Science media professionals make decisions every day. They usually involve editorial choices: what topic to cover; how to distribute the content (on a digital platform or social media, for example); what other packaging elements should be included (a video or an image); and what type of outreach will encourage engagement (a newsletter or alert). These decisions are based on the real-world experience and judgment of the media professional.
What is needed beyond these real-world professional “hunches” is the input of science communication researchers. Empirical researchers can equip media professionals with evidence about their hunches that are most likely to affect their reporting and producing practice by collaborating and bringing together media practices with their research.
Cracking the Code: Influencing Millennial Science Engagement is a project to do just that. Its goal is to examine how to design and adopt new audience and editorial practices that combine the expertise of media professionals and science communication researchers to increase engagement with science media. We specifically want to study the millennial generation because it is soon to be the largest adult generation in the U.S., and this generation has already radically changed media consumption habits and will continue to do so. Ultimately, KQED believes the future of public media depends on reaching and keeping this critical audience engaged.
As a result, KQED undertook its first research project: conduct the first ever national survey of millennial science media habits and examine how political views, religious values and science curiosity interact with one another to influence science media consumption and engagement for this generation. The collaboration for this survey included KQED, Jacobs Media Strategies, The Science Communication and Cognition Lab at Texas Tech University, and The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School with funding from Templeton Religion Trust and Temple World Charity Foundation with additional support from the National Science Foundation.
This collaboration embraced a unique approach to fact finding. Our goal was to use the procedures common in academic social science research to learn more about who does (and who does not) consume science-related media, how they consume it, who is science curious and how that curiosity could or could not affect cultural behavior.
Key Findings About Millennial Science Media Consumption Habits
- Millennials make up about a quarter to a third of the missing audience, depending on platform; meaning that they are represented in the missing audience in a way that is roughly proportional to their size of the US population. The same seems to be true for people of color
- When it comes to science content discovery, millennials are most likely to rely on their own instinct, rather than recommendations or familiar/trusted sources. Yet, expertise in the field is also an important criterion in determining the credibility of science content among millennials
- Science curiosity and gender strongly predict different types of interest in science, such as lifescience, computer science and technology and health and wellness
- Consistent with prior research, science curiosity is overall a stronger predictor of climate change beliefs than educational attainment
- Most millennials say they can separate their personal political views from their opinions on science
About Our Survey Methods
As is common in academic research, we began our study by investigating millennials’ science media consumption habits in a large exploratory study. We call this the “exploratory phase.” We then followed it up with a smaller study designed to replicate portions of the exploratory phase in a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults. We call this the “verification stage.”
In the exploratory phase, KQED contracted Jacobs Media Strategies to survey a large number of millennials and non millennials to provide an initial assessment and comparison of science media consumption habits, and to examine their levels of science curiosity. For this nationwide sample of millennials and non-millennials, Jacobs recruited from SoapBoxSample’s online panel. In addition, the same survey questions were asked of a sample of regular science media consumers who were recruited from KQED’s and its public media partners’ database members. The survey instrument used to measure science curiosity, developed by Dan Kahan, Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School, and Asheley Landrum, Science Communication and Cognition Lab at Texas Tech University, is a tool used to predict engagement with, and interest in, science. During the exploratory phase data was also collected on millennial and non-millennial media habits, cultural and ideological behaviors, and spiritual and religious practice.
The exploratory study found that millennials were substantially more science curious than other age cohorts, and suggested that this generation makes up a large portion of the “missing science content audience.” The missing audience here is defined as millennials that are science curious and are not engaging with public media at least monthly.
In the verification study, researchers Dan Kahan, Asheley Landrum and Matthew Motta, a postdoctoral fellow of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania and the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School, sought to verify portions of the Jacobs study; specifically the findings related to the demographic profiles of science curious people who compose the missing audience. The verification study fielded a nationally representative sample of American adults, recruited via YouGov. The purpose of this study was to build on what we learned in the exploratory phase, and to determine whether or not the exploratory results for science curious millennials held in nationally representative data.
Using an updated metric for finding who can be considered part of the “missing science content audience,” the verification study reaffirmed that a large number of millennials are both high in science curiosity and low in science media consumption. However, the study did not find that millennials were substantially more science curious than other generational cohorts as the first study did.
The differences found between the exploratory and verification studies may be partly attributed to the use of different non probability sampling methods used by the survey companies both to recruit participants from their online panel for our study as well as to populate their online panels.
Future research will continue to improve upon how we measure the size and demographic composition of the missing science content audience. In order to measure science media viewing across a wide range of platforms, we asked respondents to self-report media consumption habits in both the exploratory and verification stages of this research. Although this approach is efficient, one potential issue with self-reports is that people may inaccurately recall the types of media they use, and how often they use it; often leading to overestimates of consumption habits. This likely does not influence our conclusions about the composition of the engaged and missing science audiences, but it could be the case that our estimates of the overall size of each audience may be too large.
In future research, we will address this issue by developing behavioral measures of individuals’ science media consumption habits. Rather than ask people about their science media viewing habits across a wide range of platforms, we will instead develop ways to observe science media consumption on just one or two platforms (as these types of measures tend to be more time intensive to administer than self-reports). Our hope is that results from future research can complement those observed from the exploratory and verification stages of this project by providing a sense of the extent to which self-reported measures may be overestimating science media consumption.
We are looking forward to expanding our understanding of millennials’ science media consumption habits through future research and testing. Thank you for your interest in this project. The results of both surveys are included starting on page four of the document below.