Effective linkages between the scientific and conservation community and the public must be made through the main channel of dissemination, namely media in the form of news and educational programming. Most adults learn about science through television, with print media running a distant second (National Science Board, 2004). Some biodiversity conservation strategies recommend that media be ''used'' to influence sectors of the public (Biodiversity Project, 1998). Initially, however, the news media should be recognized as another segment of the public audience, not as a partner. Journalists do not think of themselves as collaborators. Rather, they are tasked to observe and relate, although the expectation for even-handed treatment does not eradicate a slant in a story that arises from a particular point of view (Cunningham, 2003). Thus, media can be ambivalent, even antagonistic, to the idea that a particular scientific result and its implications are credible and important. News outlets are sensitive to popular tastes and, as such, rank the importance of many topics far higher than the loss of biodiversity (Biodiversity Project, 1998). Also, in many cases, media either tend to oversimplify scientific results and conclusions or overstate the lack of resolution on an issue, even when there is only a modicum of uncertainty to a result (Friedman et al., 1999). One outcome is that news outlets can discourage public interest in environmental topics by characterizing the science behind them as overly complex, immersed in debate and controversy, and detached from human interests. Another reality of news coverage that frustrates an effort to cultivate public interest in an issue such as biodiversity loss is that stories die easily. The discovery of a hirsute deep-sea crab (Dean, 2006) or a new species of centipede in Central Park (Stewart, 2002) may make front-page and network prime-time news, but the resonance of the story is quickly lost.
Yet the capacity of the news media to respond to environmental issues and transmit them to a very broad and diverse public has been resoundingly demonstrated. Again, the example of the global-warming issue is relevant here, because it has somehow caught the current of a media deluge (Bowman, 2007) that has clearly had an impact on the public and ultimately on at least some of the legislators they vote for (Kintisch, 2006). Contributing factors here are doubtless persuasive and influential communicators like former Vice President and Nobel Laureate Al Gore (2006), new and cumulative scientific discoveries, and the continued reinforcement (sometimes fallaciously) with human experience, where every sign from nature—hurricanes, drought, melting ice, or disease outbreaks—is associated with global warming. Finally, practical and pressing issues, such as the rising price of oil and the need for energy options in everyday life, have been linked to the agenda for mitigating the effects of climate change (McKibben, 2007). Media (and public) attention to global warming is instructive and underlies some of points already made about connecting biodiversity issues with practical public concerns and needs.
At the same time, it is instructive to consider some of the downside to the media obsession with the global-warming issue. One, as noted above, is the obfuscation of the multidimensional environmental crisis, of which global warming is part but not all of the problem (Lovejoy and Hannah, 2005). Second, many news reports and media stories have both oversimplified and oversensationalized the global-warming scenario, a serious liability in light of the decreasing level of trust the public has in the media (Bowman, 2007). Finally, it is unclear to what extent the media is helping to explain options for action and the choices we may face to deal with global warming.
An important strategy for raising the newsworthiness of the biodiversity issue and helping to ensure its accurate portrayal is ultimately educational. This means providing opportunities for journalists and reporters to encounter more translated versions of scientific stories or to convene as groups or individuals with scientists over an extended period. Journalists often express a need to get a bigger picture, but this is impractical with a pressing deadline for a story on a new scientific discovery. News and views items in widely circulated scientific journals like Nature or Science are important links to other news agencies. At the next level, special sections like the New York Times "Tuesday Science Section'' allow for the development of themes over several weeks or months. Scientific institutions devoted to public education can be effective cultivators and conveners in this way.
