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date: 11 December 2018

Documentary and Edutainment Portrayals of Climate Change and Their Societal Impacts

Summary and Keywords

As climate change becomes an increasingly serious problem, mass media are tasked with educating the public. Documentary films and television shows (also called “edutainment”) have been used for decades to communicate about the natural world so that the public may hopefully become informed about science in a simplified, easy-to-understand way. Although producers ostensibly create environmental documentaries in order to inform and/or advocate, theory development and empirical research is limited and insufficient in explaining how this genre influences audiences and why this genre may or may not be an effective means of science communication.

Environmental documentaries have the potential to deeply impact audiences because these films promote learning while viewers are entertained, because engagement with the documentary narrative (story) can overcome biases such as politically driven motivated reasoning (conforming new evidence to existing beliefs) and can leverage biases such as the tendency to rely on affect (emotions) when estimating risks. Documentary storytelling can also enhance learning by connecting the causes and consequences of climate change in a sequential narrative.

Climate change is a highly contentious political issue, which is reflected in the diversity of viewpoints found in climate change documentaries despite scientific consensus about the issue. While many of these films serve an educational purpose, others are geared toward advocacy. These advocacy programs aim to mobilize value-congruent audiences to engage in personal and collective action and/or to demand policy change. However, people prefer messages that align with their preexisting values, and so the belief disparity between climate change advocates and deniers grows with increasing media exposure as audiences with different beliefs watch and receive climate change messages in very different ways. Filmmakers and scientists must focus future efforts on creating visually engaging narratives within documentaries to promote both education and advocacy to diverse audiences.

Keywords: documentary, edutainment, narrative, affect, motivated reasoning, advocacy, mobilization

Increasingly, filmmakers are using documentary films and documentary television programs (edutainment) to potentially both inform audiences of the facts of climate change as well as to persuade them that problem is a serious one urgently requiring human action. Several documentaries have been created to educate the public about anthropogenic climate change as well as to advocate for individual and collective action. At the same time, climate change denialism has also found a voice in documentary film. In addition, recent films such as Climate of Doubt (2012) and Merchants of Doubt (2014) have focused more on the controversy surrounding climate change than on the issue itself.

Despite the prevalence of climate change documentaries, empirical evidence related to the documentary genre as a whole is limited. Theory development in this area has also been sparse, resulting in gaps between informal assumptions about documentary influence and actual knowledge about if and how documentaries can affect public knowledge and discourse.

To begin addressing these gaps, this article provides a framework for defining and classifying documentaries; a discussion of documentary audiences and potential consequences of selective exposure; and an overview of the climate change documentary landscape, with a focus on the unique aspects of this genre that facilitate learning, persuasion, and mobilization.

Common Documentary Formats

Nichols (2001) identifies six modes of representation that act as subgenres of documentary—expository, participatory, poetic, observational, reflexive, and performative. The expository and participatory modes are the most common modes used in science and environmental documentaries.

The expository mode involves assembling fragments of the historical world to advance an argument, recount history, or propose a perspective (Nichols, 2001). These documentaries directly address the viewer with titles and typically use omniscient, voice-of-God narration through an on- or off-screen presenter. Expository documentaries rely on logic and evidence to persuade the viewer of their truth claims about the natural world (León, 2007). The narrator commentary is used to organize and make sense of the images for the audience and is associated with objectivity (Nichols, 2001). The structure and editing of expository dramas is driven by the need to maintain the continuity of the presented argument or perspective.

This type of evidentiary editing may reduce temporal and spatial continuity by stringing together a variety of sources to support the program’s central claims. Generally, this mode is ideal for conveying knowledge without challenging or subverting existing knowledge. Such films frequently use common sense and common experience as a basis for argumentation.

In the process of simplifying scientific complexities into straightforward arguments about the natural world, expository documentaries typically present their truth as uncontroversial and apparently irrefutable and thus are less likely to be accused of bias by audiences (León, 2007). Expository documentaries also use universal truths and values to support the evidence presented as objective and truthful. The 11th Hour is an example of an expository climate change documentary—it presents the dire state of the planet’s life system through a compilation of visual images and interviews with over 50 experts and activists.

A second common format for science and environmental documentaries is the participatory mode. In participatory documentaries, the filmmaker becomes part of the story (Nichols, 2001). Although on-screen narrators are used in the expository mode as well, the participatory mode is distinguished by the expectation that the viewer will witness the historical world through the eyes of someone actively engaging with it—the filmmaker becomes to varying degrees a part of the story. Audiences expect that the information conveyed in these documentaries is a subjective reflection of the filmmaker’s encounters with the documentary subjects.

