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November 25, 2008

Week 10

CH 10 Communication and Social Change

Throughout the semester, much of our analysis of media has focused on the dominant institutions that control, power and produce most of what we see, hear and read. It is often difficult to challenge the status quo and put new ideas into circulation without really establishing a large supportive network and gaining credibility. Event then the dominant social paradigms will do whatever is in their power to keep things the way they are. As far as communicating nature goes, there are a number of contrasting features between the dominant social paradigm and the environmental paradigm. I will outline a few below:
Dominant: emphasizes human dominion over nature (anthropocentric), environment is a resource that funds progress, humans are the dominant species, only humans have rights, things have value according to standards set by humans, individuals act in their own best interest, more conservative politically.
Environmental: emphasizes humans as interdependent part of nature, sustainability and conservation are preferred, humans are merely one species among many, all entities that act with purpose have rights, diversity and harmony are valued, individual behavior contributes to collective good, more liberal politically.
It is clear that where humans want to live and play and work are the primary considerations for how land and resources are used and with this dominant paradigm in control it is difficult to imagine what the environmental paradigm might even look like and what kinds of change are needed to bring it about. While a democratic society is concerned with meeting the needs of its citizens, there is a “strong upper-class accent� and it is “more responsive to powerful upper-class interests and less likely to heed the call for change when it comes from outside its own class� (Corbett, 285). Within this dominant institution lies the media, which exerts a tremendous social control pressure.
Environmental change begins at the grassroots level, with activists working on issues of “environmental justice.� As groups strive to gain more members and power to gain success they must be weary, however, of the double-edged sword. Success can “initiate a maturation that makes the group appear less firmly outside the social institutions from which it seeks to change� (289). In other words, as a group becomes more formal and tries to represent the views of all of its members, it may shift to “tamer� action that resembles the operation of the surrounding social institutions.
The internal structure of environmental groups both formal and informal greatly affects communication choices. Many hire PR representatives and initiate contact with the media daily and some have even issued video news releases. Many national groups use their websites to speak to members and encourage their action through phone calls, letters, and increasingly by e-mail. The Internet has provided a medium by which people all over the nation can quickly get into contact and organize for a cause. Examples of this include the organization Greenpeace and its website which allows people to click on the words “act now� and then choose from several issues. The links lead you to a letter that’s already written that you are free to edit and then send. (http://members.greenpeace.org/action/)
Research has shown that the most effective communication is that which discusses how environmental topics will produce losses for the current generation since it might appeal more to self-interest and is therefore more important to individuals. Another way of getting people to take action is through guilt appeals, but in the long run this could actually lose its appeal as people become desensitized to being called guilty and feeling that they have no way to dig themselves out of their role. People are most responsive to guilt that provides an outlet and simple solution to make a difference. News coverage is also vital to the mobilization of new members and overall public opinion. “The public’s perception of a movement’s intensity of action may reflect media coverage rather than the actual memberships strength of the scope and intensity of grievances� (297). It is also extremely difficult in contemporary society to spread social movement without gaining access to the mass media. In essence, “the medium becomes to movement� because media coverage pursed by a group shapes its leadership, goals, and success. Again, this can have a moderating and conservative effect on what is produced by groups as they redefine their issues to make them more acceptable for the larger public. There are three possible outcomes for a movement and the groups within it: total failure (achieving no social change), total success (enacting a new ideology and practice), or partial success (which occurs most often).
The ironic thing is that the more successful a social change movement, the more likely that the movement ideals and language will be co-opted. This is what has occurred with green communication and the corporate world. The American public has become more accepting of “the most basic premise of environmental protection�, but the very meaning of environmentalism and environmentalists has been diluted. The percentage of citizens expressing support for the environment is phenomenally high, and in a way people are just jumping on the bandwagon. Corporations realize this and are trying to take advantage of the money and power that can be earned from associating one’s organization or products with a green image. Hopefully in the future the movement will be able to gain control of the crucial underlying problems and promote real change.

