From trees to bluebirds : the impact of engagement and framing on the communication of conservation on Vancouver Island
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Fisher, Alina C
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The study addresses how strategic social media messaging affects awareness and understanding of scientific discourse around conservation issues. The media effects literature suggests that conservation non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can increase message salience to encourage more people to self-identify with their goals; utilize framing to increase salience; overcome the rhetorical shortcomings of the culture of science as it currently exists; and use social media to its full potential for networking information spread and engagement. By looking at message construction, this project tested whether messaging can be aimed to increase understanding and engagement for target audiences—issues of central importance to most conservation NGOs. Some researchers argue that use of effective science communication methods can help NGOs increase public awareness, motivate action on conservation, and increase support for science-based policy-making and conservation efforts (Cvitanovic et al., 2015; McDonald, 2009). Conservation NGOs conduct research on community ecology and population dynamics of endangered plants and animals, and also implement applied species and ecosystem recovery plans mandated under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Motivated by a need to increase awareness of conservation issues, many conservation NGOs typically undertake public outreach through educational programs, periodic newsletters, and the development of naturalist and interpretive guides. Informing the public is a goal of disseminating scientific results (Parsons, 2013), but much of science outreach is communicated in an uninteresting manner to the layperson (Bucchi, 2013) and without thought to audience engagement. Rather than being limited to “accuracy in transporting the message”(Bucchi, 2013, p. 911) quality science communication would include stylistic elements that encompass a diversity of perspectives, cultures, frames, and values that create resonance with a variety of world views. Both facts and emotions go into decision-making however, science communication typically relies on the communication of facts (Dietz, 2013), overlooking the influences of emotion on engagement and dissemination, especially down social media networks (Berger, 2013). Dudo and Besley (2016) confirm that scientists do not prioritize communication strategies that seek to build trust or establish resonance with public audiences. Still other research, however, has determined that scientific information presented in an emotionally compelling way is given more consideration and weight than information that may be statistically more valid, but emotionally neutral (McDonald, 2009). In 2012, the Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team (GOERT), an NGO based in Victoria, BC, began a species recovery program aimed at re-establishing the western bluebird on Vancouver Island. The Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana orientalis) was a common sight in Garry oak (Quercus garryana) meadows and savannahs on Vancouver Island, the southern Gulf Islands, Washington, Oregon, and the San Juan Islands in the United States. However, in 1995, the last pair of breeding Western Bluebirds was seen on Vancouver Island, and the species was subsequently listed as extirpated (locally extinct) in British Columbia (red listed provincially). The decline of the Western Bluebird has been linked to a combination of factors including habitat loss of Garry oak ecosystems, the removal of standing dead trees that provided nesting cavities, and the increase of introduced bird species including house sparrows and starlings which proliferate in association with human activity (Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team, 2003). Sadly, the plight of the western bluebird is not unique—within Garry oak ecosystems, over 100 species of plants and animals are deemed “at risk” and the ecosystem itself is one of the most endangered in Canada with less than 5% of Garry oak ecosystems remaining in near-natural condition (Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team, 2003). The reintroduction of the western bluebird, protection of their associated Garry oak ecosystems, and GOERTs recovery efforts provides a case by which to assess the use of social media to increase audience engagement on local conservation issues. To explore participant understanding and engagement with conservation issues on social media, qualitative research methods were used to allow for topics of discussion to arise freely rather than perpetuating a binary acceptance/rejection model utilizing pre-determined message frames. Quantitative methods were used to measure changes in perceived engagement and other aspects of perceived message quality in response to framing. Thus my research uses a combination of quantitative and qualitative research methods for a mixed methods approach to exploring issues of understanding, engagement, and the effectiveness of framing as a tool for increasing understanding and engagement. A subset of existent social media posts from Twitter and Facebook of a local NGO were discussed at focus group, to gauge understanding, engagement, and reaction to current content and suggestions for improved communications. A self-administered exit survey was run at the end of the focus group to test alternate messaging pairs informed by the literature of virality on information spread down social networks; the same survey was made available as a self-administered online survey to allow for participation by a larger audience. My research shows that there is no real knowledge deficit between scientists and their target audiences with regards to understanding of conservation issues. However, the message quality of social media posts is perceived differently depending on background science literacy of participants. The perception of message engagement and informativeness also differed between participants, but framing was effective at changing message uptake. These results illustrate that more specific knowledge is not what is needed for increasing awareness and understanding of conservation issues, rather that engagement can be increased effectively through the use of framing to appeal to different audiences. The purpose of this research is to help bridge the gap between traditional science communication methods and social media’s extraordinary potential to disseminate scientific information without media gatekeepers. In so doing, this research aims to facilitate better public outreach campaigns by conservation NGOs, to increase public understanding and to potentially motivate action in support of conservation goals.
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