The filmmakers in participatory documentaries may be directly and personally involved with the events that unfold and/or act as researchers or investigative reporters who are revealing the truth of the situation to the audience. In order to introduce broader perspectives, participatory filmmakers commonly use interviews to bring together different accounts into a single story organized around the filmmaker’s experiences. Many films in the participatory mode seek to represent broad social issues through a compilation of perspectives and footage. Chasing Ice is an example of a participatory climate change documentary as it focuses as much on the efforts and trials of The Extreme Ice Survey to photograph glacial melting as it does on conveying information about glacial melting.

These formats are not mutually exclusive. For example, the slideshow and lecture portions of An Inconvenient Truth follow the expository mode, while the personal stories of Al Gore’s lifetime involvement with the issue of climate change follow the participatory mode.

Distinguishing Documentaries by Motivation

In addition to distinguishing documentaries by mode, it is also useful to differentiate documentaries by both filmmaker and audience motivations. Here, motivation refers to both the filmmaker’s goals in producing the documentary as well as the audience’s reasons for consuming it. Two broad types emerge from this categorization: education-oriented and advocacy-oriented documentaries.

Education-oriented documentaries are didactic in nature and are produced with the intention of conveying knowledge (León, 2007). These documentaries frequently use the expository mode to emphasize the irrefutable truth of their claims, but education-oriented documentaries also exist in the participatory format (e.g., many wildlife films, such as those hosted by David Attenborough). Education-oriented documentaries intend to communicate scientific truths as uncontroversial. As a result, audiences typically approach these documentaries with a stronger assumption of truthfulness and with the goal of information acquisition.

Individuals are motivated to know accurate information, and so message processing is determined by task importance (rewards and punishments associated with the knowledge acquisition) and by intrinsic interest in the subject (Slater, 1997). Education-oriented documentaries thus produce didactic processing with the aim or information comprehension and retention. As a result, viewers pay close attention to the specific content of the message, which should enhance the likelihood of persuasive impact and recall. In the case of education-oriented documentaries, persuasion involves leading the audience to believe that the documentary accurately reflects scientific fact and the natural world. This form of documentary may therefore be especially powerful because it takes a great deal of effort for audiences to discount information after having first assimilated it with the goal of information acquisition (Gilbert, 1991).

Advocacy-oriented documentaries are more explicitly persuasive in nature and are produced with the intention of convincing the audience to adopt attitudes and behaviors that promote social and policy change (Nichols, 2001). These documentaries frequently use the participatory mode to situate the filmmaker in the story as a basis for presenting his or her experiences or investigations into scientific controversies. The filmmaker takes an ideological stance on an issue and presents evidence to support this stance.

Because advocacy documentaries convey a clear (and often political) viewpoint, these documentaries are far more likely to be viewed by audiences for whom they are value congruent. As a result, audiences are motivated to view these films with value-reinforcement goals to strengthen and deepen preexisting beliefs (Slater, 1997). Viewers are highly receptive of the message because it aligns with their ideological orientation, and these messages also serve to increase the confidence and strength of those attitudes.

It is worth noting that viewers may seek out advocacy-oriented documentaries that are value incongruent for the purpose of value-protective processing. In this case, viewers aim to counterargue the message and so are unlikely to be persuaded even when presented with strong arguments (Slater, 1997). However, if the documentary is able to successfully undermine confidence in preexisting beliefs and appears credible, attitudinal change is possible (Price & Allen, 1990; Slater & Rouner, 1992).

Some climate change documentaries are more education oriented and focus on simply presenting the facts of the issue. However, most climate change documentaries include some sort of advocacy message urging for individual or collective behavior to mitigate climate change. This practice is supported by research on fear appeals, which suggests that fear-inducing messages should be paired with information about how to reduce this threat, a concept known as efficacy (Leventhal, 1970; Rogers, 1975, 1983). When individuals are exposed to fear-inducing messages (e.g., information about the risks of climate change), they engage in either fear control, threat control, or rejection of the message. In fear control mode, people seek to mitigate their fears by avoiding information about the danger or derogating the information’s source. In threat control mode, people will focus on strategies and adaptive responses to mitigate the danger. Research on fear appeals suggests that risk messages must include information about susceptibility, severity, and efficacy in order to promote threat control rather than fear control (Witte, 1992; Witte & Allen, 2000). Additionally, research has shown that promoting the audience’s own personal efficacy about addressing climate change is a key factor in promoting public engagement and mobilization on the issue (Hart & Feldman, 2016). Climate change documentaries that focus on risks should include information on what people can do about it; otherwise these films may cause audiences to avoid or deny the problems of climate change.

In addition to the goals specific to each type of documentary, all documentaries are typically viewed with the additional hedonic goal of entertainment (León, 2007). As documentary producers widely acknowledge, audiences must first be entertained if any learning or attitude change is to take place. The hedonic processing of such messages increases attention to and engagement in the story being told (Slater, 1997). An advantage of this processing strategy is that it may lower resistance to value-incongruent messages (Slater & Rouner, 2002). How climate change documentaries are processed is a function of not only the documentary itself but also what audiences bring to the viewing experience.

