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date: 24 April 2017

Medialization, Scientists, and Climate Change

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Global climate change is one of the risks that have become known to the public and to decision makers only through scientific research. Climate scientists were the dominant communicators in the early climate-change discourse, putting the issue on the public agenda, and they remained important communicators in later discourse stages. Among the scientists visible in the mass media coverage on climate change are climate researchers as well as researchers from other disciplines dealing with technical or socioeconomic aspects of global climate-change mitigation and adaptation. Surveys among scientists involved in research on climate change and content analyses of media coverage on climate change show the widespread involvement of scientists in public communication and inform us about their communication-relevant beliefs, preferences, attitudes, and perception of their role as public communicators. Two theoretical perspectives can be used to understand the role of climate researchers as public communicators: medialization of science and specification of the “public expert” role in the science-policy context of climate change.

Peter Weingart’s medialization of science framework points to the media orientation of scientific communicators in the climate-change discourse. The medialization thesis assumes that scientists and scientific organizations have a strong interest in increasing their visibility and caring for their image in the media in order to build legitimacy and raise support for their demands and persuasive goals. The thesis further argues that scientists interested in public visibility tend to adjust their communication behavior and public messages to media expectations and also consider media criteria such as public attention and recognition when making decisions about research and scholarly communication. According to this thesis, the media orientation of science not only affects the public representation of science but also has repercussions for scientific inquiry, which threatens scientific autonomy and constitutes a risk to the quality of scientific knowledge.

The science-policy context of the public discourse on global climate change has important implications for scientists' role as public communicators. Whether or not they themselves recognize it, scientists in the climate-change discourse are not primarily involved as popularizers of their research but as “public experts” whose messages are received—and probably most often intended—as contributions to the understanding, assessment, and governance of risks resulting from global climate change. Scientists construe their expert role in different ways, however. One dimension of variation concerns the readiness of scientists in public communication to go beyond relatively certain facts and also offer interpretations, generalizations, or projections that are uncertain and may be controversial within science. A second dimension concerns its relation to decision making: assuming a guarded role as provider of reliable knowledge to inform opinion formation and decision making of (imagined) clients such as public or politics versus an advocacy role aiming at pushing public opinion and decisions into a particular direction. Some perceptions of the expert role conform more with traditional scientific norms of objectivity and responsibility than others.