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John Hannigan’s chapter News Media and Environmental Communication succinctly explains the role of news media in covering environmental issues. It does so by providing a brief summary of how media operates and a brief history of environmental coverage, thus providing a good context for Hannigan’s analysis and arguments. By highlighting the shortcomings of environmental coverage, and suggesting improvements, the chapter is a “call to arms” for improved environmental coverage by news media.

Why News Media Caught on to Environmental Issues

  1. *Anti nuclear demonstrations (post WW II).
  2. *Rachel Carson’s book “The Silent Spring” (1962).
  3. Spaceship Earth (1969).
  4. Earth Day (1970).

Generalized History of Environmental Coverage

1880 to 1969 1969 – early 1970’s Early 1970’s – early 1980’s 1983 – present
Conservation Traffic, Pollution Main defining issues: nuclear power, pollution,Conservation

(e.g., Three Mile Island, Love Canal)

Global Aspects,Holistic
Documentary style journalism. Concerned with “objective” facts and “reality”. “Constructed reality”. Need to tell a story, to relate to the audience, to entertain. Greater complexity of coverage.More on economic and developmental issues “Show business” (i.e., Martin Sheen, dubious: Steve Seagal), commercial approach

How News Media Represents the Environment

Symbols and Metaphors

  • Smokey the Bear
  • The Crying Indian
  • Spaceship/Island Earth
  • Conflict (survival, defeat, battles, crusades)
  • Prophets of doom, calamity, Armageddon
  • Medical metaphors (disabled, illness, crisis, ecosystem health)
  • Generalized personalities: hippies, ecoteurs (saboteurs), *(eco)terrorists (i.e., BC logging, concerns re: 9/11 fall out).

Characteristics of Effective Environmental Stories within the Media Arena

  1. Must resonate with widely held cultural concepts (don’t go against utilitarian/economic/technological paradigm).
  2. Potential problems must be recognized by politicians and scientists.
  3. Must be “social drama”. Classic literary/Hollywood story line.
  4. Environmental problem must be related to the present.
  5. Need an “action agenda”. Tangible results in the here and now.

Characteristics of Mass-mediated Environmental Discourse (“Media Packages”)

  1. Objective scientific discourse (“documentary style”).
  2. Human interest, social aspects, politics – impassioned! Dramatic. *NEED 1 AND 2 together!
  3. Environment as an economic opportunity. Green products, energy efficiency. “Sustainable development” (*dubious).
  4. Situate environment as a source of conflicts and clashes. *but may hinder progress & partnerships.
  5. Apocalyptic narrative. *may turn off the general public.
  6. Treated as an institutional issue – politics, policies, and procedures. Science and politics – not the public.

Problems Media has Covering Environmental Issues

  1. Environment is chaotic and unpredictable vs. news room order. Defies classic “story structure”.
  2. Environmental problems exist over long periods of time. For example, biologists often need to study a system for five years before coming to acceptable conclusions. Thus, this doesn’t fit into Newsroom time constraints.
  3. Environmental issues demand good research and specialized knowledge to interpret events and data.
  4. Media is an old fashioned hierarchy – resistant to change. Thus, resistant to a more holistic/ecosystem approach to environmental reporting.
  5. Journalists don’t ask “why”, thus decontextualize problems (anti-holistic).
  6. Media plays the favourites (i.e., academics, politicians), thus do not sample a wide cross-section of stakeholders.
  7. Media reproduce dominant mainstream frames and cultural codes (e.g., utilitarian, technology, economic concerns).
  8. Reluctance to implicate powerful institutional actors (e.g., CBS – Rachel Carson).
  9. Passion for issues replaced by “objectivity”. *need good mix of both.
  10. No joint effort – varied outlooks, frames, and approaches. *can this be avoided?
  11. Journalists are faced with choosing from an assortment of narratives, languages, viewpoints, and frames while adhering to the formats and structures imposed by traditional journalistic practice.


Conclusions

  1. Environmental news is socially constructed, thus won’t necessarily reflect “reality”.
  2. Can’t convince public that an issue is a problem, because the problem is too big to be placed in a new rooms soundbite. Thus, media is far removed from environmental reality.
  3. Ecosystem/Holistic approach is needed, with a variety of stakeholders represented. Weave environmental factors together with heath, culture, economy, and politics, so people see how they are connected.
  4. Must combine drama/entertainment value of media with objective science and longer term goals of environmental education and policy reform.
  5. Environmental stories require their own news show – an “environmental 60 Minutes”. A distinct niche for continued coverage of long term problems. These aren’t transient problems! Newspapers and TV news should have an environmental section or reporter.
  6. Environmental reporters seen as old academic types or hippies. Need a new, fresh approach.
  7. Onus on scientists/academics to communicate more effectively and remove heavy dependence on media/journalists for their coverage.

Critique

  1. An excellent article. Establishes a historic context, good examples, provokes a strong response.
  2. I knew what was coming! That is, most people rely on the media to explain complex environmental issues. In general, media isn’t doing a good job of covering environmental issues (slow to grasp environmentalism, doesn’t represent all stakeholders, conflicting role). There’s room for improvement in mass media coverage!
  3. Environment as a distinct niche – advisable?
  4. I disagree on the value of “exposure journalism” or “muck raking” (e.g., 60 Minutes). An elitist view on Hannigan’s part? He provides narrow examples for criticism.
  5. Does mainstream media give adequate coverage of any topic? System-wide problem?
  6. Irony: like media coverage of the environment, the article can’t provide a complete picture and leaves some things out.

Questions

  1. Who do you trust for environmental coverage? Why?
  2. Has this article changed your opinion of your source(s) of environmental news? Why?
  3. Is mainstream media better than nothing? Why?
  4. What are the alternatives – who else, besides mainstream media, is communicating environmental stories?
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