Media: Environmentally Based News and Entertainment
Media: Environmentally Based News and Entertainment
As awareness and concern of environmental issues have grown, the reporting of environmental events and issues by news organizations has also expanded. Also, the use of an environmental issue as the premise for entertainment has become attractive. A well-known recent example of the use of environmental issues as entertainment is the 2004 movie titled The Day After Tomorrow, a fictional tale of the tribulations caused by a sudden global climate change. The consensus among climate scientists was negative, and the accuracy of the movie’s science was criticized.
The accuracy of environmental reporting has also become an issue in an industry where reporters are often from a journalist background, which does not necessarily include training in science. Furthermore, the arresting images of environmental damage and extreme weather can be sensationalized in the few minutes allotted on a mainstream national news broadcast to drive up viewer or readership numbers rather than to convey the complexities of the issues.
However, there has been recognition that environmental reporting often requires a more in-depth exploration. Many newspapers now have reporters specifically assigned to cover environmental topics and many Web sites act as a clearinghouse of environmental information.
Historical Background and Scientific Foundations
In 1962 the book Silent Spring was published. In the work, American author Rachel Carson (1907–1964) warned of the consequences of the widespread and extensive use of the pesticide DDT on the natural environment and humans. Given that relatively little was known of the interactions of DDT with living creatures, the book proved to be prophetic; research over the next decade linked DDT exposure to adverse effects in humans, animals, and birds, both in the short and long term.
The book was influential in bringing the state of the environment to the attention of many people and was one reason for the surge in environmentalism. News organizations responded by reporting more on the adverse aspects of environmental issues than had been done prior to the 1960s. Partially as a result of the publication of Silent Spring and the public concern that followed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established in 1970.
Part of the motivation for environmental reporting by the mainstream newspapers and television networks was, and has remained, readership and viewers. Descriptions and, particularly, images of environmental disasters and extreme events such as tornados, hurricanes, and the aftermath of a tsunami are attention getting. In the few articles devoted to such an issue in a newspaper or the brief time allotted on a network evening news broadcast, the riveting information often has proven to be more attractive than an exploration of the environmental issue.
A main reason for this is the complexity of many environmental events and topics. Reporting on the changes to an ecosystem, for example, is complicated because many living and nonliving components are part of the ecosystem, and it is their many interactions that determine how the ecosystem functions. Likewise, climate change is a very complex topic that remains not fully understood by many people.
Environmental reporting involves an understanding of science. Many news reporters are trained as journalists rather than as scientists, although this is changing. Indeed, several universities in the United States and elsewhere offer degrees in science journalism. Still, the task of translating environmental science information into a
WORDS TO KNOW
ANTHROPOGENIC: Made by humans or resulting from human activities.
DDT (DICHLORO-DIPHENYL-TRICHLOROETHANE): One of the earliest insecticides, dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, used until banned by many countries in the 1960s after bird populations were decimated by the substance, and other negative environmental consequences occurred. Lately, selective DDT use has returned in targeted areas in Africa in order to eliminate high concentrations of the mosquitoes that carry the parasite that causes malaria.
form that is relevant and meaningful to a reader or viewer who may have little connection with science is challenging, and it is sometimes done poorly.
Environmentally based entertainment generally focuses on the sensational aspects of environment events. The Day After Tomorrow is a recent example of how scientific facts can be manipulated to produce a film with broad popular appeal.
Despite the more sensational presentation of environmentally based news, many newspapers have reporters specifically assigned to cover environmental happenings. Additionally, environmental reporting is suited to the more extensive treatment of an issue that is possible in weekend editions of a newspaper and as a book.
The internet is proving to be an ideal format for environmental reporting. A variety of Web sites dedicated to environmental news exist. Often, information from a wide variety of sources is assembled and links are provided to the sites. This allows the user to acquire information at a pace and to a depth that s/he chooses.
Impacts and Issues
A hazard of environmental news reporting is the journalist tradition of presenting all sides of an issue. While presenting a single view of an issue could be biased, environmental issues such as global warming are now more consensual, that is the majority of scientists come to accept a view that is supported by the bulk of the available evidence and which can be used to make logical predictions. Thus, environmental reporting about global warming that devotes as much space to the view that global warming is not influenced by human activities as to the consensual view that human activities are the main driver of the atmospheric warming, while being journalistically correct, is inaccurate and misleading.
The release of the 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was extensively covered in the mainstream news media. Interestingly, the panel’s conclusion that the accelerating atmospheric temperature increase evident since the 1950s “is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations” was widely quoted. The term anthropogenic became an often-quoted word in public conversation, and the growing public awareness and understanding of the term attests to the growing environmental savvy of even those who are nonscientists. Studies conducted in the United States and the United Kingdom have shown that the news coverage of climate change has risen markedly since the year 2000. For example, in 2003 the United Kingdom’s three largest newspapers by subscribers published an average of about 75 climate change related arti-
cles every month. By 2006 the average monthly total was about 250 articles.
Environmental reporting has spawned a new type of journalist—one who is trained in both reporting and science. Indeed, environmental reporters can come from a science background, having subsequently acquired the journalistic training and skills. The ability to convey environmental science information in a way that is meaningful and relevant to the general public is an increasingly important skill.
Jarrell, Melissa. Environmental Crime and the Media: News Coverage of Petroleum Refining Industry Violations. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC, 2007.
Parker, Lee. Environmental Communication: Messages, Media, and Methods. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 2005.
Berg, Rebecca. “Environmental Health and the Media, Part 3: Make Noise, Make the News.” Journal of Environmental Health 68: 73-78 (2006).
Brian D. Hoyle