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KQED and Texas Tech Univ. Wrap $3 Million National Science Foundation Grant, Expand Research into Engaging Younger Audiences with Science Media

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Project Creates New Model For Collaboration Between Science Media Professionals and University Science Communication Researchers

KQED and the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University, have recently completed a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the project Cracking the Code (CTC): Influencing Millennial Science Engagement. The three-year grant provided funding for an unprecedented research initiative between science media professionals and science communication academics with the goal of identifying how best to engage younger, more diverse audiences with science media. The project capped its research with a major national survey of science media habits in 2021.

“This project has resulted in new approaches to STEM learning in informal environments that have the potential to transform the way science news is produced and delivered to the general public,” said NSF Program Officer Sandra H. Welch. “This collaboration between researchers and practitioners provides new protocols that can be used by science media producers to create targeted digital media for specific audiences based on the topics that appeal to them.”

“From the pandemic to the extremes of climate change, it has been an especially critical time for science reporting and the public’s understanding of science,” said Sue Ellen McCann, lead principal investigator on the grant for KQED. “This generous NSF funding has allowed us to study science media engagement beyond traditional market research, and really dig into specific questions about our science content, working closely with the expertise of science communication researchers.”

Over the course of this project, KQED and Texas Tech University have:
• Advanced insight into younger audiences’ engagement with science media;
• Identified missing and future audiences;
• Developed best practices for collaborative in-depth audience research;
• Created a new model for collaboration between science media content staff and academic science communication researchers.

“We’ve been able to put science communications theories to the practical test.” said Asheley Landrum of Texas Tech University and co-principal investigator on the project. “Our research team now has a much better understanding of the challenges journalists face in reaching and engaging audiences, especially in this polarized media environment. In the process, we’ve helped KQED discover ways to amplify the engagement of science content for harder-to-reach audiences.”

The project built on Landrum’s and collaborators’ existing science curiosity research. They developed a survey tool called the Science Curiosity Scale (SCS), which measures science interest through a combination of behavioral and self-reported indicators. This research also expanded the understanding of underengaged or “missing” audiences for science media. For the purposes of this project, missing audiences are defined as individuals who are “science curious” but are not engaging with science content. Of note, one key feature of science curious people is that they are more likely than others to read stories that disagree with their own opinion.

National Media Survey 2021
To wrap up the (CTC) project, KQED and Texas Tech research teams completed a new national survey in August 2021 of science media habits of younger audiences. The survey asked many of the same questions as in the project’s 2018 first-ever national science media survey of millennials. The team homed in on questions that emerged from the past three years of research with a focus on millennials (25-40 years old) who are of particular interest as they have already dramatically changed the way media is consumed. The recent survey also examined the media behaviors of a portion of Gen Z (18-24 years old), the next generation shifting an already fragmented media landscape. Read a more detailed article on the new survey and its results here.

Key findings from that survey include:
Curious Audience: Science curiosity is the strongest predictor of engagement with science — far above any demographic characteristic. However, science curiosity can vary by demographics.
Topics by Generation: Adults 40 and younger are most interested in nature, wildlife, and psychology/behavioral science. Gen Z are the adults most interested in climate change. Health and medicine become more important with age.
Platforms Used: Millennials most commonly use search engines and websites to find public media science content. YouTube is also popular. Gen Zers commonly use TikTok, which is the least popular platform for science among millennials.
Missing Audience: Black and Hispanic millennial women seem to be the most frequently “missing” audiences for science from platforms such as live radio, podcasts, TikTok, and YouTube. This is not the case for these women Gen Zers.
Science Stories: Stories that explain something audiences are curious about in nature and the environment are much more popular than any other type of story, including news about scientific discoveries and climate change.
Story Credibility: Science curious Gen Zers trust their gut intuition about whether science stories are credible, but they also prioritize peer review and expertise. Science curious millennials say they rely primarily on peer review and expertise.
Additional Research Highlights

Besides the national media surveys, CTC’s audience research centered on questions for two of KQED’s science properties: Deep Look, its YouTube series about unusual animals and plants; and science news reporting on the radio and online.
• How can KQED adapt and expand upon existing research to understand the role of science identity and curiosity in millennial engagement and interest in science media?
• Which editorial tactics, platform choices, media formats, and engagement strategies — can increase millennials' curiosity and interest in science content, with special attention given to underrepresented and underengaged, “missing” audiences within the millennial generation?

Key findings from the project’s Deep Look research include:
• The YouTube algorithm is not determining Deep Look’s gender imbalance of 70 percent male vs. 30 percent female.
• Women and men with high science curiosity who watched Deep Look engaged with it equally.
• Women weren’t squeamish of “gross” content, but titles that emphasize useful information (health, medicine) appear to engage more women.
• Behind-the-scenes photos are less expensive and just as effective as behind-the-scenes-videos at engaging Deep Look’s missing audience of women, both science curious and not.
• Aesthetics and attractiveness are very important in thumbnail images. Specifically, intense colors and images that elicit curiosity or are perceived as "charming" engage more women.

