Towards Environmental Histories of (Social) Media?

In today’s blog, Simo Laakkonen and Otto Tähkäpää reflect on the role of the media in shaping our understandings of the world around us, and the need for an environmental history of media to illuminate how these understandings have evolved. The blog is based on their forthcoming article in Environment and History, ‘Towards an environmental history of television. Water pollution issues on Finnish broadcasting prior to Earth Day 1970’ (Fast Track Summer 2019). Images are stills from programmes created by the Finnish state broadcaster, YLE.

‘Television is no longer a topic of conversation’. This was the title of recent newspaper article, in which a Nordic actress discussed changes in television-watching habits. According to her, television no longer has the same significance as during the 1970s and 1980s, the decades of her childhood and youth, when it was still an important topic of casual conversation. ‘[S]omehow you just forget about television these days’, she said.

It is not difficult to think of reasons why the glory days of television are over, why it has been forgotten.Whereas during this actor’s childhood it was safe to assume that everyone at work, school, or the university had watched the same television programmes, this assumption is no longer safe to make.

In addition to the increased availability of television channels and programmes, the pervasiveness of the internet, personal computers, cellular phones and new forms of social media skyrocketed after the turn of the millennium in all wealthy post-industrial societies. New forms of social media included, for example, social networking sites(IRC galleries, Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace and Twitter), social news sites(Digg, Newsvine, Sphinn), socialsharing sites(Flickr, YouTube,Pinterest), social bookmarking sites (Delicious, Faves, BlogMarks) and social shopping sites (Kaboodle, KolMol, ThisNext), not to mention the websites of individuals, groups, associations, media outlets, public organisations and commercial enterprises.

Unlike traditional media, online media allows people to discuss and share content, participate in its creation and network. Social media gives people what TV never could – a chance to be engaged and engage others. Hence, it is no wonder that television tends to be forgotten amidst waves of new media development.

This major shift in the global media landscape has led to a situation in which reaching large, unified audiences through television has become increasingly difficult. This development has been noted by institutions that in the past could assume they were able to command the attention of their audiences, such as the Oval Office of the United States. For instance, when the President, the previous one, wanted to address the nation about climate change, he chose not to do so directly; he invited eight television-station meteorologists to Washington and then briefly interviewed them in the White House gardens. The reason for this media strategy was that, in a media landscape splintered by an overabundance of television channels, the internet and social media, weather forecasts are just about the only television programming that the entire nation still watches.

Yet still these days, it is virtually impossible to imagine an environmental problem rising to social significance without extensive media coverage.Whether a topic is considered important and real is to a large extent determined by the media attention it receives; after all, it is the media that dramatises problems as visual and symbolic events. If we want to understand the historical expansion of environmental awareness among the general public, in particular, then we must ultimately confront the question: who communicated what to whom, when and how?

The power of television lay in its ability to bring remote environmental accidents directly into the living room for viewers to see with their own eyes. Televised coverage of the dramatic shipwreck of the Swedish oil tanker M/S Coolaroooff the coast of Helsinki, predated the infamous oil accident of Torrey Canyonby six years. Source: YLE, Finlandia-katsaus 568, November 1961.

Many scholars have emphasised that the media played a central role in the ‘environmental revolution’, and indeed, quantitative agenda-setting research has proven that environmentally themed articles in newspapers jumped suddenly in Western industrialised nations in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, pioneering studies that have been conducted above all in the Nordic countries show that environmental reporting in newspapers has a much longer history reaching back to late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In addition to traditional print media, television also presumably played a significant role in raising environmental issues to public consciousness. And yet, surprisingly enough, unlike with newspapers, empirical data on television is almost completely lacking. When we take into consideration the fact that, for over half a century, television has been the primary mass media format in Western democracies and previous Eastern dictatorships – the political, social and cultural centerpiece of the public sphere – it is surprising to note that the environmental history of television remains almost-completely unsurveyed terrain.

A still from the documentary Why Wastewater? in which a young couple in love rows across a polluted bay wearing gas masks as the wistful song ‘My Beautiful Homeland’ plays in the background. Television was able creatively to combine fact and feeling to influence viewers’ environmental awareness. Source: YLE, Miksi likavesiä? 1 October, 1964.

Yet, there is a definite need to pay attention in the early days of the television, in particular, because television constituted the first truly national media. Unlike private newspapers that were geographically and politically deeply divided and primarily presented local news and biased views, government-owned television was a national, democratically administered and relatively politically balanced instrument. Television broadcasting also gained a huge power over national audiences because most industrial countries had only one or two television channels. Although it is difficult to imagine now, even in the United States the majority of viewers had access to only three alternatives (ABC, CBS and NBC) from the early 1950s to the early 1980s.

The Cold War was the age of an exceptionally focused and politically enlightened television of the sort that did not exist before or after.We argue that, during this time period, television became not only a political agenda setter but a framer of Western culture as a whole. The early decades of television broadcasting together with other channels of reporting were the true glory days of mass media, and this period exhibits a strong parallel with the emergence of large-scale awareness of pollution and other environmental issues in the Western world after World War II. From the 1950s onwards, television emerged as one reason why people in homes, workplaces, schools and the public sphere began discussing environmental issues.

Television brought together all generations but, like all new forms of technology, the power of television rested in the youth and talent of the generation that created it. In this image, the 24-year-old reporter Reino Paasilinna is interviewing a middle-aged woman who explains that she cannot keep her windows open because a polluted river nearby smells so foul. Forty years later Paasilinna was the director of Finnish television and a member of the European Parliament. Source: YLE, Miksi likavesiä?, 1 October 1964.

Yet everything solid eventually melts away. After its glory days, television was somehow ’forgotten’, as the aforementioned actress put it.  Naturally, the rise and fall of all-reaching television broadcasts was neither the first nor the last cycle in the development of media. Many other cycles have emerged through new technology, young people, fresh styles and subversive ideas – only to be later marginalised by a new generation of the same agents.

Consequently there are at least seven long-term cycles or waves of media that have taken place in the world. Each of the cycles should be studied first separately and then holistically. An exploration of the history of the Janus-faced role of the media, including current wave of social media, is a prerequisite to understanding changes in our culture in general, and in our relationship to nature and the environment in particular.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s