Bienvenido León Talks About Communicating Science Online: Are You Not Infotained?

by Alison Gilchrist, CSTPR Science Writing Intern

Bienvenido León watches scientific online videos with an objective, critical eye. Many of us click through to a video about climate change because the penguin in the thumbnail image is totally adorable, and return to Facebook five minutes later without thinking about what compelled us to watch the video all the way through. León, in contrast, thinks about why you stayed to watch.

León is a visiting professor from the University of Navarra, in Spain, where he studies audio-visual science and environment communication. In particular, he’s interested in how climate change is being addressed with online videos. He is currently teaching a class at the CIRES Center for Science and Technology Policy Research (CSTPR) called “How to Effectively Represent Climate Change in a 21st Century Multi-Media World.”

León described pluses and minuses about the rise of online videos on climate change. On one hand, he admires the innovation of organizations that are using the internet to reach (and teach) new viewers.

“Traditional players, the so-called “legacy media”, are doing the same thing that they did on TV,” said León. “They’re trying to adapt, but they are still very into what they used to do. New players such as Buzzfeed or Vice News are doing something very different to attract young people.”

But on the other hand, León recognizes that the trend is towards short and light “infotainment,” not always a good medium for relaying all of the background and facts of a complicated scientific topic.

“These videos are a reflection of the society we have,” he said. “We need to be entertained all the time.”

León pointed out the changes that this need has prompted in the world of journalism.

“Traditionally a journalist was supposed to be an outside point of view,” he said. But lately, journalists have become part of the action. They stand in the middle of protests, waving signs like the rest of the crowd. They narrate with a blatantly subjective point of view, tell stories, tell jokes. This is an important departure from traditional journalism, and leads to the question: is this kind of journalism useful?

“We know infotainment is important,” said León. “But how do we know this is effective in terms of, first of all, information retention—do people retain the information better? Or in terms of making people receive the seriousness of climate change?”

León, for his part, is conducting a study on this topic with other researchers from the University of Otago in New Zealand and the Gulf University of Science and Technology in Kuwait. Their website, sciencefilms.org, leads to a survey you can take after you watch a video about climate change. The survey is designed to help the investigators assess how effective the video was.

León’s ultimate goal is to understand what format and techniques in online videos can help us understand climate change better. Hopefully, researchers and communicators all over the world will be able to use the findings of this work to improve our effectiveness in communicating the seriousness of climate change.

Photo caption: Bienvenido León speaking to polar researchers as part of the US National Committee of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (USAPECS) preceding the International Glaciological Society meeting.

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