Environmental communication – in the written press, radio, television, and more recently, Internet – has evolved rapidly not only in developed countries but also in developing countries, with the result that the environment has joined health as one of the favorite topics of the public and of many politicians, and it is a productive field of interest for the mass media.
Environmental journalism or communication is a branch of scientific journalism. It seeks to offer useful, practical information which will enable citizens to decide - with full knowledge of the facts – what aspects of the environment they can control in their own lives. In this way, it contributes to the development of individuals’ capability to make decisions about their lifestyle, not only in their own particular surroundings, but also in the wider context of their country, and even of Planet Earth as a whole.
In environmental communication we see how the environmental sciences work in an interdisciplinary way with communication sciences. Environmental communication explains the relationship of societies with their environment, the characteristics of our surroundings, and how human beings can be positively or negatively affected. Since it deals with phenomena associated with nature, including human beings, it involves natural sciences, physics, biology, psychology, and chemistry, among other disciplines. The journalist therefore has to develop the capability to manage different scientific topics, such as the impact of the environment on the health of particular populations (high-risk groups) or open populations (complete communities).
There is probably no
other specialty in journalism that has to master such an ample, novel,
and complex range of topics. The complexity is two-fold, since it
implies not only that the journalist has to understand the details
of the problem in question, but that he or she also has to find the
proper way and appropriate language in which to report it to the radio
listener, the reader, or the televiewer. This complexity can lead
to environmental alarmism and to divulging information that puts scientifically
demonstrated risks in the same bag with those that are in process
of evaluation or that have not yet been scientifically proven. Moreover,
it can fall into “watchdog journalism” (press denunciations)
with an over-simplified analysis of the issues, reporting a struggle
between “goodies” and “baddies”, which can
lead to spectacles and not necessarily analytical processes. The public
can soon tire of such a situation because of the surfeit of complaints
and scandals at all levels.
At present, the mass medium par excellence in urban areas is Internet. The number of users worldwide is constantly growing. The Computer Industry Almanac reported 490 million users worldwide with access to Internet in 2002, and it is calculated that by 2005 as many as 118 individuals out of every 1,000 will be linked by Internet.
Internet offers many opportunities for an immediate flow of information. Information, and audio and video signals can be sent to any part of the world at any time, and it is not even necessary to be online to receive them; in this way Internet has broken down barriers of language, time, and space. The information posted on Internet can be used by the different mass media, as well as by individuals who use search engines to find items of interest to them about environmental issues, or to enlarge on a particular news item.
When a newspaper reporter writes about a chemical spill or radioactive leak, he is performing risk communication. When a magazine journalist produces an article about acid rain, he is also writing about risks. Risk communication also occurs when the news or entertainment media describe health hazards – potential, imminent, or already existing – that might affect some readers or segments of the viewing or listening public.
These health hazards may be of different types: public health concerns (such as the spreading of AIDS), environmental concerns (such as the deterioration of the ozone layer), and incidents involving hazardous materials, among others. However, risk communication extends beyond stories about natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or climatic threats. Risk communication also leans on the mass media to publicize real or alleged medical progress, new pharmaceutical drugs, health programs, measures for the mitigation of certain health risks (for example, lead in gasoline), and other measures for bringing pollution under control.
An important role of the media is to raise public awareness of the fact that the solution of environmental problems depends on the participation of the individuals and communities affected. Environmental journalists thus promote the public’s awareness – and exercise – of their right to be properly informed and to take part in decisions regarding the conditions of our life on Planet Earth and their impact on the health of the population.
Environmental news items come mostly from individuals, companies, associations and organizations concerned with these issues or in some way linked with them. In many countries, it is the ecologist associations that are considered responsible for making public any environmental problems and risks. These associations, national and international, regard themselves as co-inventors of environmental journalism, since they were the pioneers in bringing to the knowledge of the public this type of problem and the risks – both environmental and health-related – of certain living conditions (for example, living in a contaminated area, handling chemicals at work, etc.).
Other sources of information are the political parties who have discovered that by championing the cause of ecology they can draw many followers and obtain votes. Labor unions in certain societies can also play an important role in reporting risks associated with industrial processes.
Luckily, scientific circles have become increasingly active in publicizing health risks. Universities and research centers, both public and private, provide scientific and technical information that enables us to put risks in their proper perspective.
Given the ample variety of sources, the basic requirement is that the journalist be aware of the veracity, rigor, and commitment of each source. These are basic conditions that any source should comply with. It is essential that the journalist does not become a spokesperson for the source, but rather compares the information in such a way as to obtain a complete, balanced view of the risk situation in question.
