We all know several things impact the news we see. As Croteau and Hoynes put it, “The media doesn’t tell us what to think, it tells us what to think about.” (1) Gaining media coverage is something activists work hard for. We face ridicule and apathy, especially when it comes to direct action. While direct action takes many forms, it’s usually the “extreme” actions that get the most coverage—and sometimes marginalize the group.
The good news is, locally, coverage goes up for things like petitions, legislative passages, and so forth. Local papers are more apt to publish the letters to the editors and community interest pieces. Other media sources such as EcoWatch deliver the message that most environmental organizations would love to see as part of the mainstream debate, but rarely does it happen.
Most of the television coverage is a watered-down version of activist statements and the frame that shapes the dialogue leaves out key elements of the actual debate. Public broadcasting is more apt to provide a better analysis of the debate, however a lot of mainstream networks do not begin to give it the full scope the issue usually demands.
Six corporations control 90% of the media in America. In 1983, 50 companies comprised 90% of the media. Are we still wondering why coverage is difficult? The main companies controlling the media: GE (NBC), News-Corp (FOX), Disney (ABC), Viacom, Time Warner (CNN), and CBS.
GE – which is the parent company of NBC – manufactures production equipment for the oil and gas industry, have pioneered gasification (the means of converting low-value fuels and residuals into a synthesis gas), “clean” coal technology, offer transportation solutions for coal and other energy markets, and in their own words: “GE is committed to fueling the future by strategically serving the energy market.” You could say there is a silver lining as they are also getting into renewable sources; unfortunately for now the non-renewables are more profitable.
News-Corp, the media conglomerate owned Ruport Murdoch, frequently perpetuates misleading and inaccurate information, particularly in regards to climate and environmental issues. Their subsidiary Fox News – which often hosts climate “skeptics” – was once described by Keven Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, as a “constant stream of misinformation”. A recent example was the statement of meteorologist Joe Bastardi, a frequent guest on the channel, that carbon dioxide “literally cannot cause global warming.” News-Corp is also the parent company of the Wall Street Journal who have a history of spinning the facts to downplay fracking risks.
Time Warner is the parent company of the news network CNN. A yearlong study by Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) of the CNN’s show “Reliable Sources” found that the show used “reliably narrow sources”. The study found that the shows strongly favored guest appearances by media insiders and right leaning pundits. Women, ethnic minorities, and guests with progressive views were underrepresented.
When sources and guests are selected from a largely homogenous group of insiders it is more difficult for opposing views to make it into the mainstream. This problem is seen on other major news networks in addition to CNN. A 2001 study by FAIR of guest appearances on ABC World News Tonight (Disney), CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News (GE) found similar patterns as those seen on CNN. They found that out of all U.S. sources interviewed 92% were white, 85% were men, and where party affiliation was identifiable, 75% were Republican.
Another major problem that we often see in mass media coverage of environmental issues is something called ‘false balance’. This is a phenomena in which reporters misapply the journalistic norm of “balanced reporting” to give disproportionate representation to fringe scientists or those with less credibility. This is most striking on the issue of climate change in which skeptics are often given equal representation despite their views being an anomaly on issues for which climate scientists are overall in widespread agreement. This creates a false illusion that gives the appearance that there is more debate among climate scientists than what actually exists. A study examining climate change coverage from 1995 through 2004 for on CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News (GE), and CNN’s WorldView found that false balance on climate change remained abundant.
Finally, when we look at the implications of monopolization and potential for bias in mass media, it’s crucial to consider something called “corporate interlocks” (also known as “interlocking directorate”). This refers to the common practice in which members of a corporate board of directors serve on the boards of multiple corporations creating linkages among those corporations. Interlocking directorates creates social cohesion among corporations, which allows for coordinated action and greater socio-political power and influence of corporate executives.
As of 2005 approximately 118 people sat on the boards of directors of the 10 largest media corporations. In turn, those 118 individuals were on the corporate boards of 288 national and international corporations. Furthermore, 8 out of these 10 media giants shared common memberships on each other’s boards of directors.
“This integration occurs at the very pinnacle of corporate power. For instance, board members of ABC/Disney, NBC/GE, CBS/Viacom, CNN/TimeWarner, Fox/News Corp., New York Times Co., Washington Post/Newsweek, Wall Street Journal/Dow Jones, Tribune Co., Gannett and Knight-Ridder also sit on the boards of 13 of the Fortune 500’s 25 most profitable companies and probably have indirect connections to the other 12. This linkage forms a huge matrix of interlocking corporations and monopolies, usually with banks at the center, that control the U.S. and to a large extent the world economy.” - Workers World
There isn’t space here to list and analyze every potentially problematic interlock here but we do want to list a few of them to give you an idea of how this could introduce bias.
