Environmental journalists undervalue eutrophication threat: thesis

12 November 2012

Eutrophication, i.e. the pollution of surface waters by nutrients originating – in the main – from wastewater effluents and agriculture, poses a major, if not the most significant threat, to global water resources.  The cause and effect relationship is not new – in fact it has been around for decades, steadily getting worse.  Very few countries are not affected.  Few countries have done much about the problem, at least not until it became intolerable.   Yet, strangely, the topic is anathema to most environmental journalists and informed media reporting on the topic is very rare.

This week a Finnish student is in the final phase of submission of his doctoral thesis which examines why media coverage of major environmental threats, notably climate change and eutrophication, are so devalued by the media.

“Debate on the most critical problem facing humankind is not very animated,” says Jari Lyytimäki, M.Sc (Environmental Sciences), Senior Researcher at the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE), who has written his doctoral dissertation on environmental media coverage. His thesis presents an analysis of coverage of climate change and eutrophication in Helsingin Sanomat, the most widely-read newspaper in Finland, over two decades. In terms of the volume of such coverage, environmental issues are not regarded as a key topic by the media.

Jari is not wrong.  Although my experience, through using Droplets to document coverage of eutrophication and algal blooms on a global scale, is only in its second year, I have found a profound reluctance by media journalists to get their heads around eutrophication and use their role as media gatekeepers to inform the public about this very important issue.

The abstract for Jari’s thesis reads as follows (bold text and underscores are my emphasis):  – hopefully his findings will go some way to promote a new phase of reporting – even in a country such as Finland where eutrophication awareness is (compared to many countries) relatively high.

Media representations are an important part of the dynamics of contemporary socio-ecological systems. The media agenda influences and interacts with the public and the policy agenda and all of these are connected to the changes of the state of the environment. Partly as a result of media debate, some issues are considered serious environmental problems, some risks are amplified while others are attenuated, and some proposals for remedies are highlighted and others downplayed.

Research on environmental media coverage has focused predominantly on the English-speaking industrialised countries. This thesis presents an analysis of Finnish environmental coverage, focusing on representations of climate change and eutrophication from 1990–2010. The main source of material is Helsingin Sanomat (HS), the most widely-read newspaper in Finland. The analysis adopts the perspective of contextual constructivism and the agenda-setting function of the mass media. Selected models describing the evolution of environmental coverage are applied within an interdisciplinary emphasis.

The results show that the amount of newspaper content on eutrophication and climate change has generally increased, although both debates have been characterised by intense fluctuations. The volume of the coverage on climate change has been higher than that of eutrophication, especially since 2006. Eutrophication was highlighted most during the late 1990s while the peaks of climate coverage occurred between 2007 and 2009.

Two key factors have shaped the coverage of eutrophication. First, the coverage is shaped by ecological factors, especially by the algal occurrences that are largely dependent on weather conditions. Second, the national algal monitoring and communication system run by environmental authorities has provided the media with easy-to-use data on the algal situation during the summertime.

The peaks of climate coverage have been caused by an accumulation of several contributing factors. The two most important factors contributing to the increase in coverage since 2006 include international policy negotiations and mild and snowless winters. Between 2006 and 2008, other factors included the releases of major scientific reviews, expressions of concern by key actors, and the related debate on energy policy. Changes in the anthropogenic driving forces of the environmental changes, namely nutrient discharges and greenhouse gas emissions, had only a marginal impact on the level of coverage.

Based on the results, it is suggested that wide-ranging climate reporting has caused what has been called a piercing effect. This means that after the phase of intense and widespread media coverage, climate issues will not disappear but will shift from highly visible environmental headlines to less visible but more pervasive background information presented in various contexts. Such a piercing effect was not identified for eutrophication. This thesis highlights the importance of taking media coverage into account as a key factor in the formulation and implementation of environmental policies aimed at broad-based actions.

Eutrophication is  burgeoning global issue that civil society needs to be equipped to understand.  The onus is, to a large degree, on the media, as well as basic education institutions, to do more to create awareness – so that the problem can be met head-on.

I extend an open invitation to any South African journalists wishing to learn more about this subject to contact me.

(Bill Harding is a South African aquatic ecologist and water resource restoration expert who specializes in the ecological associations occurring in waterbodies affected by eutrophication)

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