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PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, CLIMATE SCIENCE (oxfordre.com/climatescience). (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 23 October 2019

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

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