“Environmental communication” refers to communication about the natural environment and ecosystem, commonly focusing on the relationships that human beings and their institutions have with the nonhuman natural environment. Much of this communication, historically, has been generated by concern about various environmental problems and issues (global warming, energy, smog, extinction of species, land uses, population growth, water quality, to name but a handful). Some messages, such as Rachel Carson’s popular and controversial Silent spring in the early 1960s, which revealed the deleterious sideeffects of pesticides, have been credited with spurring public concern and major policy changes. However, there has also been a prevalent thread in literature and storytelling in many cultures that urges people, often through descriptive imagery, to appreciate beauty and harmony in nature (or, in some cases, to fear nature). Sometimes, of course, nature description has also been a vehicle for teaching social and ethical values and ecological principles and for alerting people to environmental issues (e.g., Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Aldo Leopold’s A sand county almanac).
The Scope of Environmental Communication
Environmental communication can take many forms and can occur through a diverse set of communication channels. Thus, communication scholars of various stripes might readily find environmental communication applicable to their interests in various media. Overall, “the rate of growth in environmental communication research . . . is phenomenal,” observe Pleasant et al. (2002, 200), based on their review of 963 articles about environmental communication published in academic journals from 1945 to 2000.
The meaning of the term “environmental” has evolved over time from earlier, more limited, and more human-centered terms such as “conservation” (Schoenfeld 1983), to a more global perspective, encompassing urban as well as rural locales, tough ecological choices, and grassroots participation in policy formation – in essence, “a recognition of pervasive interdependencies, in which everything is connected to everything else” (1983, 471). In more recent years, increasing attention has been paid to risks to human health stemming from a variety of environmental contaminants. Some in the environmental movement seem to welcome this new nuance as a means of widening the environmental constituency to include those whose main concern is human health and as a way of showing larger segments of the public that various kinds of environmental degradation can ultimately threaten their health. Others in the environmental movement seem to object that emphases on health return environmentalism to an anthropocentric philosophy. Nonetheless, communication about risk – whether to the natural environment or to human health – has emerged as the top environmental communication topic investigated by researchers, according to the review by Pleasant et al. (2002).
Orientations to The Environment
Over the years, various researchers have attempted to gain more insight into differences in individuals’ environmental orientations, e.g., their beliefs, affects, values, attitudes, and behaviors as related to the environment. Although much of this research has been atheoretical, there have nonetheless been numerous studies that have applied one communication model or another (e.g., framing, agenda-setting, and others) to environmental orientations as objects of study. Rather than reviewing these models here, we will instead concentrate on just a few of the models that have shown considerable promise and usefulness for studies of environmental communication and that, in some cases, may not be well known among communication scholars more generally.
New Environmental Paradigm
The most widely used model designed to reflect individuals’ general beliefs about the environment is the new environmental paradigm (NEP, more recently amended as the new ecological paradigm) of Dunlap and Van Liere (1978) and various collaborators. NEP is not a process model, but rather a conceptually based measurement scheme designed to “tap ‘primitive beliefs’ about the nature of the earth and humanity’s relationship with it,” state Dunlap et al. (2000, 427). “Social psychologists,” they explain, “see these primitive beliefs as influencing a wide range of beliefs and attitudes concerning more specific environmental issues” (2000, 428). Fundamentally, the NEP scale was designed to measure individuals’ beliefs about limits to growth for human societies, humanity’s right to rule over nature, and humanity’s ability to upset the balance of nature – what Stern et al. (1995) have termed a “folk ecological theory of how the world works, the nature of the biosphere, how it functions, and how it is affected by human actions” (1995, 726). NEP scores generally reflect a more ecocentric set of beliefs about humanity and the ecosystem.
In a multinational study of more than 2,000 students in 14 countries, Schultz and Zelezny (1999) found that NEP scores were positively associated with values of universalism and negatively with values of power and tradition. US respondents scored lower than those from most of the other countries. Stern et al. (1995) integrated NEP and another scale of environmental beliefs – an amended awareness of consequences (AC) scale based on Schwartz (1970) – into a framework of social psychological theory. In a telephone sample survey of 199 adults in Fairfax County, Virginia, in the US, they determined that NEP and AC scales represented generalized environmental beliefs that could affect beliefs, attitudes, and behavioral intentions in regard to specific environmental problems and, in turn, could be affected by values and social structural variables. Major (1993) combined the NEP scale with Grunig’s (1983, 1989) situational communication theory and found that these basic environmental beliefs helped to explain the ways various publics responded to and communicated about two environmental issues: air pollution and landfill shortages.
