“There's a wealth of real possibilities for change to a more sustainable and more human course.” – Bill McKibben, billmckibben.com on Plan B.
Chapter 12. Accelerating the Transition: New Role for the Media
Building an eco-economy quickly depends on a broad change in our public priorities and our private behavior, not only as consumers but, more important, as eco-economy activists. People change their behavior because of new information or new experiences. Our goal is to realize the needed changes in the economy through providing new information, for if this fails, the inevitable adjustment could be painful.
When thinking of the scale of the educational challenge, it is tempting to rely too heavily on the formal education system. But the generational time lags from teacher to student to eventual decisionmakers mean this approach is too slow on its own to facilitate a massive economic restructuring in time. Given this constraint of time, the world is necessarily dependent on the communications media to raise public awareness. Only the media have the capacity to disseminate the needed information in the time available.
The communications media have an extraordinary ability to raise public understanding of issues if they wish to—witness their role in raising awareness of smoking and health issues in recent decades. A global environmental educational effort would rely heavily on the world's major news organizations, including such wire services as Associated Press and Reuters in English, Deutsche Press Agency in German, Agence France Presse in French, Kyodo News Service in Japanese, the Press Trust of India in English and local languages, Tass in Russian, EFE in Spanish, and Xinhua in Chinese. The global electronic news organizations, such as the British Broadcasting Corporation, Voice of America, and Cable News Network (CNN), also have a pivotal role to play. At the national level, television networks, news magazines, and newspapers are key players.
One media shortcoming is the failure to convey the big picture. A newspaper might report that ice is melting in Alaska or on Mount Kilimanjaro, but fail to observe that ice is melting almost everywhere. A research report of a particular glacier or ice cap melting is news, to be sure, but the bigger story is not being well covered.
The same can be said about fish farming. There are occasionally stories of salmon farming in Norway, catfish farming in the southern United States, or fish farming in China. But the typical reader would have no way of knowing from newspaper coverage that fish farming expanded by 11 percent a year during the 1990s and is on track to overtake world beef production by the end of this decade. That is the story. It is not being told.9
One reason for this information gap is that news media are not organized to deal with global issues and trends. A major news organization typically has a national desk and a foreign desk. The latter includes reporters based abroad, operating at the country or regional level. But a foreign desk is not a global desk, regularly assigning global stories. These often go uncovered, falling through the cracks in an outmoded organizational structure. In the past, when virtually all news was local, when there were no perceptible climate changes, ozone layer depletion, or collapsing oceanic fisheries, there was no need for global coverage. Today the key stories are global in scope, but there is no global desk to deal with them systematically.
Despite occasional weaknesses, some news organizations have provided exemplary coverage of environmental issues. In the United States, Time magazine stands out. It moved to the forefront a decade ago when, instead of selecting a "man of the year" as it usually does in the first issue of each year, it surprised readers by selecting Earth as "planet of the year," devoting the issue to an analysis of the environmental issues facing humanity.10
Then in the fall of 1997, under the leadership of Charles Alexander, Time produced a special issue of its international edition entitled "Our Precious Planet: Why Saving the Environment Will be the Next Century's Biggest Challenge." The issue recognized, in a way that few major news organizations have, the extraordinary dimensions of the challenge facing humanity as we try to sustain economic progress in the face of continuing environmental deterioration.11
After President Bush shocked the world by abandoning the Kyoto Protocol, Time devoted an issue to the President's decision and its consequences, with 16 pages of discussion of the basic science and evidence of climate change. This issue also included the results of a CNN/Time poll showing that the majority of Americans are concerned about global warming, and a statement by 10 eminent global citizens, including Jimmy Carter and Mikhail Gorbachev, calling for the President to support the Kyoto Protocol.12
Also at the front of the media pack is Nihon Kezai Shimbun, Japan's premier business newspaper, which has a larger circulation than the Wall Street Journal. Under the leadership of editorial page director Tadahiro Mitsuhashi, this business newspaper has published numerous cutting-edge articles and editorials on environmental issues, including support of zero emissions as a goal for industry.13
At the international level, CNN under Ted Turner's leadership has been a consistent leader in covering environmental issues. In addition to regular weekly programs, CNN has carried numerous specials on the environment.
One of the strengths of large news organizations is that they can draw global attention to local environmental issues, often before they escalate into global issues. Media coverage of the ozone hole discovered over Antarctica in 1985 played a key role in mobilizing worldwide public support for phasing out CFCs. The media can also share with the world successful local responses to environmental issues, which would help in replicating them elsewhere.14
The bottom line is that disseminating information on the scale needed to build an eco-economy in the time available is not likely to succeed unless the communications media can raise public understanding to the point where people will support these changes. This is not a responsibility that editors and reporters have asked for or, indeed, that most would want to assume. But there is no alternative. We are facing a situation so totally different from any that our modern civilization has faced before that entirely new initiatives are required.
9. Anne Platt McGinn, "Aquaculture Growing Rapidly," in Lester R. Brown et al., Vital Signs 1998 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998), pp. 36-37.
10. Eugene Linden, "Planet of the Year: Endangered Earth," Time, 2 January 1989.
11. "Our Precious Planet," Time Special Issue, November 1997.
12. Time, 9 April 2001.
13. Tadahiro Mitsuhashi, Nihon Kezai Shimbun, Tokyo, discussion with author, 11 November 2000.
14. Farman, Gardiner, and Shanklin, op. cit. note 4.
Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute