Environmental news coverage in decline

Milford has just celebrated Earth Day, America’s only — and still unofficial — holiday for the environment. Where do you get your information about the environment, environmental issues or events? Whatever your answer/s, you may be among the 79% of Americans who say news coverage of the environment should be improved. This figure is the same across differences of age, race, income or region of the country. No wonder. After all, the amount of environmental reporting in many newspapers has been on a steady decline. Recently, a study done by the Pew Research Center revealed that about 4% of the headlines in national newspapers are about crime, 3.6% about entertainment, and fewer than 1% about the environment.

Perhaps that decline in coverage is due simply to the decline of newspapers, which is well known. Not so well known, though, is that environmental reporting has been declining across all media: Radio, TV, and Internet as well as newspapers.

Mainstream media cover entertainment three times more often than the environment, for instance, while the crime-to-environment ratio for morning network news is 69-to-1; cable news, 9-to-1; evening network news, 5-to-1; online news, 6-to-1.

Perhaps mainstream media doesn’t cover the environment because the public isn’t interested?

An international poll conducted in 12 countries 1992-2012 (before Sandy) showed public concern about environmental issues at a 20-year low. But this could be an effect of media neglect rather than a cause. Or perhaps the problem lies with environmentalists themselves? A recent New Yorker article blames poor media coverage of climate change on leaders’ strategy to lobby privately for climate legislation in Washington instead of organizing via public education at the grassroots.

Whether or not this critique is justified, focusing on grassroots does introduce a new thought. The same Pew study that showed declining mainstream news coverage of the environment also showed that local newspapers do three times better, and that independent news organizations (which tend to be regional or local) prioritize environmental news up to 15 times more than the national average.

Milford residents, for example, can turn to local instead of national news for coverage of, say, sea-level rise, and trust that coverage more, because we and our neighbors are all eyewitnesses to facts in common.  We don’t need to waste our efforts questioning the bona fides of media coverage: Instead, we turn to finding local solutions. Even though we can’t deal with fundamental causes of environmental problems at the local level — for instance, we can’t prevent sea-level rise — we can usually find some local way to address them, such as, say, making sure local zoning codes are designed to keep buildings a safe distance from the water. Finally, if and when those solutions are implemented, we benefit directly from the results, and from the local media coverage that started the process.

In short, perhaps we should worry less about national media coverage of the environment, and pay more attention to keeping local media coverage strong.