Our Environment And The News Ecosystem

Last Wednesday the Globe and Mail reported that Canada's conservative government is planning to gut the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act by sneaking changes into an unrelated budget implementation bill that would effectively narrow the scope of environmental assessments and give the Environment Minister the power to determine the scope of any assessment.

The changes are a direct attempt to sidestep a recent Supreme Court ruling that found that the Federal government failed to take into consideration the full impacts of a proposed mine that would have dammed creeks in British Columbia's Sacred Headwaters for the purpose of creating an artificial lake to store mine waste in. Yes, you read that correctly, store mine waste in a lake.

The changes are effectively a poison pill that the Conservatives know the opposition parties will swallow to avoid an election.

According to John Bennett of the Sierra Club, the changes represent, "...a big step backward about 20 years...What they’re trying to do is take away the big picture.” By "big picture" Bennett means the ability of the Canadian government to observe the total environmental impacts of a proposed industrial project (e.g. the mine itself, as well as the ecological damage caused by storing mine waste in a nearby lake). The Conservatives prefer a fragmented, myopic approach to environmental assessment - see no evil, hear no evil - one that pushes projects through faster, and in the absence of public hearings and review, more quietly and unopposed. It's a cynical political bet that Canadians don't care about or understand what's at stake (the ability to conduct credible environmental assessments), or that they won't find out about the changes, at least not in significant enough numbers to constitute a political threat.

Our Fragmenting "Big Picture"

I was discouraged when I read this story. Not only are the changes short-sighted and reckless, but the fact that the government was willing to make them in the first place means that they weren't worried about a media backlash or sustained reporting of the issue. The good news (before I get to more bad), is that the Conservatives still felt the need to hide the changes from the public in a non-related budget bill - they know Canadians wouldn't support a transparent effort to make the changes. Apparently Harper isn't putting much stock in Preston Manning's poll-based push to green the Conservative party.

Okay, so there's hope, but I'm still concerned. With traditional media ad revenues and subscriptions tanking, and the quality and depth of reporting suffering (far fewer full-time journalists, let alone environmental reporters), as well as audiences fragmenting, at least in the short-term it's going to get easier for governments to hide poor governance. Studies show that fragmented audiences are correlated with decreased accountability on the part of politicians. This trend can carry over into accountability on environmental issues, and right now, I don't think the environmental movement fully understands what this change means for traditional media advocacy efforts.

But What About Social Media?

Don't they count for something? They do, but primarily (at least in their current use) as very efficient news distribution and warning systems (a good thing, but not a substitute for original reporting). As a recent Pew Research Center report finds, the news ecosystem is still dependent on traditional media to find and break stories. The report is based on a recent study of Baltimore, but it's not difficult to imagine the results being similar in other North American cities.

Highlights from the study include (with some edits for brevity):

- Among six major news threads studied in depth—which included stories about budgets, crime, a plan involving transit buses, and the sale of a local theater—fully 83% of stories were essentially repetitive, conveying no new information. Of the 17% that did contain new information, nearly all came from traditional media either in their legacy platforms or in new digital ones.

- Over a one week period, general interest newspapers produced half of the stories—48%—and another print medium, specialty newspapers focused on business and law, produced another 13%.

- As the press scales back on original reporting and dissemination, reproducing other people’s work becomes a bigger part of the news media system. Government, at least in this study, initiates most of the news. In the detailed examination of six major storylines, 63% of the stories were initiated by government officials, led first of all by the police. Another 14% came from the press. Interest group figures made up most of the rest.

Based on this study and the decline of traditional media, in my run-on sentence nightmare as an environmental communicator, I worry that we are rapidly moving towards a news ecosystem that functions largely as an echo chamber, bereft of original reporting, with niche audiences roaming in small groups, never fully aware of larger overarching environmental issues, with what little overarching news input does make its way into the system largely being created by government and special interest groups. You could say that's already where we are, it's already where we've been, and to be clear I'm not saying the "old ways" are better. I'm excited about the opportunities the changing media landscape affords, but I'm worried about corralling enough eyeballs and their associated hearts and minds to actually hold governments accountable and to ensure that they make responsible environmental decisions.

What follows is just a small taste (and I'll offer more in future postings) of what I think needs to start happening if we're going to get those eyeballs.

Be The Media

That's what I think various advocacy groups, especially environmental organizations, need to do. We need to be the media. Environmental groups have always been early adopters of new media technology, and have often used it to great effect. Environmentalists are also great producers of original content in the form of reports and studies - research that captures and clarifies environmental issues and debates, ideally translating them into public findings and conversations that traditional media can report on - but we need to do more.

Groups need to make a bigger effort to grow their respective audiences and talking heads and videos of beautiful but remote and distant wilderness won't cut it. We need to produce compelling content that's not just about big "W" wilderness. Some of the most popular videos environmental groups produce employ consumer frames, e.g. how to make cleaning products and cosmetics at home, environmental values can be communicated as part of an attractive lifestyle.

Tap your talent and let others "save the world" - Environmental groups are often so busy "saving the world" that they ignore perfectly good offers of pro bono work, including content production from very talented people. Environmentalism naturally attracts complimentary professions and interested individuals like filmmakers, musicians, artists and more...often the need to tell an institutionalized environmental message closes the door to meaningful collaboration. It shouldn't. It's time to relinquish control, blow up the bottleneck, and evolve or die. If someone wants to help tell your story, LET THEM.

Hire journalists (and stand-up comedians) - It shouldn't be hard to find very talented and very unemployed journalists these days. Environmental groups need better story tellers, people who can interface with scientists and campaigners to write compelling stories that are sticky enough to be picked up and distributed by social and traditional media. These stories need to be written in language other than traditional "ecospeak" less talking heads and moral imperatives. The content needs to get better (entertaining) and journalists can help do that. Also, enough with the shitty video quality and cheesy green screen effects...technology is cheap, shut up and make good looking video.

Build a news network - Traditional media advocacy needs to be turned on its head. Compelling content, especially FREE compelling content is in demand these days...the internet is insatiable. We'll always need to pitch stories, but people also want our stories...we are content creators and we need to become content providers, forming partnerships with a network of websites, bloggers and a mix of traditional outlets is ideal. The David Suzuki Foundation does a good job of this with efforts like its Science Matters column


That's chapter one of what was supposed to be a quick blog post. More soon.