Sharon Dunwoody, a professor who specializes in science communication at University of Wisconsin’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, has won the Hilldale Award for professors in social science.
She said she studies how people use messages in the media to make decisions about science issues, such as global warming. She focuses on how those messages in the media help people decide if they are interested in the issue and want to do something about it.
Dunwoody said her research has found that many people do not pay much attention to science information. She said this is called “superficial processing,” which causes people who are trying to share an issue with the public to be only partially successful.
Her research investigates what leads people to pay closer attention to science information in the media. She found people pay more attention to information that affects them personally or makes them worry.
A major reason global warming often does not receive attention is because people do not see it as impacting them personally, she said.
She said technology helps keep up the pressure when people do go looking for information. When people decide to seek out information, it is not always at the same time when journalists report on this issue, she said. Technology allows people to look up coverage weeks or months after journalists reported it, she added.
Dunwoody said she is excited for a class she is teaching in the fall, which is a freshman interest group on the social science of climate change. She said part of the money she received from the Hilldale Award will go toward creating activities that will help the students stay engaged.
She said she became interested in journalism when her teachers told her she was a good writer and journalism seemed like a natural career path for her. Dunwoody received a double major in journalism and political science and originally wanted to cover politics. Somehow she got into science journalism by accident, she said.
A southern Texas newspaper to which she applied lost its science writer, so the editor asked her if she wanted the position and she started the next Monday, she said.
Dunwoody, originally from Indiana, joked that she tried to get as far from the state as possible.
“I had always known of [UW] as a great university,” she said. “I was working at another university … I got an opportunity to interview [at UW] and jumped at the chance. A top university offered me a job; it just took me a few seconds to decide.”
Although science reporting, particularly reporting on global climate change, is often seen as an uphill battle, Dunwoody remains positive. She said she frequently brainstorms about problems.
“Somebody often comes up with a really creative idea,” she said. “It doesn’t solve the problem, but it gives you a path to move forward.”
Dunwoody said she worries about where future journalists, especially good science journalists, will come from as the field of journalism continues to change. But she said she remains hopeful for the future of journalism, especially nonprofit journalism, like the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.