02 Sep 2012 to 02 Sep 2012
Environmental problems are not only matters of science – they are also political matters that are communicated and negotiated in the public sphere. Scientific claims that are made about environmental problems usually enter the public sphere through news media. Just as scientific analysis is important to understanding the natural world and the effect of human activity on that world, discourse analysis is important to understanding how environmental science gets presented by journalists, interpreted by the public and legitimized or delegitimized to support different political aims.
As a social researcher I am interested in examining how our understanding of reality gets shaped by the way knowledge and information is communicated. This paper looks at newspaper coverage of government actions to reduce toxic algae outbreaks on Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada by introducing regulations on the Manitoba hog industry and the City of Winnipeg. I found that the news coverage was framed by journalists to support both the hog industry’s and the city’s rhetorical efforts to oppose the regulations, and that science was either credited or discredited to reinforce the hog industry’s and city’s positions.
Existing research has shown that environmental news coverage is dominated by the general tendency of news media to align stories with the dominant social paradigm of economic growth and development. This is often evidenced by a journalistic preference to frame environmental stories in relation to their economic consequences, or benefits. My analysis r questions whether this preference results in a public negotiation of environmental and economic values to find compromises and solutions, as some of the existing research suggests. Instead, I propose that this negotiation is not occurring transparently in the public sphere. The economy/environment tension does not overtly dominate the news coverage, but is hidden by a tendency for all actors involved in the news stories (governments, industry and the public) to claim support for the cause of saving Lake Winnipeg from toxic algae. Just as science is recruited to support different political agendas, the pro-lake cause was also recruited to provide increased legitimacy for the industry and government actors who were using the news coverage to persuade the public of their positions.
Communication of environmental issues and scientific knowledge in the public sphere is determined at least in part by how news media frame these issues. It is therefore crucial both to scientists and public policy makers to understand how news media present these issues to the public, and how public knowledge and opinion is shaped by rhetorical forces.
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