Corporate Media Greens


It is taken for granted by all political actors that the mass media is an essential resource for communicating (or in most cases, propagandising too) the wider public. Progressive voices, like those of Green politicians however seem to have accepted that they must endure the seemingly never-ending assaults that the corporate media wages on their demands for more participatory forms of democracy. Even the labour movement – the largest, most credentialed and well resourced social organisation prior to the 1980s – has historically, been consistently treated with hostility by the media; with the media consistently equating conservative values with common sense and identifying wage increases as the main cause of economic problems. Current research also shows how the labour movement is still systematically misrepresented in the media despite its financial strength, application of professional public relations techniques and democratic ideals. It is not surprising then, that Green electoral candidates and parties are regularly marginalised from the mainstream media. Although there have been some improvements in the media’s coverage of Green issues in recent decades, the question remains: how beneficial is this media coverage to the Greens’ political agenda? This article seeks to answer this question by initially examining the Greens’ relations with the mass media, and then secondly by reviewing Green party policy responses to media reform in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.

 

Greening Media Coverage?

Media time is a scarce commodity for Green organisations, because no matter how professionalized their PR practices are they must still compete alongside other, better resourced corporate interests. This is especially true when genuine grassroots organisations find themselves competing alongside manufactured (media friendly) corporate social movements such as ‘astroturf’ groups. Even Greenpeace, a group well known for its positive media relations, despite years of campaigning was unable to easily bring the issue of genetic engineering onto the public agenda for debate for a long time. Greenpeace activist Sue Mayer, recalled that the British media “were extremely unwilling to look behind the hype of the companies and the hype of the scientists [regarding genetic engineering] until they were forced to”.[1] Similarly, despite vibrant grassroots campaigns, the debate surrounding the rapid growth in the use of nanotechnology and bioengineering is all but excluded from the mass media. Meanwhile, the media regularly discusses the merits of ‘green consumerism’, which like the corporate funded Wise-Use movement in the US places the emphasis for environmental change on the individual rather than the producers (i.e. industry).

 

Ideological bias’s like these mean that media organisations can cherry-pick the environmental causes/movements that best capitulate to their corporate driven demands for newsworthiness (for an extended discussion of this point see, Michael Barker (2007) Conform or Reform? Social Movements and the Mass Media). This encourages environmental movements to make concessions to their causes by becoming more “media savvy” and by internalising media (read: corporate) values to maximize their media coverage. Yet, even when compromises are made to obtain favourable media coverage, the ability of green groups to control how their stories are framed is questionable. For example, Greenpeace may have successfully drawn public attention to the problematic disposal of the Brent Spar in 1995, but according to Anders Hansen (2000) they were unable to bring the general thematic issues of oil rig decommissioning and marine pollution into the public sphere.[2] Thus in the end such a media-centric approach only serves to fragment and isolate successful actions from one another, encouraging episodic rather than thematic media.

 

Environmental movements may improve their media visibility, but paradoxically by making tactical concessions to obtain media coverage, they may render their longer-term objectives invisible to their audience. Eric Draper (1987) notes that:

 

“The tradeoff between ‘mediagenic’ short-term actions and long-term movement-building does not have to be so direct – one can complement the other. But the role of the press with its insatiable appetite for colour does often dictate the way environmentalists plan their campaigns. As we compete with football teams for public attention, however, we have to be certain that we are not just helping create a mass audience of spectators.” [3]

 

Here lies a dilemma: environmental movements may begin to define their success by their ability to gain media coverage, not by the number of citizens they mobilize, or the number of policy decisions they influence.

