PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology


Credibility and climate change
Perceived credibility of policy and science experts in visual media

Sara Yeo  

The partisan divide in U.S. public opinion on climate change has far-reaching effects on a variety of social aspects of global warming, ranging from attitudes toward climate change to climate-related government policies. Opinions are often shaped by media content and online media have increasingly become primary sources of scientific information for many non-expert audiences (National Science Board, 2014). The present study focuses on visual media in the online environment and audience perceptions of credibility in the context of climate change. A long-standing axiom in communication scholarship holds that the purpose of a specific communication message is in the eye of the beholder. Much research has followed this tradition by focusing on the influences of different types of sources, various types of message attributes, and the micro-level effects of information processing. Yet, elements concerning specific visual characteristics of messages and how they impact audiences have been overlooked. Here, we empirically test the interaction of visual aspects of multimedia messages with more traditional source factors on judgments of credibility. This line of inquiry is directly applicable to the changing contemporary media environment, where individuals of different backgrounds and perspectives are able to broadcast their opinions through user-generated content delivered online. In our investigation, we systematically vary the source and setting of a visual stimulus about climate change. Results find that the source of information, labeled as either a scientist or a politician, has implications for perceptions of credibility given the polarized opinions on the issue. With respect to the visual stimulus, we manipulate the apparent reach and congruency between the message and its source. Our findings suggest that differences all three factors play a role in perceived credibility. The implications of our findings are discussed.

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