Envrionment News: No More Business as Usual


This article originally appeared in Issue# 51

Does today's media have the courage to tell the truth about the Earth?

The environment is "in" again this season. Thanks in part to all the hoopla of Earth Day 1990, the media have once again climbed aboard the environmental protection bandwagon.

But where have they been for the 20 years since the last Earth Day? While today's environmental tragedy was unfolding, where was the media?

While Spaceship Earth spun toward destruction as a habitat for all life, the press busied itself reporting the exploits of football players, the sexual adventures of entertainers and other junk news.

For a while during the euphoric days of 1970, it looked like things would be different. Following Earth Day 1970, mushrooming numbers of "environmental journalists"-a professional group that grew from one to more than a hundred by 1973-according to a 1989 study-demonstrated print media's sudden interest in ecologically-oriented stories.

"The first oil embargo in October 1973 ended the Golden Era of Ecological Conscience," one of eco-journalism's pioneers observed recently. Suddenly, it was economic news as usual, with Big Oil winning. Stories about alternative sources of energy and environmental hazards were once again relegated to environmental advocacy and ecological science periodicals.

Stories Lack Color

Television's growing importance as a news vehicle didn't help, either. With the exception of reports of disasters, stories about the environment lacked color. Their gradual progression and complex issues didn't lend themselves to 30-second explanations and high-energy visuals.

Occasionally, of course, stories about water pollution, erosion, deforestation, deterioration of the ozone layer or other environmental threats surfaced in newsprint or on television screens.

In such instances, the story was too often sensationalized. The finger of guilt was pointed at an offending official or industry. Seldom was the blame placed upon the lust for short-term material gain of modern society as a whole. Rarely was there responsible followup, let alone the kind of journalism that sounds a clarion call for drastic and immediate action.

Our generation is the first in human history
that has in its hands the power to determine whether the Earth remains habitable.

Bewitched By Advertising

On the contrary, business as usual centered on promotion of community growth, the celebration of increases in the gross national product and the call for advertising-led booms in demand for consumer good and services. Clearly, under the spell of advertising U.S. media have seen themselves as engines of the economy rather than agents dedicated to fostering a new lifestyle.

In some cases, the desire to play down such news has resulted in actual suppression, as news organizations kill stories for fear they might frighten area residents or, worse still, offend local industries.

Even responsible media still find more space for stories about TV soap operas or the sore arm suffered by a baseball player than for news about threats to all life on the planet.

What kind of news judgment are we using?

Let's face it, even the AIDS epidemic is insignificant compared to what's happening to our environment. Yet news commentators continue to put down scientists blowing the whistle as alarmists or extremists. Lost in today's efforts to "Pollyanna-cise" our current dilemma is one important fact: The predictions made by the environmental "freaks" of 20 years ago now appear quite conservative and overcautious, compared to the dire scenarios being drawn by today's scientific community.

As the threat worsens, our profession faces an awesome responsibility. We must make some tough decisions. We must purge our news columns and broadcasting channels of junk news and dedicate them to consumer education about restoring the environment. It will cost astronomical amounts of money. Furthermore, many sacrifices will have to be made.

Last Minute Changes

The stakes, however, are enormous. Our generation is the first in human history that has the power in its hands to determine whether the Earth remains habitable. That is quite a responsibility.

Moreover, time is running out. Scientists say that we may have already passed the point of no return. If the human race is to survive, there must be a drastic-and immediate-change in modern society's lifestyles, values, educational levels and the media of mass communication.

That's us.

Do today's media have the the courage to report the environmental story in all its frightening reality?

Probably only if we as their audience have the courage to demand to be told the truth about the threat that faces us.

As readers, listeners and viewers what we don't need is reassurance that everything is going to be all right. It isn't, even under the most optimistic prognosis.

The best thing the media can do for us is to scare the living daylights out of us. Our prospects for survival are scary and no realistic assessment of them can fail to frighten an intelligent human being.

People must be moved to demand that government intervene on both national and international levels to prevent further damage and, we hope, reverse the process of destruction. As consumers we must be willing to accept a much lower standard of living and must demand that others do so, too. We must be eager to institute the taxes and sacrifice the luxuries that will pay for saving our planet.

It's often been observed that people get the media they deserve. For the sake of Spaceship Earth and all her inhabitants, it's time to demand the kind of media that the earth deserves. We no longer have 20 years to waste between Earth Days.

Who's Endangered?

Last winter, when three gray whales were trapped in Barrow, Alaska, I became fixed on their plight. So did millions of other people, and that was the astonishing thing. Understandably, many conservationists resented the media attention and money spent on a mere three animals while, at the same time, endangered species were being ignored. In a coarser vein, some scientists said the whales ought to perish: they weren't clever enough to migrate at the right time; their species, in fact, would be better off without them. But I was cheered by global sympathy for the grays. In a stroke of collective awareness, we saw ourselves in the stranded beasts: radically off course, bobbing for air, unnecessary for our species but struggling to stay alive.

- Laurie Stone, Tikkun

Author Bio: 

John De Mott is professor emeritus of Journalism at Memphis State University. Before becoming an educator he served for 16 years as a news reporter and editor for the Kansas City Star/Times.