Phronesis

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