The Media and the Environment


Ask any scientist about environmental problems, and you will get the same response: there is no question that the temperature of the earth is rising, that the number of places left in the world that are untouched by humans, if any still exist, is shrinking, that the human population is growing, that resources will eventually run out, that any number of other environmental problems are very real and need to be dealt with. Ask the average American, however, and you may get a different answer. Some people may say that loggers are bad people because they cut down trees, but if you ask a logger, you will discover that they only cut down as many trees as the public demands. As long as there is a market for tree products, they will continue logging. It seems that there is a gap between how much we know about environmental situations that could prove problematic and how much is actually being done to avoid such situations. “Given the evidence of our senses, the compilation of data, and scientific research, why are we still engaging in what appears to be destructive behavior?” (Sandman, 119). Society today is filled with messages: buy this toothbrush, it’ll make your teeth whiter. If you drove this car, you would have more freedom. If you wore this clothing, others would be inexplicably attracted to you. Such messages come at us throughout our lives, and (to varying degrees) are unconsciously internalized. From this, it may be learned that the media is a tool, a technology just like any other. It possesses, however, the unique quality of being able to influence human behavior in a more direct way than other technologies, such as a spoon or a car, have. This makes it very powerful. Currently, this tool is doing little to aid the environmental movement. Perhaps this is part of the reason why so many people are engaging in what Sandman calls “destructive behavior”.

It seems almost inevitable that language filters the truth. Babies are born into a world full of bright colors and shapes and movements. As they grow older, they are taught names to assign to things. Dogs are no longer large and hairy, composed of multiple colors of fur and slobbering tongues, woofing and bounding everywhere. They continue to be such things, but when you see a dog, you think “dog”, not all the other things. And if you then tell someone else that you saw a dog, even if you remember exactly what the dog looked like, they may picture it differently. Such is language. Burke uses this feature of language as justification for likening it to a “terministic screen”: “even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality” (Sandman, 121, Burke as quoted by the author). A deflection: things are left out. To call a dog a dog is to group it with other dogs, to focus on shared characteristics and exclude those that distinguish it. Like any tool, of course, language is helpful: to be able to tell someone else that you saw a dog saves a good five or ten minutes that would otherwise have to be spent in describing characteristics of a nameless creature. “Dog” is a good approximation: energetic and slobbery, four-legged, furry: this is enough.

The convenience of language does not, of course, come without a price. Thinking is done through language, and so those things that a language excludes become more difficult to think about. In some sense, “language… determines what exists, what is good, and what is possible” (Herndl and Brown, 4). This has huge consequences. “all human behavior… is based on our participation in a ‘mass consciousness’… truth is always a product of rhetoric”(Sandman, 122). The ways in which people think affect the ways in which they choose to act. A simple choice of word can have a huge effect on the way in which a person understands or interprets something.

When people don’t understand things, and need information, they often turn to the media. This is especially true of things that neither they nor their friends have any direct experience with: things like wars, events in foreign countries, and the environment. “The manner in which we relate to the environment is not direct.” (Sandman, 128). In such cases, people are more likely to believe whatever information the media gives them. It is both unfortunate and potentially good that the environment falls into this category of things. Even the phrase ‘the environment’: what, exactly, does that refer to, anyway? I am not exactly sure, yet I can still talk about it. Some would argue that the concept of an environment that can be ruined or cared for is itself a construct, and doesn’t really exist. It’s certainly true that the way that we think about the environment is heavily influenced by many things. This, of course, gets back to the issue of language and word choice. “the environment about which we all argue and make policy is the product of the discourse about nature established in powerful scientific disciplines… in government agencies… and in nonfiction essays and books” (Herndl and Brown, 3). By far the most often-listened-to discourse comes from the media, especially television, radio, magazines, newspapers, etc. Which is about the closest thing that we have to a sort of broad, public, shared discourse. “Because Americans spend so much of their time watching television, programming can affect citizens’ political awareness, understanding, and participation.” (Shabecoff, 2). Language is a powerful tool, and the media currently seems to have the most control over how it is used.