Key findings from the project’s preliminary science news research include:
• Stories with forward referencing headlines (Ex. Here’s What Little Earthquakes Tell Scientists About the Likelihood of the Big One ) had a greater probability of being categorized as “real” news than the traditional or question (Do Little Earthquakes Mean the Big One is Close at Hand?) headline formats.
• Although science curiosity predicted anticipated engagement, participants generally (and millennials in particular) saw question-based headlines as less credible. Millennials were less likely to categorize these stories as real news (choosing “fake news” or “satire”) than they were the other headline types.
• The intuitive method of sparking curiosity via asking questions to increase engagement could be seen as click bait and result, instead, in loss of credibility — something that the news media, and science news in particular, cannot afford to lose.

Note: The science news team began a study to find out whether stories aimed at generating “awe” would drive deeper engagement. From a preliminary study the team learned people can feel experiences like connectedness and vastness, not only through images but through a written story. The team intended to write their own science stories through an "awe" framework, but the pandemic redirected the team's work, and halted testing of participants’ response to the articles, which would have required the use of Texas Tech's Psychophysiology Lab.

Key findings from the project’s COVID-19 Mask research:
• Political party was the strongest predictor of participants’ beliefs about COVID-19 risks, mask-wearing, and policy support.
• Presenting participants with a written scientific consensus message did not significantly influence their beliefs.
• Viewing an infographic depicting how masks help to prevent the spread of COVID-19 increased study participants’ agreement that wearing masks can effectively keep the wearer and others safe, specifically among more skeptical audiences (such as men and Republicans).

Note: The Mask study was one of several conducted under an additional 2020 NSF Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant to study COVID-19 related messaging and communication around the virus. Find out more about the project’s COVID-19 research here. Also, a comprehensive evaluation about reporting during a crisis/disaster can be found here.

Key takeaways from the project’s evaluation include:
• By learning firsthand the kinds of issues that science media content producers and news reporters experience on a day-to-day basis, researchers better understand how their work can impact media practice.
• Media practitioners’ exposure to a variety of new research tools and methods raised their awareness and understanding of the importance of science communication and audience research.
• It is most helpful to media professionals when researchers can translate study findings into actionable insights.
• Building in regular opportunities for participant reflection and contextualizing of study results is imperative for the success and sustainability of these types of collaborations.
• Challenges in aligning long-term audience research with the demand for rapid science news reporting need to be considered.
• Dissemination of findings is just as an important undertaking as the research itself. Identifying target audiences for dissemination and determining the way in which findings would be best communicated regularly to those audiences is critical if the research is to have a lasting impact.

Visit KQED.org/CrackingtheCode, for all of CTC’s research reports and project evaluation reports. A more complete summary of findings and key takeaways is here. A summary of how to design a science media practitioner and science communications researcher collaboration is here.

Project Team
The project was spearheaded by KQED Science’s Sue Ellen McCann and also included co-principal investigator Sevda Eris and Sarah Mohamad of KQED’s science engagement staff. Producers from Deep Look, including Craig Rosa and Gabriela Quirós, and its science news editors and reporters, including Katrin Snow, Jon Brooks and Kevin Stark, were principal KQED participants. Asheley Landrum of the College of Media and Communication of Texas Tech University was the lead academic researcher and co-PI on the project with assistance from postdoctoral researcher, Kelsi Opat, and several doctoral candidates including: Kristina Janet, Othello Richards and Natasha Strydhorst. Dan Kahan of Yale Law School’s Cultural Cognition Project helped kick off the grant’s research into Deep Look’s gender disparity in science media engagement with assistance from Matthew Motta and Daniel Chapman, postdoctoral fellows at Yale and the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. The project closed out a key line of inquiry into women and science identity with research from Jocelyn Steinke of the University of Connecticut and doctoral candidate Christine Gilbert of the University of Connecticut.

The evaluation of this project was conducted by Scott Burg, a senior research principal at Rockman et al, an independent evaluation, research and consulting firm focusing on studies of education, technology and media.

Major funding for this project is provided by the National Science Foundation. The 2021 National Survey was funded by the NSF. The first national surveys in 2018 were funded by the Templeton Religion Trust and Temple World Charity Foundation, with additional funding from the National Science Foundation. A follow-up 2018 verification survey received further funding from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

The CTC team communicated results of the research throughout the project to several renowned media partners: NPR News, PBS NewsHour (WNET), PBS Digital Studios, Science Friday (WNYC Studios), Nature (WNET), NOVA (WGBH), UNC-TV Public Media North Carolina and Twin Cities PBS and Scientific American.

About KQED Science
KQED Science’s award-winning reporters and producers, provide daily reporting on science and health research, climate change and the environment as well as producing the popular Deep Look YouTube nature series. It also engages with its audience on social media, through community events and through partnerships with renowned science centers and institutions from the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. Discover more at KQED.org/science.

About KQED
KQED serves the people of Northern California with a public-supported alternative to commercial media. An NPR and PBS affiliate based in San Francisco, KQED is home to one of the most listened-to public radio stations in the nation and one of the highest-rated public television services. It also has an award-winning education program that helps students and educators thrive in 21st century classrooms. A trusted news source and leader and innovator in interactive media, KQED takes people of all ages on journeys of exploration — exposing them to new people, places and ideas. KQED.org

Media Contact: Sevda Eris, KQED, seris@kqed.org

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