Innovative Research into the Impacts of Watching a Climate Change Documentary

Can watching an acclaimed documentary, such as Emmy Award-winning Years of Living Dangerously, inspire people to change their behavior?  Armed with funding from the UK-based Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, Milken Institute School of Public Health Associate Professor Sabrina McCormick and DrPH student Ashley Bieniek-Tobasco are collecting important data on just how influential a documentary may be.

McCormick knows quite a lot about the Years of Living Dangerously documentary because she served as a producer for segments in the first season of the series, which was originally produced for Showtime but now airs on National Geographic.  The Environmental and Occupational Health professor is also a scientist who has been studying the impacts of climate change on human health for over a decade, and she is serving as a principal investigator on the qualitative arm of a four-arm evaluation of how viewing a climate change documentary influences audiences’ beliefs and attitudes about climate change.

“We are particularly interested in how political affiliation plays a role in influencing audience’s beliefs and attitudes,” says Bieniek-Tobasco, who is a research assistant on the study and previously completed a project for a qualitative methods class that looked at how undergraduate GW students responded to Years of Living Dangerously and how the documentary impacted climate change risk perceptions.  She will be completing her dissertation work as part of the study.

McCormick and Bieniek-Tobasco have been traveling around the country for the project, and they have observed audiences in San Francisco, Portsmouth, N.H., Miami, Las Vegas, and Toledo, Ohio.  “There has been some research on how climate change film (both fiction and non-fiction) has the capacity to impact audiences’ risk perceptions, attitudes and beliefs, but that body of research is still quite limited,” Bieniek-Tobasco says. It is not yet clear if film is an effective way to inspire people to take action on climate change, and little qualitative data exists to explain the responses to this form of media.

“This is the first study to look at a serial documentary production and our multi-arm approach is unique,” Bieniek-Tobasco says. The study design includes in-depth qualitative interviews to help bring to light the mechanisms by which the documentary impacts people’s beliefs. The researchers also plan to send out follow-up surveys so they will be able to assess if the impacts they observe remain over time.