Is There Such Thing as Bad Publicity?

press coverage of environmental issues

As they become increasingly pressing, environmental issues are gaining more coverage than ever. At the same time, a proliferation of start ups offering a range of products and services with varying degrees of environmental credentials are springing up to capitalise on this heightened awareness. However, despite the fact that evidence of the environmental movement is now everywhere, it’s hard to feel that actual progress towards a sustainable world is happening at anything like the same rate that publicity around green issues is increasing.

I don’t think that this is merely because awareness is a lagging indicator for change (though it undoubtedly is). Instead, I’d argue that the manner in which environmental issues gain greater visibility to the public is, in some ways, counter productive to the causes at the core the green movement.

Why should this be the case? In my view it comes down to the fact that, even as they become more urgent and more wide spread, discussions about environmental issues are taking place against a backdrop of the ‘green niche’ that has grown up alongside them. I’d argue that cultural prevalence of this ‘green niche’, which pretty much everyone has a level of familiarity with, is actually prohibitive to promoting change.

Whilst the proportion of the population who could tell you how much the temperature of the earth needs to increase by to trigger an irreversible feedback effect is probably quite low, anyone, if given the choice, would be able to pick out the best font with which to advertise an environmentally friendly product. Even if we have no knowledge of issues such as global warming, we still feel we have an understanding of what ‘green’ is via our exposure to advertising, news reports and other cultural products.

Because, as a society we are more familiar with the cultural coding that goes alongside all things ‘green’ than we are with the facts of climate change, it’s easy for us to see it as a specialist subject. This is concerning because it implies it has a limited interest to a certain demographic (as is the case with any niche).

I believe the existence of this niche is what makes it possible for awareness of environmental issues to increase rapidly without resulting in much change in attitudes in general. Everybody knows there are problems, but the problems belong to a niche group (those who identify as ‘green’) and so are, in effect, somebody else’s…

In addition, I think the way environmental issues are reported on is a big contributory factor to this problem:

The Context of Environmental Discussions

There is no other area of news that can make such a legitimate claim to be of universal relevance, yet to a far greater extent than you’d find with politics, or even sport, green issues are generally reported on as a ‘specialist’ topic. This is in spite of the fact that the environment is one of very few things that, by default, everybody on earth shares in common.

The paradox is that, whilst on an essential level, everything that happens depends on or links to the environment, from economic growth, to natural disasters, in the mainstream press it’s a subject that comes packaged in its own self contained bubble (usually in the form an ‘environmental section’). As a result, debates about subjects such as climate change, which by their very nature could have the furthest reaching consequences imaginable, are carried out in a niche corner of the media.

Obviously, in many ways it seems churlish to bemoan the fact that green issues have risen up the news agenda to the point where they occupy their own section of most major broadsheets (even publications who are lightly sceptical – or even positively contrarian – on topics like global warming employ a team of environmental correspondents working under their own editor). Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that by giving them their own section on their websites and in their papers, such organisations go along way to ensure that major stories pertaining to the environment won’t be seen as ‘news’ (i.e. of importance to everyone) but rather ‘green news’ (of interest to ‘green’ people).

If you’re being generous, you’d say this is an inevitable and unintended side affect of trying to give such issues the level of coverage they deserve. Unfortunately, you could also easily argue that this niche setting provides a sort of hermetically sealed news ghetto, one in which ‘green’ stories of global consequence can be discreetly deposited and contained, as if the planet they applied to were somehow separate to the one providing the stage for the ‘world events’ featured in the front page headlines.

Perhaps it would be going too far to suggest that there are sinister motives behind such a state of affairs, but it certainly works to foster a sense that ‘green’ issues are isolated from topics such as politics and economics, when they are in fact an ever increasingly central part of both.

The Dangers of Niche

Although it’s impossible to deny that this is all part of the parcel of environmental issues gaining greater cultural currency as awareness of their importance rises, there’s definitely a case to say that the cultural coding that accompanies this greater visibility is quite possibly harmful to the environmental cause.

The more we are conditioned to the way that marketing, news reports and other mediums package issues as ‘green’, the more likely we are to start replicating that process in our own minds. By a kind of osmosis we end up becoming fluent in this cultural coding and end up using it ourselves.

Obviously, I’m aware of the irony of making these points on a blog that uses some of the tropes I’m talking about to identify itself as green – you could probably tell the site is concerned with environmental issues even if the content itself were written in an unfamiliar language – but that’s precisely my point. Once a certain way of presenting green issues becomes widely entrenched, you have no choice but to use the same presentational techniques to make yourself understood. This is especially true if, rather than simply preaching to the converted, you’re aiming to reach people who aren’t necessarily experts in the minutiae of the field (which is exactly what Steve does.)

This means that, even if your aim is to stress the overwhelming, all encompassing importance of the current threats to the environment, in a small, subtle, but important way, you’re forced to do so on the terms of the marketing agencies and news bodies that have informed the way people identify ‘green’ as a niche.

This increases the chance that, thanks to the training we’ve all received in categorising the information we process, the moment someone begins to read your article they’re already seeing it as a ‘green article’. Whatever arguments it makes will be read as ‘green arguments’. As a result, if only to a small extent, they’re instantly marginalised by the reader, even if they agree with them, by virtue of existing in the bubble of ‘green issues’.

Unfortunately, given that everybody is now familiar with the traits of green branding, if you want to present green news, run a green business or other enterprise, you’re going to have to utilise these traits. If you want to talk to a wider audience about a subject, you have to use the frame of reference available to that audience as your starting point.

It’s reminiscent of the dilemma faced by Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Youngman, where the protagonist tries to explain the proper word for an object but has to use the wrong words to do so:

That? Said Stephen. Is that called a funnel? Is it not a tundish?

What is a tundish?

That. The…funnel.

Of course, there isn’t any easy way around this problem, but it’s at least worth recognizing. If we’re aware that this problem exists, it’s a minor annoyance that needs to be born in mind. If we don’t even realize this process is at work then it’s possible that we’ll end up contributing to it and the more attention we try and direct towards matters at the heart of the green movement, the more marginalised they’ll become.

In a particularly illuminating section of the essay Visually Branding the Environment: Climate Change as a Marketing Opportunity by Anders Hansen and David Machin, the authors look at the characteristics of the offerings labelled as ‘green’ by Getty, one of the world’s biggest providers of stock images. They come to the conclusion that by creating a standardised visual language which denotes environmental subjects

Getty are able to recontextualize climate change, not by a reasoned argument showing how their solutions actually work, but by substituting reference to the real world of events, real environmental processes and our role in them with abstractions.

The danger is that this same method of abstraction can be applied to the way important environmental news is read. If, in the same way that a stock image can be instantly recognised as belonging to a green niche, if our methods of reporting on issues mean they can also be labelled as merely ‘green’, they too will be seen as separate to ‘the real world of events’. Given that it’s the fate of the planet itself that’s under discussion, this should be a serious cause for concern.

Will (2 Posts)

Will Kerr blogs about a range of environmental topics, with a special interest in the way the media reports on green issues. He graduated from the University of Warwick in 2010 with a first class degree in English Literature and Creative Writing.

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