Documentary Audiences

One of the core assumptions of both producers and audiences is that documentaries promote education and learning while viewers are being entertained (Chris, 2006; León, 2007). This assumption is foundational to both differentiating documentaries from other forms of media as well as to understanding why audiences watch documentaries. However, unlike many genres such as horror or westerns that are relatively easy to conceptualize, the line delineating whether a media text is a documentary is ambiguous at best due to the extensive variety of styles, techniques, and formats used (Aufderheide, 2007). For example, it is difficult to determine whether or not docudramas like The Age of Stupid belong in the documentary category alongside more traditional films like An Inconvenient Truth due to vast differences in structural features.

Documentary pioneer John Grierson defined the format as “the creative treatment of actuality” (1926), a definition that highlights the central tension inherent in the genre. Although documentaries use footage of the real world, they are constructed representations of reality that incorporate stylistic and storytelling formats common to fictional media. The definition of documentary can thus be considered comparative—just as complex concepts such as love are defined in contrast to hate, documentaries gain meaning through contrast with other types of media such as fictional films or news programs (Nichols, 2001). What then separates a documentary from other formats?

Given the variety present within the documentary genre, many films that count as documentaries do not bear a close enough resemblance to one another to define documentaries on the basis of structural features. Therefore, instead of using common features within the genre, the best way to define documentaries is from an audience-centered perspective. Simply put, a documentary is whatever people commonly mean when they use the term (Eitzen, 1995; Tudor, 1973). This definition highlights the importance of audience assumptions in considering media effects. If an individual considers a media text to be a documentary, that person will interact with the text as a documentary. However, the boundaries of documentary are still variable in everyday discourse. For example, programs based on reenactments do not fit neatly into categorization as either a documentary or a non-documentary. Despite these challenges to explication, the fundamental audience expectation is that documentaries should in some way represent reality (Nichols, 1991). Documentary viewers approach these texts with two common assumptions—that the images shown originate in the historical world and that documentaries are perceived to go beyond merely portraying the historical world by making some sort of truthful “argument” or “claim” about it.

Using these assumptions, documentaries can be differentiated from other forms of media by their susceptibility to the question, “Might it be lying?” (Eitzen, 1995). While fictional films may claim to simulate reality, documentary films make truth claims about how the world is or was (and often about how the world “should be”). Viewers expect documentaries to be made up of sounds and images that reflect the real world (Nichols, 1991). It is this assumption that both motivates audiences to seek out documentaries as well to as reject them when messages appear untruthful from the viewer’s perspective.

How audiences determine the truthfulness of a climate change documentary’s claims is dependent on how they process the information contained therein on the basis of their own value predispositions, as well as features of the message. However, some audiences may choose to simply avoid documentaries that conflict with their preexisting beliefs through selective exposure (Hart et al., 2009), creating an additional barrier to climate change communication because audiences may not see climate change documentaries at all or because different audiences (e.g., liberals and conservatives) are receiving vastly different information about the same issue.

Selective Exposure

Selective exposure refers to the tendency of individuals to prefer media that they assume will reinforce their values over media that they assume will conflict with their preexisting beliefs (Hart et al., 2009). For example, in response to Gasland (2010), filmmaker Phelim McAleer created the film Fracknation (2013), which follows his quest to find the “truth” about fracking from a pro-fracking perspective. Audiences who watch only one film or the other will receive (and possibly adopt) very different perspectives on the issue.

Selective exposure theory suggests that an individual’s likelihood of consuming a media text is a function of the degree to which that text supports his or her preexisting opinion—people prefer information from sources that are more supportive of their current beliefs and values (Garrett, 2009; Lazarsfeld et al., 1944). Because many environmental issues are highly partisan, this selective exposure is frequently politically motivated and individuals tend to sort into partisan news sources (Feldman, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, & Leiseroqitz, 2012). These sources may be networks such as Fox News or MSNBC or may take the form of a documentary associated with a particular political party’s issue stance.

For example, although the climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006) was not directly associated with the Democratic Party, the film centers around a lecture/slideshow presented by former Vice President Al Gore, intermingled with personal scenes in which Al Gore reflects on his political career and his reasons for being so concerned with public understanding of climate change. The film was widely successful (worldwide box office total exceeded $50 million) and served to strongly associate the issue of anthropogenic climate change to Al Gore and by proxy the Democratic Party of the United States (Johnson, 2009).

The reinforcing spirals model extends selective exposure theory to describe the dynamic interaction between media and audiences by focusing on the reciprocal relationship between media selection and effects (Slater, 2007; Zhao, 2009). Essentially, the model suggests that particular beliefs influence selective exposure to certain types of media messages and that these messages can in turn influence one’s beliefs. The relationship between media and the audience is not static but instead an active and continuously unfolding interaction. These interactions can extend beyond the realm of media to interpersonal interactions. For example, exposure to science news was found to increase (perceived) understanding of science, which led to more conversations about science (Southwell & Torres, 2006).

