Transforming Media Portrayals of Environmental Leaders

On Earth Day 2021, a Knology researcher muses on matters of equity and inclusion and depictions of the environmental movement in public media

by Rupu GuptaJena Barchas-Lichtenstein
Apr 22, 2021

A promising development in the US environmental movement is its recent attention to ensuring more inclusive and equitable processes in solving the critical environmental challenges we face. Although the term has been around for a long time, environmental justice has now become a buzzword in media circles, highlighting the need to tackle systemic racism that disproportionately burdens communities of color with the impacts of adverse environmental events, including climate change. In fact, Robert Bullard, the Father of Environmental Justice, recently expressed optimism about the evolution of the movement, including witnessing more racial and ethnic diversity in the change agents involved. But for the movement to embrace more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) groups and represent their environmental priorities and needs, it needs to overcome a major hurdle – media portrayals are known to depict White men as the authority on key environmental topics, such as climate change.

These limited portrayals result in inaccurate stereotypes about who takes care of the environment. It suggests that this work is primarily done by well-educated White people (Pearson et al., 2018) even though women and racial minorities are consistently more concerned about climate change than men and White people (Pearson et al., 2017). A common stereotype is that environmental concerns are primarily feminine (Brough et al., 2016), yet women are underrepresented among those who are actively involved in policy level decision making. (Pearson et al., 2018).

Ample research shows that environmental field has much richer diversity than current media portrayals suggest. For example, a recent study has highlighted that those who identify as environmental educators are much more ethnically diverse than the stereotypes indicate (Gupta et al., 2018), and earlier research suggests that environmental professionals express their care for the environment through a wide range of practices (Tesch & Kempton, 2004). These include participating in group-level actions (e.g., demonstrations, supporting environmental policy), engaging in private actions at home, and even feeling an affective connection with nature without taking specific actions.

The environmental community needs to challenge inaccurate and misleading stereotypes so that portrayals in the media are a more authentic representation of environmental change agents. Media depictions can reshape perceptions about faces and voices in all fields. In this case, they have the potential to reshape assumptions about who conveys and communicates critical environmental information to the public with authority. This would lead to representation that emphasizes the racial, ethnic, and gender diversity of environmental leaders and different kinds of solutions and the contexts in which they occur. This would also be an opportunity for researchers to study the underlying processes through which media depictions change the public’s perceptions of environmental leaders and their calls to action.

This strategy will result in more members of the public being able to identify with the leading voices in the movement, with greater interest and engagement. On this Earth Day, at Knology, this is our vision for actively engaging with BIPOC leaders and their communities on environmental solutions to create an equitable and inclusive movement.

Photo credit: The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

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