Environmental Communication and the Mass Media

By: Cameron A. Straughan


As a biologist, writer, and film/videomaker, I have always been interested in how the mass media portrays the natural environment and the impact(s) this has on society. This interest lead me to my current Plan of Study – Communicating Via Environmental Productions – and my documentary project on Algonquin Park wolves. As a natural extension of my interest, this essay will review the following four articles – Television and the Cultivation of Environmental Concern: 1988 – 92, The Circulation of Claims in the Cultural Politics of Environmental Change, Environmental Communication and the Contingency of Meaning: a Research Note, and TV News, Lay Voices and the Visualisation of Environmental Risks.

James Shanahan’s Television and the Cultivation of Environmental Concern: 1988 – 92 argues that mass media has created a “symbolic environment” that is not at all in touch with reality. Shanahan (1993) writes:

“That is, television is an anti-environmental force.” (p. 186)

“… television viewing was not contributing to environmental concern, and did in fact seem to be retarding it.” (p. 192)

“.. the overall ideological message of television is either contradictory to the newly emerging environmental ideology, or perhaps catching up with some of the tenets of this ideology.” (p. 195)

“Thus, television’s role, if not directory causal, is as a systemic factor which can work against environmental improvement in a cyclical fashion.” (p. 195)

Shanahan’s arguments about the “symbolic environment” are interesting since TV is an artificial environment in itself (i.e., sets, artificial lighting, etc.), thus it feeds the symbolic environment by the very nature of its existence. Shanahan acknowledges that watching a lot of TV may reduce our concern of any topic, since watching TV effectively keeps you indoors –closed off from a real environment.

Surprisingly, Shanahan argues that more environmental news does not necessarily make people more concerned about the environment. This is due to our strong preexisting paradigm (economical, technological) – and the key to perpetuating this paradigm is repetition in the media.

“Television, of course, tends to reflect the dominant social paradigm since as the primary cultural arm of the existing social and economic order, it must be commercially and socially acceptable to the largest number of people possible.” (p. 185)

This is disheartening, since he states that news (all forms) is the only source of environmental information, since prime time doesn’t carry any. Yet, more news will not change the old paradigm. In fact, the term “dominant social paradigm” is so commonplace it requires its own acronym (DSP). But, as he explains, it’s ideology – not coverage – that counts. Unfortunately, we are strongly conditioned by pictures of the world around us. Thus, I feel people must cultivate environmental concern when they are young, via environmentally themed entertainment geared at kids. In addition, environmental themes should be “masked” in adult entertainment, so they don’t grate against the old paradigm. In this manner, ideology could slowly change.

I found Shanahan’s study to be temporally and spatially sound, with adequate controls in place. In addition, I was glad that he chose to err on the conservative side. For example, he mentions the problems of considering viewing time alone (i.e., doesn’t take into account quality of programming – just quantity). He uses cultivation analysis to gather his data. In this manner, he can measure the effects of cultivation – a “consistent and compelling symbolic stream”. As he describes it, this stream feeds our symbolic environment. Since this technique yields measurable results, and it has been used previously, it is acceptable. With the hypothesis that as viewing time increases, environmental concern decreases, he goes on to compare heavy TV viewers to light TV viewers. In his conclusions, Shanahan found that TV cultivated ‘non-concern’ regarding environmental issues. Yet, viewing was positively associated with concern about non-environmental issues, suggesting that TV does not uniformly cultivate ‘non-concern’. Shanahan (1993) writes:

“ … television, by virtue of portraying various stereotypes and issues, actively suggests mental constructs to its audiences, which are then presumably adopted more frequently by heavy viewers.” (p. 187)

Shanahan’s observations and conclusions were a shock to me, since I thought TV had merely neglected the environment, or given it inadequate coverage. I knew of some negative impacts (e.g., those insidious SUV commercials), but I did not know it was such a wide-spread, systemic problem. The problems highlighted by Shanahan almost seem impossible to surmount – Kafkaesque in tone, or maybe even Quixotic.

I did find some problems with Shanahan’s study. He doesn’t address the limitations of polling. Thus his statement “… the cyclical and fragile nature of public opinion, particularly with regard to the environment, is demonstrated” looses some weight. Also, he included a graph (Relationships between viewing and environmental concern, by political activism) that did not have any error bars on it. Thus, I can not tell if his results are statistically significant or not.

Burgess and Harrison’s article The Circulation of Claims in the Cultural Politics of Environmental Change focused on both the material and symbolic processes involved in mediated environmental stories. Using the Rainham Marsh controversy as a case study, and applying qualitative research techniques, they emphasized how localities understand media communications.

