With the hottest summer on record drawing to a close, and the pope gearing up to address Congress, environmental issues are dominating the news. However, finding effective ways to address these complex and controversial topics can be tricky for both public interest media makers and the foundations that support their work.
To feature some of the best approaches to creating high-impact environmental media, we’ve curated resources from across our site in our latest Issues section. We’ll be keeping a close eye on this topic through the end of the year, when one of the largest international summits — the United Nation’s 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (also known as COP21) — takes place in Paris.
Below, we take a look at the role that university-based research centers are playing in evaluating, producing and showcasing climate media and communications — including news, documentary, strategic campaigns, and more. In many cases, such centers are funded by foundations, and complement other direct investments in productions and outreach campaigns.
How audiences perceive such projects is also a key question for several of these researchers, who examine how evidence can best be conveyed, the rhetoric of environmental debates, and the discourse around how to solve environmental problems. By taking a close look at the disconnect between scientific proof and what people believe, such examinations work to close the gap between public understanding and scientific research and find new ways to communicate.
1) The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication
This center was established after an influential 2005 conference that brought leaders in science, media, religion, politics, entertainment, education, business, environmentalism and civil society together to grapple with the question of why Americans had been so slow to respond to evidence of climate change. Based at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the center’s staff and researchers examine public climate knowledge, risk perceptions, decision-making and behavior; design and test new strategies to engage the public in climate solutions, and empower educators and communicators with tools to more effectively engage their audiences. Among other resources, the site hosts a useful “opinion map,” which tracks public opinion across the country on global warming and related policy interventions. The project has been supported by numerous funders — see a complete list here.
2) Florida Climate Institute
Spanning eight member universities across a state threatened by rising sea levels, this multi-disciplinary network brings together research and public organizations, scientists, and individuals concerned with better understanding climate variability. In November, with funding from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the institute will partner with departments across the University of Florida to convene a campus-wide symposium: Science, Society and the Climate Story: Storytellers and Scientists Connect on Climate Change.
3) Yale: The Cultural Cognition Project
Also at Yale, the Cultural Cognition Project takes a broader look at the question of how and why cultural values shape public perceptions of risk and related policy beliefs. Situated in Yale’s law school, but drawing from various disciplines, including social psychology, anthropology, communications and political science, the project seeks to help members of society resolve “culturally grounded differences in belief” on such polarizing topics as climate science, HPV vaccines, nanotechology, gun violence risk, and more. Related research has been funded via various sources, including the Arcus Foundation, Skoll Global Threats Fund, and Yale’s Ruebhausen Fund. The project’s Second National Risk & Culture Study examines the impact of group values on perceptions of risk and related facts, and “why scientific consensus fails to create public consensus.”
4) Annenberg Public Policy Center: Science of Science Communication
Launched October 2014 by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, and led by noted Communications Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the Science of Science Communication initiative is designed to investigate how scientific evidence can be more effectively conveyed to the public, and to separate the issues in communicating science from the evidence that is being presented. Funded by the Stanton Foundation, the Public Policy Center also runs the SciCheck project, designed, Jamieson explains in a recent article published in Issues in Science and Technology, “to hold those engaged in public debate accountable for their uses of evidence…Put simply, trust in science matters.”
5) American University: Center for Environmental Filmmaking
Based at American University’s School of Communication, this center was founded by award-winning environmental filmmaker Christopher Palmer, also the president of the One World One Ocean Foundation. The center trains producers to make films and other forms of media that champion conversation and expand people’s knowledge of the natural world, operating on the belief that films on wildlife and the environment are core political and educational tools in the ongoing effort to protect them. Watch a recent segment on environmental news magazine Earth Focus by student Brian Kelly that was aired on public station KCET: Shades of Gray: Living With Wolves.
6) Michigan State: Knight Center for Environmental Journalism
Based at Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, this center was founded in 1994, when the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation created the nation’s first endowed chair in environmental journalism. Faculty associated with the center teach students and professional journalists how to better report on this beat, teach workshops in the U.S. and abroad to help professional reporters improve their coverage of the environment, and experiment with new ways of explaining complex environmental issues while maintaining traditional values of fairness and accuracy. See (and hear) a recent course taught by affiliated faculty member Stacey Fox on environmental sounds, titled “Music of the Earth’s Biomes.”
7) Loyola University Center for Environmental Communication
Based at Loyola’s School of Mass Communications, this center hones in on spreading the word about the environmental issues facing Louisiana and related regions. The center trains communicators, serves as a media resource, intervenes in environmental challenges faced by businesses, and through its Institute of Environmental Communication (IEC), convenes a diverse group of citizens working on or affected by environmental issues. “The IEC Fellows Program’s working hypothesis is that if people who have different motivations meet and work together, they will come to understand others’ perspectives and find it easier to work as a team,” explains the program’s FAQ. The center also maintains an archive of local writing on natural history topics.
8) University of Colorado: Center for Environmental Journalism
Based at the Journalism and Mass Communication program at the University of Colorado Boulder this center aims to enrich public understanding of environmental issues by elevating the quality, range, and depth of coverage by journalists. Drawing from experts across the university as well as those working at a range of local federal research institutes, the center focuses on the professional development of working journalists through the Ted Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism. It also supports doctoral research on media, environment and society. See a portfolio of the work produced by students.
9) George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication
Comprised of social science researchers, including faculty, post-docs, PhDs, and others at nearly a dozen universities around the country, this center aims to conduct unbiased public engagement research that can help government agencies, non-profit organizations, and companies stabilize the climate. A number of foundations have supported this work — see the complete list here. The site offers targeted resources for reporters, communicators, weathercasters, and health professionals, plus a link to the unique “Energy and Enterprise Initiative,” which convenes a network of conservatives seeking to build “public understanding of free enterprise and its promise to solve energy and climate challenges.”
10) UCSB: Environmental Media Initiative
Based at the Carsey-Wolf Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, this project brings environmental scientists, film and media scholars, and students together to collaborate on teaching, research, and public programs. The center jointly runs a graduate program, Strategic Environmental Communication and Media, with the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. Students receive hands-on production training, including the Blue Horizons summer program and multidisciplinary GreenScreen.