Selective exposure and the reinforcing spirals model have important consequences for common understanding about scientific issues. Liberal and conservative audiences are frequently exposed to conflicting messages (often through partisan news outlets), leading to increased polarization and divergence of beliefs among viewers (Feldman et al., 2012). Knowledge gaps between liberals and conservatives are amplified as each group receives different information about climate change and may come to different conclusions about this information based on their preexisting beliefs (Hindman, 2009; Nisbet, Cooper, & Ellithorpe, 2015).

Selective Processing and Motivated Reasoning

Beyond selective exposure, audiences may also selectively process the scientific information in biased ways that result in polarized differences in beliefs and opinions (Nisbet, Garret, & Cooper, 2015). The underlying assumption of many education-oriented climate change documentaries is that providing people with information will lead to increased public concern about an issue (Kellstedt, Zahran, & Vadlitz, 2008). This line of reasoning is referred to as the deficit model and attributes public controversy over scientific issues to a lack of knowledge about and/or inability to comprehend scientific information (Bauer, Allum, & Miller, 2007; Brossard & Lewenstein, 2009).

The deficit model assumes is that if the public knows more about climate change they will care more about performing personal behaviors and supporting policies to mitigate its effects. Once the public is adequately informed about science risk issues, it is assumed that they will arrive at the conclusions supported by scientific consensus (Sturgis & Allum, 2004). If the barrier to concern about climate change is driven by a lack of information, the deficit model proposes information dissemination as the solution.

Despite its face validity, considerable evidence suggests that the deficit model is an inadequate explanation for public misunderstanding of science, particularly for ideologically controversial science issues. Differences in beliefs about controversial science issues such as climate change are actually greatest for those with higher scientific literacy or cognitive capacity (Hamilton, 2011; Kahan et al., 2012; Kahan, Peters, Dawson, & Slovic, 2013). In fact, exposure to information about climate change to ideologically motivated audiences may “boomerang” and widen opinion polarization rather than close it (Hart & Nisbet, 2012) or result in decreased trust of information from the scientific community (Nisbet et al., 2015).

Thus, in reality, knowledge/belief polarization about controversial science issues tends to increase rather than decrease with information exposure. For instance, the divergence in beliefs about whether the benefits of nanotechnology outweighed the risk between individuals with different worldviews grew after exposure to more information about the topic (Kahan, Braman, Slovic, Gastil, & Cohen, 2008). Another study found that when asked to interpret evidence about the potential consequences of a gun ban law, individuals with greater cognitive capacity were more accurate than those with lower ability only when the presented evidence conformed to their value predispositions (Kahan, Peters, Dawson, & Slovic, 2013).

Several studies have shown wider political polarization about climate change after consumption of or exposure to a range of news and message formats (e.g., Hart & Nisbet, 2012; Hart, Nisbet, & Myers, 2015; Nisbet et al., 2015). Collectively, these studies indicate that the assumption that enlightened and scientifically accurate public opinion will emerge from increasing scientific information is a faulty one. Instead, ideologically polarized opinions about science may be all but inevitable for some issues due to selective and biased processing of information to match political predispositions (Mutz & Martin, 2001).

An alternative explanation for public polarization and misunderstanding of science is based on the concept of motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning refers to the tendency to conform new evidence to already-held beliefs, driven by the desire to reach conclusions consistent with those beliefs (Kunda, 1990; Lodge & Taber, 2000; Lord, Ross, & Lepper, 1979; Taber, Cann, & Kucsova, 2009). People do not approach or interpret information evenhandedly—instead, one’s prior beliefs and political ideology strongly bias the processing and interpretation of information about politically contentious scientific issues (Taber & Lodge, 2006).

Individuals, especially those with high issue involvement, may ignore or misinterpret ideologically incongruent messages or may respond to ideologically dissonant messages with counterarguing, reactance, or negative affect (Byrne & Hart, 2009; Jacks & Cameron, 2003; Johnson & Eagly, 1989). These responses to attitudinally incongruent information occur for both liberals and conservatives and can lead to decreased trust in science as an institution (Kahan, 2013; Nisbet, Cooper, & Garrett, 2015).

As a result of motivated reasoning, equally informed citizens with differing ideological predispositions may become more polarized over time and with increasing information exposure, creating belief gaps in accuracy about scientific issues (Hindman, 2009; Nisbet, Cooper, & Ellithorpe, 2015; Taber, Cann, & Kucsova, 2009). How can documentary producers overcome these barriers to effective climate change communication? Two strategies that aid in addressing this problem are narrative persuasion and affective portrayals of risk.

