POINTS OF VIEW
Media’s Limits Influence Environmental Issues
By Ronald E. Rice
The mass media (including the Internet), scientific research, and government policy, as well as public attitudes and behaviors, all intersect to influence how we perceive, interpret, and act on environmental concerns.
Environmental news coverage has risen since the first story on climate change in the U.S. popular media, which probably was a 1950 Saturday Evening Post article, “Is the World Getting Warmer?” Coverage declined from 1992 through 2000, and in some places shifted from pro-environmental to pro-business as industry and affected publics have managed to reframe the discussion.
The recent media attention to the United Nations’ climate panel reports, Al Gore’s documentary film “An Inconvenient Truth,” and books such as Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Field Notes from a Catastrophe” are part of an uptick in environmental coverage. Nonetheless, environmental issues represent a very low proportion of all stories covered by newspapers and television.
These stories also suffer content limitations, typically providing little qualification or support from scientific data, making vague references to the scientific communication, and emphasizing sensationalist aspects and near-term and personal consequences.
No coverage of environmental issues in the popular media is likely to be a straightforward treatment of the “facts,” due to many practical constraints, some of which are inherent in the structure and values of modern American news reporting.
Among these practical influences on media portrayals of climate change are misreporting or miscommunication, public misunderstanding, low levels of journalistic training in science, media time and space constraints (especially in television), commercial pressures on media to be more profitable, event orientation, the “technophobia” of many reporters and their editors (to say nothing of the audiences), confusion over complex scientific terminology, focus on “newsworthy” drama and novelty rather than the underlying environmental issue, dependence on official sources, and trends in communication of climate change.
A central practical factor is the journalistic norm of “objectivity” and “balanced coverage.” While we generally value journalistic non-partisanship and accuracy, this phenomenon has the paradoxical consequence of reinforcing and legitimating the status quo. This is especially salient as the increased commercialization and concentration of media necessarily emphasize profit, avoid negative coverage of corporate owners and advertisers, and reflect public relations pressures from relevant industries.
The drive toward apparent, balanced objectivity leads to the treatment of climate science as “uncertain” and the inclusion of rebuttals by “experts” who are often affiliated with think tanks sponsored by the fossil fuel industry. Such coverage is unlikely to increase knowledge or change attitudes and behaviors, due to the general nature of media effects.
One enduring principle of media effects is that through choosing what stories to cover and how to cover them, gatekeepers (such as editors) generally shape how the media “set the agenda”—influencing the public and policy makers to pay attention to what the gatekeepers feel are the important issues of the day, though not generally dictating how the public or policy makers should think about the issues.
Issue framing is particularly relevant for understanding environmental media coverage. For example, there seems to have been a general shift in the 1990s from framing environmental stories as science to framing them as political judgments, matters of public opinion, or as industrial/governmental crimes. News articles skeptical of environmental concern, for example, tend to use one of three frames: ambiguous cause or effects, uncertain science, and underlining the controversial nature of science.
So when media coverage of environmental issues is discussed, as it will be in an April 28 campus conference, keep in mind the many constraints and influences on the topics, such as journalistic norms and framing.
Ronald E. Rice holds the
Arthur N. Rupe Chair in the Social Effects of Mass Communication.