When Chris Skurka started college, a life in academia was not necessarily in his future. He wanted to travel and use his language skills as a Spanish major and Japanese minor to pursue business. A communications elective introduced him to the social sciences and changed the trajectory of his career. Applying scientific principles to learn how people interact and respond to media messages fascinated Skurka. He says collecting and analyzing data was a “self-actualizing” moment and guided him toward a master’s and Ph.D.
Skurka is an assistant professor of film production and media studies at the Bellisario College. He is also an affiliated faculty member of the Bellisario College’s Science Communication Program. Skurka’s research focuses on the effects of public communication in building awareness and understanding of health, science, and environmental issues. He is particularly interested in the role of emotion in how audiences respond to media messages.
Were the research topics that you studied early in your career health-related, and was there a natural evolution to your interest in science communication?
Initially, when I got to grad school, I was somewhat interested in the interpersonal side of health communication. The root of that was that I had a lot of people in my life who smoked. I really felt powerless to convince them to quit. I think I was interested in interpersonal social influence strategies that anyone could use to encourage people to kick smoking from their lives. I learned that along with social influence strategies, a big component of the field of communication is media effects and media coverage of health issues. That got me thinking about tackling this issue from more of a public communication lens via strategic and persuasive media messaging like health campaigns.
You study emotions and their role in how audiences respond to media messages. Is there a quintessential example for how emotion affects the way people interpret and receive media messages?
The quintessential example in the field of communication and media studies is the anti-tobacco campaign. I think everyone has come across at least one anti-tobacco campaign in their lives. In terms of the history of media studies, that's where most of the attention has been. It’s sort of a threat or fear appeal where you highlight the risky nature of smoking cigarettes and how it's bad for your lungs and your heart and your well-being. And that in theory is likely to evoke the emotion of fear. We know that fear can motivate people to take protective actions. A lot of my work tries to take that, run with it and build on it. I'm trying to look not only at evoking fear — with science, health or environmental messaging — but evoking other emotions to motivate action. A lot of my work lately has looked at anger. Can we make people angry toward the fossil fuel industry for misleading the public about the risks that their actions pose for climate change? I've also done a lot of work with humor. Can we leverage laughter to get people to care about and do something about climate change?
What did you learn from the studies that examined these emotions?
One big takeaway is that emotion is definitely the fuel for why we engage in behavior. A lot of the media effects literature that extends decades earlier has taken a very cognitive approach. How can we change beliefs? How can we get people to think the right way and engage in rational decision making? There's obviously a really important role for cognitive analytic processing of information specifically about risks, but emotion is a motivator. If cognition is the car, then emotion is the gas that drives the car.
And so, I would argue that emotion is really central to how we react to and process media messages … be it about tobacco or climate change or narratives. I've done some work on narratives and how we might be able to tell stories to get people to care about people's health and well-being. Emotion is a really important ingredient. A second thing I will say, emotion is not a panacea. It is not a cure-all and it can definitely go awry.
How could it go awry?
Anger is a great example. If I experience anger toward the fossil fuel industry in response to a political ad that tries to shed light on the nasty things the industry has done, I’m going to be motivated to do something to address the fossil fuel industry. But if I see that advertisement, and instead I get angry at the person who made the advertisement — like the political candidate who's trying to promote their agenda — I might be disinclined to comply with the recommended action. Anger can work for or against you depending on where it's targeted. That is true for many emotions as well. We have to be very strategic when we're looking to evoke different emotions with media messaging.
Are there other aspects of emotions and their effect on media messaging?
I've talked a lot about how media messages evoke emotion and how they can intentionally be crafted to evoke emotion, but a lot of the work in this space looks at emotion as the cause and media use as the outcome.
For example, why do people watch what they watch? In my case, I was watching “Veep” last night before I went to bed. Why did I choose to watch “Veep” and not “Scandal” or the news or a documentary? Well, I was in the mood to watch something funny, right? So, our mood can also be a really strong ingredient in this process. One thing that my colleagues and I are looking at, in terms of climate change communication, is how people respond to threatening coverage of climate change and humorous coverage of climate change. What happens when people are allowed to choose either scary content about climate change or funny content? Does that produce the same or different effects? That's a really important question in the current media landscape.