2. Supply and demand of environmental information

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The present report was primarily conceived on the hypothesis that the current environmental communication model is not working in the context of sustainability and the Information Society. This model is in conflict with an alternative model based on interactivity, participation and redefinition of contents. In order to validate this starting hypothesis, several new and existing studies, surveys, and data have been developed and/or analysed.

Based on the information and results obtained, this section will describe the characteristics and insufficiencies of both supply and demand of environmental information at a European level. Studies undergone on the analysis of media contents and practices, results from a survey of the views of European environmental journalists, together with data from the European Environment Agency, reveal that supply and demand do not meet in the traditional model. There is a clear need to experiment alternative methodologies that can effectively facilitate communication of complex events to society, thus orienting decision-making towards sustainability.

In order to analyse the variables related to both supply and demand in the area of environmental information, a survey was performed among more than 100 European environmental journalists, and 25 answers were obtained from Spain (11), Denmark (4), The Netherlands (1), Portugal (1), United Kingdom (1), Ireland (1), Finland (1), Germany (1) and other countries (4). Some of the aspects related to supply and demand of environmental information that were analysed through existing studies and through the questionnaire that was used in the survey (see Annex 1) were:

  • characteristics of the audiences;
  • most used means of communication of environmental information among different audiences and social groups;
  • the role and contrast of interest groups (NGO, private companies, and administration agencies) in the demand of environmental information about specific issues;
  • the role and contrast of interest groups (NGO, private companies, and administration) in the supply of environmental information;
  • the rating of importance by audiences of different environmental problems in different countries;
  • main environmental issues being reported in each country, classified by issue and periods;
  • measurement of credibility of the different sources;
  • number and frequency of the inclusion of experts’ opinions in environmental news in each country;
  • research involved in the production of environmental news in each country;
  • rating of importance made by reporters of different environmental problems in different countries;
  • geographical range covered by different suppliers;
  • definition of "good quality" environmental information given by different groups and experts; and
  • human and financial resources of the different agencies providing environmental information.

In general terms, a statement can be made that environmental information still represents a very small percentage in relation to the total amount of information offered by the media, if compared to other types of information such as sports, economy or politics. The Environmental Barometer, performed by the Centre of Environmental Information Studies (Centro de Estudios de Información Ambiental -- CEIA) demonstrated that the average percentage coverage of environmental issues in 10 Spanish newspapers - between October 1997 and June 1998 and monitored on a daily basis - was 2,3% (with a variation of 0,7) of the total surface of printed information. This figure was only surpassed in specific moments, such as the celebration of the Climate Summit in Kyoto or the impact provoked by wastewater spills in the National Park of Doñana. (Figure 2).

FIGURE 2: Evolution of Environmental Information in Spain (October’97-June’98)
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The data offered by the Environmental Barometer of the CEIA are supported by the answers extracted from the survey to environmental journalists. 22 environmental communicators out of 25 believe that environmental information transmitted by the media is insufficient, while 3 hold that it is sufficient, and none consider that it is excessive. (Figure 3).


FIGURE 3: How are environmental issues transmitted in the media?
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However, among environmental journalists there is no agreement on the motives that cause environmental information to be scarce. 18% of the communicators polled by the CEIA believe that this small volume is due to the fact that environmental information is not easily understood by the population in general. 14% consider, nevertheless, that the principal motive is the type of information which tends to be depressing. Another 14% of journalists think that the low amount of environmental information published results from the overriding concern of the media companies not to lose readers and audiences. For 13% of the polled journalists the problem centres around the fact that though people consider environmental information of much interest, they find themselves unable to do anything in this regard. 11% of the polled environmental journalists consider that the basis of the problem is that many editors do not know enough about the topics they write about, and this generates general ignorance among the population on what they are able to do in relation to the environment. (Figure 4).

FIGURE 4: Why do the media transmit little environmental information?

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A: It is boring F: It affects political interests that press to avoid this type of information
B: It is depressing G: It affects private company interests that press to avoid this type of information
C: It is difficult to understand H: Newspapers are only concerned of the number of readers and audiences, rather than of information quality.
D: It has little to do with things that really interest people I:  Editors do not know enough about what they write about
E: It is interesting to people, but they believe they can do little or nothing about it J: Other motives

One of the facts that could explain the public’s difficulties in understanding environmental information relies on the communicators general practice of using mainly governmental or official sources of information rather than consulting experts or other alternative sources. Sources generally used by specialised journalism are institutional, while the scientific community has little prominence, and neither have industrial sectors or non-governmental organisations.

As a general rule, there is a prevalence of "what is political" in specialised journalism. This trend towards politicisation in environmental information is demonstrated in the fact that, for media coverage to be assured during international environment meetings, the presence of Heads of State and Government is fundamental and necessary.

This rule was validated in the conclusions of the research work performed by the CEIA about how the media reported the Earth Summit of 1992 by analysing the reports in five Spanish media, at local, regional and national levels. From the analysis of the information published in these newspapers, it was demonstrated that the media prefer using political leaders or members of the Public Administration as informative sources, rather than the scientific community, private entities or NGOs. The results of this study are reflected in Figure 5.