 

Interestingly, despite the rising power of the environmental movement and increasing public awareness of environmental issues, this has not necessarily equated with improved media coverage. In fact, a comparison of environmental pollution coverage between 1972 and 2000 in US newspapers found that the nature of the coverage was unchanging.[4] Thus campaigning around the issue of pollution has had almost no effect on the mass media’s discourse and if anything, the media framed the issue to oppose the environmental movement’s objectives. For example, even though 73% of the articles identified industry as the cause of pollution, it was the government who were most often framed (in 78% of articles) as the body responsible for dealing with the pollution. Framing like this leaves citizens with little sense of personal urgency to combat environmental pollution, as it appears that the government can be left to organize things. Similar framing was evident in the media coverage of environmental stories in Australia and Canada.[5] The American study also showed that 90% of the articles failed to mention the presence of local environmental organisations working to combat pollution and 83% omitted any mention of national environmental groups.[6] Furthermore, the term environmentalist and activist were used in only 15% and 2% of articles respectively. With no mention of the pivotal role social movements play in encouraging governments to hold corporations accountable, it is likely that readers will be left confused about how to affect change, and may even be left with the impression that “an essentially benign” government is adequately dealing with environmental pollution. Neither of these results are very useful to social movements trying to bring about change. Environmental reporting in Canada seems to suffer from similar deficiencies and Robert Babe’s (2005) study of the Globe and Mail - “arguably the premier Canadian print journal” – concluded:

 

“…that while ‘lip-service’ was paid to environmental concerns, those issues were never addressed in their full range and seriousness; the lip-service, we might speculate, served to divert attention from the overall thrust of the reporting, which was one-sided and hardly environmental.” [7]

 

Examination of the climate change debate in the British press suggests that similar problems plague its coverage. At the start of 2005, an international task force on climate change concluded that we could reach “the point of no return” in as little as a decade and a strong consensus has been reached in the scientific community that climate change is a real and dangerous issue, but where are the calls to organize and support grassroots organisations campaigning to deal with it? Anabela Carvalho and Jacquelin Burgess (2005) studied the discourse of climate change in the British quality media (The Guardian, The Times, and The Independent) from 1985 to 2003 and concluded that “‘[d]angerous’ climate change is… both politically defined and ideologically constrained” and what many non-governmental organisations consider to be the root cause of climate change, “unlimited consumption and continuous economic growth have typically been left unchallenged by all”.[8] Joe Smith (2000) also observes how “[t]he public’s understanding of global environmental change and sustainability issues has been badly served by the media. As the Science of climate change and biodiversity has matured, media coverage of these issues has, perversely, reduced.”[9]

 

In Australia, Robyn Hollander’s (2005) study of print media coverage of logging issues (in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Financial Review) – over three time periods from the late 1980s to 2004 – showed how environmental voices have became increasingly marginalised in the news. Despite conservation organisations acting as the dominant news source in the beginning of the study (with industry occupying a reactive role), their positions had reversed by the mid 1990s. Hollander determined that the change in coverage was in part due to the government’s framing of the stories, which drew upon decreasing levels of ‘official’ conflict over time: from the intergovernmental conflict (1986-87), to intragovernmental disputes (1995-96), to an almost consensus position between the two main parties, who both agreed on the need for sustainable management, but not conservation (2004 election). These results suggest that the medias role in framing logging issues could be described as indexing or manufacturing consent [10] – although Hollander herself did not forward such a radical interpretation of her data – because the coverage implicitly accepted the frames (or issue boundaries) set by elite interests.

 

Other research investigating news coverage of environmental issues in the UK (focusing on the liberal media, the BBC, The Independent and The Guardian), in Australia and the US (analysing coverage in The Australian and the New York Times), and in Canada (in the Globe and Mail) also conclude that the media coverage was consistent with the findings predicted by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s (1988) Propaganda Model.[11] Ivor Gaber’s (2000) study of environmental coverage in the British press between 1985 and 1999 might also be interpreted in a similar way.[12] He noted that following a key environmental speech made by Prime Minister Thatcher in September 1988 – which he described as the Conservatives attempt to reclaim green issues from the increasingly influential Green party – there was a dramatic increase in environmental coverage. One year later, when both major political parties stopped “talking” about the environment, media coverage dropped sharply, as did the number of environmental journalists employed in the British media. In 1998, the newly elected Labour government “made the environment one of the major themes of its 1998 presidency of the European Commission” which led to a level of media interest in environmental issues similar to that seen ten years earlier “when Mrs Thatcher first “discovered” the issue”.