Fairly few studies, as Major (1993) notes, have examined the relationship of communication to general environmental dispositions. Nonetheless, Dunlap et al. conclude that NEP measures “should be responsive to personal experiences with environmental problems . . . and to information – diffused by government agencies, scientists, environmentalists, and the media – concerning the growing seriousness of environmental problems” (2000, 429). It is likely that these primitive beliefs might also affect individuals’ information seeking and processing as well.
Two of the more significant behavior models that offer frameworks for exploring connections between communication and environmental behaviors are Ajzen’s (1988) theory of planned behavior (TPB), which is based on the Ajzen & Fishbein (1980) theory of reasoned action (TRA), and the theory of environmentally significant behavior (Stern 2000).
TRA and TPB have been widely applied to investigations of a variety of human behaviors, including a number of studies of communication and environmental behavior (see Trumbo & O’Keefe 2004). Trumbo and O’Keefe (2004) employed TRA in a study of factors that affect individuals’ voluntary water conservation behavior in the Truckee River watershed and augmented the model by incorporating measures of NEP, past behavior, communication exposure, attention, and information seeking with regard to water conservation information. They found that communication was at least as strong as the key TRA variables, subjective norms and attitude toward the act, as a predictor of intention to conserve, and appears to mediate an effect of NEP and past behavior on behavioral intention.
Stern (2000) has proposed a compelling theory that synthesizes a variety of factors, including NEP, into a comprehensive values-beliefs-norms model to predict environmentally significant behavior – the extent that a behavior “changes the availability of materials or energy from the environment or alters the structure and dynamics of ecosystems or the biosphere itself ” (2000, 408). Although communication itself is not central in this theory, nonetheless there are various components of the model that might be affected by communication, or interact with it, with ultimate impacts on environmental behavior.
Communication and Environmental Risks
Ecosystems inhabit a world rife with risks, just as humans do. Assaults on the environment are the stuff of much environmental reporting in the mass media, and while members of the public might learn about risks to the ecosystem in various ways, media depictions are a pre-eminent source and the most studied by scholars.
Media Coverage Of Risks To The Environment
One might argue that environmental reporting is all about sending signals regarding real or potential harm to an ecosystem. It is easy to unearth content analyses of media coverage of these risks to the environment. Most examine print – not broadcast or Internet – outlets (the former has historically been more accessible than the latter) and most offer descriptions of patterns of coverage across media or over time. Although there exists no meta-analysis of these studies, we isolate a few of the more common patterns below.
Coverage of a single environmental issue will be erratic, not sustained, over time. Journalism tackles individual topics in relatively brief, discrete bits and does so only when events or processes coincide with news values such as timeliness or magnitude. This means that context of all kinds is often missing from individual stories, leaving audiences to build a more comprehensive picture of an issue on their own. For example, Bendix and Liebler (1991) analyzed newspaper coverage of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon and found it to be intermittent and sensitive to crises.
Journalistic norms may be prominent drivers of coverage strategies. For example, since journalists cannot be arbiters of scientific truth when that truth is contested (a common situation in science), they instead aim to include in stories a variety of truth claims, often “balancing” these viewpoints in an effort to convey to audiences a sense of the range of views. Boykoff and Boykoff (2004) found that roughly half of the global warming stories they examined from US newspapers hewed to this balancing act, and they concluded that such coverage may lead to misperceptions by audiences.
Stories, by definition, are dominated by interpretive frameworks, and scholars argue that these frameworks can be important predictors of the “take-home message” that a reader or viewer will derive from a journalistic piece. Studies of frames employed in stories about risks to the environment suggest that they can stem from a complex welter of factors, including a journalist’s a priori knowledge of an issue, a willingness to buy into the first frame that is offered as an issue comes to light, and even the social structure of the community in which the media organization operates. In a study of media coverage of three Superfund sites in Wisconsin, US, for example, Dunwoody and Griffin (1993) found that coverage of these sites over the course of years adopted community-specific interpretive frameworks.
