Content Analysis Could Aid Public Engagement

Recent research published in the British Ecological Society’s Journal of Applied Ecology has revealed that analysis of language content used in debate between stakeholders could help find common ground to manage conflicts.

The researchers used the case study of hedgehog eradication on Scottish islands; hedgehogs were introduced to combat garden pests on one island but spread to a further three and became invasive, threatening ground nesting bird species. The issue was divisive and resulted in pro-bird and pro-hedgehog groups.

The researchers analysed stakeholder documents and media reports and found the pro-hedgehog group to be emotive, informal and focused on animal welfare issues, whereas the pro-bird group focused on the conservation of the birds and native wildlife, using more scientific language. The media, in this case, tended to be biased towards the hedgehogs, highlighting the killing of the individual hedgehogs, rather than the protection of entire populations utilising the islands.

Content analysis was found to be useful in finding common ground whilst a debate is ongoing, since it cannot be used until the text and media reports have been produced.

There may be lessons to be learned for those working in policy and public engagement. The media err towards an imbalanced non-scientific view, highlighting the plight of the targeted individuals rather than providing a balanced account of the whole situation, and motivations behind the action taken. Its often easier to conceptualise the ‘few’ over the ‘many’, and the media often plays on this. Providing greater weight, to the environmental concerns, communicated with clarity, whilst considering the favoured opinion may help engage the public in all the issues involved in debate.

Article source: Webb, T.J. and Raffaelli, D. (2008). Conversations in conservation: revealing and dealing with language difficulties in environmental conflicts. Journal of Applied Ecology. 45: 1198-1204.