What affects whether environmental groups get into the news?

Alison Anderson's picture

Francis Lee (Chinese University of Hong Kong), author of ‘Economic Conditions, the Policy Cycle, and Media Visibility of Environmental Organizations’ provides a timely analysis of the factors that affect media visibility of environmental groups in his latest article published in Environmental Communication

Visibility in the news media is a scarce resource for social movement organizations, including those working on environmental issues. While movement organizations can theoretically bypass the news media and communicate with their supporters and the general public via the Internet in the digital age, in reality appearance in the news media is still significant for a number of reasons: not everyone uses the Internet to access social and public affairs information; the citizens that social organizations are capable of reaching via digital media are more often than not those who are already interested and concerned, the mainstream media are a more promising channel if environmental groups want to preach beyond the choir; and people still look toward the mainstream media for signals about what deserves their attention, etc. Most fundamentally, digital media platforms and legacy media institutions form an integrated communication environment. Hot topics in the online world rarely escape the mainstream media’s attention, while important issues covered in the news are often fervently debated in the digital arena. Hence the extent to which a certain group or issue appears in the news can still to a large extent signify the amount of public attention it can get. 

What then explains the extent to which environment movement organizations (EMOs) appear in the news? In my  recent article published in Environmental Communication, I examine whether and how three factors – economic condition, policy cycle, and total number of environmental movement organizations in society – shape media visibility of EMOs in Hong Kong. Analyzing a data set based on archival materials and official statistics, the article shows that, in the period from 2001 to 2012, the amount of newspaper coverage of environmental issues and number of news articles mentioning EMOs are both negatively related to the unemployment rate. That is, the news media tended to pay less attention to environmental issues and organizations when there was a challenging economy At the same time, coverage of environmental issues and EMOs rose in the months when the Hong Kong government announced its annual policy address and governmental budget. Meanwhile, coverage of environmental issues and EMOs also increased as the total number of EMOs in the city grewover the years (this latter relationship is statistically significant in a regression model controlling for a linear “time” variable, thus suggesting that it is not merely a matter of the news media paying more attention to environmental issues over time; the total number of EMOs in the city does matter). Besides, the relationships among the variables are largely persistent no matter whether one focuses on the more elite-oriented, professional newspapers or the mass-oriented, more tabloid-like papers.

These findings are probably not surprising since  environmental issues are often pitted against economic development. For instance, in Hong Kong, the debate surrounding whether the government should build a third runway at the Chek Lap Kok Airport is mainly a contest between those who argue for the economic value of airport expansion and those who argue for the need to protect the environment, and especially the endangered species of the white dolphin, whose natural habitat is very close to the airport area. When the economy is in decline the media and the public may shift their attention and emphasis toward bread-and-butter matters. The relationship between major policy announcements and media visibility of EMOs reside in the basic fact that the major policy announcements provided opportunities for EMOs to respond on environmental matters, whereas the total number of EMOs in society signify both the amount of efforts put into promoting environment issues to the media, as well as the number of available “commentators” when the news media do want to find someone to respond on environmental matters.

The article also presents findings from interviews with EMO activists in Hong Kong to discern whether they are aware of and how they respond to the structural factors shaping their capability of gaining media access. Interestingly, activists’ perceptions of the three structural factors vary significantly. Activists are most aware of the implications of major policy announcements to their media visibility. In fact, many activists reported that they have specific strategies or even routines regarding how to seize the opportunities of major policy announcements in order to talk to the media. In this sense, a large part of the structural relationship between policy announcements and media visibility of environmental issues is actually brought into being by the perceptions and practices of environmental groups.

In contrast, few interviewed environmental activists thought that there was a connection between economic conditions and media’s interests in environmental matters. The only exception was one more experienced environmental group activist, who argued that, during challenging economic times, there might indeed be additional difficulties in talking to the news media about environmental policies that have substantial implications on public spending. But the activist also emphasized that environmental matters would not become irrelevant to the public regardless of economic conditions.

What is needed is an awareness of how to frame the issues at hand according to the general social and economic conditions of the time. In other words, the relationship between economic conditions and coverage of environmental issues and organizations existed largely without the awareness on the part of the environmental groups. One wonders whether a heightened awareness of the possible implications of economic conditions plus proper strategic responses could alleviate or even eliminate the negative implications of a challenging economy on media coverage of environmental matters.

Interestingly, while the quantitative analysis shows that the increased number of EMOs in Hong Kong was accompanied by higher levels of reportage of environmental issues as a whole, the activists, speaking from the perspectives of specific environmental groups, tended to see the growth of new EMOs as presenting a challenge rather than an opportunity. That is, more EMOs means more competition for media attention, and this competition compelled the activists to develop new and more effective media strategies. It is possible that these new and more effective media strategies have also helped EMOs as a whole to attract more and better media coverage.

In the past decade, social movement scholars have generally accepted the idea that the impact of structural factors on social movements is largely dependent on whether and how the structural factors are perceived. The article’s qualitative data present a picture in line with this general claim, while also pointing toward the complexities and varieties in how activists’ perceptions may relate to apparently structural relationships.

Francis L. F. Lee is Professor and Head of Graduate Division, School of Journalism and Communication, Chinese University of Hong Kong

Read more here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17524032.2014.983941