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Picture Perfect: Framing the Issues of Marine Conservation

Kolandai‐Matchett, Komathi, and Maria Armoudian. “Message framing strategies for effective marine conservation communication.” Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems. 2020. https://doi.org/10.1002/aqc.3349

Whether you’ve only found us recently or you’ve been with us since the beginning, you know that we love science communication (AKA SciComm) here at Oceanbites. Part of our mission is to “make cutting edge research accessible to all by explaining exciting recent literature in all oceanographic and marine biology fields in a way that non-experts can understand.” The practice of SciComm is an ever evolving endeavor, and we scientists are always looking for tools that can help us explain science in engaging ways. With world oceans week drawing to a close, I thought an article about SciComm would be a great way to encourage continued involvement in protecting our world’s oceans. The authors of this review article highlight several methods that can be applied specifically to marine conservation and help us to communicate with a larger number of people.

Figure 1 shows the interaction of the several different groups of people when engaging in science communication. From Wikipedia.

While scientific advancements in ocean conservation continue to be made, Kolandai‐Matchett et al. argue that there is a growing disconnect between scientific research and public understanding when it comes to the marine world. Effective SciComm is instrumental for successful marine conservation, as many of these conservation efforts rely on policy makers, resource managers and support from members of the local community. The authors’ main question is this: What communication methods are the most relevant and effective for marine conservation?

After reviewing many journal articles and academic papers, the authors came up with several ways to improve marine conservation communication (MCC). They emphasize framing the research in a way that increases engagement with both the environmental threat and the behaviors meant to combat it. According to Chong and Durkman (2007), framing is “ the process by which people develop a particular conceptualization of an issue or reorient their thinking about an issue.” In order to frame the issues effectively, the authors outline six frames that will be the most useful for MCC.

  1. Emotional Frames showcase the human-nature connection while making an emotional appeal. These could include using guilt or fear to highlight the seriousness of the threat, or people’s attachment to marine animals to stir up sympathetic emotions.

  2. Outcome Frames alternatively show the benefits from environmental protection and the losses from failing to change behaviors.

  3. Problem/Solution Frames focus on creating a sense of urgency regarding marine issues and emphasizing the effectiveness of individual action in achieving a solution.

  4. Value-Based Frames base their claims in specific moral or ethical arguments, but often use anthropocentrism, especially as it relates to human health, to bolster their positions.

  5. Distance Frames bring up local and current aspects of the issue to decrease the disconnect that often occurs with time and space.

  6. Social Norm Frames employ ideas about how people should behave (according to social norms) in order to get them to change behaviors centered around an issue.

Figure 2 summarizes the frames and shows some of the advantages and disadvantages of each. From Kolandai‐Matchett and Armoudian (2020).

Many problems threaten marine ecosystems, and presenting them in a way that engages the public poses a complex challenge. Each type of frame works better in some cases than others, which makes it important to have a good understanding of both your audience and the issue at hand. Emotional frames that use negative emotions (fear, guilt, shame)  create a variety of responses which either end up mobilizing or discouraging people. Therefore, the authors urge caution when using them. Emotional frames with positive emotions (love, affection) that reference the human-nature connection have been shown to have promising results, especially for issues relating to species conservation. The authors propose that positive emotional frames would pair very well with the use of social norm frames, since many cultures and societies feature beliefs about the relationship people have with nature. Solution frames, rather than problem frames, tend to work better for MCC, as they help to reaffirm actions by both individuals and institutions. Outcome frames can have different effects depending on whether gains or losses are communicated, but their effectiveness could be further increased by showcasing firsthand accounts of the situation in order to garner support for the issue. Both value-based frames and distance frames are extremely useful for MCC because they can connect the ocean to the public in ways that are both relevant and current. However, value-based frames may conflict with emotional frames, since they commodify nature rather than create an emotional bond with it.

Simply using these frames for MCC will not be enough to effectively engage the public. The authors also recommend:

  • Avoiding scientific jargon and using direct language

  • Using a tone appropriate for the desired response

  • Selecting influential individuals to deliver the message

  • Creating mascots for species in particular need of protection

  • Considering the audience’s pre-existing knowledge when crafting messages

Combined, these actions should be powerful tools for garnering support for marine conservation. So, whether you’re an educator, researcher or ocean enthusiast, consider using these tools the next time you have a message you want to share about marine conservation.


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