Texas Tech University

Professor Continues NSF-Funded Project Studying Engagement with Science Media

McKenzi Morris

August 30, 2019

Asheley Landrum is collaborating with KQED in California to study science media engagement among millennials after receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Asheley Landrum
Asheley Landrum

Texas Tech University College of Media & Communication assistant professor Asheley Landrum's interest of public understanding and acceptance of science started with an episode of The Colbert Report on "truthiness."

The clip sparked her interest in how people reason about information they disagree with. As a result, Landrum pursued master's and doctoral degrees in psychology studying the development of children's skepticism toward sources of information. Then, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship in science communication. Now, Landrum is working with the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) station in northern California, KQED, to study science media engagement among millennials.

The collaborative research project is funded by a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, $229,782 of which was awarded to Landrum and Texas Tech. It will last through 2021, during which time Landrum, Dan Kahan from Yale Law School's Cultural Cognition Project and public media professionals at KQED will explore how people interact with various types of science media.

Landrum said their research illustrates that merely presenting factual information is not the same as effectively sharing it with the general public.

"It's interesting because science sees itself as the creator and bringer of factual information to the public. We have these ways of knowing, these ways of finding information that we view as superior to other ways of knowing," Landrum said. "So it really surprises scientists when they find out from us that presenting scientific facts is not enough to get the public to believe information. It's important to understand that social science component of how different audiences receive information and judge different sources to be credible and the characteristics of media messages that give impressions to individuals as they run across it on their social media feed."

Landrum said the top-notch research facilities in the College of Media & Communication help faculty, like herself, work with outside groups and receive grants of this stature. The college has the resources to support different types of research that groups might be looking to conduct and the faculty on the academic side to complete and apply theory to the project.

"Dr. Landrum's work with KQED is a perfect example of how faculty research in the field of communication can tackle all three of Texas Tech's strategic goals," said Glenn Cummins, associate professor and associate dean for research and grants in the College of Media & Communication. "She's advancing basic research in the area of science communication by empirically studying how individuals respond to programming about science. But it also advances our university's engagement and outreach goals by working with a partner outside higher education. She's looking at genuine television programming that's distributed both over the air and online, so the potential global impact of this project is tremendous."

The partnership between Landrum and KQED started when she presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference. After her presentation, she and Kahan were contacted by KQED about their research on science curiosity and how it predicts engagement with science media. The goal of this project is to increase engagement with KQED's audiences, and to also reach new audiences in the millennial generation. A secondary goal is to encourage a two-way flow of communication between science communication researchers and the creators of science content.

"There's been a huge push by those involved with AAAS and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, to encourage collaboration between academic researchers and science communication professionals," Landrum said.

The project is broken down into three-month testing cycles. During each of these windows, Landrum is working with a different team within KQED to test certain content and research questions based on the group's objectives. Assisting Landrum at Texas Tech are two College of Media & Communication doctoral students, Othello Richards and Kristina Janét.

While each cycle might not wrap up with a standalone paper, Landrum and the groups are updating the project's website with news, blogs, study reports and any papers that are released. This is meant to bring audience members and project partners through the journey with them, Landrum said, and get more people involved with the research as it happens.

For each cycle, Landrum is using real content produced by these groups in the studies she's completing. She asks them what their intuitions are about how people are receiving their content, then she ties it in with her experience with research questions and communication theory to find things that KQED can use moving forward.

"We can work with them to use what they're creating or what they're using," Landrum said. "So it's a really nice collaboration."

There's been a learning curve for all involved, Landrum said, because of the differences between working with industry and academics. Now, a year into the project, they're finding their groove and reevaluating their workflow to ensure the rest of the timeline goes smoothly.

"I know there are people who will partner with industries to the extent that they run the focus group or surveys and provide reports of the results," Landrum said. "But we're not doing it like that. We're not contractors who do the work for the agency. We work with the media professionals to develop questions and hypotheses, design studies and push forward communication theory."

As they look forward to the next two years, there are different levels of impact Landrum said she's hoping people get out of the project. One of those is connecting science communicators to researchers in the field to make content more engaging for audiences, which can strengthen the industry overall.

"Public media, in particular public science media, view themselves as educators," Landrum said. "So they want to know, 'How can we talk about these issues without getting into political polarization?' Or, 'How can we best inform the public?' Instead of having them doing their own research projects or contracting market research firms, we're saying, 'Here, partner with us, we're the ones who are really knee deep in these topics already.'"