At the outset of the WZAM3 initiative, the research team wanted to find out how favorably the public views zoos and aquariums. We anticipated that this study would help us understand how much the public trusts Z/As as authorities on STEM topics. Favorability research has been done before, and we hoped to update it. Sounds simple, right?
But how does one accurately measure how much a visitor likes an aquarium? Or how much they trust a zoo? Or how they feel about the different reasons animals may live in these institutions? Part of understanding how visitors place Z/As in society — and particularly as places where STEM learning occurs — is about uncovering the most successful (and least successful) ways to ask people questions about their perceptions of these places.
Previously collected data suggests that the public’s opinion of Z/As is decreasing. But after a close look at previous approaches to favorability research, there are aspects of the surveys that need to be reconsidered before accepting this conclusion.
In 2017, NewKnowledge researchers Rupu Gupta, Shuli Rank, John Fraser used nine years of survey data about perceptions and favorability of Z/As to critically review the way public favorability is currently being determined in Z/As. They found that the way the questions were asked on surveys in the past made it difficult to determine the reason participants may or may not favor certain things about of Z/As.
They encountered a problem with the way the questions on the visitor surveys were constructed, like using two-barrel questions, or offering inconsistent amounts of context when asking questions.
Two-barrel questions only allows participants to provide one response to a question that includes multiple topics. This type of question makes it difficult to understand the reasons the public may or may not favor zoos and aquariums as settings that prioritize animal care.
For example, visitors were asked to what extent they agreed with the statement: “I have no objection to keeping animals in zoos and aquariums where they are well cared for and provide opportunities for animal conservation research and family enjoyment and education.” This statement offers so many reasons that there is no way to know which concept was the reason the visitor chose it. They may like or dislike Z/As because of animal care, conservation research, enjoying time with family, or learning experiences.
In comparison to the previous statement, a more recent survey asked if visitors “had no objection to keeping animals in zoos and aquariums as long as they are well cared for.” You can see how this statement offers a potential reason as to why someone might or might not object. This discrepancy between this statement and the one mentioned above makes it impossible to compare answers to each other.
From examples like this, researchers determined that, up until now, favorability of Z/As has been determined using methods that can be improved. WZAM3 researchers are experimenting with new survey techniques. These questions will ask visitors very specific and contextual questions that consider the different roles a Z/A can have, such as animal care provider, research institution, and educational setting.
With the current data, we have little understanding of why perceptions are favorable or unfavorable and what favorability or unfavorability encompasses. In response, WZAM3 researchers are committed to further exploring the best practices for getting the information we need to study how Z/As can be trusted places for visitor enjoyment, animal care, STEM learning, and more.
Stay tuned for the results of our study of public perceptions of Z/A favorability and trust.