Local action and knowledge versus outside views was a key theme throughout the article. For example, the local press gave more coverage of conservation concerns, although – oddly – it favoured the MCA marshland development plan. However, it remains to be seen if this had anything to do with pressure from national news sources. Perhaps reporters working on the story – and it’s rare that such a big story hits a small community – had their eyes set on national coverage. In contrast, national coverage gave very little conservation related coverage, instead emphasizing politics and economics – particularly the threat that the project could be moved to France.

It was pointed out that, generally, local people mistrusted the national media. They also mistrusted the developers, and were skeptical about MCA’s claims. In addition, they were suspicious of the NGO’s, since they were perceived as being interested in wildlife alone and not the local people. So the question remains: who did they trust? Could it be that they mistrusted “outsiders” in general?

I had many problems with this article. For example, how can the authors compare MCA’s media output to the NGO’s without any sort of control for financial aspects? Obviously, MCA has much more money behind them. Incidentally, it struck me as odd that the NGO’s, as the authors described it, didn’t suggest alternatives to the development – or did they? Surely there would be the possibility of “sustainable” ventures like ecotourism or public parks.

Also, the study ran for only two years and was limited to Rainham. Rainham is a small British community, so they may not be as impacted by the media as say the USA (i.e., the college students sampled in Shanahan’s article). The authors used door to door surveys (251 residents were surveyed), which are often problematic, and two discussion groups. In my mind, this is not a rigorous study. In addition, I felt that the authors provided too much background of the event. It became yet another telling of the Rainham story, instead of a study of how it was perceived by the locals. It took me a long time to realize the point of the study and how they were going to analyze reaction to media broadcasts.

I also found that the study was too general and, in that regard, some of their conclusions seemed too much like “common knowledge” to me. When the authors mentioned “people are awash with communications”, are they speaking of Rainham? To be honest, it did not strike me as a technologically advanced community. I also found it very odd that Burgess and Harrison seemed to shift criticism from the environmental context to the economic context. For example, they end off commenting that a “broader critique of advanced capitalism” is needed. This lost the focus for me. All things considered, I thought it was a weak article – a lot of talk, a wind-up, but then nothing really new happens.

On the positive side, however, I was struck by the fact that Rainham locals rely on the media for much of their information about the world yet – at the same time – they do not trust them. Instead, they place more importance on their own everyday experiences in their localities. They prefer “reality” over “mediated reality”! Despite the fact that media is deeply embedded in people’s lives, the authors demonstrated that media claims are seldom instrumental in opinion formation. Instead, practical life lived locally determined the sense people make of media texts. However, if this is so, then why does Shanahan’s “symbolic environment” exist? How can a paradigm continue to exist? And does every small community view media like Rainham does – cities too? Maybe the results of Burgess and Harrison study could not be repeatable in a similar situation in the USA.

Corner and Richardson’s article Environmental Communication and the Contingency of Meaning: a Research Note provides a basis for criticism of the other articles. It considered the effects of mediated images, words, and sounds on audiences – a topic which was not emphasized in the other articles. The article succinctly provides the three distinct features of environmental news: threat and risk element, highly charged symbolic resonance, and a core of esoteric expert knowledge. It also describes how both programs and viewers use frameworks of interpretation. The four frames are the personal frame, the political frame, the evidential frame, and the civic frame. I was somewhat surprised at the importance of the civic frame – based on balance and fairness – since I felt that most people would examine media in relation to their own lives.

I liked how the authors called for research to avoid an over-rationalistic explanation of how environmental mediations are absorbed by an audience. They pointed out that audiences are skeptical about rational discourse. Instead, the authors emphasized the importance of symbolism and creative visualization, which slips under the radar of wary viewers. In fact, it ingrains itself somewhat insidiously in the subconscious – which can be good or bad, dependent on what is being shown. The authors describe how visuals can quickly and effectively connect the general with the specific – bypassing reason and debate.

I was surprised that, according to the authors, viewers accept form over content, thus believing experts at face value. However, where experts disagree, the public becomes skeptical. In addition, the public views science as remote from their personal experience. Corner and Richardson (1993) write:

“Mediated personal testimony can have a powerful effect upon viewers, against the grain of scientific discourse.” (p. 226).

As an example of the effects of mediated images, words, and sounds on audiences, they describe the “imagery of threat”. This imagery may combine eerie music with the juxtaposition of abnormal objects with normality. The effect is similar to that used in horror or sci-fi films to create tension, mystery, and grab audience attention. The authors also point at the importance of humour in getting an environmental message across, using the “there is one good plant in the Greenhouse” ad as an example of an effective (but dubious) advertisement. Clearly, classical Hollywood tricks – usually associated with fictional entertainment – can be used to communicate environmental information effectively. I would argue that they should be used more often, thereby increasing the audience for environmental communications.

