Environmental Risks and the Media
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Environmental Risks and the Media explores the ways in which environmental risks, threats and hazards are represented, transformed and contested by the media. At a time when popular conceptions of the environment as a stable, natural world with which humanity interferes are being increasingly contested, the medias methods of encouraging audiences to think about environmental risks - from the BSE or 'mad cow' crisis to global climate change - are becoming more and more controversial.
Examining large-scale disasters, as well as 'everyday' hazards, the contributors consider the tensions between entertainment and information in media coverage of the environment. How do the media frame 'expert', 'counter-expert' and 'lay public' definitions of environmental risk? What role do environmental pressure groups like Greenpeace or 'eco-warriors' and 'green guerrillas' play in shaping what gets covered and how? Does the media emphasis on spectacular events at the expense of issue-sensitive reporting exacerbate the public tendency to overestimate sudden and violent risks and underestimate chronic long-term ones?
Data about dirt, danger and deviancy Clearly ‘burrowing’ was on the news agenda for some journalists and editors. This was not a case of resistant activity being rendered invisible through symbolic annihilation (Tuchman 1978); this was controversial, even subversive, and reported. There was, however, a skewedness in the reportage because the two most popular tabloids the Sun and the Daily Mirror, the ‘red-top’ newspapers popular with working-class readers, did not publish any reports of the runway resistance that I could find.
However, as Tuchman (1976) observed, objectivity functions as a ‘strategic ritual’ designed to achieve self-serving goals for journalists. These include maintenance of diverse audiences, access to contentious news sources, and ease of reporting. Moreover, reporters need the protection offered by appeals to objectivity because they work under intense deadline pressures. As Swisher and Reese (1992:989) put it, ‘Reporters, seldom having the time or expertise to verify the truth, rely on an appearance of impartiality to fend off criticism.
But I think I always went with a sense of being ready, just in case, you know. Avoid dark alleys, walk in the middle of the road, [I felt] safe where it’s lighted, be careful where you park your car. I think there was always that kind of watching. (62-year-old professional, white widow, USA)5 There are many existing meanings linked to explanations about the nature of crime, fear, danger, blame or responsible citizenry (Douglas 1992), and these are typically left out of contemporary debates in media research (Sparks 1992a; Walklate 1997).
As Eyerman and Jamison (1989) have rightly pointed out, Greenpeace’s influence as a claims-maker hinges primarily on its gathering and strategic dissemination of information: Without strategic information, its campaigns would be merely media shows and they would long ago have stopped making news. It is the selective gathering of campaign-related facts, the selective dissemination of arguments to the media and other public fora, the selective testimony at hearings and conferences and international meetings that gives Greenpeace its enormous influence.
McCoombs and Shaw (1972; McCoombs 1981) offered an indirect ‘softer’ model of state control of the media. The focus was a mutuality of interests between policy-makers and press, leading to a hierarchy of topic foci or agenda, shared by both state and media, in relation to the public sphere and closely linked to sources and authorities. Journalists then rigorously report from all angles those agenda items, so telling people what to think about and orchestrating a scale of public interest priorities.