Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Hints About Communications from the FACETS Project

Ichetucknee River in Winter


These "hints" are lifted from the communications research performed as part of the University of Florida Water Institute's USDA-funded project to create a new water model for North Florida and South Georgia, the Floridan Aquifer Collaborative Engagement for Sustainability (FACETS). I offer this information in case it is helpful to agriculturalists (aka "producers") and springs advocates as we try to navigate our way to healthier springs and a healthier aquifer. Information in bold italic type indicates my emphases.


Agriculturalists and environmentalists have similar values and interests, but view agriculture differently. 

Similarities include: 
• Connection to nature
• High perceived risk to ground and surface water
• Prioritization of water for crops and ecosystems 

Differences include:
• The way they interact with water
• “Agriculture is part of the problem” vs. “Agriculture is part of the solution”

It’s not just about science—it’s about values!
The public:
• Has limited water knowledge
• May not believe water scientists
• Follows their values to policy preferences

Strategic communication can increase support for sustainable water action by:

• Reducing false conflict 
    o End the blame game
    o Create opportunities to experience alternative perspectives
    o Use language that builds shared understanding


• Supporting value-based discourse
    o Reveal shared values
    o Employ messages and messengers with value resonance

(A Word Witch notes mention in the research findings about the importance of an agreed-upon water ethic: “Communication and collaboration on sustainability measures can be impeded by perceptions of incompatible water ethics.” How can we move toward a water ethic for Florida that is shared by springs advocates, producers, and urban and suburban dwellers?)

Summary of “A Co-orientation Analysis of Producers’ and Environmentalists’ Mental Models of Water Issues: Opportunities for Improved Communication and Collaboration”, Sadie Hundemer & Martha C. Monroe, Environmental Communication, 2020

(A Word Witch compiled the following summary for the Ichetucknee Alliance in December 2022. I take responsibility for any errors herein. Emphases in bold italics are mine.) 

• Communication and collaboration on sustainability measures can be impeded by perceptions of incompatible water ethics. 
• Agricultural producers tend to think about the individual stewardship practices they engage in on their land. Environmentalists tend to think about collective agricultural impacts on the environment.
• When collective agricultural impact does not reflect individual stewardship efforts, producers and environmentalists can have strikingly different perceptions of problems. Those perceptions create barriers to cross-group communications.
• Research findings suggest frames, topics and word choices that can help communicators bridge the divides between producers and environmentalists. 

• Some environmentalists perceive producers as indifferent toward regional water conditions.
• Producers, however, are concerned about the environment and see themselves as stewards of the land—so they can see themselves as being unduly blamed by environmentalists for placing personal interests above environmental protection.
• These different perceptions create a delicate communication environment in which good intentions are undone by unintended message interpretations.

Stakeholder Land Ethics
• A land ethic is a moral code of conduct for interaction between humans and the natural world, and the nature of producers’ and environmentalists’ roles lead them to interact with land and water in different ways.
• Producers have utilitarian relationships with natural resources while environmentalists are concerned about environmental challenges.
• Utilitarian use of resources and conservation of those resources are not opposites and are not mutually exclusive.
• One study found that 48% (almost half) of farmers were willing to pay for innovations that reduce water pollution even if those innovations would not increase their incomes.
• That same study found that 80% of farmers would not invest in new technology that pollutes water.
• In many cases, producers do not view conservation and profit as alternatives but instead as mutually reinforcing goals.
• American history reveals the ideas of competing land ethics that pervades national lore and shapes narratives on what constitutes ethical agricultural land use.
• The first ethic derives from Thomas Jefferson’s early vision of America as a land of virtuous farmers and portrays producers as land stewards.
• The second ethic portrays producers as maximizing the utility of the land for the benefit of human beings.
• This creates a “two-faceted romanticism” of farmers as both custodians and conquerors. These mixed portrayals affect how farmers see themselves.
• Since the moral foundations of environmentalists are predominantly set in the ethic of stewardship, agricultural decisions that are morally acceptable under the utilitarian land ethic may not be perceived as moral by environmentalists.
• Producers and environmentalists, however, have substantial shared interests. 
• Natural resources communication can be better structured to promote cooperation and collaboration by framing issues and interventions in ways that resonate across all audiences.

(A Word Witch wonders: Could we communicate better if we switched our focus from springs to the aquifer? Or made sure to include the aquifer as our overarching concern?) 

Research questions
1. To what extent do producers and environmentalists perceive commonalities in their views on water issues?
2. How do producers and environmentalists differ in their views of regional water issues?
3. How do producers and environmentalists differ in their mental models of regional water issues? 
Results: Research question #1, Perceptions of shared views on water issues 1. To what extent do producers and environmentalists perceive commonalities in their views on water issues? 
• The greatest dissimilarity of views was reported by responding producers when comparing their views on water issues with the views of environmentalists.
• Among sampled environmentalists, an increase in interaction with producers was associated with an increase in the perception of shared ideas on water—but a similar change was not observed among sampled producers.
• Sampled producers expressed perceptions that others do not recognize them as good stewards of the land, that economics is not taken into account by others, and that environmentalists’ positions are extreme.
• Sampled environmentalists expressed perceptions that producers prioritize their operations above the environment and questioned the appropriateness of certain types of agriculture in the region.
• Within this particular research sample, producers perceived substantial differences between their perspectives on water issues and those of environmentalists, but environmentalists did not perceive the same disparity.
• Producers’ perceptions of shared ideas did not significantly change across interaction levels with environmentalists. Stated differences included attributions of blame and conflicting perspectives on producers’ prioritization of stewardship.