I found Corner and Richardson’s qualitative approach to be well-defined. It allows them to include the context of the interviews and considers the environment of the subjects. They pay close attention to what the subjects say and how, but they do not lead the answers. Their process seems fair, egalitarian, and “empowering” – in that interview subjects have the freedom to speak. I know from experience that asking pre-planned questions for the purposes of a documentary can make the subject feel like they are being interrogated. However, people I’ve interviewed always liven up when I empower them by asking “Is there anything else you want to add” – often, that’s when I get the best information.

It was interesting that, similar to the Burgess and Harrison study, discussion groups were formed – one of environmentalists and one of nuclear power plant employees. Each criticized programs for lack of fairness – probably emphasizing the effect of local knowledge. Even expert testimony breeds different responses. These findings are similar to those by Burgess and Harrison.

I found the last paragraph of Corner and Richardson’s article to be very provocative and inspirational. It’s interesting that environmental news-making actually makes a very good case study for a variety of media concepts, theories, practices, and methodologies. The idea that the environment will also grow in public significance is music to my ears.

Similar to Corner and Richardson’s article, I liked how Simon Cottle’s TV News, Lay Voices and the Visualisation of Environmental Risks emphasized the importance of social rationality versus scientific rationality. It was very provocative how he described the “voice of the side effects” going up against the hard science that can’t explain how the side effects came about.

Similar again to Corner and Richardson’s article, I liked his emphasis on the importance of visuals. According to Cottle, visuals work outside of all forms of rationality. They have “imagistic, symbolic, and ritualistic appeal”. They are subconscious – ingrained within us, so we recognize them as “truths” when we see them.

Cottle goes so far as to suggest that the visualization of nature has a separate life from the narrative. This makes perfect sense, since humans are very visual creatures. Yet, his arguments beg the question: does the symbolic (mediated) meaning differ from reality in it’s ability to provoke a response? That is, if a person was there to see, hear, feel (heat), and smell the chemical plant fire Cottle describes, would it have a similar impact on them as seeing the edited event on the TV?

Cottle argues that mass media is an arena for social rationality to develop. Risks, portrayed in the media, are then defined and evaluated socially. This seems very positive, but does media really support such an arena wholeheartedly? Unfortunately, the answer is no. As Cottle describes it, it is very rare that a “lay” person gets to make rational claims on TV. Instead, TV uses people to symbolize feelings or a response to a threat.

Considering the methods of research, Cottle’s look at “cultural politics” emphasizes a qualitative approach. He argues that cultural politics creates an environmental sensibility, with the cultural norm being the idea that the environment is under threat. His study turned up some interesting results.

Viewing Cottle’s results, I was surprised that “ordinary voices” (i.e., lay people) got the bulk of news coverage. At the same time, I was shocked how little coverage scientists received. This demonstrates why I feel that scientists should take lessons on how to deal with the media or – better yet – get their own stories out there. However, Cottle also found that ordinary voices were allowed merely a quote or were just referenced in most cases. Less than 1/3 of all actors get expansive coverage. Yet, if science gets fewer “sound bytes” and more in depth coverage, which type of coverage is more effective? Does the fact that ordinary voices are there more frequently, but with less speaking time, mean their opinions and viewpoints are more readily accepted by the audience?

Cottle’s results also point out that lay persons generally provide a private, experiential form of speech, versus the private/public analytical speech of politicians and scientists. In fact, 83% of ordinary voices are experiential – 50 % of which are private voices. This coincides with the importance that Burgess and Harrison and Corner and Richardson placed on local knowledge and experience. Unfortunately, as Cottle points out, the private, experiential form of speech makes it easy for lay persons to be symbolized as the “human face” on TV. Thus, they don’t get to elaborate on the issues. Cottle explains that TV stations tightly control lay input. The paradox being that environmental subjects and their subjectivities are objectified by the media, so that they symbolize certain elements of a story. On the other hand, environmental groups use both experiential/public and analytical/public forms of speech to great success. This maximizes their news coverage while maintaining some appeal to the general public.

In his conclusions, Cottle acknowledges the power of culture, but wonders if media is using old culture (i.e., historically accepted symbols), or if they are progressing? Unfortunately, media is sticking with the old, established symbols and metaphors. To counter this old paradigm, Cottle argues that social rationality in public discussion is needed. Visuals create feelings, not solutions. This somewhat deflates the importance that Corner and Richardson placed on visuals. According to Cottle, only increased public participation and discussion can bring about change. He gives the Frances Hall example as someone who escaped the cultural conventions of news sentiment, symbolic positioning, and restricted presentational formats. Clearly there can be some success in this direction. Perhaps action learning would be a good way for communities and lay persons to have an active influence on environmental problems via the media.

