2.2 “Early adopter” TV meteorologists tend to embrace – but do not always use – informal science education “best practices” when educating audiences about climate change

Wednesday, 9 January 2013: 9:00 AM
Room 8ABC (Austin Convention Center)
Katherine Rowan, George Mason Univ., Fairfax, VA; and J. Witte, L. Cohen, C. Tresch, P. Baldwin, J. Trowbridge, J. Thaker, M. Cox, B. Klinger, B. Brown, and E. Maibach

TV meteorologists are well positioned to educate their viewers about climate change. We investigated whether those weathercasters who actively embrace this opportunity – a group we have termed “early adopters” -- use education methods consistent with “best practices” in informal science education (ISE) as identified in a recent National Academies of Science report. The report concluded that ISE is most effective when six “strands” or best practices are used. These are (BP1) engaging audiences emotionally while sharing science; (BP2) explaining science concepts and encouraging audiences to explain them, too; (BP3) teaching scientific methods and reasoning, not just sharing results; (BP4) acknowledging that science is fallible, and that scientific findings may be refined through peer review; (BP5) allowing audiences to be active, not passive, by helping them to raise questions, take measurements, use scientific equipment, etc., and (BP6) encouraging audiences to see themselves as individuals who like science and could be scientists.

We used a snowball sampling approach – beginning with a half dozen known “early adopters” -- to identify TV meteorologists who are actively educating lay audiences about climate science. Eighteen North American TV meteorologists from diverse regions and market sizes were identified; each of these weathercasters participated in an in-depth, hour-long interview. The interview explored the extent to which the weathercaster's climate educational methods comported with ISE best practices. Interviews were recorded, transcribed, and coded to determine the match between self-reports of the meteorologists' educational efforts and best practices. Coders were blind to identities of those interviewed.

Early adopters were more likely to endorse a best practice than to provide a specific example of how they personally use it. Twenty-eight percent of responses to interview questions (527) were statements expressing support for one of the six ISE best practices, while 15 percent of responses (280) described steps TV meteorologists take to use a specific best practice. For example, interviewees were more likely to say that explaining scientific concepts is important than to describe how they clarify the difference between climate versus weather.

The early adopters were most likely to describe specific steps they took to enact BP5 (encourage active participation) and BP6 (help audience sees themselves as scientists). They discussed taking these steps in their community presentations, on their station's web sites, in blogs, in books, and in on-air stories. In contrast, interviewees were least likely to describe steps they take to enact BP1(engage audiences emotionally) and BP3 (discuss the scientific method) when educating about climate science. The early adopters had divergent responses concerning BP4 (discuss scientific fallibility) and BP3 (teach scientific reasoning). BP4 was controversial: Some interviewees thought lay audiences should understand that error occurs and disagreement in science is normal and healthy; others thought it unproductive to discuss these aspects of science with lay audiences. BP3 was endorsed by many, but some wondered about the feasibility of this practice when sharing science on-air, given the inherent time constraints. Others said they taught audiences scientific reasoning, especially in presentations to groups, and gave examples of how they engage school or community audiences in thinking like scientists; one example given was how to determine whether the heat experienced on a high-temperature day is mainly emanating from the Earth's surface or its atmosphere.

These findings suggest that, like all complex processes, enacting some of the informal science education best practices is challenging for TV meteorologists, given the constraints associated with their positions. They are invaluable to their stations both because they are effective communicators, and because audiences are highly interested in the content being communicated. The evident enthusiasm TV meteorologists bring to the task of informal science education suggests both that they may enjoy and benefit from professional development opportunities focused on ISE best practices, and that such training may enhance the effectiveness of their efforts to educate audiences about climate change.

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