Environmental framing again, a clarification

Aug 20 2010 Published by under [Biology&Environment], [Science in Society]

Matt Nisbet has a post up at Big Think referencing a brief interview with Peter Groffman regarding the recent open-access science communication issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. Both are worth a read. I was linked in the article (this post, a brief review of some of the content), and while I appreciate it, I do want to clarify and perhaps expand the gist of my post.

Nisbet’s post stated that I feared the “dumbing down” (his words, not mine, despite the quotation marks) of the science for public consumption. I think that certainly represents one of the concerns of framing critics, especially those in the scientific community. Personally, that’s not high on my list. I’m sure the ESA and associated scientists will be able to represent the science behind the problems and potential solutions plainly and efficiently.

The post I wrote was an attempt at expressing a general aversion for comprehensive marketing schemes and questioning, when it comes to the “humanities” portion of the plan, whether or not honesty – in worldview, philosophy or fiction – was important enough to preserve in its entirety. Some of the papers in the publication sounded like every business case, proposal and requirements doc I’ve ever read or written, which is fine, by the way; it’s typical. I’m sneering because documents like those are mostly industry fluff and setup language for the real meat, which can be boiled out rather easily and comprises a very small portion of the actual verbiage. We toss charts and graphs into technical documents to fill them out and give a visual for the sake of color or flow (or because it’s a standard) instead of representing an accurate depiction of process.

I’m being stubborn. Ultimately I think it’s sad and reflects poorly on us that people in positions of influence believe these kinds of campaigns are the key to reaching "the public," that only through demographical media saturation can we ever hope to teach science and instill environmental stewardship. Advertisers have to petition tribally to encourage us to buy; McDonald’s runs unique, culturally stereotypical commercials for WLITE 101.3, WURBAN 105.7 and WROCK 99.1 and it’s permissible to assume that the listeners to those stations are okay with being pigeonholed. I’m usually told something along the lines of “What do you expect?” or “You think this is new?” or “It’s just personal preference. I actually like that commercial,” and probably rightly so. It just doesn’t sit well with me.

Marketing is honest only when it’s forced to be. Truth in advertising is a spine from which an obscurant narrative can be spun, where the world is clean clothes on running teens, impossibly inexpensive and certainly never crafted by underpaid mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children in third world countries. Drawbacks and side effects only appear in small print. Tony Hayward and President Obama loosened their ties to sit down and chat with us after the spill, concerned and repentant, but determined. Since then, BP’s emissaries all happen to be natives of the Gulf, working hard and staying positive. Sometimes we forget, this is not real. It's carefully crafted.

So how far do we go to weave around honesty when it comes to marketing environmentalism? If science provides us with a solution that dethrones the deified or exonerates the demonized norms are we prepared to accept it? And in turning the tables are we flip-flopping, to be held accountable to those ideologically or politically opposed? Can we really expect to teach the majority of this country, the majority of the world, the distinction between the scientific and colloquial definitions of the word theory? Fact? It's such a small thing, seemingly, but so important to the proper discussion.

It depends on how the story is told. Framing is really about trying to grab the reigns of the narrative and drive it in a particular direction. In writing, there’s no better way to suck the life out of a piece; even an essay needs room to breathe to fill out naturally. This idea of comprehensive synergy is just words, “using frameworks... more relevant to [the public’s] knowledge and values,” just jargon, industry fluff. If you want to communicate better, get people together, but don’t try to control the narrative. Don’t try to control how people choose to communicate, giving them sets of words to use in place of others. Why are we seeking to perpetuate a marketing model of "communication" that is inherently paternal and attempts to define and sell our values to us vicariously?

Time seems short. Habitats are being reduced, policies ignored, populations dwindling. At the same time, we’re having a crisis of our own, one of identity in an information age. We stare into a reflecting pool called media and hope for some glimpse of ourselves and our agendas, toss in what we will, what we are, and hope for a flash between the ripples. Perhaps framing is the key to reaching people and broadening their understanding of science and environmental issues (is there a distinction?). I have a feeling that it’s a method that will have trouble being perceived as genuine by most for the same reasons we’re skeptical of advertising.

No responses yet