I talked in my last post about whether the controversial journalist George Monbiot was right to attack Sir David Attenborough in quite the way he did in his article a few weeks ago. This got me thinking about wider representations in the media and how this can distort our perceptions of the things we see reported, and thus the world around us.
Obviously this is an environmentally focused blog, but I think its important for us to ask questions of the wider media and how it portrays certain items of news (or doesn’t as the case may be).
Following Monbiot’s article, Sir David Attenborough is to take the people’s seat at UN climate talks in December – does that really seem like the action of a man who wants to disregard or play-down major environmental issues? Also interestingly this has been widely reported across news media outlets, whereas at the same time, the grassroots group Extinction Rebellion managed to actually cause widespread disruption in our nation’s capital, and later other cities, yet in the media were relegated to a mere mention or short article.
So, is neglecting to report on events on the part of the media tantamount to deception?
I dislike the term “fake news” but I’m going to mention it here because I think there are different guises under which news can be “fake”. Selecting specific information and disregarding others, only quoting part or an interview, taking a quote out of context, not thoroughly researching a piece or making assumptions – all of these things contain an element of deceit.
Now I’m going to use plastics (*yawn* again?) as an example, it had a massive watershed moment in the media last year, sure it’s build up was a combination of work carried out by NGOs and regular reporting by a well-known rag, but its red-letter day was the BBC’s broadcast of Blue Planet II (and the shocking effects on our marine wildlife). The programme seemed to really cement the issue in the forefront of the public’s consciousness. Yet, another extremely critical issue, ocean acidification due to climate change remains massively under-reported. Both of these issues are extremely important and reporting on one doesn’t in any way diminish the other, so why do some stories get so eagerly taken up by the media and not others?
It has been a long and well known phenomenon that he media likes a scandal, from the early days of Stanley Cohen’s theory of “moral panics” right through to our current cult of the celebrity. And environmental news is no different, the more sensational, visceral, and visible something is, the chances are its going to get a lot more attention than say, some equally important but less headline grabbing issue.
In her 1997 book, Media Culture and the Environment, Alison Anderson, Professor of Sociology at the University of Plymouth, argues that environmental reporting (along with many story presented in the media) focuses on dramatic events with “goodies and baddies”, and that objectivity is not easily achievable especially for complex environmental issues such as climate change, due to the sheer nature and scale of different view-points and vested interests.
The question is, how do we as members of the general public, most with no specialist knowledge, discern what we can actually take from the media?
This is a really difficult question to answer, but what I do is read widely and don’t just stick to the same outlets. And if it comes to hard science or factual information I get it from the horse’s mouth, not everyone will want to read peer-reviewed journals of course, but lots of researchers have their own twitter, blogs and other social media outlets where you can get a little closer to the source material. Read the arguments and counter arguments, interpret it for yourself. And the most important thing to remember is… don’t blindly believe everything you read, see and hear.