Communicating About Risks To The Environment
Human beings engage in a host of risky activities, much to the alarm of policymakers and the health community. Much effort and many dollars are devoted to trying to persuade people to stop smoking, to engage in safe sex, and to employ infant car seats correctly. But how can one persuade individuals to change their behaviors when the risk in question does not affect them directly? When a lake is in trouble, when warming temperatures allow beetles to overwinter and destroy ash trees, how do you jump-start behaviors that would help fix the problems?
Risk campaign managers say that it is hard enough to convince individuals to adopt behaviors in service to their own personal needs, much less devise means of convincing people to be responsive to risks to bodies of water or to ecosystems. Complicating this scenario is the fact that truly lessening many, if not most, risks to environmental systems requires concerted efforts by many individuals, agencies, and even nations. It can be difficult for individuals to feel that their personal efforts could make a dent. Models such as Ajzen’s (1988) theory of planned behavior (TPB) can offer guidance regarding the behavioral beliefs, outcome evaluations, attitudes toward the behavior, feelings of efficacy, and felt social pressures (subjective norms) that can contribute to individuals’ behavioral change. As people process information about at least some environmental risks, they might experience a change in a number of these behavioral intention predictors (e.g., felt social pressures, outcome evaluations or beliefs in regard to taking old paint or mercury thermometers to a community recycling center instead of throwing them away in the trash). Of course, individuals would seemingly have to attend to and process this kind of information in the first place.
Kahlor et al. (2006) investigated some of the factors that could increase the likelihood that people would seek and process information about impersonal risks, that is, risks not to oneself but to others or to the environment. Specifically, they used elements of the risk information seeking and processing (RISP) model (Griffin et al. 1999) to examine how residents of two cities on the Great Lakes – Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Cleveland, Ohio – dealt with information about risks to the lakes (e.g., to the ecological health of the lakes) rather than the effects the lakes might have on human health. The RISP model combines aspects of other theories, most notably TPB and Eagly and Chaiken’s (1993) heuristicsystematic model of information processing. It proposes that more active seeking and processing of risk information is facilitated, directly or indirectly, by combinations of some key variables, including (1) information insufficiency (i.e., a person feels the need for more information to confidently form an opinion or otherwise deal with the risk), (2) a person’s capacity to seek and process the risk information, (3) a person’s beliefs about communication channels that carry the information, (4) informational subjective norms (felt social pressures to be informed about the risk), and (5) affective responses to the risk. Deeper processing of the risk information is expected to lead to more stable attitude and behavioral changes over time. (Affective response, including attitudinal and behavioral outcomes, was not analyzed in this study.)
The Kahlor et al. analysis found that informational subjective norms bore a much stronger relationship with seeking and processing the risk information than any other predictor, a relationship stronger than expected based on some past tests of the model that had examined how individuals seek and process information about risks to themselves. Among possible explanations, they suggested that social normative forces might be more powerful predictors of seeking and processing risk information in the absence of motivations based on perceived risk to the self. Although more research is needed, the results suggest that a variety of cultural and social forces, working through or with communication, might influence the ways people attend and respond to information about risks to the natural environment.
Some Directions for Research and Practice
In general, environmental communication offers a rich area for studies of individual, cultural, social, and structural forces affecting human behavior. It takes place through various media, old and new. For example, the local newspaper’s series about water quality in nearby rivers, the television network news broadcast that spotlights an inexplicable reduction in the number of bee colonies, and the pamphlet explaining mercury risks from eating fish caught in a local stream are, arguably, archetypical forms of environmental communication. But environmental communication can also be discovered in the Internet blogger’s opinions on global warming, the local environmental group’s interactive website mapping hazardous chemicals stored in the community, a government agency’s public hearings on the siting of wind turbines for renewable electric power, chats people have with friends about recycling, and parents’ emails discussing the best sunscreen lotion to limit their kids’ exposure to solar ultraviolet rays.
Among the challenges to environmental communicators, and among the key topics of interest to those who study environmental communication, are the communication of risk and uncertainty to lay audiences, the interpretation of the attendant technical and scientific information for non-experts, differences in orientation to the environment based on various cultural, structural, and social factors, and issues related to public concern about the “impersonal” environment. Studies of environmental communication, regardless of whether they are based on quantitative or qualitative methods, would benefit from the continued application and development of theory.
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