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Weather and Society Watch
Guest Editorial

Working Together to Inform the Public about Weather: Collaboration Between Communication and Weather Related Disciplines
by Betsy Wackernagel Bach*

The discipline of communication and the weather and climate communities can learn much from each other, as we both engage in research that is related to public health and welfare.  This relationship between our disciplines will certainly be highlighted during the 91st annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society (AMS), as the chosen convention theme is “Communicating Weather and Climate.”  Moreover, collaboration between our disciplines is essential if we are to better inform the public about weather related issues.

While there is already a good deal of research shared by the two disciplines (risk and crisis communication, the effects of climate change, and environmental communication, to name a few), there are other, less obvious ways in which our two disciplines can collaborate: during the private creation of science, and the public dissemination of science, where the results of creating science are both adapted and communicated to lay audiences.  Communication scholars can team with weather related researchers to ensure that both the creation and dissemination of their scientific findings is an effective process.

What is Communication?
To understand how communication researchers can collaborate with those in weather related disciplines in both the creation and dissemination of science, I first provide a very brief overview of our discipline.  Communication research includes inquiry by social scientists, humanists, and critical and cultural studies scholars.   Its focus is on improving the content and methods of communication teaching/training, and on the cultivation of communication practices that constitute family, education, healthcare, community, workplace, and public life.  The following premises are foundational to communication research:

  • To understand (dis)valued institutional, societal, or personal outcomes, it is crucial to study the communication process through which outcomes are generated.
  • The key features of a communication process will depend on whether the process is mediated or face-to face; personal or part of an intuitional frame, largely language-based or highly visual, addressing politically contested or consensually shared values.
  • To understand communication problems requires recognition that they are usually the result of multiple, competing legitimate aims.
  • Design of messages and campaigns, and interactional scenes and communicative practices related to them (e.g., an appeals process, a deliberation occasion), must take account of the likelihood of interpretive differences and resulting dissent between speakers/planners and the recipients/audience.
  • Communication contexts evolve historically and socially and reflect beliefs about persons and meaningful actions that participants will hold.

Based on these premises, we have the expertise to guide scientists in both the private and public phases of communicating science in ways informed by the process and complexity of communication, coupled with a focus on messages and the context in which they are communicated and interpreted.  Researchers in our field have spent decades studying communication dynamics in organizations and, as such, we are well equipped to offer the expertise needed to facilitate communication, collaboration, and complex problem solving in organizational contexts.

The Creation of Science  
The creationof science is inherently a communication process, as the creation of science does not occur in a vacuum.  Rather, science is shaped through the creation of shared meaning that occurs by way of communication between and among scientists (who can be trained in quite different methodologies and research traditions) working together.  Weather related science teams are often interdisciplinary.  It is not uncommon to have meteorologists, climatologists, and geographers working together on a single team. These teams must collaborate to frame research questions, carry out investigations, and discuss findings with each other, despite their different backgrounds.  Scientists must be able to engage in discourse that allows them to work within different research philosophies, so that the research team reaches some degree of coherence and clarity.  This is often referred to as team science.

To work collaboratively, scientists must demonstrate interpersonal communication competence, teamwork (which includes problem-solving and decision making), manage conflict, and often communicate across cultural and language differences.  They must deal with the reality that how a message is communicated is as important as the message content.   Being able to communicate effectively in a team is the foundation for successfully communicating results to the public. 

Thompson’s (2009) investigation of collective communication competence in interdisciplinary work teams reinforces the importance of what occurs in the private phase.  As scientific problems become more complex, scientists have formed interdisciplinary teams comprised of people with different areas of scientific expertise.  These interdisciplinary teams often make communication and collaboration more difficult. Thompson identifies four specific communication processes essential to building collective communication competence:  spending time together, practicing trust, discussing language differences and engaging in team tasks.  She also specifies communication processes that cause deterioration of collective communication competence such as sarcastic humor and jockeying for power.       

However, the creation of science is not just about collaborative teamwork.  It involves communication and collaboration with other constituencies, most importantly those people who are often the “face” of science created in weather related disciplines:  the on camera weather forecaster who often translates scientific findings for the public.

The Dissemination of Science 
Thepublicphase is comprised of events that allow for scientists to engage in communication with public stakeholders and the media about their results.  They must present research results clearly and understandably, leading discussion and managing public debate, each of which requires adapting messages to varied audiences.  Communication researchers have examined public discussion and deliberation, risk and crisis communication, along with analyzing and adapting messages to various audiences and publics for decades.  Communicating science to the public increasingly requires the ability to explain complex findings, translate research into lay language, overcome resistance from opinion leaders and manage organized opposition.  It is here where communication scholars can collaborate with weather and climate researchers and on-camera forecasters to help determine the best way to craft messages for public dissemination.

The public and private phases of communicating science are not mutually exclusive.  Rather, they are overlapping, ongoing, and continuously impact each other. That said, the implications for studying the communication of science in the private and public phases are profound and far-reaching.  Achievements realized during the public dissemination phase are largely dependent upon the successful creation of science in the private phase.  Conversely, the clear communication and public understanding of scientific findings will also have an impact on the private creation phase.  Positive or negative feedback from the public, and actions taken on the basis of the findings, will determine how (and indeed whether) the teams continue to work together in the private phases of science creation.              

The public and private phases, as well as the mutual influences between them all warrant further, and collaborative, investigation by communication and weather and climate scholars. Such investigation can help to train weather and climate researchers to realize the impact of their private behavior in the creation of science.  It will also shape the impact of weather related messages on the public.

If this is a topic of interest to you, please consider attending the special communication session scheduled on January 22-23 (just prior to the AMS general meeting) on “Integrating Communication, Weather and Climate:  More than Just ‘Talking about the Weather.”  At this workshop, scholars from both the communication discipline and the weather and climate community will share perspectives relevant to weather and climate, and discuss a series of questions on how our disciplines might collaborate on a number of different weather related issues. If you are unable to attend the communication workshop, please look for a summary after the completion of the AMS annual meeting.

*Betsy Wackernagel Bach, Ph.D., is associate director for Research Initiatives for the National Communication Association.


References

Thompson, J. L. (2009).  Building collective communication competence in interdisciplinary research teams.  Journal of Applied Communication Research, 37, 278-297.




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