3. Lack of the current model

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3. DEFICIENCIES OF THE CURRENT MODEL OF INFORMATION EXCHANGE

3.1. Main characteristics of the traditional model

The results obtained and analysis performed in the preceding sections highlight some of the basic characteristics and deficiencies of the traditional model of environmental communication in Europe. These are summarised as follows:

1. Environmental information still represents a very small percentage of the total amount of information offered by the media. However, the problem does not solely lie in the lack of environmental information, but also on the need to channel it through appropriate means and systems, as it has been demonstrated through the analysis of the treatment of environmental issues by the written media.
2. Sources used by specialised journalism are largely institutional. The scientific community plays a secondary role, as well as do private sectors and Non Governmental Organisations.
3. Characteristic tools of precision journalism (multimedia tools and electronic networks) are hardly used by journalists who cover environmental information.
4. The usual journalistic routines and the criteria used for elaboration and production of specialised information in newspapers limit the practice of another kind of specialised journalism which would approach the complexity of environmental problems from an integrative and interactive way, and would take into consideration the views and participation of all the social groups involved in the news.
5. Most of the environmental information transmitted to society is through the written word although the audio-visual media are considered to have more impact on society. At the same time, though newspapers are considered the greater environmental information transmitters, they are also given less credibility in terms of quality of their information. However, studies and surveys demonstrate that they receive more credibility among citizens than they really deserve, given their insufficiencies and limitations. On the other hand, specialised magazines offer better and more credible environmental data.
6. Some of the important limitations of the current communication model are related to space and time limitations that separate the journalist from the news. These time and space limitations cause the information transmitted to be fragmented and partial, since journalists must interpret, in many occasions, the facts or data through other actors that were close to the news.
7. Information has to be plural, participatory and action-inductive. Sometimes this requires bringing the news at a local level. Currently, environmental information is mainly offered at national level.


3.2. Conditions affecting current environmental media products

Current mass media information on environmental issues is characterised by its partiality, sensationalism, and by the difficulty of transforming it into decisive knowledge and meaningful action. Difficulties in communicating environmental issues properly stem both from the content and format and the type of media used, as well as the complex and uncertain nature of this kind of information. In order to reach the public, media environmental messages need to be "competitive". Media compete for time, space, and financial resources as well as for audiences. The ability to gain competitive marginal differences will decide the inclusion of certain news into the mainstream media flow. Rigid formats of the present media also constrain adequate coverage of environmental information. The need for brevity, the lack of regular spaces or times, and the search for impact on the audiences reduce the scope of environmental mass information to a very small number of issues. In order to sustain interest and keep audiences large, environmental information needs to be presented in attractive, identifiable, and entertaining formats. Nevertheless, much of the present mass environmental information is about "bad news". Even in the case where it is about positive events, these tend to be presented against other negative processes that happened before or that are currently happening elsewhere. This poses important obstacles to current reporters, much pressured to present information as light entertainment whenever they want to reach large audiences.

In information theory, the quantity of "information" of a given event can be understood as an inverse function of its probability to occur. For instance, to explain that some common daily event will happen again tomorrow provides little information. Thus in any informational landscape, it is precisely the novelty or the strange which makes it become "news". By the same rule, once people already "know" that environmental degradation is occurring, explaining it "again" provides little information. It is only by showing new and different aspects of the process and its links to individual contexts of action that it can become noticeable. When the worsening of environmental quality becomes a usual event, then it loses its informative content.

Thus news must be new. However, most environmental problems are rarely new. As currently understood, environmental issues have been with us for some decades. Moreover, the activities that currently have a greater negative impact on the use of natural resources and the quality of the environment are vast social routines which are rarely sudden accidents or acute events. For the environmental discourse to attract audiences, reporters need to show novel facts or present them as if they were new. Spectacular, dramatic or unusual events tend to receive greater attention. Chronic or visibly negative processes like droughts or soil erosion problems can hardly be given a prominent place in the present media production formats. New voices, events, or anniversaries that can be contested, visualised, or become the source of conflict or public praise are needed to bring back the issue to the mainstream media scene. Slow and regular processes need to be dramatised or presented as controversial if they are to receive some media attention. The ordinary, daily, and unnoticeable character of current environmental problems means that their causes, consequences, and possible options for action are unlikely to be mass communicated.