So far, the media has not been using its influence to warn people about the environment. Looking at nightly new broadcasts in particular, I cannot think of the last time that I heard a serious environmental problem reported on. Perhaps it is true that the media is run by multimillion-dollar corporations, and that it’s all a conspiracy to brainwash us. “what journalists should be doing is standing outside… so they can show audiences the truth of the system and how it works. But, instead, they, themselves, are immersed… they manipulate information” (transparencynow). The reality is probably much subtler, any manipulations are unconscious. They are there, though. I would guess that which sorts of stories are reported on is based on the opinions of individuals: if they don’t report on global warming, it’s because they think that it’s not important enough to report on. Or it doesn’t occur to them to report on it at all, since it’s a constant problem rather than an event. I doubt that they’re all sitting around, plotting to bring on the destruction of the earth, rubbing their hands together and cackling over how much money various corporations will be sending them in thanks. That seems extreme. There is also the problem of how the news industry views itself. About a year ago, I attended an event in New York City sponsored by the parents’ association of one of the private schools there. In that event, the heads of most major news organizations came together to give us an inside look at the industry. At one point, the heads were asked why they had continued to cover the Chandra Levy story for so long: it no longer seemed to be serving any purpose, and since they have so much influence over the public, wasn’t this sending a message that it was okay to become obsessed with the private lives of public figures to a degree that seemed extreme? The answer given was troubling: one head called the news industry a “service industry”: its responsibility was to serve the people. As long as people wanted to know what was happening in the Chandra Levy case, they were going to report on it. The head seemed to feel that there was no higher goal of educating the public, bringing truth to the masses, etc.

While it would be nice to completely reorganize the news industry, such a goal is probably unrealistic. And such a task would be controversial and difficult to accomplish. There is not broad support for the claim that the entire industry is corrupt. There is a more practical solution. After all, the media is, in many ways, just a tool: in varying degrees, anyone may use it towards their own ends. “if the environmentalists are going to be serious about changes they want to make… they need to get into the battle.” (Doug Bailey, as quoted by Shabecoff, 2). It may not be possible to directly demand that the nightly news channels start carrying environmental stories, but it is possible to begin more serious ad campaigns, to target the public in ways that are open to anyone. Sure, language may not be a complete representation of the truth of the world and the news media may not present an unbiased view of what in the world most requires our attention. It is still possible for environmentalists to choose to add something to the public discourse that the media sparks, to throw a few new ideas into the mix. Environmental organizations could choose to put more of their funds into targeting the public through the media. They could use the tool themselves.

To return to the idea of a terministic screen, “to oppose this screen requires that people either adopt the terminology, thinking, and practices of the screen (change the system from within) or create a new terministic screen from which reality may be created” (Sandman, 128). Working within the system is still better than not opposing the system at all. Environmental organizations need to get out there and do a better job of controlling the way they are viewed by the average American. If Coca-Cola can convince everyone that it tastes better than generic-brand soda (how many people do you know who have actually done a formal taste test?), then surely Environmentalists, despite their smaller budgets, can come up with ways to convince everyone that the environment really is deteriorating. Unlike many other companies that are prominent in the media, they even have some empirical proof that their message is true.


Shabecoff, Philip. Earth Rising: American Envrironmentalism in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2000.

Herndl, Carl G. and Brown, Stuart C. Green Culture: Environmental Rhetoric in Contemporary America. Madison, WI: the University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

Sandman, Warren. The Rhetorical Function of 'Earth in the Balance'. Essay taken from a compilation by Muir, Star A. and Veenendall, Thomas L. Earthtalk: Communication and Empowerment for Environmental Action. Westport, CT: Praeger Series in Political Communication, 1996.

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last updated 2/6/03