Documentary Narratives

Documentary films must engage viewers in order to effectively inform and persuade. Just as in other forms of media, the best documentaries are driven by powerful stories in which the viewer wants to find out what happens next. In the case of environmental documentaries, these stories serve to personalize natural phenomena through human stories that allow the viewer to identify with the subject matter (Miller, 1980). Subjects in the documentary become characters involved in conflict to create suspense in order to enhance interest and enjoyment. These stories, or narratives, link real or fictional actions and events in a coherent causal sequence (Kreuter et al., 2007; León, 2007). This use of narratives is crucial in keeping viewers centered on the information being told, which leads to increased learning of information causally situated within the story (Dahlstrom, 2010, 2012; Glaser et al., 2012). Narratives also enhance the persuasiveness of messages, especially for value-incongruent audiences (Slater & Rouner, 1996).

Narratives can be especially effective because they present lived experiences of others, which may make it more difficult for them to be discounted (Nisbett & Ross, 1980; Slater, 2002). This tends to occur even when the presented case is atypical (Strange & Leung, 1999). Stories that focus attention on the situational causes of climate change may bypass immediate discounting by providing concrete instances of it. Anecdotal evidence can serve as concrete examples that are more plausible and more easily understood than statistical information and thus have the potential to exert a strong influence on attitudes and behaviors (Slater & Rouner, 1996).

Learning From Documentaries

Scholarship on narrative effects provides some guidance for understanding how audiences learn from documentaries. For example, audiences are more likely to acquire and retain science knowledge when it is presented in narrative formats like documentaries (Dahlstrom, 2010; Glaser, Garsoffky, & Schwan, 2012). This increase in learning occurs because narratives facilitate high levels of message involvement and character identification (Moyer-Gusé, 2008; Slater, 2002; So, 2012). In turn, greater involvement and identification—through mitigation of counterarguing and reactance—increase the likelihood of audiences accepting, internalizing, and recalling the presented information, as well as decreasing the potential for motivated reasoning when such information runs counter to preexisting beliefs (Moyer-Gusé, 2008; Moyer-Gusé & Nabi, 2010; Nisbet, Cooper, & Ellithorpe, 2014; Slater & Rouner, 1996, 2002).

The combined information and entertainment attributes of documentaries also importantly align with audience motivations that impact learning outcomes. Previous research indicates that audience motivations heavily influence how and what people learn from media (Eveland, 2001; Slater, 1997). For instance, individuals who are primarily motivated by a desire to learn new information are more likely to have higher levels of attention and cognitive involvement with science content presented in media (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986; Slater, 1997). In contrast, individuals who are primarily motivated by a desire to receive enjoyment or pleasure from (i.e., be entertained by) documentary content may process this content in a different manner (Slater, 1997). Such hedonic goals result in more emotional message processing that boosts affective responses to the content (Hendrickx, Vlek, & Oppenwal, 1989; Slater, 2002). This in turn increases interest and motivation about the presented information, thereby facilitating internalization and long-term retention (Moyer-Gusé, 2008). By addressing both of these motivations, documentaries have the potential to appeal to and reach a wider audience than either informational or entertainment media alone.

Affect and Risk

Climate change documentaries typically focus on portraying its risks and consequences for humans and the natural world. Dual process psychological theories (e.g., the heuristic-systematic model) suggest that people process risk information through two systems: the experiential system and the analytic system (Chaiken & Trope, 1999; Sloman, 1996; Slovic, Finucane, Peters, & MacGregor, 2004). The experiential system relies on quick, intuitive judgments, whereas the analytic system involves effortful and conscious calculations of risk. The intuitive judgments of the experiential system are driven by emotional and affective associations between new information and previous experiences and risk can be conceptualized as a feeling that drives behavior (Slovic et al., 2004).

The experiential system processes risk information quickly (and sometimes subconsciously) and therefore affective responses to risk occur prior to and guide the more “rational” responses of the analytic system. As used here, “affect” is “the specific quality of ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ (1) experienced as a feeling state (with or without consciousness), and (2) demarcating a positive or negative quality of a stimulus” (Slovic et al., 2004, p. 312). This “gut feeling” intuitive responses are the primary way people respond to risk information and tend to have a greater impact on decision making and beliefs than individual characteristics such as knowledge (Lee, Scheufele, & Lewenstein, 2005).

Affect plays a crucial role in motivating behavior and decision making. The experiential and analytic systems are anatomically and functionally distinct, so affective reactions are possible without much effortful thinking (Damasio, 1994; Kunst-Wilson & Zajonc, 1980). Such rapid responses to risk are evolutionarily beneficial because they allow the individual to orient mental resources in order to make quick and efficient decisions in a complex and dangerous world (Finucane, Alhakami, Slovic, & Johnson, 2000). When these emotional responses diverge from cognitive assessments of risk, affective reactions have the potential to supersede cognitions and ultimately drive behavior despite being anatomically distinct (Cooper & Nisbet, 2016; Loewenstein, Weber, Hsee, & Welch, 2001).