 

This all seems to bode poorly for the sustainability of a vibrant participatory environmental discourse in the mass media and for Green party activism more generally. If the media encourages apathy through the use of ‘neutral frames,’ non-coverage, episodic (instead of thematic) coverage, or over-coverage with limited solutions, Green parties need to consider how beneficial it is to seek such disempowering media coverage. Todd Gitlin (1980) notes that for reformist groups to maintain any semblance of positive media coverage, they have to partake in an ongoing fight to shape the daily news to prevent their messages being rendered unintelligible.This point is echoed by Jon Cracknell (1993), who suggests that “getting coverage is only half the battle, getting the coverage to say what you want it to is another battle altogether.”[13] It seems that most people are aware that numerous serious environmental problems are challenging human existence, but if they continue to learn about these issues in an episodic manner that leaves them feeling helpless (or disempowered), where the only consistent solution offered by the media is changing their personal consumption patterns, can Green parties really expect the media to help them build a mass movement for global justice (or even just get elected)?

 

Green Party Media Policies

All of the Green parties examined in this study were unanimous in their desire to create a more deliberative and participatory democracy (also referred to as grassroots or direct democracy). So what role do these parties envisage the media playing in their attempts to fulfil this objective?

 

Although there is some agreement among the Greens globally that our current media systems are not really compatible with participatory outcomes for the public, there is a wide range of variation in the urgency attached to the issue of media reform (for a comprehensive review of Green party policy documents see Global Greens and the Mass Media: Building for a Participatory Future?). Of all the parties reviewed in this article the US Green Party (2004) is the most committed to media reform, with 13 policy recommendations devoted to “Free Speech and Media Reform”, and most importantly it is dedicated to serious structural reform of media systems. It recognises that the corporate media’s provision of “a steady stream of increasingly coarse, redundant, superficial programming” has “caused serious deformations of our politics and culture” providing a popular culture which “is crassly manipulated by the profit motives of increasingly concentrated media conglomerates”. So they promote policies that will attempt to reverse antidemocratic media trends by repealing the 1996 Telecommunications Act (for the importance of this act see, Robert McChesney’s (2004) The Problem of the Media), restricting media consolidation, ending commercial advertising in public places (like schools), opposing censorship, and limiting the concentration of ownership in the telecommunications industry. Furthermore, the US Greens also have a number of policies that aim to support community access to the media as they propose the need to focus on developing small, locally-owned FM community radio stations, provide free and equal radio and television time and print press coverage for political candidates at the state and federal level, and ensure that broadband internet access becomes a taxpayer-funded utility to help end the ‘digital divide’.

 

While the US Greens are serious about reforming the corporate media, unfortunately, Green parties in the other countries examined in this article are not so keen on incurring the wrath of the media monopolies. Thus the Australian Greens (2005) seem content to leave discussion of the corporate media well alone, as their two main media policies are strictly limited to only strengthening public broadcasting. Some of the Australian Greens more general policies do deal with media issues as they propose to “support enhanced anti-monopoly laws…to stop companies… from gaining domination in the Australian market, as is the case at present in the media industry”. So ironically despite the Australian Greens recognising the problems associated with limited ownership of Australian media systems, they have no policies that explicitly address how such problems in the corporate media may be overcome.

 

Moving from bad to worse, the Green Party of Canada’s (2006) electoral platform document stresses how “[a]t every level, arts and culture help define our identities and communities”, yet no further mention is made of the negative impact of the corporate media on the public’s understanding of Green issues. In fact, its policy document does not even include the word “media”, and their only media related policy is to provide “stable base-funding” for the their public broadcaster (CBC). In contrast to the other aforementioned Green parties, the Green Party of England and Wales (2005) have no specific media policies, and while they do touch upon media issues in other policies their Scottish Green Party (2005) counterparts, does not use the word “media” in its election manifesto.