November 21, 2008

Week 9

CH 9 “Battle for Spin: The Public Relations Industry�

When PR emerged in the 1920s it was not seen as a “bad� image like it is often associated with today. Like we discussed in class, it is now often thought of as something that is slimy and manipulative, slick or good for an organization in a selfish way. This might be a gross oversimplification, but the question is how far and to whose benefit the push of PR can go to result in honest communication and not manipulation and dishonesty. It is clear that most corporations today are striving to outshine the rest by promoting a green image and telling the world what they do to be environmentally friendly. It is easy to find information all over the media containing environmental policy statements by such companies, but the “majority of companies voluntarily publishing a statement do not commit to most of the specific policies� (Corbett, 252). Some argue that the status granted to corporations has turned them into the worst kind of citizen, claming the rights but not the responsibilities of citizenship. From what we saw in the video “The Corporation� in class, this seemed to be the take home message as well. Corbett makes reference to the film saying that it shows how companies are made to appear “indispensable, responsible for progress and the good life, and as the most efficient from of business� Now that corporations have the legal status of a natural person, it is difficult to draw the line between what they can and cannot do.
A lot of this chapter reviewed the historical context of the PR industry as we had read in many of the articles – discussing the first PR man P.T. Barnum and Edward Bernays. What I learned that was new from this chapter was the use of “greenwashing� or the “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsibly public image� (Oxford English Dictionary). Basically, messages crafted by PR are what make an organization look eco-friendly, but it is not always easy to discern whether it is true or not. The messages subject to greenwashing are mainly those that come from the organization – anything from websites to brochures to advertisements. Recent environmental image ads can be seen by a wide range of companies including the following: GM, Mobil, Georgia-Pacific, Chrysler, Mitsubishi, and Dow Chemical. A leading PR figure in all of this is E. Bruce Harrison, who published a book Going Green: How to Communicate Your Company’s Environmental Commitment in 1993. According to the book he concludes that the key is communication, not action – this definitely leads me to believe that it is important to have a critical eye of what kind of statements you hear in media, particularly regarding environmentalism.
One example that I thought worthy of paying more attention to is the advertising for BP. I know I’ve seen a lot of advertising for what was once called British Petroleum in recent years. In 2000, the company began a $200 million “rebranding� campaign, replacing its traditional logo with the green and yellow sunburst that is so prevalent today. Its name was shortened to BP and dubbed “Beyond Petroleum� and has centered its campaign around “putting some sun into your life� by installing solar panels in 200 gas stations around the world. This has all been in its effort to reach the environmentally friendly customer and has also promoted many other changes like deep water drilling technology, pipeline construction, and reducing its carbon footprint. What consumers don’t know is that despite all of this, it spends “ten thousand more on oil exploration and development� than it does for “every sixteen dollars� spend on solar energy. It should not come as a shock that many, if not most, other major corporations follow a similar pattern.
Sometimes it is difficult to imagine that this is true or come to accept it, especially after wanted to believe that most companies really do care. On the other hand, it is more important to come to the realization that perhaps federal regulations need to be put into place to restrict this kind of greenwash advertising. While there is nothing implicitly wrong with PR or its strategies and tactics, there have been examples of unethical practices in all sectors of advertising. Even the words Amy Goodman come to mind when I read this quote from the chapter, “With a fair and engaged discussion of all the viewpoints, we would logically and eventually arrive at good solutions� (278). Her points were critical of the way media is portrayed in war, but I think her main message was that we never see the other side of that portrayal and that is a major reason citizens lack the knowledge of what else is going on in war. What’s most important is that both sides are represented fairly and accurately in our free marketplace of ideas so that people can exchange information for everyone’s benefit. Greenwashing undermines a democratic process and having an informed public.

November 14, 2008

Week 8

CH 8 “News Media�

This chapter began to tie together many of the themes I’ve learned in class about news media organization and production. It was interesting to read this with a little bit of background knowledge about what kind of power news organizations have in the production process. Specifically, this chapter covered how environmental news gets published or aired and how its importance has fluctuated over the past few decades depending on the importance of other events going on at the time. For example, beat reporting on environmental issues became popular in the 1970s. In 1989 when the Exxon Valdex oil spill occurred in Alaska, “total news coverage of the environment by the three major TV networks reached an all-time high of 774 combined minutes� (220). After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the media diverted its attention from the environment to a host of other issues.
Since the rise of public relations in the 1920s, journalists have counted on obtaining news from self-serving publicity materials. Why? It saves media time and money. For the majority of journalists, there is not enough funding by their employers to go out and do the research themselves while gathering news. Also from the clip we watched in class, Corbett points to the production of VNR or video news releases complete with audio and visual. These free videos (sent on tapes or downloaded by TV stations for free from satellite feeds) greatly decrease the cost of producing TV newscasts. The Columbia Journalism Review found, “75% of TV news directors used at least one VNR B-roll (video footage and sounds without narration per week� (222). Each station can then add its own voice-over narration (often from a script accompanying the VNR) onto the B-roll video. This makes it basically impossible to detect it as externally produced. Stations do resist crediting this material on-air for obvious reasons, but it is clear that although journalists make the ultimate decisions of which news tips to act up and which to ignore, they are still subject to the newsworthy information presented to them by outside sources.
Another way the media choose news is by considering dominant cultural values such as existing power and class arrangements. Examples include newspapers omitting news seen as adverse to the commercial sector – such as advertisers. Also there is a lack of news that is offense to “the values of families, religion, community, patriotism and business� (223). Just like television shows avoid downtrodden topics and portray middle to middle-upper class families without a concern for monetary issues, news in print form sometimes does the same thing.
Walter Lippmann once described media attention as “a restless spotlight,� due to its tendency to focus the glare intensely on a subject, but just as quickly to move on to another topic it finds more “sexy.� Interestingly, since environmental issues are often continuous and constant, “the media’s short attention span contributes to its on-again off-again coverage of long-term environmental issues (224). Since environmental issues are often highly scientific and technical, journalists are even more susceptible to influence when they lack the expertise to fully understand concepts such as global climate change. Some scholars have found media coverage of the environment to be “a science-oriented discourse, dominated by scientific and government officials� (224). The point is that readers are unable to evaluate where the balance of evidence lies when there is no space for dissenters and a scientific debate is promoted when there really is not one.
The dominance of social problems depend on the ideological questions determined by the political power structure, which is contrary to the conventional “watchdog� model of the media that we discussed in class.