“Ideally, a media system suitable for a democracy ought to provide its readers with some coherent sense of the broader social forces that affect the conditions of their everyday lives… The overwhelming conclusion is that the media generally operate in ways that promote apathy, cynicism, and quiescence, rather than active citizenship and participation. Furthermore, all the trends seem to be in the wrong direction—toward more and more messages, from fewer and bigger producers, saying less and less.” – Media Images and the Social Construction of Reality (pdf)
The larger the audience, the more apt news is to cover a particular topic or interest. Following through to read a news story about the environmental topic of your choice shows the website that people want to read and learn more about this topic. For example, if you are on Facebook and see a friend share an article.. Don’t just like it and review the summary your friend provided: click the link and read through the page. How much traffic articles on a given topic generate plays a role in how much future coverage media outlets devote to that topic.
Fracking has gained media traction and this is largely due to how it has grown to be a topic of interest among those viewing the news. This has happened over the years due to grassroots pressure to get it as a media interest point, the help of documentary persons such as Josh Fox (Gasland and Gasland II) and the growing “star” interests from Mike Ruffalo, Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon, Susan Sarandon, and a film with Matt Damon, “Promised Land”. Of course this is not all the celebrity interests, nor is Gasland the only documentary available. These are just some of the popularity points.
While we can’t make people care about a topic, we can help them think about it and it can grow to be part of a dialogue. When legislators take action against an industry it further validates the concerns of citizens. New Jersey and Vermont banning fracking, mass citizen action such as recently in Massachusetts where 11,000 submit a petition to ban fracking, the moratorium in New York, etc.
However, as activists know all to well, there’s still the federal government that is a lot harder to work on. While President Obama has created a plan to combat climate change – fracking was not part of his discussion. The hope is that with more people informed about the subject, they’re more likely to act…. And we don’t have all day.
As much as following news stories helps, you have to create “news worthy” stories. Unfortunately for activists, sometimes these stories can be met with ridicule as discussed above. The general population thinks its ridiculous to chain ones self to a piece of machinery or block an entrance to a construction zone. Regardless of this common perception (and we can’t stress this enough): It’s necessary. We should absolutely engage in civil disobedience when it is appropriate and necessary and we shouldn’t let the possibility of bad press deter us from that. The key is that, if given the chance, you explain why you took the action you did and why it was both appropriate and necessary to engage in civil disobedience.
There’s also the ever-popular Letter to the Editor. These are helpful because it gives you a chance to critique a story the news wrote about, or ask why an absence of coverage is present on an issue and why people should need to learn more about it.
Blogs and social media are excellent tools to start generating popularity over a subject. Share posts of pages that are putting together information about your causes (if you don’t already). Some of your friends may not like it and may not say anything—and some may fight you on it… But the reality is: they’re getting the information (or blocking you).
When you see news coverage that doesn’t tell the full-story: comment. For more on this, check out a previous tip here.
Here are some additional tips for citizen based media:
Unlike a letter to the editor (discussed below), you don’t have to worry about being short and concise. You can send your readers to other resources, which helps validate the things you are saying. You can also touch multiple angles of a topic. It’s important to keep your readers attention though, so the blog should flow (at least somewhat).
You also want to be sure to categorize and tag your blog. For example this blog is filed under the category “Tips”. This way our readers know to click the “tips” category and can then see multiple blogs from our “Tips” segment.
Tagging also helps to inform the reader about the key topic points of the blog and is good for search engines. When users click a tag they’re transferred to all blogs related to that tag, much like categories.
Most papers have word limits. It’s important to adhere to these otherwise your letter may not make the cut or take longer than anticipated because you will have edit what you wrote about.
Focus on one key element of the topic. If you try to put too much information in one short piece it gets confusing for the reader. Highlight the main points, the key elements, and make sure you double-check your facts.
The monopolization of media presents everyday concerned citizens with problems. That is, unless, big industry secretly backs your organization and helps you generate press coverage with your limitless funds under the guise of grassroots organizing. The best we can do is continue to raise awareness and struggle to gain media attention to inform others.
The single, most simple thing you can do as a consumer, as a member of the general audience to which the news casts: click on the links when you “like” activism shares on social media, read the articles, watch the news stories, and leave comments. Show that (insert issue here) is a matter of public interest. You can also educate others by sharing these news sources (yes, especially the grassroots ones) with your social networks. The more these companies see traffic flooding to their websites and comments beneath the story, the more they will cover that issue.
Also, provide feedback! Call out the companies that are blatantly altering the debate to fit their narrative—that is, the corporate narrative. It’s not a magic solution, and its not say that it will prove to be extremely effective: but if we all start doing more things in little ways and big to take back the media, maybe we’ll get a further.
“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.” –Helen Keller
(1) Media and Society, 2010, Crouteau & Hoynes