Educational programming can be powerfully transmitted by media, as indicated by the large audiences that view nature programs and other science series on television. Over the past 10 years, the number of programs on network and cable devoted to science has proliferated, but this is not necessarily accompanied by an increase in the average quality and effectiveness of these offerings (Dingwall and Aldridge, 2006). Some programming, notably certain nature shows, in its superficiality may fail to challenge nonscientific notions like Creationism and Intelligent Design and may even implicitly endorse them (Dingwall and Aldridge, 2006). However, selected programs, such as the 2007 Discovery Channel series Planet Earth, whose premier attracted >2 million viewers (Weprin, 2007), project both the beauty of nature and an artful message that encourages stewardship of nature, one fully compatible with the agenda for biodiversity conservation. Such programs need to be emulated for their high quality, and they should stimulate further collaborations between scientists and skilled producers and filmmakers.
The obvious shift in media and communications since the inception of the biodiversity agenda involves the use of the Internet. Indeed, the
312 / Michael J. Novacek
Internet is redistributing news audiences in radical ways that are seriously threatening some traditional news organizations, particularly local newspapers (Patterson, 2007). Many web sites, including those offered by university programs, public science institutions, and conservation NGOs, provide effective status reports on species and habitats at risk and steps taken toward remediation. Web-based initiatives that network scientific research results and, at the same time, provide broad access, such as the Encyclopedia of Life (www.eol.org) (Wilson, 2003), could potentially engage very large new audiences outside the scientific community and allow them to contemplate the staggering richness, beauty, and importance of biodiversity.
Even in countries where science literacy is much higher than in the U.S., there are limited opportunities for the lay public to stay abreast of the rapid rate of scientific discovery (Falk et al., 2007). Aside from popular science books, periodicals, films, television specials, and web offerings, the responsibility for providing lifelong exposure to science falls to museums, botanical gardens, zoos, aquaria, science centers, and similar venues devoted to the public education of science. These institutions are thus critically important in educating people on biodiversity issues and other environmental problems. That such institutions can offer an encounter with nature that is both vivid and authentic defines their cultural impact (Novacek, 2001b). Many people, especially in urban areas, will rarely, if ever, see a relatively unspoiled tract of woodland in their region, let alone a tropical rain forest. For these individuals, an encounter with nature means a visit to a museum or the like. The enthusiastic response of visitors to this opportunity can be appreciated in terms of the huge audiences such institutions attract. Over 865 million people visited museums (including gardens, zoos, nature centers, science centers, and others) in 1999 in the U.S. alone (Lake Snell Perry and Associates, 2001).
One important strength of such institutions as venues for communicating science is the feeling of trust they invoke in the public. Surveys show that natural history and science museums have extremely high credibility ratings (Lake Snell Perry and Associates, 2001). However, there is also evidence that such institutions have not fully capitalized on their reputation. Exhibits and educational programs that not only dazzle but also address issues of substance, including the biodiversity crisis, have been slow in coming. Many permanent museum exhibits with environmental topics have not been revised since they first opened decades ago or are not complemented by new halls that address current themes (Novacek, 2001b). Aggravating this problem is the uneven commitment to scholarly activity in many such institutions (Novacek, 1991). A shift away from fundamental research in some institutions prevents them from taking on topics dealing with leading-edge science or major issues, topics where expertise is critical and in-house expertise particularly advantageous. Topflight scientific research in an institution devoted to public education is not an oxymoron, especially where those researchers are strongly motivated and skilled communicators.
In more recent years, there are notable signs of improvement on this front. Exhibits dealing with current environmental issues, including biodiversity, have proliferated. The California Academy of Sciences will reopen in 2008 in an entirely new structure devoted to both exhibition and research and collections, one of the largest high-grade green buildings in the U.S. (Barinaga, 2004). New partnerships among institutions have allowed the sponsorship and nuanced development of timely exhibits on such themes as endangered species, climate change, evolution, and water that offer clear and consistent messages as they travel to various destinations and new audiences both in the U.S. and abroad. This momentum is encouraging, but at the same time, many of these public institutions are facing severe financial pressures (Dalton, 2007) and other forces that may move them to dilute both their scholarly and educational programs. Their support is paramount if we expect to elicit improved public understanding of important issues like biodiversity loss.
Was this article helpful?