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Energizing Media Coverage of Energy Issues

Report provides insight on ways to integrate issues of science, human interest, policy

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April 30, 2013 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. -- A study comparing the effectiveness of energy-related news stories finds that news stories that approach critical energy issues from a science perspective -- versus a policy or human interest perspective -- are the most effective in engaging and educating news consumers.

Faculty from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications released their findings last week in a white paper titled “Energizing Media Coverage of Energy Issues.” Presented at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the report was supported by the Richard Lounsbery Foundation.

Over the course of a year, Medill faculty members Abigail Foerstner, Ashlee Humphreys and Ellen Shearer set out to determine how policy, human interest and science story approaches or “genres” influence reader engagement, comprehension and information retention. In addition, they looked at the differences in reader engagement, comprehension and information retention when the same energy-related story was presented in print, broadcast or interactive format.

More than 500 news consumers with an average age of 34 were surveyed. The majority -- 77 percent -- reported voting in the 2012 election. Approximately 53 percent of respondents were men and 43 percent were women.

Among the findings of the report:

• News consumers preferred stories that took a scientific approach to reporting energy issues over those that took a political or human interest approach

• News consumers learned more from stories taking a scientific approach than those approaching the same subject from a policy or human interest perspective

• Political party preference played a role in the kinds of stories people liked and learned most from. Self-identified Republicans liked stories told from the human interest perspective the most and stories told from the policy and science frames the least. Independents were most likely to appreciate news stories told from a policy perspective.

• 2012 election voters liked print and broadcast articles better than non-voters, and recalled the most information from stories presented in a print format. Non-voters liked interactive stories better than voters did but recalled information best from video stories.

• Neither age nor gender had a notable impact on how people responded to story genres or the media in which stories were presented.

To assess the differences between the three news story approaches, the report’s authors sent four teams of three reporters to cover energy-related stories on the battle over the Keystone Pipeline in South Dakota; a controversial offshore wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod; a pioneering hub designed to harness energy from ocean waves off the Pacific Coast; and the “black gold” fracking fields in North Dakota. 

Three students covered the story at each location, with one student responsible for each of the news approaches. In addition, to test the effects of different media on news consumer engagement and learning, the students produced stories in print, broadcast and interactive formats. (You can view their stories here.) 

A panel of six energy experts discussed the report’s findings and took questions from the audience. Panelists included Columbia University geochemist and climatologist Wallace Broecker; Washington Post White House reporter Juliet Eilperin; American Petroleum Institute senior economic adviser Rayola Dougher; Huffington Post environmental reporter Lucia Graves; materials chemist Mark Ratner, founder of Northwestern University’s Initiative for Sustainability and Energy; and Senate Energy and Resources spokesman Keith Chu.

“We expect our report will help reporters and editors be more strategic in how they approach energy stories to ensure they are reaching the audiences they want in the best way possible,” said Shearer. Foerstner and Shearer coordinated the reporting initiative while Humphreys managed the audience survey.

The report is available to journalists seeking to better integrate issues of policy, science and human interest and to connect with audiences, improve audience’s information retention and increase awareness. For a copy of the report, contact the authors at a-foerstner@northwestern.edu, a-humphreys@nrothwestern.edu or shearer@northwestern.edu.