This blog post, written by Dr. Terry Flynn and Tim Li, is based on a research paper by Danny Flemming, Ulrike Cress, Sophia Kimmig, Miriam Brandt, & Joachim Kimmerle.

Key Findings

  • Both narrative articles and fact lists are effective at conveying information, and changing attitudes and perceptions in science communication.
  • When fact lists are presented with emotional images, readers gain less knowledge than if there were no images at all. Emotional stimuli can distract from information processing, which is central for fact lists and other fact-driven communications.

Implications for Public Relations

Images like photos and illustrations are often added to communications to add visual interest and appeal. Public relations professionals should pay close attention to the intended impact of the images and match them appropriately with the accompanying text. Visuals intended for evoking emotions may reduce learning when paired with communications like fact lists because they distract from information processing. Emotion can support learning by captivating attention, but emotional images should be used with narrative text which also leveraged emotion to convey messages. Informational images like graphs or other data visualizations may be more appropriate for fact lists and other similar formats.

Summary

Decision-making is informed by knowledge, attitude, and perception of risk. It is especially crucial for science communication to address each of these three domains to encourage support for evidence-based interventions and policy.

Wildlife conservation and management is a prime example, where support for conservation depends on publics having sufficient understanding about threatened populations, positive attitudes towards protecting biodiversity, and recognition of the risks that wildlife-human interactions pose.

Communications on conservation can use a variety of strategies to accomplish this, such as evoking emotion through narratives and images of young animals. Narrative persuasion is a useful strategy because it captures attention and reduces counterarguments by diverting mental energy towards processing the narrative components and emotional reactions.

Flemming and colleagues examined the roles of communication format and emotion using the issue of human interactions with fox populations. People generally have limited knowledge about foxes, are concerned about their presence near populations, and perceive them as a risk for harm through infectious disease like rabies. Providing accurate information about foxes can promote positive attitudes towards them and lower risk perception. This method is important for garnering support for protecting fox populations and habitats.

The authors tested two communication formats, a narrative style article and a fact-list article, with and without emotional photographs of baby foxes. Participants rated their knowledge, attitude, and risk perception before and after reading the article.

Both formats were effective at increasing knowledge about foxes. However, the inclusion of photographs did have an impact. The fact list with the photographs resulted in less knowledge gain than when it was presented without, but vice versa for the narrative article. This finding emphasizes the importance of having consistency across communication components. Visuals targeting emotional responses can distract from processing information effectively, resulting in less knowledge gained. Discrepancy in the approach, like targeting both rational and emotional thinking, may lead audiences to question the source’s credibility.

All versions of communication improved attitudes towards foxes near human environments and reduced the perceptions of risk. The fact-list format was more effective at reducing perceptions of risk, which could be explained by participants perceiving it as more scientific and useful for informing risk.

Blog post compiled by Dr. Terry Flynn and Tim Li of McMaster University.

Citation

Flemming, Danny, Cress, Ulrike, Kimmig, Sophia, Brandt, Miriam, & Kimmerle, Joachim. (2018). Emotionalization in science communication: The impact of narratives and visual representations on knowledge gain and risk perception. Frontiers in Communication, 3, 3. https://doi.org/10.3389/fcomm.2018.00003

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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