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Title:The alienation of humans from nature: media and environmental discourse
Author(s):Doherty, Richard Joseph
Director of Research:Denzin, Norman K.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Denzin, Norman K.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Nerone, John C.; Christians, Clifford G.; Raphael, Chad
Department / Program:Inst of Communications Rsch
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Environmental Communication
TV Weather
Global Positioning System (GPS)
critical discourse analysis
Abstract:Environmental problems are discouraging. Extensive and growing media consumption in the U.S. may be one of a few reasons. Communication constructs how people experience and understand nature, and corporate ownership of media influences the content (Beder, 2004). What does this discouragement look like in the news? Nature is often made the culprit that impinges on people identified as consumers. Added environmental responsibility for the “green” consumer can overwhelm them, and negative connotations associated with environmentalist suggest people avoid that label. And the odds seem to be in nature’s favor, when the individual is pitted against such forces as El Niño, and global warming. Technology, often the savior, produces additional conflict, problems, and cost. War metaphors and rhetoric in the fight over resources raises concerns over other uses. Polls show U.S. Americans becoming more fearful of environmental problems, but not changing their consumption patterns to help solve the problems. Environmental injustices can result from communication practices, even war and violence. All of these aspects point to power—who has authority, how they use it in dominant discourses, and what responses it produces. It is a social fact that people are discouraged about the environment. Critical-cultural and media studies, provide ideas to address social and environmental problems through communication and provide three paths for understanding; critical theory addresses power and domination; symbolic interaction addresses meaning making from social interaction; and rhetoric, narrative and discourse address how ideas are used in stories to persuade people. These fields emerge from the work of the Chicago school on the interactions of society and mass media, and the Frankfurt school (with roots in Marxism) on the legitimacy which commercial media provide those in power that maintains inequalities and injustice. Critical analysis of media stories that relate to the environment, expose a bigger world than that described by those in power. Challenging that discourse can offer justice to those with little to no power or voice. It can also propose alternatives to alleviate inequality. The Chicago school’s sense of hope adds to this, in trying to make the world better by research on how the world is represented, and how power is used to dominate people and nature. Theory of environmental communication (Milstein, 2009) bridges three areas: the material-symbolic of real problems communicated through language; the mediated human-nature relationship that represents nature in particular ways; and applied activist theory which exposes problematic representations and offers better alternatives. Nature and environment are defined as symbolically complex ideas; nature, most often as all of the earth and beyond, but not including humans and their creations; whereas environment is seen as the surroundings that usually includes the creations of humans. Humans not acting as part of nature are a key piece of the problem and points to reconnecting humans to nature as an ethical solution to raise awareness of human caused environmental problems and the lack of action taken to alleviate them. Prior research shows most environmental discourse is anthropocentric, based on industrial ideology, encourages consumption and domesticates and technologizes nature. Discourse on the environment occurs in all areas of culture but most prominently in news as events, ideas, and attitudes, and business as markets, products, and services. In news media, one of the most frequent elements is the weather report, but no research has shown how the weather discourse may be alienating viewers from nature. The few studies reveal the contexts and culture of TV weather production and how the media attention cycle work to depict nature-human relationships. On the business side, the recent development of the market for GPS navigation is a prime site for discourse about the earth and getting around the planet. Research on GPS related to communication deals with technical control and a militarization of consumer identity, but nothing about how the discourse might discourage the human relationship with nature. We know how news media positions nature, and how business promotes technology over nature. What is needed is a method to discern how the nature-human relationship discourages people. The critique of media texts and power relations of people can best be accomplished with critical discourse analysis. For the studies in this research discourse-historical analysis (Reisgel and Wodak, 2009) is combined with an ontological assessment of the environmental discourse (Dryzek, 2013), and observations of contradictions in the texts (Hodge, 2012). Discourse-historical analysis focuses on the discourse (as topic, perspective, and argument), the text (as part of the discourse and the communication/language analyzed), and context (as multi-level setting made of the language, discourse, situation, history, and politics). The critical aspect unmasks hierarchy, dominance and control in relationships and shows how they are maintained, to expose opportunities to contest and reconfigure power. The main questions of the studies are how do news and business depict the nature-human relationship, how do the power relationships involved create injustice and inequality, and how might the dominant discourse alienate humans from nature? The TV weather study looks at the importance of weather and how the weather report is a public service for citizens, embedded in a commercial news enterprise. The discourse comes out of the science of meteorology and television production, in a setting of advertising, market competition, technology, and journalistic norms. Morning forecasts from three top Boston stations during the Democratic National Convention of 2004 are analyzed and reveal a struggle or battle with nature. The moody weather makes people uncomfortable, need to protect themselves, or avoid it. Technical aspects and how the weather represents nature further distance people and make them reliant on the expert and their report. At a time when an improved understanding of the earth is needed, the analysis opens up the possibility of a more socially and ecologically just way of representing nature and the human relationship with it. The second study of discourse surrounding key points in the development of the consumer market for Global Positioning looks to print and on-line sources of business communication. With roots in the U. S. military, and steeped in the injustices of war, consumers adopted GPS as the way to navigate around town or around the world. Marketers, consumer guides and analysts tell stories about the nature-human relationship to sell GPS to consumers. The study uses stories from around 1998 and 2008 when the market was developing and maturing respectively. The early stories engaged in practical criticism with a focus on the future, while the later stories leaned toward technical enthusiasm, comfort and convenience. Nature is depicted as slow and getting in the way of the technology and people are not complete without GPS. Some counter discourse comes from the specialty outdoor magazines that see how GPS detracts and distances users from the natural world. These articles are a step toward a more just and equal way of getting around the earth that doesn’t rely on luxury gadgets that rely on the injustices of cheap labor, electronic waste, and the military. The examples of people being discouraged with nature and the environment are everywhere. When news isn’t about the latest environmental disaster, the underlying stories for the mostly urban citizens are formed by corporate and consumer culture aiming to sell products and make a profit. Media in these studies maintain the dominant social paradigm of economic growth, covering up environmental concerns and depict nature as a foe at a time when we need to understand and appreciate the earth. It is time to change the way media depict the human relationship with nature because it distances people with technology, it burdens people emotionally, it persuades them their efforts are futile, and dissuades people from engaging with nature through discourses of individual responsibility, scientific and economic progress, and the human nature-divide. Enhanced critical discourse analysis of media communication surrounding the environment offers hope of a more just and less dominating relationship with nature.
Issue Date:2015-04-17
Rights Information:Copyright 2015 Richard Doherty
Date Available in IDEALS:2015-07-22
Date Deposited:May 2015

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