Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Environment and media in Central and Eastern Europe: a participant-observer’s perspective

The reasons behind my PhD research proposal to the Open University
“Enough of these wetlands stories – get me some real news, please!” This is how my first attempt in environmental journalism was terminated over a decade ago. My TV news editor’s words put an end to a series of reports on the loss of precious freshwater ecosystems and favourite recreation areas around Sofia to urban sprawl. This was also my first encounter with a phenomenon that I later came across in many newsrooms of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE): alienation towards environment as a story. Since then, over the years I worked as a reporter and editor myself, and while helping environmental groups get their stories out in the news, the rhythm was repeated.

The phenomenon had two sides. When it was about global news like climate change, water/air pollution or acid rain, it sounded like a problem for them to solve – the rich Western countries, with their polluting industries and thick salaries; or in the worst case, like a problem of the poor Developing World. If the news was about local problems of worsening environmental quality, it was very likely about them – a small, often marginal community which in the most cases prevented the rest of us from gaining access to resources or getting rich.

With the maturing of market-based economies and accession to the EU of most CEE countries, the mainstream media brought the two sides together, in a somewhat schizophrenic way. We were now proud and equal members of the West, with regard to consumption, access to funds, investments and markets, or making foreign policy decisions – like improving relations with Russia. But it was still them from the West, that limited our growth and prosperity by imposing low carbon emissions targets, or making us shut nuclear power plants. The most indicative newspaper headline I came across translates as: “Ecologists malign us in Brussels about Natura”; the story telling about them, the environmental activists within the country, reporting to them, the EU Commission environmental authorities, about wrongdoings around the setting of EU’s network of protected areas in Bulgaria.

What started for me as a teaser at the beginning of my career, developed into a central professional and research interest, culminating in trainings of environmental journalists from across CEE and the New Independent States. Their accounts of the attitude of their editors and managers to environment were strikingly similar to what I had experienced: it simply could not be real news. Because real news was always elsewhere: in politics, crime, economy, or consumption.

Meeting Dr. Joe Smith from the Open University’s Geography Department in 1999, and getting familiar with his research on the social and mass media interaction over environmental issues (Smith 1999, 2000), marked a turning point in my understanding of these issues. It proved my intuitive observations were correct, at least to some extent, and not limited to CEE only. This problem was about more than a simplistic linear argument for more and better quality of environmental information provided by journalists to the general public I realized. There was a more complex relationship between social and cultural change and media production, that was shaping public understanding and action on environmental change (Calvalho and Burgess 2005; Smith 2005).

A sudden shift of the media and communication modality around environmental change issues in the past two years has transformed my professional interest into an ambition to conduct academic research. There is an urgent need for research that can explore the inter-relationships between the recent peak of global media attention relating to climate change, and the advance of new media and the Internet, particularly in CEE. Mass involvement and communication dynamics around issues like the Zengo radar in Hungary, the Via Baltica highway in Poland, and the Black Sea coast construction industry in Bulgaria have all suggested complex interplays between global and local ecological politics and new media practices.

Among all pressing issues of environmental degradation, one has gained remarkable prominence in the past years: climate change. In almost every part of the globe the public has been exposed to an ever growing volume of messages related to climate (Boykoff and Boykoff, 2007). In addition to traditional news media channels, publics have engaged with the issue via cinema, fiction, drama and fine arts. Science, politics and celebrity have blended in high profile media events that cast Al Gore, Leonardo Di Caprio, and Madonna in central roles, causing an unprecedented wave of public awareness and –to a much lesser degree- action on the part of civil society, governments and business.

At the same time communities and individual citizens of CEE finally gained adequate access to the World Wide Web. There is a hypothesis to be tested that it was not the Internet’s vast information resources only, but the network’s potential for networking, connectivity and immediate action, that brought widespread changes in the perception of environment issues by East Europeans. This argument suggests a new frame, where environment is no longer the priority of the isolated few at home, and the distant many abroad; and there is no longer “us” and “them”. Proponents for the transformatory power of the Internet argue that the inherent individualism of the net emancipated pro-environmental thinking, making it socially acceptable again and bringing it back into the mainstream of politics and mass media attention. The Internet is widely viewed as a technology of the young, hence the medium’s capacity to make environmental consciousness a civic virtue amongst younger generations who in other senses have limited political/civic engagement. The distinctive CEE socio-political context makes for a powerful place to evaluate these claims about the relationship between individualism, free-speech and citizenship and environmental understanding.