News also follows "life cycles". They first appear on the mass scene, develop an interactive process of acceptance, redefinition between emitters and their audiences, and then die. Or at least they die until a different set of actors in a different scene can bring the issue back to life. Environmental information can hardly fit into this rhythm. The media then, encounter great difficulty in providing the necessary spatial and historical context that would allow us to understand the connections between the different communicated processes and events. Nevertheless, consecutive news cycles are not independent from each other. Increasing the number and frequency of news cycles on a particular topic might make it more likely that the issues communicated can be put into context more readily. Long periods of news exposure might eventually stimulate public awareness in certain destructive trends, and might constitute the previous necessary condition for an active attitude towards environmental issues. Indeed, many current advertisement strategies follow this principle of repetition. Advocacy groups, knowing the difficulties in carrying out durable long-term communication campaigns, tend to focus their claims on specific issues, to simplify their claims, and to select very visual or catching symbols or indicators that can easily appeal to individual emotions or to good will.

Therefore, time constraints affect both the "production" and "consumption" of mass environmental information. On the one hand, providers need time to investigate and validate their reports, and on the other, receivers need time to select and understand this kind of information. The lack of time usually leads journalists and reporters to use the most formal, standard and institutional sources of information, which characteristically also tend to be the most conservative. Therefore little social impact or feedback is expected: it is assumed that the sole function of environmental information is just 'to inform', not to stimulate participation or positive reactions from the receivers. Besides, people make sense of selected information by a multiple and relatively slow process of interaction that occurs between their own daily experiences and the social context in which this information appears.

Under present conditions, both the contents and formats of mass communication on environmental and sustainability issues makes it impossible for different audiences and publics to understand this information and even less to express their views on the subjects that should be most urgently communicated. Both the time spans of production and production of information can be reduced considerably with appropriate technological innovations. Technological innovation in the form of multimedia and Internet products can broaden journalists’ sources of information and access to them, shorten the time needed to prepare and provide context for the news, and stimulate participation of social actors in the news by reacting to it, expressing their opinions and even modifying its content in an interactive way.

Communicating environmental issues is not so much a question of communicating facts as it is about relations: dynamic relations between causes and consequences, between affected and responsible people and between the local and the global dimensions. However, most current environmental information and messages deal only with the final effects of environmental problems and not so much with their causes. Rarely does an environmental news report about the economic, political, social or even cultural origins of the environmental crisis. All this is not "news". Talking about the causes entails explicit interpretations that cannot so easily be presented as "facts". Because few references to the causes are given, little context is provided to understand or to identify oneself with the information provided. Environmental information is not only about "informing" about the environment. It deals with the knowledge, values and beliefs, social and individual options for change, as well as the uncertainties and complexities which are inextricably connected to taking different decisions and the benefits and costs of the preferred alternatives, including inaction. In order to reach different and large audiences, the media have to recourse to particular languages and cultural identities. But also, the media have to work in an interdependent set of economic and social conditions, which are unique in each context, where the communication act takes place.

3.3. Language and labels of environmental information

Media messages need to be devised so that they fit into existing communicative identities and resonate with pre-existing expectations, values and languages of the audiences. The ways information is labelled and presented set a prior interpretative grid that affects the eventual classification of information as "economic", "social" or "environmental" information. At present, much information which has an important environmental content comes "disguised" under different communicative frames which can distract the attention from anything generally understood as "the environment". For instance, production indicators and prices on main prime resources come under "economic information"; the construction of a new highway or the expansion of a harbour appear in the "transport" news; while urban pollution from private vehicles is under the label of "environment". In a similar fashion, environmental issues can be presented as related to a fragile "nature", that has an intrinsic value that needs to be appreciated, or else, as economic "resources" the exploitation of which is necessary for the well-being of society or for private enjoyment. A pristine tropical island can be shown as the most enviable destination for stressed urban dwellers or as the last refuge for an endangered species. All these opposing moral and cognitive frames can often be found together while reading the same newspaper or during a short time span of television or radio retransmission. The receiver needs to go through a process of frame selection - in which some frames are chosen and others eliminated - in order to make sense of the information and to relate it to his or her own expectations, values, or personal interests.

