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The Narrative Impacts of Climate Change Storytelling: A Case Study Evaluation of a Climate Change Documentary Series Open Access

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People all over the world are more concerned about climate change than ever before. Although there have been globally coordinated efforts to acknowledge climate change and address mitigation and adaptation needs, rallying political and public support for action in the United States still presents a challenge. Communication campaigns offer opportunities to engage audiences and increase interest. While historically storytelling has not been a prominent form of climate change communication, there has been a recent proliferation of mass media climate change programming. This mixed-methods dissertation adds to the small but growing body of literature evaluating how and why climate change storytelling through film impacts viewers’ climate change attitudes and beliefs. Together, the papers of this dissertation present a mixed-methods case study of Years of Living Dangerously (Years), a documentary series that explores both the personal and global effects of climate change. The goal of this dissertation is to assess the documentary’s impact on audiences’ climate change related attitudes, beliefs and emotions, and to add to the literature regarding the activation, maintenance and impacts of narrative engagement with climate change messaging. In paper one, we use individual in-depth interviews to investigate viewers’ action-oriented responses to the documentary focusing on the role of emotional responses, imagery and efficacy beliefs. In the second paper, we use regression analyses to assess the relationship between narrative transportation and two outcomes, efficacy beliefs and risk perceptions. This paper also assesses the moderating role of political affiliation on these relationships. Finally, in paper three, we use qualitative analysis to evaluate how the specific content and storytelling approaches in Years may impact narrative engagement. In paper 1 we found that weak efficacy beliefs limited intentions to enact concrete behavioral change. Outcome expectations and emotional responses to stories played an important role in these processes. In paper 2, efficacy beliefs and risk perceptions increased more for those viewing Years than those viewing the control. Narrative transportation was significantly associated with efficacy beliefs (βlab .26, p<.001; βonline .17, p<.001) and risk perceptions (βlab .32, p<.001; βonline .22, p<.001). Significant interactions between narrative transportation and political affiliation demonstrated that cross-party differences in efficacy beliefs and risk perceptions were mitigated by higher levels of transportation. Further, in paper 3, we show that engagement in the documentary narrative can be both cultivated and lost during film viewing. Imagery, local connections, portrayal of everyday people, high production value and identification with characters create and maintain engagement. Fear inducing imagery and some imagery associated with celebrities were main causes of disengagement or active counterarguing against the message.Generating interest and political investment in climate change has been a concern of research and advocate efforts for nearly two decades yet action on climate change remains slow. Findings from this dissertation describe how climate change documentary television can affect efficacy and intention to act to combat climate change and will contribute to our understanding of the relationships between climate change documentary exposure, narrative transportation and individual responses to climate change information. Additionally, some recommendations for mass media climate change programming are provided.

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