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Media matters

MASS MEDIA & ENVIRONMENTAL CONFLICT; AMERICA’S GREEN CRUSADES·Mark Neuzil and William Kovarik·Sage Publications·Price US $21.95

By Samir Joseph Nazareth
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- IN the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the only source of information for environmentalists was the print media. Mark Neuzil and William Kovarik in their book 'Mass Media & Environmental Conflict; America's Green Crusades' discuss the role of the print media in the context of competing power groups, scientific understanding, dramatic events and social change.

The authors analyse the game clubs of America and the magazines that catered to their interests. However, such groups came from the cream of the society to ensure that their way of life was not imperilled. They then began a campaign on conservation which maligned the market hunters who needed the money for their livelihood.

This conflict between a social sport and an economic necessity was completely sidelined by the Game magazines. The reason was that these magazines were owned by the elite Eastern who had a great deal of influence in the corridors of power. Interestingly, some of them went on to become founders of nature clubs which are today known for their role in conservation. The Audubon Club was started by George Grinnell, the editor of Forest and Steam, a magazine dedicated to sports-hunting.

Many newspapers espouse the views of their owners. If a particular issue took the fancy of the publishers, it would be flogged until a change could be brought about. However, not always were they successful. This was more so in the case of subjects which related to science. The authors take up the issue of leaded petrol in motor vehicles. Many people were against the use of lead in petrol as an anti-knocking agent. However, the issue died a quiet death because the reporters did not have substantial evidence to back their report, although alternatives to the fuel were available. The petroleum industry was successful in keeping data out of the reach of journalists. Walter Lippman, editor of the New York World, wrote that the media would be effective "only if we are supplied with necessary technical information of which we have none". The need to be self sufficient in information gathering and analysis is vital if an issue of such importance has to be fought. Unfortunately, during the three-year battle, no effort was made to understand the reasons for the controversy by any of the newspapers that carried verbatim statements from the industry and the protagonists. The authors say reporting at that time could not effect change because the basic issue was not understood.

The book also discusses the need for dramatic events in news coverage. The authors use the example of the 'killer smog' which instantly killed twenty and incapacitated thousands of people in the town of Donora in Pennsylvania in 1948. The issue was of unregulated industrial growth. The newspapers began with many assumptions which included a report on a mysterious air-borne plague. The government hearings were widely reported but the media failed to determine the cause of the problem.

What one understands from the book is that conservation zeal was an effort to preserve a certain lifestyle. The book does not mention about native Americans whose lands were being converted into national parks. It would be interesting to find out whether the authors differentiate between aboriginal land rights and environmental protection. Another fact that emerges from this book is that only those issues that interest the owner or editor of the paper were given coverage. Therefore, the role of a newspaper to bring about a change or maintain a status quo within a society depends on the whims of a person, which is very disconcerting. Many questions emerge from this book because what is written is more on the main players than on the actual event. Here, analysing journalistic curiosity and the events leading to a crusade by a newspaper ends with the people involved. The book narrates history but does not contain much of analysis. Notwithstanding, it makes good reading.

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