Results: Research question #2, Comparison of producers’ and environmentalists’ views on water issues 2. How do producers and environmentalists differ in their views of regional water issues? 
• Both groups expressed high levels of concern for the quality and quantity of surface and ground water and placed high priority on the allocation of water for crop irrigation and water body protection (springs, rivers, and wetlands) with relatively low priority placed on water for urban areas.
• Sampled environmentalists perceived greater threats than did sampled producers.
• One of the producers’ comments about things on which they disagree with other stakeholder groups reads, “We vs. they mentality.”
• Producers and stakeholders agree that regional water sources call for concern and agree on how limited water supplies should be prioritized.
• Producers and environmentalists disagree on how much agriculture contributes to water problems.

Results: Research question #3, Mental model analysis 3. How do producers and environmentalists differ in their mental models of regional water issues? 
• There is a strong basis for collaboration on mutual water goals; however, this potential is constrained by conflicting perceptions of agriculture’s impact.
• Producers’ views of the water-economic system are predominantly shaped by operational interactions related to agricultural production.
• Environmentalists’ perspectives on that system are shaped by their experiences with assessing and advocating for environmental health.
• When considering relationships between water and the regional economy, environmentalists think of overarching problems rather than functional domains.
• Sampled producers’ dominant perspectives on the water-economy relationship are micro-level and agriculture-oriented.
• Sampled environmentalists’ dominant perspectives are macro-level and issue oriented.
• In interactions between the two groups, individual behavior may be confounded with collective impact. Farmers and ranchers may be confounded with agricultural industry.
• Since the negative impacts of crop production are consequences of scale, it is possible for individual producers to be good stewards AND for agriculture as an industry to be detrimental to water quality and quantity. When this distinction is not clarified, cross-group tensions can rise and stymie sustainability efforts.
• That communications error can be made by both environmentalists and producers. Environmentalists can inappropriately hold individual producers responsible for problems of the agricultural industry and producers can inaccurately perceive critiques of that industry as personal attacks. 

Term associations
• The use of specific terms can unintentionally spur miscommunication or even division among stakeholders and stakeholder groups.
• Different stakeholder groups assign different priorities to types of risks.
• Communicators should realize that prime producers are most concerned with risks to their operations, while environmentalists are most concerned with risks associated with regional tradeoffs and decision-making choices.
• To advance toward consensus, communicators need to be aware of the diversity of cognitive domains activated by word choices (“framing”) and address each frame of reference to increase stakeholder recognition of alternative viewpoints.

Term inclusion percentages
The paper includes a table of terms that had the largest selection differences between sampled producers and environmentalists. These findings provide communicators with fertile ground for expanding stakeholders’ understanding of the regional water situation while simultaneously building awareness of others’ points of view.

Producer-favored terms (“Ag language”) included: 
• Risk management
• Pasture
• Allied agricultural industry
• Precision agriculture
• Choices
• Education
• Cost sharing
• Crop yield
• Jobs
• Payments

Environmentalist-favored terms (“Springs health language”) included: 
• Climate change
• Septic tanks
• Regional economy
• Agricultural water use permits
• Ecotourism
• Ecosystem health
• Land-use change
• Lawn fertilizer
• Climate variation
• Endangered species
• Water treatment 

• Both producers and environmentalists agree that water sustainability is important.
• There are important differences between the groups, primarily about the degree to which agriculture is perceived as a stress on regional water resources.
• The differences stem at least in part from the nature of each group’s interaction with natural resources. Producers interact with water as agricultural input. Environmentalists interact with water as receiving the collective impacts of agriculture and other systems.
• The implications of disparate mental models of agriculture can cause the agricultural industry’s impact to be confounded with the actions of individual producers, resulting in a sense of blame that intrudes on communication and collaboration toward mutually beneficial water sustainability objectives.
• The authors cite the “sense of blame” problem as being previously identified in a Chesapeake Bay Region study. (What if we framed "sense of blame" as "sense of responsibility"?)
• By developing representations of agricultural production that are closer to the nuances of reality, and which distinguish between the actions of producers and the impacts of agriculture, natural resources professionals can improve cross-group perceptions and thereby foster collaboration toward mutual sustainability goals. Doing so requires awareness of the different mental models that are operational in different groups.
The mental models (“cognitive predisposition”) of communicators are just as important as the mental models of producers and environmentalists! Through examination of the perspectives of others, communicators can reflect on their own mental models and consider how their perspectives shape the conversation to the benefit or detriment of natural resources sustainability.

Limitations and future research 
• This was a regional study; therefore, the ability to generalize from its findings is limited. Broader scale conclusions would require studies conducted in other locations.
• The people involved in this study included participants in a water sustainability participatory modeling project and were therefore inclined toward cross-group collaboration.