A hallmark of documentaries is the use of powerful visuals as evidence and to provoke emotional responses (León, 2007). Images represent concrete proof of the filmmaker’s claims that is difficult to dispute by putting the viewer in a position similar to an eyewitness. These visuals and narratives can serve as a form of evidence to enhance the effects of persuasive messages (Reinard, 1988).

One of the primary reasons narratives may be particularly successful at influencing risk judgments is due to the fact that narrative formats are more effective than statistical ones at influencing affective responses (Pennington & Hastie, 1993; Sanfey & Hastie, 1998). When risk messages are presented in the form of vivid, affect-laden scenarios, audiences tend to perceive greater personal vulnerability (Slovic et al., 2004). These vivid scenarios are then more easily recalled and thus more influential in the formation of risk judgments. Narratives are more likely to influence experiential system information processing and thus may also bias downstream analytic system information processing as well (Slovic et al., 2004).

Damasio (1994) suggests that people largely think in images and symbolic representations that become “marked” over time with positive and negative feelings. Documentary films directly provide these images as well as affective cues (e.g., musical score) associated with them. If these cues become linked with the issue in a person’s memory, subsequent evaluations of the issue in new contexts should be influenced by the affective valuations experienced during documentary viewing. The person will consult his or her “affective pool” of positive and negative associations (conscious and unconscious) and use this information to form risk judgments (Finucane et al., 2000). If the documentary message evokes negative affect at the time of viewing, this feeling should be recalled when making judgments and decisions about the environmental issue.

The availability heuristic is another rule used by decision makers in which people judge the probability of an event by the ease with which they can think of examples of it (Plous, 1993; Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). This heuristic can lead to biased judgment because the frequency with which an event comes to mind is not usually an accurate reflection of its real-world probability. Biases through the availability heuristic occur when examples of one risk are inherently more difficult to generate and recall than examples of another risk. Risks that are highly salient and provide vivid visuals are both more easily recalled and more likely to receive news and documentary coverage (Lichtenstein, Slovic, Fischhoff, Layman, & Combs, 1978). The media is more likely to cover risks that are high in visual impact and drama (e.g., forest fires, tsunamis) and give comparatively little coverage to chronic, nonvisual risks (e.g., x-rays, asbestos; Greenberg, Sachsman, Sandman, & Salomone, 1989). Thus the interplay between media coverage and the availability heuristic further contributes to the overestimation of certain risks relative to others. As climate change increasingly inflicts major environmental destruction, it can be expected that coverage of the issue will increase, as well as estimates about climate change risks.

A final issue for climate change communication through the media is psychological distance. Documentaries connect distant realities with the daily experiences of the audience through emotionally powerful narratives (León, 2007). Bringing distant realities to viewers is important because people live in the moment but make decisions based on psychological distance from a decision object (Trope & Liberman, 2010). The reference point for this distance is the self in the present and distance may take the form of temporal, spatial, hypothetical, or social distance. Events that occur far in the future, away from the self’s present location, affect people not like oneself, and that are highly uncertain/improbable are considered psychologically distant.

Psychological distance is of great concern for the issue of climate change because its effects may not be felt for a long time and because many individuals evaluating the risk of climate change do not live in areas where major, visible environmental impacts are currently present (Spence, Poortinga, & Pidgeon, 2011). However, the way in which climate change is represented in media may help to motivate action by lowering the psychological distance between the issue and the media message. Construal level theory proposes that individuals mentally represent psychologically near events using concrete, low-level construals and mentally represent psychologically distant events using abstract, high-level construals (Trope & Liberman, 2010). When an environmental risk is construed in an abstract way, people are more likely to make decisions based on overarching values rather than on specific and contextual information. As psychological distance decreases, construals become more concrete. When an environmental risk is construed in a concrete way, the issue becomes more salient and people are more likely to be cognitively and emotionally engaged with the issue (Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole, & Whitmarsh, 2007; Weber, 2006). The same issue can be viewed and described at varying levels of abstraction (White, MacDonnel, & Dahl, 2011). For example, a concrete construal of energy conservation might be, “I will reduce climate change by riding my bicycle to work,” whereas an abstract construal of recycling might be “I will ride my bicycle to work to save the environment.”

Construal level theory addresses the importance of psychological distance in promoting behavior (Liberman & Trope, 2008). On one hand, framing climate change as less distant should make the benefits of pro-environmental action more tangible because the risks involved are made more concrete and urgent (Lorenzoni et al., 2007; Weber, 2006). People may be less likely to engage in climate-damaging behavior when the consequences of that behavior are made less psychologically distant (Sagristano, Trope, & Liberman, 2002). On the other hand, framing climate change as more distant should induce individuals to make decisions that are more in line with their core values. People may be more likely to engage in pro-environmental behavior when the abstract values that drive environmental behavior are made more salient. Recent research indicates that messages that combine an abstract mindset with specific goals may be the most useful in promoting pro-environmental behavior (Rabinovich, Morton, & Postmes, 2010).

