Is Katharine Hayhoe our last hope?

Student Research on Effective Climate Frames and Messengers

When Laurel (Janie) Holloman applied to be a Ford Scholar (a prestigious program here at Eckerd in which top-level students propose and conduct their own, independent research, under the supervision of a faculty member, and take three semesters of course work related to research in academia), she knew she wanted to study effective ways to communicate about climate change. She had already taken both Environmental Communication and Climate Change Communication, and had been particularly interested in the conflicting research findings associated with message framing. Like many of the students who take Climate Change Communication, she was also very interested in how different communicators or messengers can reach different audiences. Upon being selected for the program, Janie decided to jump into the framing and messenger research fray with Dr. Huxster as her research supervisor.

With minimal help on design and statistical analysis, Janie was able to complete a three-part survey study using pre-post design to test the effectiveness of frames, messengers, and messengers paired with their real-world frames. Here's what she has to say about her research:

Communicating the importance and immediacy of anthropogenic climate change (ACC) to the public through the media is challenging in the current political climate. Many years of social research has shown that the way that people form their opinions is a very complicated mix of their personal beliefs and their sense of identity. Climate change has become a controversial political issue that is difficult to talk about across Republican and Democratic party lines, but activists are searching for ways to teach people about climate change regardless of their belief systems. Because people are more likely to agree with those who hold similar values to them, communication techniques such as emphasis framing and the use of public figures as messengers can be used to tailor messages about climate change to different audiences.

To test different methods of framing and public figures as messengers, three online surveys were conducted; one testing frames, one testing messengers, and one testing messengers and their personal, corresponding frames. The first survey tested four framing techniques and found that none of them were significantly more effective on the target audience than the others. The second survey tested four different messengers with a generic message about climate change and found that none of them were significantly more effective messengers than the others. The third and final survey tested these same four messengers with a real quote credited to them corresponding with their personal frame and found that Evangelical Christian and climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe was a significantly effective messenger, particularly for women. The results of this study suggest that there is value in supporting charismatic messengers such as Katherine Hayhoe that can appeal to multiple social groups, but that frames and messengers alone are not sufficient to change public concern via the media.

Janie's work will be published in an Eckerd Scholars publication, and she will be pursuing continued research and publication in a peer-reviewed journal. She was also accepted to present a poster at a conference for the Association for Environmental Studies and Science, but the conference was postponed due to COVID-19.