It would be ideal for there to be absolute independence between the source and the journalist, a healthy distance between the person or institution that provides the original information and the person who transmits it; however, this is hard to achieve because of the number of interests and stakeholders involved.
Time pressure and the journalist organization itself in its different varieties (newspapers, magazines, radio, television) tend to limit the sources consulted, which prevents an in-depth treatment of a news item or the presentation of a wide range of opinions.
Since it is impossible to consult with all the sources, the journalist goes to the best known or most accessible one, and the opportunity to hear other voices is lost. For this reason, it is recommended that we remain close to the journalists and provide them with information about other accessible sources. Otherwise, sources that may give very biased information are favored.
Many scientists who participate in a risk assessment process feel uncomfortable at the idea of speaking to reporters. This is because they cannot control how the information that they supply will be presented to the public and they are afraid that they will be misquoted. When doing his research about a risk, the journalist can approach one of his main interlocutors, who is the scientist, but he cannot work with the specialist’s difficult terminology. Communication then becomes a point of conflict rather than a meeting point. A journalist is dealing with a deadline and the facts, while the scientist has to be patient and focus on processes; this creates different paces in the research which are often a cause of frustration to the journalist. Hence the need for specialized environmental journalism to disseminate updated information on the environment that is rigorously scientific, verified, and contextualized. This is no easy task, given the enormous volume of data, the wide range of sources, and the complexity of the processes, which are frequently open to different interpretations. In addition, sometimes the reporter transcribes second-hand information that has not been checked with the original source. To all these problems are added those stemming from the many parties involved, and the different interests, and values at stake.
The majority of mass media personnel have little background in science, medicine, toxicology, epidemiology, engineering, statistics, economy, law, and risk-related issues, except the specialist reporters in major publications. Consequently, when communicators are confronted with complex topics, where even the experts are in disagreement, it is difficult for them to make an objective, well-founded analysis of the issue; so they tend to focus on the human aspect, the drama, and the politics of the situation. Distortions also occur when the reporters try to put technicisms into simpler words. There is therefore an evident need for closer cooperation among the media, researchers, technicians, and decision makers, in such as way as to strengthen their criteria with regard to environmental health problems. That will facilitate a wider coverage and more objective and clearer treatment of the topics.
A journalist working with environmental issues has the following characteristics:
Of the classic questions to be answered by a journalist: what? how? where? when? and why?, in environmental journalism the most important one is why?
As the news item refers (almost by definition) to something unusual, the media often place emphasis on relatively serious or rare hazards. Catastrophes are more frequently the subject of news reports than less spectacular causes of death and damage that have similar or even more alarming statistics.
This natural predisposition toward the dramatic element explains why the risk information provided by the media is often inadequate. When information is given on an environmental risk, its most alarming characteristics are usually emphasized. The rather austere language of the news, that is, the words and the graphics used for transmitting information, also leaves room for interpretation, especially when there is a lack of basic information. In some cases of environmental emergencies, the information has been seen to center on the disaster itself and seldom analyzes the social, cultural, and economic forces underlying the event. Only when the emergency is over are these factors considered, but usually by that stage the public are losing interest, so the problem is not put into perspective at the right time.
When media transmit news, they seem to judge the seriousness of a disaster by the number of deaths and injuries produced, the extent of the damage to property, and the geographic extension of the disaster; however, the seriousness of a disaster does not in itself establish its value as a news item. Since the existence of an environmental crisis involves basic cultural notions of the human being (scientific, philosophical, religious), other factors can influence the disaster’s value as a news item, for example, political aspects, timing, the geographic distance, the likelihood of its being repeated in national territory, and also the interest threshold of journalists and public alike. Once the interest in a spectacular environmental event decreases, the media go on to other topics. This, in turn, reflects a decrease in public interest. When the media pay less attention to a problem, the public often consider the problem to be less serious.
When preparing an environmental press release, emphasis should be placed on “idées-force” (ideas that have social force, and that move people in some direction). Such ideas are of great value for connecting with the public and communicating with them. Idées-force are, for example, the cultural roots, the relationship of the environment with health, the way in which concern for the environment can combine with modernity, the quality of life, economic prosperity, generation of employment, solidarity toward future generations, and respect for all forms of life. These are fundamental points to consider in risk communication.
