Sunday, July 28, 2013

Global Warming or Polluted River? Environmentalism in the Press

Those of us following the international news media could easily be led to believe that the environmental case followed most closely by the media is global warming. We have seen reports on withdrawing glaciers and a lake around the North Pole, as well as interesting plot twists around accusations of skewed research reports and contra-scientists funded by foundations linked with the Koch brothers (see my earlier post). Fascinating stuff, but much of the discussion around environmental issues takes place in the local newspapers, not on CNN. What gets covered in the local news media?

Research by Kenneth Andrews and Neal Caren in American Journal of Sociology shows that local news media has a completely different agenda, and one that helps us understand why it is important to remember that news media are organizations, not just some random collection of journalists. Organizations have a market niche that they cater to. For news media, the niche is their audience, and local news media knows that local issues like a polluted river, tourism, employment, and economic growth will play better. So if you think the press is biased toward global warming, you are probably viewing the global press (they like global issues because they have no local ones); if you are viewing the local press you likely have seen a lot less about global warming.

But the insights on press-as-organization continue beyond this one. The news media don’t investigate as much as you might think; instead stories are brought to their attention, often by social movements campaigning for or against something. Essentially, news media are offices receiving inquiries for attention. Whether social movements actually get media attention depends on how organized they are: media organizations are better at dealing with organizations than with people, so movements led by formal organizations are more successful. (So, the highly organized conservation movement in the USA is the reason that rare butterflies can stop developments.) Not only that, social movement organizations that have conventional and uncontroversial protest tactics get more press attention than those who choose unusual protest tactics. This may sound counter-intuitive, and is surely disappointing for the social movements that choose unusual tactics precisely to gain attention, but a petition is easier to understand and write about than, for example, trespassing on an industrial development site.

As consumers of news, we should remember how the news are filtered by these criteria, which are unrelated to the importance of the issue, and are not even particularly well related to its newsworthiness. They simply reflect how a media organization works more easily. And if you are considering starting a social movement, the advice is clear: be organized, be large, be conventional, and be local. If you can’t be local (maybe you care about global warming), link your cause to local issues.