 

Discussion and Conclusion

If any given society is to make the successful transition to a participatory democratic paradigm, it seems likely that the media will have to support the development of a more vibrant public sphere, which places a greater premium on public consensus making and deliberation. This will require the reversal of current media and democratic trends, where increasingly “political deliberation and participation are losing relevance” within modern liberal democratic societies.

 

Although Green politicians stand to benefit the most from a more participatory media, it seems that they are often reluctant to challenge the influence of those media institutions with the most political power, the corporate media. Only the US Greens have committed to challenging the anti-democratic tendencies of the corporate media, while the others opt for strengthening public broadcasting media (Australian and Canada), or make no commitments to media reform at all (England and Wales, and Scotland). Perhaps as media analysts David Edwards and David Cromwell note:

 

“…Greens are so accustomed to minimal or zero coverage that they are pitifully grateful to receive any media coverage at all. They fail to recognise that, despite decades of ‘playing the game’, they are systematically ridiculed, marginalised and ignored by the media.”

 

Spencer Fitzgibbon, press officer for the Green party in England and Wales gives an alternative explanation for this attitude, noting that despite all the mainstream media problems “we simply must work with it, or be invisible, which would mean utterly failing to ever have a chance of implementing the policies we believe in”. This may be the case, but what if the media needs to be reformed before society can make any substantial progress towards approaching a participatory state?

 

Development of new media technologies (like the internet) may hold some hope for the development of an alternative public sphere based on more participatory principles, but many researchers suggest that this is unlikely, especially without a vibrant ongoing public debate on the subject – which has not been forthcoming to date.[14] Furthermore, democracy will always need professional journalists to function effectively and their services to society can never be fully replicated by the internets public service journalism. Independent journalists may be able to provide brilliant and diverse analyses of various issues (e.g. www.zmag.org) but without the resources, institutional support, protection and legitimacy that professional journalist have, they will always find it hard to adequately challenge government and corporations successfully.[15] Fulltime paid journalists have access to power for interviews and the time and resources to conduct long term investigations, all of which are needed for meaningful research. Participatory democracies will need more waged journalists, as citizens will need regular and comprehensive news coverage on all aspects of their society’s management, from the local to the global. Therefore, it is evident that Green parties will need to seriously consider how they may be able to reform (or change) the dominant media systems that the majority of the world’s populous relies upon, so it is able to support their demands for a participatory democracy.

 

At the moment, one of the fundamental roles of the media in liberal democracies is to critically scrutinise governmental affairs: to act as the Fourth Estate of government. Another potential role for the media in a participatory democracy would see it acting as a corporate watchdog. If the media could be reformed (or even small parts improved) so that it could begin to take on this role, this would greatly improve the bargaining power of citizens in political processes and greatly improve the prospect of the creation of more participatory and Green forms of governance.

 

Much needs to be done, but a start can be made right now through raising public awareness. This is crucial, because the democratic quality of media systems is largely determined by the quality of the “communicative culture that surrounds the media, particularly the efforts of societal actors to enforce high standards”.[16] This brings us back to the Green policy manifestos outlined in this study and the urgent need for them to (all) acknowledge the significant interests the corporate media have in maintaining the status quo and opposing the Greens proposed transition to a more participatory paradigm. For a start, it would be a positive development if all the Green parties worked to kick-start a public debate around the issue of media reform by outlining policy prescriptions that begin to challenge the dominance of corporate media outlets in the public sphere. More Green parties need to emulate the US Greens and at the very least, initiate a public conversation about the need for more progressive media education in schools. This would help both children and adults to critically engage with media institutions and create a “communicative culture” around the media which would serve to strengthen its commitment to all democratic principles (representative and participatory alike). 