Throughout the four articles reviewed in this essay, reoccurring themes and ideas surfaced – many of which will have a direct impact on my Plan of Study and documentary work. For example, there is a general consensus that there is a serious problems with balanced stakeholder representation in environmental communications (perhaps this is best exemplified in Cottle’s article). In my documentary on Algonquin Park wolves, I am going to avoid this problem by interviewing a wide cross section of stakeholders. Accordingly, I have already interviewed Native elders, grade 7 students, and scientists – to name a few.

There is also the general feeling that “green” labels and environmentally-friendly products and businesses are dubious. This points for a need for solid research before any product or company is featured in the media as being “environmentally friendly”. It also takes someone with expertise to avoid clinging to – what Shanahan calls – simple,
easy-to-visualize themes and take on the challenging themes. I would argue that we must work on visualizing those difficult themes. As part of my Plan of Study, I intend to combine my background in biology and film to do so.

Throughout these articles, I detected a tension between scientists and the public. I have felt strongly for many years that scientists should communicate their knowledge to the general public more effectively and more often. This would help diminish an
over-reliance on questionable media coverage – or, worst yet, no coverage at all! Burgess and Harrison pointed out such an occasion in their article. Oddly, Rainham locals did not see any wildlife in the area as worth saving (perhaps they didn’t have all the “facts”?) and they did not trust the intentions of the NGOs. In that situation, I feel there was an onus on the NGOs to reach out to the community and share their knowledge – and their intentions.

Burgess and Harrison also mentioned how the LWT documentary on the marsh did not convince locals to side with the environmentalists. In fact, the documentary backfired when it was learnt that stock footage of the animals was used – thus inflating what was really present in the marsh. The documentary ran counter to local experience and knowledge, thus it was held in contempt. It back fired on conservationists as well – the locals considered the entire lot as outsiders whose case was based on a lie. Why didn’t the documentary filmmakers interview the locals – or did they? Maybe the documentary was rushed to cash in on the controversy – which was probably the case. This type of “deception” is commonplace in news broadcasting. While interviewing a physiologist and video taping Arctic Wolves at the Toronto Zoo, I was told that news crews often came to the zoo to get footage for stories. The example I was given was a news story about an elephant trampling someone to death in Africa, in which case the crew shot footage of Toronto Zoo elephants and inserted it into the story without a disclaimer. If anything, the incident described by Burgess and Harrison has convinced me to always remain honest with viewers and explain the sources of my images and the context they are being used in. Of course, this also keeps in mind the importance of Corner and Richardson’s idea of a civic frame – audience interpreting media based on balance and fairness.

Throughout the articles, there was also a tension between the local and national situations. National coverage was generally too far removed from the local situation. The media already distances people – via the symbolic environment it creates. This is then compounded by national news sources that are out of touch with localities. I’d argue that, in order to bring local environmental concerns to the forefront, action learning initiatives – incorporating the use of video – should be used. This would allow communities to participate equally in the formation of their own mediated messages and provide a means by which to get their message out to a wider audience. More over, to overcome the “old paradigm” that hovers menacingly over most of the articles, I think that children need to be educated early on about environmental issues, so that they will grow to foster environmental concern.

Lastly, all four articles pointed to major deficiencies, or even antagonisms, in the way that media tackles environmental issues. Add to this the fact that this sort of coverage has been going on for years now. This brings to mind a few key questions – are TV stations, for example, always doing this intentionally? Is it in the best interests of TV stations to keep representing the environment in this manner? What is at stake for them? What are the alternative venues for environmental messages? Maybe once we start answering these basic questions we can start to move towards a media that is more environmentally friendly.

  1. Burgess and C.M. Harrison, “The Circulation of Claims in the Cultural Politics of Environmental Change”, in Hansen, The Mass Media and Environmental Issues (1993), 198-221.
  1. Corner and K. Richardson, “Environmental Communication and the Contingency of Meaning: a Research Note”, in Hansen, The Mass Media and Environmental Issues (1993), 222-233.
  1. Shanahan, “Television and the Cultivation of Environmental Concern: 1988 – 92”, in Hansen, The Mass Media and Environmental Issues (1993), 181-97.
  1. Cottle, “TV News, Lay Voices and the Visualisation of Environmental Risks”, in Allan, Adam, and Carter, Environmental Risks and the Media (2000), 29-44.

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