The media, by reflecting the concerns of the public, have helped legitimate these concerns. Environmental issues now have an institutional identity in the form of public departments and a series of official and non-governmental organizations. Increasingly, the media are acting as a bridge between the public and the decision-making authorities.
Newspapers that write about the environment, just as those reporting any other type of news, are subjected to strict constraints of time and space. They have only hours, at the most, to discover and assimilate a set of facts, (which are often complex), to assess their importance and the relative weight to be given to different opinions, to capture the reaction, and write or broadcast their articles. They usually synthesize their information in a few hundred words, and use simple language. These limitations inevitably produce distortions in the form of simplifications, unmeditated opinions, or concentration on factors that at the time appear important, at the expense of those which may turn out to be more important in the long term. The preparation of accurate, honest, well-documented, balanced reports under those circumstances demands considerable expertise, which some journalists (though not all) acquire to a high degree. The media also frequently tend to imitate each other and to work in response to “fashions”, that is, they acquire sudden interests motivated by particular events, especially current affairs, and then, just as suddenly, tire of those topics and drop them for other more current ones.
Risk coverage is also affected by the limitations proper to journalism, such as the size of the organization, restrictions in terms of space or time on the air, availability for reporting new major items, deadlines for the delivery of articles, and difficulty in accessing external sources.
For a small story the reporters may need only one source. If a competent source has something more to say, the reporter can create a follow-up story on the following day. Different types of reliable sources provide reporters with different types of contents.
Tight deadlines for the news items prevent an in-depth treatment of the subject because the reporters do not have sufficient time to investigate. The majority of articles about impacting news events are written in a matter of hours, not days, although journalists who cover information about complex technology or science may take up to a week in some cases. Frequently, non-specialist reporters, in particular those working with small publications or stations, do not know where to go to find authorized sources, and sometimes consult with the least appropriate ones.
As back-up to the above points, it is considered necessary to sensitize those responsible for the media – directors, and head reporters – about the importance of the work of specialized journalists. Besides supporting the specialized professional training of journalists in this area, it is necessary to build the capabilities of all those who are exercising the profession by organizing courses, workshops and seminars.
In risk communication it is important to mention the information “filters” in the media. The “filters” depend on the ideologies or interests of the directors, who decide on the risk topics to be disseminated.
To have an audience with the media, it is required to establish a logical chain of actions that can be summarized in three stages.
Environmental journalism must be allowed to become a channel for informal education; journalists must be encouraged to keep this topic in the public eye. This, in turn, will give them experience in their communication work.
Even though journalists specializing in environmental risks may have a critical stance, they should be helped to promote positive attitudes and encourage consensus in the public, in government and in companies. The result will be informative journalism; revealing, well documented, committed, but non-sectarian. There is an urgent need to provide the public with material that will raise their awareness of the topic, and which they can relate to their daily activities.
Events on environmental health are attended by journalists who cover health topic and by those who report on environmental matters; each group addressing the subject from its particular viewpoint. To tackle the difficulties inherent to these topics, the Latin American journalists themselves have conducted coordination and exchanges that have led to the creation of local, regional, and international networks and organizations.
There is an interesting option for joint work between the media and the government offices responsible for drawing up a risk communication plan. A good strategy is to identify journalists who report on health and environmental issues and to involve them from the beginning of the plan. Subsequently a permanent relationship should be maintained to enable the journalists to participate in decisions on environmental health. This will permit the journalist to form part of the work group and to become a legitimate participant in the process.
Support should be provided for the development of a specialized journalism to address not only environmental issues but also risks to human health. This is a type of journalism where complicity is established with the citizen, journalism that appeals constantly to the attitudes and behavior of individuals, a journalism that invites citizens to take action and to modify conducts that affect their exposure to a hazard and that determine the risk to a large extent.
The best possible access to information on the environment by the media, followed by proper communication of that information to the public, is essential if we are to fight environmental problems effectively. Each report should be a call for organized action by the population. Individuals in organized groups must participate in the solution of environmental problems and health risks. The awareness of the organized population is the only way to obtain a healthy environment.
The success of environmental communication is not measured by how readily the public accepts the solutions put forward by decision-making authorities; environmental communication is successful when a well-informed public uses sound criteria to choose the best solutions. One of the most far-reaching functions of the media consists in enlarging the audience for the debate of a particular question. This frequently leads to a restatement of the scope of the problem and often gives rise to fresh questions and more debates. However, at the same time, it produces a new process of reflection with the new dimensions that have arisen from the broader public debate. This usually results in more effective policies and policies that will last longer.