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
- *Anti nuclear demonstrations (post WW II).
- *Rachel Carson’s book “The Silent Spring” (1962).
- Spaceship Earth (1969).
- 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)
|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
- Must resonate with widely held cultural concepts (don’t go against utilitarian/economic/technological paradigm).
- Potential problems must be recognized by politicians and scientists.
- Must be “social drama”. Classic literary/Hollywood story line.
- Environmental problem must be related to the present.
- Need an “action agenda”. Tangible results in the here and now.
Characteristics of Mass-mediated Environmental Discourse (“Media Packages”)
- Objective scientific discourse (“documentary style”).
- Human interest, social aspects, politics – impassioned! Dramatic. *NEED 1 AND 2 together!
- Environment as an economic opportunity. Green products, energy efficiency. “Sustainable development” (*dubious).
- Situate environment as a source of conflicts and clashes. *but may hinder progress & partnerships.
- Apocalyptic narrative. *may turn off the general public.
- Treated as an institutional issue – politics, policies, and procedures. Science and politics – not the public.
Problems Media has Covering Environmental Issues
- Environment is chaotic and unpredictable vs. news room order. Defies classic “story structure”.
- 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.
- Environmental issues demand good research and specialized knowledge to interpret events and data.
- Media is an old fashioned hierarchy – resistant to change. Thus, resistant to a more holistic/ecosystem approach to environmental reporting.
- Journalists don’t ask “why”, thus decontextualize problems (anti-holistic).
- Media plays the favourites (i.e., academics, politicians), thus do not sample a wide cross-section of stakeholders.
- Media reproduce dominant mainstream frames and cultural codes (e.g., utilitarian, technology, economic concerns).
- Reluctance to implicate powerful institutional actors (e.g., CBS – Rachel Carson).
- Passion for issues replaced by “objectivity”. *need good mix of both.
- No joint effort – varied outlooks, frames, and approaches. *can this be avoided?
- 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.
- Environmental news is socially constructed, thus won’t necessarily reflect “reality”.
- 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.
- 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.
- Must combine drama/entertainment value of media with objective science and longer term goals of environmental education and policy reform.
- 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.
- Environmental reporters seen as old academic types or hippies. Need a new, fresh approach.
- Onus on scientists/academics to communicate more effectively and remove heavy dependence on media/journalists for their coverage.
- An excellent article. Establishes a historic context, good examples, provokes a strong response.
- 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!
- Environment as a distinct niche – advisable?
- 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.
- Does mainstream media give adequate coverage of any topic? System-wide problem?
- Irony: like media coverage of the environment, the article can’t provide a complete picture and leaves some things out.
- Who do you trust for environmental coverage? Why?
- Has this article changed your opinion of your source(s) of environmental news? Why?
- Is mainstream media better than nothing? Why?
- What are the alternatives – who else, besides mainstream media, is communicating environmental stories?