The Climate Change Documentary Landscape

A number of documentaries focusing on various aspects of climate change have been released over the past few decades, including the Emmy-winning Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously (2014), which follows celebrities investigating the various impacts of climate change; The 11th Hour (2007), in which politicians, scientists, and activists emphasize the imminent and grave dangers posed by climate change; The Age of Stupid (2009), a docudrama hybrid in which a man living in an environmentally devastated future world watches “archival” footage from modern times and wonders why humans didn’t stop climate change when they had the chance; and Chasing Ice (2012), in which a former climate skeptic travels to the Arctic to film breathtaking shots of glacial erosion. In addition to these advocacy documentaries, a number of educational documentaries have addressed the science of climate change, including the BBC program Are We Changing Planet Earth? (2006) and Can We Save Planet Earth? (2006) in which documentary icon (and former skeptic) David Attenborough examines climate change’s causes and effects; episodes of educational and news programs such as Journey to Planet Earth, Cosmos, and Frontline; and documentaries by networks such as PBS, the National Geographic Channel, and MSNBC that highlight the impacts of climate change.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006) is the most well-known and successful climate change documentary released thus far, winning two Academy Awards and bringing in a worldwide box office total of over 50 million dollars (Search, 2011). The film centers around a lecture/slideshow presented by former Vice President Al Gore, intermingled with personal scenes in which Al Gore reflects on his political career and his reasons for being so concerned about public understanding of climate change. In 2007, Al Gore and the International Panel on Climate Change were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work on climate change. This award not only lent credibility to the film and also served to strongly link the issue of anthropogenic climate change to Al Gore and by proxy to the Democratic Party of the United States (Johnson, 2009).

In response to the release and popularity of An Inconvenient Truth, climate change skeptics produced a few documentaries to disseminate the opposite point of view. The Great Global Warming Swindle (2007) argues that scientific consensus on climate change is “the biggest scam of modern times” and that politicians, scientists, and environmentalists are using inaccurate scientific evidence to promote anthropogenic climate change for personal and financial gain. Not Evil Just Wrong (2009) presents a more direct attack on An Inconvenient Truth itself by going through and discounting the claims it makes. Not Evil Just Wrong uses Al Gore as a target for its attacks on climate change science through the frequent use of phrases like “Al Gore would have you believe …,” “According to Al Gore …,” etc. In so doing the film attempts to draw on viewers’ ideological predispositions as a means to promote its message. Other documentaries intended to promote denialism include An Inconsistent Truth (2012), which also takes aim at An Inconvenient Truth directly, and spOILed (2011), which focuses on the energy “myths” promoted by scientists and environmentalists.

Documentaries that promote climate change science and those that promote climate change denialism alike use similar structural patterns and storytelling elements (e.g., expository and participatory structures, expert interviews, visual spectacle, etc.). These elements are intended to engage audiences, facilitate learning, enable persuasion, and give documentaries an aura of authenticity (León, 2007). Documentaries thus have the potential to drive mobilization and social change.

Documentaries, Mobilization, and Social Change

Documentaries have the potential to not only directly impact audience thinking about controversial environmental issues but can also impact news coverage and demand for policy change around these issues. The coalition model proposed by Whiteman (2004) broadens research on documentary effects by taking into consideration the filmmaking process, the larger political context, and discourse about films outside the mainstream. Science and environmental documentaries (especially participatory documentaries) are typically created to bring risks to the attention of the audience and thus define these risks as ones that require immediate action (Thompson, 2012). In so doing, these documentaries have the potential to impact three types of actors—individual citizens, activist organizations/social movements, and decision makers/political elites.

In the domain of activists and social movements, documentaries may play two possible roles—they can help movements get initial attention and they can aid in the maintenance of established movements (Tarrow, 1994). Advocacy documentaries have been found to reinvigorate and increase communication in activist groups and can also provide an entry point to and educational materials for the group (Gaventa, 1980).

More important than these within-activist impacts is the ability of science documentaries to bring issues to the attention and discussion of the general public and move them from being mundane or unexceptional to being an issue that demands action (Whiteman, 2003). These films allow activist groups the visibility necessary to affect public discourse about an issue. Agenda-setting theory describes the process by which this occurs.

Agenda-setting theory focuses on how media coverage influences the salience of topics on the public agenda (McCombs & Shaw, 1972). It is based on two propositions: (1) the media sets the public agenda by choosing which topics to cover; and (2) prominently covered issues are deemed important by the public (McCombs, 2004). The fundamental conception of agenda-setting theory is that the media do not tell the public what to think but instead tell the public what to think about. By selectively choosing which topics to cover (and which to exclude), media gatekeepers can impact which issues the public demands action on from politicians.

