Environmental matters are not fairly reported by the media, argues David Cromwell.


by David Cromwell 

What constitutes adequate coverage of environmental issues? Consider climate change—arguably the greatest threat facing humanity. Does media coverage reflect the scale and urgency of the problem? Not at all. In contrast, recall the propaganda we used to endure in the West about the “Communist menace”. The media brought the “red scare” to a remarkable pitch, with the notion of a Soviet conspiracy working ceaselessly to weaken our defences so that a surprise attack could be launched at any moment.

Between 1948 and 1954, Hollywood made more than forty anti-Communist films, like “I Married A Communist” (from outer space?) and “I Was A Communist For The FBI”. Large-circulation magazines had titles such as “How Communists Get That Way” and “Communists Are After Your Child”. Subsequently released state documents confirm that western governments had little or no fear of Soviet invasion. The “threat” was for public consumption only. But the promotion of terror boosted the huge arms industries and strategic interests of western nations. Today, whose interests would be served by a similar treatment of the “climate menace”? Certainly not those of the fossil fuel corporations or their political allies. Since virtually all governments and businesses rely on fossil fuel, they perceive that they have much to lose in publicising the issue.

The carbon dioxide we have already pumped into the atmosphere will remain there for a couple of hundred years, overheating the planet. We may already be too late to avert the climate-related deaths of many species and untold numbers of people. The occasional superficial newspaper report on climate scientists’ warnings, or dramatic footage of hurricane devastation on the telly is a pitiful response. How many of us know what cuts in greenhouse gas emissions the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says are needed to stabilise climate? How many of us know the huge efforts made by corporations to stop such actions? Where have the cynical activities of industry lobbyists been exposed? Where are the massive media campaigns to highlight these issues?

Much of the mainstream media actually ridicule the findings of the 2,500-scientist IPCC. In July 1996, a Daily Telegraph editorial under the banner “Hot Air” opined that: “to many scientists the likelihood of man-made global warming is about as credible as stories of goblins and fairies”. In August 1999, even The Independent’s technology correspondent wrote of the climate threat that “perhaps the most sensible thing is—get used to it.” So, it’s business as usual then. Such non-responses were unthinkable to the much less credible threat of Soviet invasion during the Cold War.

Environment & Business

Don’t be fooled by the fact that most newspapers and national broadcast news media have environment correspondents. There are far more business and financial correspondents. In any case, as Sharon Beder, author of Global Spin, points out, “Environmental reporting emphasises individual action rather than underlying social forces and issues.” Beder continues, “A current-affairs TV show may expose corporation X for spewing toxic waste into the local waterway, but it will seldom look at the way corporations have lobbied to weaken the legislation preventing such dumping.”

The media is big business, tied into stock markets and the globalised economy. Media owners are wealthy people with many fingers in many business pies, and are dependent on the support of advertisers. How likely is it that anyone calling for radical change in society—whether human rights activists, the peace movement, or environmentalists—will be consistently and fairly reported by corporate news organisations? No one suggests there is a deliberate policy of crude suppression of dissident thinking. As David Edwards, author of two books on the subject, explains, “No conspiracy theory is required, merely an understanding of the standard operation of market forces.”

So, if there is no conspiracy, how does it all work? In their acclaimed 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky introduced their “propaganda model of media control.” They argue that market forces act as “filters” which determine what is “news fit to print”, or broadcast. One of these filters is simply the nature of media ownership. The sheer size of the media, their concentrated ownership, immense wealth, and quest for profit mean that corporate priorities can—and do—shape editorial content.

As well, most media depend on advertising revenue to survive. There is incredible pressure on any newspaper, commercial radio or TV station to be advertiser-friendly. It not only pays to be sympathetic to business interests—it is absolutely essential. Threatening to withdraw advertising can affect editorial content. In a 1992 US study of 150 newspaper editors, 90% said that advertisers tried to interfere with newspaper content and 70% said that advertisers tried to stop news stories altogether. Forty percent admitted that advertisers had in fact influenced a story. According to media analyst Laurie Ann Mazur, in 1993 Mercedes Benz told 30 different magazines that it would withdraw its advertisements from any issue that contained articles critical of Mercedes, German products or Germany.

The media prides itself on its “balance.” But where does this balance lie? Recall the controversial anti-green series Against Nature, broadcast on Channel Four in 1997. Michael Jackson, chief executive of Channel Four, responded to criticism of the series thus: “The small but significant group of people who hold views opposed to the environmental lobby have rarely been seen on British television”. As Edwards scathingly comments, “Can we assume, then, that TV advertisers—say, petrochemical, automobile, atomic energy, fast food and retail corporations—are not expressing views ‘opposed to the environmental lobby’?”

There are other factors at work too. Even wealthy media corporations like the BBC cannot afford to place reporters everywhere. So they concentrate their resources where major news stories are likely to happen: the White House, the Pentagon, 10 Downing Street, and other centralised news “terminals”. Business corporations and trade organisations are also trusted sources of stories considered newsworthy. Editors and journalists who offend these news sources, perhaps by questioning the bias of the furnished material, can be threatened by the denial of access to their media life-blood—fresh news. This has a subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, but powerful effect in restraining editors from telling the truth.

The Internet offers one alternative to the “free press”, though it remains an elite resource. Most of the world’s population has never picked up a telephone, never mind surfed the Internet. And there may well need to be a future battle to keep it free of corporate censorship. However, campaigning groups currently find it to be the most effective means of quickly disseminating information to a wide audience. Its speed and power were dramatically highlighted by the grassroots spread of worldwide opposition to the notorious Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which was consequently abandoned in October 1998. The Internet was also influential in mobilising opposition in Seattle to the free trade agenda of the World Trade Organisation.

In short, Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model explains how and why dissent from the mainstream is given insufficient coverage. Appearances are deceptive. Greens, accustomed to minimal or zero coverage, are grateful for occasional media access, even though that access remains pathetically inadequate given the appalling seriousness of the environmental threats facing us. Meanwhile, governments and big business gain any amount of access to the public in order to convey their business-friendly messages, such as ‘liberalisation is good’, ‘globalisation is unstoppable’, or even that the climate threat is ‘under new management’ and is being dealt with. A basic understanding of the propaganda model therefore should be in the toolkit of every environmentalist. Only then can we hope to overcome the systemic bias of the corporate media that is continuing to dramatically limit the impact of environmental activism.

This article appeared in New Renaissance volume 9 no 4, spring 2000

David Cromwell is a physical oceanographer and writer. His book Private Planet will be published in 2000 by Jon Carpenter.