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The Science of Policy Communication: Part 2

To watch a video recording of the webinar on our Vimeo page, click here.

On April 12, 2012, SPSSI hosted Part 2 of the webinar series The Science of Policy Communication. The webinar was aimed at policy makers and communications specialists who frequently find that the goal of creating sound policies runs up against the prevalence of “politics”. Social changes, the media, and communications technologies have all contributed to an ever more complex environment for policy professionals. The science of communication and lessons learned on effective policy communication are discussed using the lens of policy issues including global climate change, nanotechnology, and stem-cell therapy. 

Jon Krosnick, Frederic O. Glover Professor in Humanities and Social Sciences, Stanford University, presents his work at the interface of psychology and political science, principally an attempt to understand human influence in the field of political science. His research on climate change attitudes has been based around the question of why there has been no action to mitigate the causes and effects. After all, political leaders such as President Obama have pledged to pass legislation to control carbon emissions. Are Americans just not green? Are Americans green but prefer to focus on other issues? In the end if people don’t vote on the issues then elected officials don’t have an incentive to take action. Surveys were carried out between 1997 and 2011 on the attitudes to climate change of American adults. It addressed questions such as has global warming been taking place? Has it been due to human activity? Is it a threat to humans? There are some surprising findings in the research. A vast majority of the American public believe that that climate change is real and is a serious threat to our future.

Heather LaMarre, Assistant Professor of Journalism and Mass communication, University of Minnesota  looks into how media affects democracy and the political environment. A chief question is whether people think consciously about the politics that they hear about through entertainment media. Are the political messages ignored or just processed differently? Her finding were that cognitive processing of information can often be more elaborate for viewers of political entertainment shows. A second question concerns how social media tools are influencing the policy communications of elected officials. Findings show that use of Twitter increases a candidates odds of winning their election. In 2010 Republican candidates used Twitter significantly more often than Democratic candidates.

Linda Demaine, Professor of Law, Arizona State University asks how can policy makers and communicators can deliver their message more effectively. Informed decisions on policy making involve prolonged study and thinking, but they are also constantly evolving. This is complicated by the fact that there are so many different policy issues to stay on top of. Citizens have little formal training on policy questions but they do have virtually constant access to news via the media. This information is often inaccurate but it is often difficult to distinguish the inaccurate from the accurate. In order to persuade the electorate, capturing their attention is an essential first step. Policy messages must be simple, clear, and entertaining. Once a piece of information takes purchase on an individual’s belief it is very difficult to change that if the original information is inaccurate. However, there are some empirically tested approaches to solving this challenge. Professor Demaine emphasizes the perennial importance of tailoring these techniques to the type of audience or group within the electorate that is being focused on.

Dietram Scheufele, John E. Ross Professor of Communication, University of Wisconsin, Madison provides an overview of a larger research agenda designed for policy professionals to help them communicate policy issues in the complex environment that we live in today. The infrastructure for the public to educate themselves about science and technology is very limited, and surveys show that around less than 20% even attempt to learn more from news and media sources. The use of “framing” by communicators has become better known in recent years as a way to allow an audience to attach an idea to existing ideas rather than presenting novel information in isolation. Understanding of emerging technology tends to follow a predictable chronology starting from the hope of social progress and tending towards fears of a Pandora’s box at the end. Other findings show that exposure to online media overall does lead to people being better informed on policy issues.

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