Inevitably, both the general public and the media tend to represent environmental issues in different ways than, for instance, scientists. The general public often group both different causes and effects of different environmental issues together and give particular logical relationships to them which do not coincide with the experts' ones, who at the same time also provide conflicting views. Moreover, complex information such as the probabilities of occurrence of disastrous events tends to be little understood. As such, the media usually have to simplify messages depending on the kind of issues communicated and the type of media employed. Reporters and sources concentrate on one representative or attractive indicator and show it in comparison to different contexts to improve the intelligibility of complex issues.

In this manner, language plays a decisive role in the content of environmental communication. The languages used by the sources very often differ from the languages of the audiences and, as such, media professionals need to adapt the terms of the former to incorporate catchy expressions and words which can be understood more easily by the latter. The labelling of processes and events as environmental issues, and the words used to convey importance of those issues, can amplify, disguise or even completely manipulate the content and the context of the information provided. The representation of the issue is mostly dependent on the specific use of words that can be finally identified by the audiences or readers as their own language.

But language can no longer be only a matter of words or expressions and their connotations or tones. Language has to be supported by other elements such as graphics, images, video and audio. Hyper-medial and hyper-textual languages allow journalists to simplify messages by linking them to broader pieces of information, and audio-visual elements accompanying texts bring the attractive and more intuitive component to a piece of news.

A new and different process of labelling and framing the environment needs to be developed in the form of new languages and innovative communication systems.


3.4. Sources, audiences and the media: the need for interactivity

The particular selection of the contents and sources and the effects of mass media environmental information on the audiences are the product of an array of social, economic, political and cultural conditions that are unique in each social context. Interests, values and beliefs are confronted in particular situations where economic forces, as much as culture, determine the final outcome of media interactions. There is no one-directional relationship between the media as "causal agent" and public as "affected entity". In fact, the actual use of both terms "media" and "public" are problematic, as many different types of media, publics and relationships exist in different contexts. The effects of the media on audiences are never linear but interdependent, as the media affect audiences and audiences affect the media. However, this relationship is not symmetrical, the public do not intervene actively in the production of mass communicated messages in an equal way to the media professionals. Audiences are generally only consumers of media products, not producers and, by the same effect, they rarely become users.

Different sources of environmental information have an unequal reception from the media, use different strategies to gain access to them, and are demanded in diverse ways and degrees by media professionals. Each one holds different, and sometimes antagonistic, commitments and interests and different moral and cognitive frames. Scientists tend to be included into news stories because of a widespread belief that they can provide independent judgements and objective knowledge; officials working in public agencies represent the existing legitimate use of power, and so they become authoritative - but contested - sources of information; voluntary environmental organisations also seek media coverage of their activities, even at the cost of their claims being oversimplified, overemphasised, or trivialised; and, sometimes, a voice representing "the public" or a witness view is also included to reinforce or counterbalance a message's argument. The importance of Non-Governmental Organisations as main sources of stories can be relatively low in comparison with other sources such as scientists and officials.

Dependence on scientific and official interpretations of environmental issues as sources is often intensified by the lack of sufficient training of the reporters to unveil and to communicate the uncertainties and assumptions that characterise the scientific or political process, their products, and their relationships. The extent to which a given social actor or group is seen as charismatic by the audience might also increase its likelihood of becoming a source of information, independently of whether it can provide verified or "objective" information. In this case, charismatic sources might serve more to transmit values, myths and beliefs than concrete information. In some environmental organisations, charisma might also be related to a perception of honesty, credibility, and to the audience's view that they are fighting for the common good. Thus, the relative importance each source holds in relation to the others and the way it is used by the media depends on a variety of factors and particularly, the degree these stories fit into the media formats, news discourses, targeted audiences, or market demands. Sources gain an implicit "right" to be on the air or in the news, not so much through the demands of the citizens but for their ability or power to get into the media channels as a legitimate or representative public interest or as a newsworthy story.