Documentaries about science and environmental issues have the potential to play a key role in either introducing an issue to the public discourse or in making an ignored issue more salient to the general public. Advocacy documentaries can generate a wealth of news coverage that focuses on either the issue or on controversy around the film itself. Increased coverage by news media is referred to as media agenda setting, and when the media as a whole make an issue more salient they are said to drive public agenda setting, which refers to how important the general public deems the issue to be (McCombs, 2004). The media is especially critical in setting the public agenda for unobtrusive issues, like climate change, that may not have much of an impact on people’s everyday lives.

A third type of agenda setting that is particularly relevant in the domain of advocacy documentaries is policy agenda setting. Policy agenda setting refers to how much importance (and thus attention) is given to various issues by politicians (McCombs, 2004). Once the media set the public agenda of issue importance, the public agenda may lead to a demand for action to which politicians are compelled to respond. These impacts can be deliberative (policy makers hold formal discussions of policy problems), individualistic (policy makers apply sanctions against particular persons or organizations), and/or substantive (regulatory and legislative changes; Protess et al., 1991).

An excellent example of how this process plays out can be found in the controversy over the issue of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of natural gas. Fracking uses high pressure to force millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals into shale rock to release oil and natural gas in order to collect fossil fuel deposits for human consumption (Johnson, 2012). Although fracking has been practiced for decades, the number of wells has increased from 23,000 in the year 2000 to over 300,000 in 2016 according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (2016). However, fracking did not emerge as a public issue of concern for several years.

Quantity of coverage theory (QCT) builds on agenda-setting theory and helps explain how environmental hazards become important to the general public (Andrews & Carena, 2010; Mazur, 1990, 2009, 2014). QCT asserts that (1) people do not pay attention to detailed news coverage but instead absorb simple images of hazards (e.g., polar bears stranded on floating ice as a symbol of climate change); (2) people are more affected by the quantity of news coverage than by its actual content (e.g., the availability heuristic; Tversky & Kahneman, 1974); (3) public concern about a hazard is a function of its saliency and quantity of news coverage (agenda setting); (4) the quantity of a coverage is determined more by “external” factors such as issue prominence and availability of sources than by scientific assessments of risk; (5) most environmental issues are first brought to widespread attention by a central group of large news sources (intermedia agenda setting); (6) rise and fall of issue concern may be a function of the rise and fall of coverage by this central group of news sources; and (7) risk issues covered by American news organizations are often picked up and covered in other countries (Mazur, 2014).

An example of QCT in action can be found in the anti-fracking documentary Gasland, which was first released on HBO in 2010. Gasland follows filmmaker Josh Fox’s quest to uncover the “truth” about fracking and takes a highly negative view of this drilling process, the companies engaged in it, and the lack of governmental regulation surrounding fracking. One of the most powerful scenes in Gasland involves a man lighting his tap water on fire. This simple, hard to counterargue, vivid image became a symbolic representation of fracking and the footage was used in a number of news reports about fracking following the release of the film. Mazur (2014) conducted a study using QCT to explore how fracking emerged as a controversial issue between 2010 and 2012.

Media attention and celebrity endorsement around the film Gasland created a slight rise in coverage about fracking (Mazur, 2014). Following the release of Gasland and the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling disaster in the Gulf Coast, the New York Times ran a 10-part series focusing on the potential risks and benefits of the process. The story was then picked up by smaller media outlets and this increased coverage and attention across news organizations raised public concern about and opposition to fracking. Gasland also played a critical role in bringing international attention to the issue of fracking—the film was screened in other nations and it got the attention of audiences already skeptical about gas and oil interests.

Although the processes by which science and environmental documentaries influence public salience and thus policy demands about an issue like climate change can be difficult to predict, it is impossible to deny that documentaries at least have the potential to play a major role in shaping public discourse about the environment due to their potential influence on the amount and quality of news coverage and thus public attention toward specific environmental issues.


Influencing audiences about climate change is a challenging task due to the diversity of the media landscape, audience predispositions and selective exposure, and psychological biases such as affect. Documentaries, both those made to inform as well as those made to influence audiences to action, have the potential to overcome these challenges. Several qualities of documentary storytelling, such as the use of narratives and high-impact visuals, uniquely situate this genre as a vehicle for informing, persuading, and mobilizing audiences. More empirical research needs to be done on this genre to gain further insight about how and why these films can be so effective.

This article helps address the lack of social science research by formally differentiating types of environmental documentaries and by applying a variety of theoretical perspectives to develop a more concrete understanding of documentary mechanisms that can be empirically tested in the future. However, the lack of quantitative research on documentaries is likely due to challenges in even defining what qualifies as a documentary and the wide range of texts in the genre as a whole as well as within the narrative formats discussed here. Additionally, although it is critical to understand documentary influence on society, such influence is impossible to measure in isolation. Despite these limitations, environmental documentaries warrant increased academic attention and need to be studied with the same depth applied to other forms of environmental communication in order to increase our understanding of how this prevalent genre can impact public opinion about climate change and to provide documentary filmmakers with concrete evidence about which strategies they should use to produce effective messages.

Further Reading

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