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Different colours of green

How media has shaped people's understanding of environment

By Archana Patel
Published: Wednesday 31 December 2014

imageMedia Construction Of Environment And Sustainability In India by PrithiNambiar Sage Publications | Rs 995

THE TERM “sustainability” is a contested one. It can have different and often opposing meanings when seen from different social, economic and environmental perspectives. In nature, for example, sustainability is seen as regeneration of nature’s processes and subservience to nature’s laws. Such subservience very often provides sustenance to different indigenous people across the world. In contrast, sustainability in the market place is seen as a process that ensures the continuous supply of goods and services that keep an economy running.

Similarly, environment, too, has different meanings. Green can mean many things to different people. For most of us, environment represents nature at its pristine best. For others, environment is sum of the actions of all actors—including humans. Environment is, thus, socially constructed.

Like it or not, the media today plays a big role in shaping our understanding of environment and sustainability. Prithi Nambiar’s Media Construction of Environment and Sustainability in India tries to understand the ways in which the media impacts our understanding of these two aspects.

In recent times, media analyses have become a significant area of study. It is an interdisciplinary field involving linguistic, cultural and media studies, sociology, psychology and other fields of social sciences. Media analyses work on the premise that the media not only mirrors society but also determines its character in many ways. Media influence is, in fact, powerful and overwhelming for it furnishes people with ideas and representations of their reality. Nambiar, too, operates with this understanding. “Sustainability calls for radical change in perspectives at the individual, community and organisational level. But like any other concept, it is also interpreted through media discourse,” she argues.

Nambiar holds two developments as critical to the role of media in shaping our understanding of the environment: the omnipresence of information technology and the development of a healthy public sphere where discussion may be conducted without the fear of reprisal or coercion. Nambiar also draws on ecologist Madhav Gadgil and social scientist Ramachandra Guha’s description of India “as a fantastic mosaic of fishing boats and trawlers, of cowherds and milk-processing plants, of paddy fields and rubber estates, of handlooms and nuclear reactors”. Nambiar uses this description while talking of the discord between traditional knowledge and that beamed to people by agriculture extension programmes on national television. But Nambiar tantalises. Her emphasis on theorising does not take us too far. Were the communities passive recipients of these programmes? She does not offer any answer—at a later stage in her analysis she does indicate that these programmes intended their recipients to be passive participants. Nambiar does not take her theory to the case-study level. Case studies, this reviewer believes, would have helped understand the reception of media-mediated knowledge.

Nambiar is on somewhat stronger grounds when criticising media reports on environmental risks. “News reporters invariably turned to scientists for official and authoritative assessment of environmental risk. Scientists were called on to present the pros and cons of a situation and credibility to the reports. Very often journalists who covered environmental reports were not specialist reporters and turned to the same established scientists who were quoted over and over on the same issue. This often resulted in distorted reporting where the competing claims were either exaggerated or dismissed based on a few improperly quoted sources and inadequate research.” Point well taken. But Nambiar is guilty of the same crime she accuses the media of. Her analysis on over reliance on a chosen set of scientists draws from other studies. A better course of action would have been to interview some news reporters who have had to soil their hands on the environment beat.

In the past decade or so, the rise of new media has been responsible for energising local cultures and for preserving and re-invigorating cultural identities.

Disadvantaged communities of the South reversed the earlier trend of not being addressed by the national media. New media opened the door to a plurality of voices and messages. But how exactly has new media come to the aid of traditional communities? In what way are they not the passive recipients of yore? We keep longing for answers.

This cursory nod to new media notwithstanding, Nambiar’s is by and large an analysis of mainstream media. With respect to coverage of environmental and sustainability issues by the print media, most of Nambiar’s respondents singled out The Hindu publications group from the rest of the mainstream print media for the quality and consistency of its coverage of environmental and sustainability issues. Her respondents noted that other publications tend to sensationalise the environment.

Nambiar does not, however, tell us how environment became mainstream in the Indian media. Her bibliography mentions two publications of the Centre for Science and Environment. This magazine does not even find a mention. There is nothing on the score of documentary filmmakers who braved a variety of constraints to highlight environmental struggles in the country. Every field of study has its pioneers: institutions, personalities and publications which set the standards. Nambiar’s study does not acknowledge them. She does acknowledge a few seminal works like Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring and the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth. But there is very little by way of global history of environmental journalism. She ends with platitudes about the need for communication strategies to highlight national and local concerns. She talks about the deployment of “multicultural frames through small media”, but does not bother to highlight instances where such media has actually become both a harbinger and repository of multicultural references. Media Construction of Environment and Sustainability in India promises much. But it leaves us disappointed.

Archana Patel is a Bengaluru-based development communication professional

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