Research has found that audiences vary in the way they use the different media to obtain environmental information. Among other traits, differences appear in relation to levels of formal education, occupation, gender, and age as well as previous knowledge and experiences. The degree to which one of these constitutes the main discriminative factor depends on the particular social context in which the transmission of information is taking place. Nevertheless, the socio-economic status and the levels of education are usually the factors that most explain many of the contrasts between written or non-written media use. Increasing levels of education tend to augment the use of all kind of media, more use of written supports, and a diminution of the relative weight of certain types of media, such as television, as a main source of environmental information. Also, more educated people tend to have a different perception of what is the most believable medium in obtaining environmental information. Television and newspapers tend to be seen as less credible by those sectors with higher levels of education, although these media tend to be the most widely used by all kinds of audiences to find out about environmental issues. Yet there are differences in credibility among different sources of interpersonal communication and also among diverse forms of written communication. Conferences and lectures with experts and specialised books and magazines tend to score higher in reliability than organisational and peer encounters, popular press, and conversations with friends, family, and neighbours. Thus, many of the media most widely used as a source of environmental information tend at the same time to be considered as the least reliable and vice versa.

It is often argued that audiences exert influence upon the preferred types and format of mass communication. Statements assuring that the media produce what the "audience wants" are questionable, at least to the extent that in general, the public have few avenues to express their views -or a lot less than those available to corporate industries or administrative agencies. Audiences can rarely adopt an excessively active position to the information they receive. The decision to include, or not, a given story depends more on corporate media decisions and market pressures than on the voice of the audiences.

At present, many mass media companies incorporate web sites, electronic mail addresses and other interactive means of communication in which audiences can express their preferences on the content and form of the programmes offered. Some of these sites are visited by thousands of people every week who then give their view on a large variety of aspects. But even though the high impact of the digital versions of some media has been already proven and measured, media companies have not really made an effort of innovation or originality, and have only adapted the Internet to the one-linear model of traditional press or television, instead of using the new media to experiment. As such, experiences of electronic publications existing on telematic networks have several limitations. They do not represent a new model that fully develops a hyper-textual reality of knowledge. Although there are some interesting telematic communication experiences, they are lacking the characteristics and potentialities of social interaction in telematic networks.

3.5. Environmental contents offered to society

Some critical positions state that the current contents of environmental information tend to reinforce existing social, market and corporate relations instead of undermining them; that the role of environmental information should be to denounce the present assumptions and policies of economic growth and to propose alternative systems of production and political decision making. According to this view, political, social or economic threats posed by environmental questions have proven to be "manageable" by large corporations. In fact, threats have been converted into strengths and have reinforced the prevailing status quo. However, it can also be argued that it is precisely the more conservative character of current environmental information that explains the wider acceptance of the environmental message by corporations and middle class audiences. In this sense, the less threatening "global environmental change" discourse of the nineties has received a better acceptance by the media and political and economic corporations than the "limits to growth" debate of the seventies. The shift from the quantitative discourse of two decades ago to a more qualitative one seems to be more apt to explain environmental change and to locate individual and societal decisions in a way which is closer to the terms understood by the lay public. Environmental information has ceased being perceived as a threat to social order and growth. In fact, the result has been quite the opposite. Media environmental information has finally adopted a content and form that has frequently allowed the integration of certain demands of public interest groups as well as the expansion of economic markets and opportunities for products labelled as "environmentally friendly". All this has shown the limits to which environmental information can contradict the values and interests of economic forces.

The media constitute major definers in the contemporary construction of social problems. They can have an important effect on the public perception of environmental realities and eventually on these realities themselves. Under given conditions, the media can affect personal behaviour, although these effects are always context-dependent and multidirectional. The impact of the media on society can be more noticeable in the discovery of unknown realities, preferences, and possible courses of action, than in influencing the final selection of specific options. The media can induce social change to the extent that they show, to large sectors of the population, a novel set of possibilities for social action that could not otherwise be put forward. However, change can be brought about only when these new courses of social action are available in some way or another in the immediate context where individuals carry out their daily activities. The media do not provoke social change, but reveal to many people that certain social and personal options might be available. In so far as the boundaries of individual perceptions set the limits for social action, the discovery of new realities through the media might open the way for new actions.