November 7, 2008

Week 7

CH 7 "Communicating the Meaning of Animals�

How do we come to equate specific animals with certain places, businesses, sports and an endless number of activities within the consumer sphere. Corbett presents the fun challenge of filling in the blanks for:
Sly as ____
Eyes like an _____
An eager _____
Wiley ______
Stubborn as a ________
I was quickly able to fill these in with fox, eagle, beaver, coyote and mule and I’m sure most people would be able to do the same because of pop culture influences. Corbett points out that it’s impossible to divorce pop culture messages from our preconceived notions of what animals are like, especially if we don’t have sufficient personal experience and knowledge to bring to the table (178). We expect lions at the zoo to act more like “kings of the jungle� rather than the lethargic beast dozing in its cage like we usually see. There are also many animal representations we relate to although we’ve never seen the animal in its native wild habitat.
Animals that serve as symbolic messengers for human values and animal characters are rampant in what we see in media. Why? Animals are the most tangible element of the larger environment and environmental issues. It makes sense that we tend to identify most closely with the living, breathing components of the natural world. Animals are concrete, picturable, and evoking of emotion. It’s easier to relate to the climate changes of the Artic when the lives of polar bears living there are considered. According to professor Stephen Kellert, who has studied perceptions of animals for decades, “animals may represent a metaphorical device for people to express basic perceptions and feelings about the nonhuman world� (181). Animals can be used as a living symbol of possession of an environment and when we think of an animal we may think of its habitat – thus leading our minds to consider environmental preservation.
How did some animals, like the wolf, come to receive a bad connotation? Wolves have been described as evil, murderers, criminals, beasts etc., and mainly because according to human standards they do something that we do just as well: kill prey. Interestingly this isn’t the same attitude held by Native Americans and Eskimos who “didn’t mind sharing game and who attributed the wolf with many positive qualities, such as intelligence, boldness, and skill� (184). For white settlers it has become encoded in our brains to have this anthropocentric view, which is actually positively correlated to having a negative attitude toward carnivores. Conversely, ecocentrism has a positive attitude toward carnivores.
In advertising, everything we admire about animals is available to exploit and capitalize upon. Examples like the grace of a bird and the agility of a tiger or the aesthetics of a zebra are all used to sell us products. We don’t even need experience with any of these animals to know what a certain product is supposed to provide. “Animals can signify many things: family roles, wildness, unpredictability, power, sexiness. They can signify relationships, attributes or both� (207). According to advertising researchers, we like to believe that animals, especially mammals, have families similar to human families. We like to see when animal parents are good providers but are also capable of tenderness or playfulness. Studies have also found that women and men respond differently to animal images in ads. Women respond most positively to ads where animals represent nurturing relations and identify less when animals are used to express product attributes. Men like when animals embody desirable product attributes like power, speed and strength. This reminds me of an ad for horsepower wherein there are horses bursting out of a barn all lit afire to tell the audience that the car is incredibly powerful and you can have this too by buying the car and the horsepower fluid.
So it is evident that nothing speaks to us of the natural world as animals do. They represent the “antithesis of technological culture� (212). We cannot entirely remove animals from their pop culture communication or from historical feelings. We use entire species as representations for human values and emotions. We do stereotype and generalize and we have preferences for animals most like us. The only time we really hear about animals in the news is when there is conflict over them or when they trespass beyond what we consider their habitat and into what we consider ours. It is important to remember that we share a common environment with animals and it is subject to the effects of degradation that depends on our actions as well as the feelings we communicate about them.