Environmental Change Agents in the Media

Who gets to be an environmental expert on TV? Two Knology researchers consider questions of representation when it comes to discussing environmental concerns in visual media.

by Jena Barchas-LichtensteinRupu Gupta
Sep 11, 2019

Rupu: That recent study about how Americans see environmental concerns as feminine [1] got a lot of press, even though women aren’t seen as decisionmakers or policymakers. And Americans generally think most environmentalists are white [2] even though our research shows that nationally, environmental educators are actually pretty ethnically diverse [3]. What role does the media play in this, do you think?

Jena: I haven’t seen super-recent studies, but the public is getting most of their environmental information from mass media [4]. And mass media is definitely one of the ways stereotypes circulate at scale [5].

Rupu: What kind of research have you seen about environmental issues in the media?

Jena: Climate change is one of the most common topics in the science communication literature. We know all kinds of stuff – approaches that identify scientific consensus are gaining ground over those that favor balance [6], audiences may miss irony cues [7], and scientific attempts to calibrate language may not reach journalists [8] – BUT I haven’t seen much about this kind of topic at all.

Rupu: What if we looked at patterns in who is speaking and communicating about environmental issues? If we looked at all the people quoted in these stories shown in media channels, we could determine who’s being portrayed as experts versus the victims. The process of selecting experts is also not bias-free, but that’s the behind-the-scenes work that we may not be able to assess. But that’s ok, I think, since what we’re suggesting is to first document the stereotypes.

Jena: In addition to gender and race, do we want to look at the type of source, too? You know, are they governmental officials, spokespeople for grassroots organizations, person-on-the-street interviews, that kind of thing? [9] Some of those roles are more powerful than others. Lots of researchers have considered gender [10] and racial [11] representation for various issues, but I haven’t seen it done for environmental issues.

Rupu: Yes, that’s exactly the gap we’re trying to fill, right? But wait, “media” is pretty broad, so we should narrow it down to one specific type of media communication.

Jena: I would start with news rather than entertainment. And specifically, if we’re interested in representation, I think TV is the way to go. When we’re reading text, we really only have names and pronouns as cues to gender and race unless it’s mentioned explicitly. When we’re looking at a video, we have access to most of the same cues that we use in real life. That’s why most research on representation focuses on visual media.

Rupu: I’m thinking this research really sets us up to create some guidelines to create counter-stereotypic representations too! The journalistic community would especially benefit from these recommendations. Maybe we even design a study to understand the “gatekeepers” motivations and processes for highlighting an expert.

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