But, by the same token, the media can also eliminate some options or show that some of them might not be worth taking. It is not only a question of amplification or reduction of realities. Some realities never appear in the media scenes. This is the case for instance, of minority political parties of many contemporary western democracies, which face great difficulties in getting access to the mass media. The political spectrum of options is reduced to a handful of voting alternatives, so the media reduction of political life has indeed real effects on political life. The media, by highlighting some preferences of social action, also excludes others, as it does with some opportunities for social change.

Undoubtedly, the media do influence environmental perceptions and actions. However, most pro-environmental actions precede media diffusion instead of following it. Unless new options are made available in the immediate contexts where individuals develop their activities, media tend to reinforce existing patterns and courses of action rather than being the origin of social change. The current mass environmental information is shaped partly by the demands and weak interaction with the public but, above all, by the constraints imposed upon the reporters by the corporations and institutional settings in which they work. Therefore, not only cultural values but also market forces determine the production, demand, and distribution of environmental information. All this whole process materialises in peculiar forms of co-operation, pressure, and conflict in which different sources, audiences, and media practitioners interact uniquely, depending on the convergence or opposition of interests, values and resources. Due to this, it is impossible to provide a universal account on what could help to improve mass media environmental information in all social contexts; any attempt in that direction must depart from this contextual reality.

3.6. The European context

During the last twelve years, the European Community has undertaken several actions specifically devoted to improving environmental information and education. These have included, among others, the Directive on Environmental Impact Assessment of 1985, the 1988 Resolution on Environmental Education, the CORINE programme of 1985-1991, the creation of the European Environmental Agency agreed in 1990, and the Directive on Freedom of Access to Environmental Information of 1990. Most of these actions have been mainly oriented towards specialised groups of producers and users of environmental information, being mass communication of environmental and sustainability issues at a second level.

Mass environmental communication linked to education was already present in the Fourth Environmental Action Programme, which explicitly stated that "widespread diffusion of information on the environment and on environmental problems, policies and programmes can powerfully support both the evolution and public acceptance of necessary environmental measures". Moreover, as Ralph E. Hallo indicates in relation to the Directive on Freedom of Access to Environmental Information "experience to date indicates that the quality of the environmental information made available can be disappointing and therefore of limited utility for public input in decision-making processes".

On February 1 1993, the Council and the Representatives of the Governments of the Member States of the European Community approved the Fifth Environmental Action Programme, mostly known as "Towards Sustainability". This programme differed in relation to the previous ones in that it attempted to set longer-term objectives under a more global approach and was based on the ideas of integration, subsidiarity and shared responsibility. The new strategy entails that decisions should be made as close to the citizens as possible and emphasises the importance of using horizontal support measures, such as better environmental data, public information and education, and professional training. However, the decisive role of mass communication was not made explicit. One could only read somewhat ambiguous statements and goals to be achieved before the year 2000. These were: a general improvement in the level of environmental information, carrying out information campaigns on selected specific issues, providing better information for consumers, and incorporating the environment into primary and secondary education syllabus. No reference to integrate the mass media in environmental educational strategies was made.

Nevertheless, the mass media have a decisive role in any policy oriented towards improving sustainability and environmental quality standards. In the European Union, environmental mass communication is constrained not only by conditions, which determine the production of media messages in general (as mentioned in the previous sections), but also by the existence of sharp national and regional differences. European media differ according to the different political cultures, the main media organisations and the degree of state intervention in the activities of the media corporations in the contexts in which they work. The few attempts to set out common European communication strategies face the resistance of national and regional communication corporate interests and the difficulty of communicating messages across a dense diversity of cultural traditions and languages. This plurality does not mean that common problems can not be dealt with in a relatively similar fashion in different contexts. On the contrary, the link between the diversity of contexts and the actions to be carried out needs to be found in the pursuit of a common European goal for the improvement of sustainability and environmental quality which is stated in the many official documents of the Union.

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