FIGURE 5: Number of mentions made to different types of sources during media coverage of the Earth Summit 1992

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Around 46% of the environmental journalists polled by the CEIA consider that environmental information must incorporate different points of view. They also believe that the most interesting opinions and those which help understanding environmental information are usually given by experts in the environmental area, and by members of the scientific community (35%), as well as by groups related to the environment (19%). European communicators place information provided by official sources in the last position in the ranking (4%). (See Figure 6).

FIGURE 6: Who provides the most valuable environmental information?

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Non Governmental Organisations are the first producers of environmental information, according to 40% of the European environmental communicators who answered the survey of the CEIA. Environmental journalists are in second place in having more influence on environmental information production, as demonstrated by 27% of the answers. 16% consider governmental organisations as the larger producers of environmental information while 13%, nevertheless, think that newspaper publishers and television play this lead role. Only 4% believe that industries and private companies are the most influential in the production of this type of information. (Figure 7)

FIGURE 7: Who exerts more influence in the production of environmental information?
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The principal communication process for this type of information are newspapers and television channels according to the environmental journalists responding to the survey. Only 10% believe that magazines and specialised books are the most important source of information while a smaller percentage, 8%, considers that the general population keeps itself informed on topics related to the environment through informal conversations. The same percentage thinks that radio broadcasts are the main means used by Europeans to obtain this type of specialised information while not a single one of those polled considers conferences at schools or at Universities as an effective means of public information. (Figure 8).

FIGURE 8: Main media used by society to obtain environmental information

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Most of the volume of environmental information transmitted to society is through written articles although information presented audiovisually, especially through television, has a greater impact on the European population.

However, when it comes to information quality, perceptions change. Though newspapers are considered as the main environmental information transmitters, they are, at the same time, perceived as the worst in terms of the quality of this information. Nevertheless, several studies and surveys have demonstrated that they still receive more credibility among citizens than they really deserve, given their insufficiencies and limitations. On the other hand, specialised magazines are considered to offer the better and more credible environmental information. (Figure 9).

FIGURE 9: Media that offer more credible environmental information

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It would appear that newspapers have serious limitations that hinder optimal treatment of specialised information, and, concretely, of environmental issues. Some of the limitations are the lack of space within the newspaper, the inflexibility due to the existence of fixed sections for environmental information (generally society), the text reductions made by head editors and the common limitation of the diversity of environmental issues in each edition to a single piece of news.

Furthermore, there are also limitations that separate the journalist from the news, and are related to time and space. As a consequence of such space-time limitations, the journalist ends up offering a partial and fractional vision of the news. This would not occur if the characteristic tools of precision journalism were used (CD-ROM or access to the telematic networks) that are hardly employed today in journalistic practices. The use of Internet opens the possibility of creating a form of horizontal journalism, by offering a greater number of sources, and granting power to the social agents implicate in the informative dynamics.

However, journalists are hardly aware of the potential of Internet in their jobs. A sign of it is that only 7% of those polled by the CEIA choose Internet as the main communication route to be promoted for supply of environmental information. The majority continues to think that efforts should be directed towards increasing the number of environmental articles in general press (29%), the number of discussions with experts in audio-visual media, television or radio (20%), or the number of specialised programmes (19%). The results of this study are reflected in Figure 10.

FIGURE 10 Which type of media should be promoted as the main communication route for environmental information?

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In contrast to these data, statistics performed by the European Environment Agency (EEA) on the routes chosen for information requests by European actors put the Internet in first place. Of the total number of environmental information requests received by the European Environment Agency between May and August 1998, 32% were through the Internet, 27% by telephone, 19% by means of a letter, and 15% by fax. Only 6% of the requests were as the result of a visit, and 2% were forwarded. (Figure 11).

FIGURE 11: Routes of information request to the EEA between May-August 1998

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Between May-August 1998 the European Environment Agency received requests of information on environmental topics from several different groups – mostly politicians, followed by companies, researchers and academic groups. Only 4% of the requests were from journalists. (See Figure 12).

FIGURE 12: A breakdown of EEA’s clients between May-August 1998

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Most information requests to the European Environment Agency received between May and August 1998 came from Denmark, country of location of the EEA headquarters, followed by Great Britain, with 16% of the requests, and Germany, with 13%, in the third place. Belgium (10%), France (7%) and Spain (6%) were also among the most active countries in terms of requesting environmental information. The results are reflected in Figure 13.

FIGURE 13: Origin of requests received by the EEA between May-August 1998
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When asking environmental communicators about the main difficulties they encounter when treating environmental information, most of them agree on both the lack of space to publish and the lack of specialised training for journalists. Few of them report the lack of citizen’s knowledge or interest or the existence of political or economic pressures as difficulties for environmental journalism. (Figure 14).

FIGURE 14: Main difficulties for environmental journalism
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Finally the survey, performed among environmental communicators in Europe, showed some of the perceptions of journalists on the characteristics of quality environmental information and that there are many differences in their views. (Figure 15).

FIGURE 15: The characteristics of quality environmental information.

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There is also a general perception among those polled by the CEIA that environmental information is mainly published in the national media (46%) (Figure16) while the same percentage believe that environmental information should be published mainly at local level (Figure17).

FIGURE 16: Who are the main publishers of environmental information?

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FIGURE 17: Who should be the main publishers of environmental information?

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