»Believe me, I am an expert!«

One of the many reasons why filmmakers engage in science communication is the wish to change their audience’s behaviors. Reduce your carbon footprint! Save our environment! Use smart technologies to support a sustainable economy!

But do films really change the behavior of their viewers? Sarah K. Yeo from the University of Utah, together with a team of other U.S. communication scientists, put the famous documentary on climate change »An Inconvenient Truth« to the test.

347 participants in their study answered questions about what they intended to do after having watched one of four video clips. The first clip featured former U.S. vice president Al Gore as a speaker, taken from the original film. In the second, Al Gore was replaced by an actor, who was introduced to the viewers as a climate scientist. The third clip faked a one-on-one-interview with the supposed scientist and in the fourth, an anonymous narrator commented the animations that were part of Al Gore’s lecture. The spoken words were identical in all four videos.

»The traditional approach of presenting information in science documentaries with an anonymous narrator appears to be the least effective way to engage audiences with information«, the researchers found. More surprising was their finding, that the participants didn’t differentiate between hearing a message from a politician or a scientist. Yeos team speculates that »Al Gore’s celebrity status and his position on climate change may have caused viewers to perceive him as an expert on the issue.« And finally: »… greater negative feelings of anxiety, fear, anger […] regarding the information from the film might increase the likelihood that a viewer will share the information with others.«

The study’s research questions, experimental design and reflections about behavioral intentions of viewers are quite instructive. However, its main results are not far from common sense. Animations commented by an anonymous speaker aren’t as persuasive as Al Gore speaking in a lecture hall? Al Gore is widely perceived as an expert on climate change?

Therefore, in one respect, we are in complete agreement with the authors: More research about the impact of science documentaries is needed. Meanwhile, let’s stick to the – at least empirically – well confirmed wisdom that communication is most effective when the communicator is most trusted.

Original source:
Sara K. Yeo et al.: An inconvenient source? Attributes of science documentaries and their effects on information-related behavioral intentions. Journal of Science Communication 17 (02), A07. June 20, 2018

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