 

 

Michael Barker is a doctoral candidate at Griffith University, Australia. This paper was presented in May 2007 at ’20 Years of Propaganda? Critical Discussions & Evidence on the Ongoing Relevance of the Herman & Chomsky Propaganda Model’. The full paper upon which this article was based was published in the online journal the Griffith Journal of the Environment. Michael can be reached at Michael.J.Barker [at] griffith.edu.au, and some of his other articles can be found here.

Endnotes

[1] Mayer quoted in Cromwell, D. 2001. Private Planet: Corporate Plunder and the Fight Back. Charlbury: Jon Carpenter Publishing, p.81.

[2] Hansen, A. 2000. ‘Claims-Making and Framing in British Newspaper Coverage of the “Brent Spar” Controversy.’ In Environmental Risks and the Media, eds S. Allan, B. Adam and C. Carter. London ; New York: Routledge. p.71.

[3] Draper, E. 1987. ‘The Greenpeace Media Machine.’ New Internationalist 171: pp.8-9.

[4] Kenix, L. J. 2005. ‘A Comparison of Environmental Pollution Coverage in the Mainstream, African American, and Other Alternative Press.’ The Howard Journal of Communications 16: pp.49-70.

[5] Jenkin, T. 1998. ‘A Preliminary Analysis of Environmental Issue Reporting in the Advertiser, August and September 1998.’ South Australian Geographical Journal 97: pp.61-73; Karlberg, M. 1997. ‘News and Conflict: How Adversarial News Frames Limit Public Understanding of Environmental Issues.’ Alternatives Journal 23: pp.22-27.

[6] Kensicki, L. J. 2001. Media Construction of an Elitist Environmental Movement New Frontiers for Second Level Agenda Setting and Political Activism. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Texas. p.208.

[7] Babe, R. 2005. ‘Newspaper Discourses on Environment.’ In Filtering the News: Essays on Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model, ed J. Klaehn. Montreal: Black Rose Books. p.219.

[8] Carvalho, A. 2005. ‘Representing the Politics of the Greenhouse Effect: Discursive Strategies in the British Media.’ Critical Discourse Studies 2: p.20.

[9] Smith, J. 2000. ‘Introduction.’ In The Daily Globe: Environmental Change, the Public and the Media, eds J. Smith. London: Earthscan. p.3.

[10] Bennett, W. L. 1990. ‘Towards a Theory of Press-State Relations in the United States.’ Journal of Communication 40: pp.103-125; Herman, E. S. and N. Chomsky 1988. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books.

[11] Babe, R. 2005. ‘Newspaper Discourses on Environment.’ In Filtering the News: Essays on Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model, ed J. Klaehn. Montreal: Black Rose Books. pp. pp.187-222; Linder, E. W. 1994. ‘An Evaluation of the Propaganda Model of the Media from an Environmental Perspective’, Unpublished B.Bus. Thesis, Griffith University, Australia; McKiggan, M. 2005. ‘Climate Change and the Mass Media: A Critical Analysis’, Unpublished MSc thesis, Southampton University.

[12] Gaber, I. 2000. ‘The Greening of the Public, Politics and the Press, 1985-1999.’ In The Daily Globe: Environmental Change, the Public and the Media, eds J. Smith. London: Earthscan. pp.115-126.

[13] Cracknell, J. 1993. ‘Issue Arenas, Pressure Groups and Environmental Agendas.’ In The Mass Media and Environmental Issues, ed H. Anders. Leicester: Leicester University Press. p.14.

[14] Barker, M. J. ‘Manufacturing Policies’; Dahlberg, J. 2005. ‘The Corporate Colonization of Online Attention and the Marginalization of Critical Communication?’ Journal of Communication Inquiry 29(2): p.160; Mansell, R. 2004. ‘Political Economy, Power and New Media.’ New Media & Society 6(1): p.102;  McChesney, R. W. 2004. The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Monthly Review Press. pp. 210-217.

[15] McChesney, R. W. 1999. Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. p.176.

[16] Meyer, T. 2002. Media Democracy: How the Media Colonize Politics. Cambridge, England: Polity Press. p.139.

 

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