A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Back to Derrida and the deconstruction of environmental reporting.....

I think it's time that I returned to some old-fashioned deconstruction of environmental news reporting and commentary, especially at the BBC and in The Groaniad and The Independent. I have let these three off the linguistic hook for far too long.

In my little booklet, Tropical rain forest: a political ecology of hegemonic mythmaking (1999) [downloadable free as a .pdf file], my deconstructional analysis of various 'Green' texts indicated that 'environmentalism' is always conveyed through the repeated use of two Language Sets, namely a 'Language of Needing' and a 'Language of Vulnerability'. 'The Language of Needing' generates, in turn, three sub-sets of Myths, namely Scientific Myths, Economic Myths, and Personal Myths, while the 'Language of Vulnerability' depends on two sub-entites, the one Criminalising human actions, the other 'Statistical' in character (though this latter can mean the larding of a text with generalist words like 'massive', not just the use of percentages and hard figures).

Where both 'Language Sets' are employed generally in the one text, the proportions of their use are remarkably constant at 66% to 32%, with 2% nebulous. In some texts, by contrast, one 'Language Set' is favoured to the near exclusion of the other.

By analysing the presence of these entities within a given 'text', it is possible to unravel how 'biased' the text is towards the 'environmentalist' position, even when the reporter, or commentator, may think that s/he is trying to be even-handed. We must never forget that 'environmentalism' is today an hegemonic myth for most environmental reporters and correspondents, who are subconsciously 'controlled' by its Lacanian 'points de capiton', or words of magic and power - the metawords of the metanarrative. A simple example will suffice: under this metanarrative, forests are never 'developed' or simply 'used'; they can only be 'exploited'.

Yesterday, BBC Online News (March 27) carried a small classic, entitled: 'Amazon pipeline plan "damaging"'. Below, I repeat some of the text with the words of power highlighted in bold. You will be able to place these easily into the language categories I have mentioned above. Moreover, you should also note that an altenative 'economic myth' is only allowed in at the very end of the piece, thus reinforcing the 'environmentalist' essence of the text. You will further observe that certain words of power are repeated, the word 'leaked', for example, occurring no fewer than three times, even though the report is extremely short.

{Deconstruction}"Opponents of a gas pipeline project in Peru's Amazon have released leaked government documents to show the damage caused to the rainforest and tribes. Indigenous leaders and environmental groups want to highlight the effects of Peru's most ambitious gas project.

They are calling on the Inter-American Development Bank to commission an independent audit before it signs a $75m loan for the Camisea Project.

The pipelines cut through the heart of the fragile rain forest.

Representatives of the isolated indigenous people who live there say the pipelines have caused massive landslides, a drop in the fishing opportunities and epidemics.

They released a leaked document from the Ministry of Health suggesting the project had increased respiratory infections and diarrhoea among native communities who are not used to outside contact.

This in turn had caused malnutrition and premature deaths.

Environmental impact

A leaked document from the Ministry of Energy and Mines concluded that the negative environmental impacts of the project were significant and of great magnitude.

The Inter-American Development Bank says it is committed to an independent assessment of the environmental and health impacts of Camisea.

Earlier this month it said it would delay the $75m loan while it waited for environmental requirements to be met.

Peru had hoped the loan would be signed ....."

One final comment: slightly unusually, this piece contains a corrective, namely the caption to the accompanying photograph, which reads:"Peru hopes the gas project will boost economic growth." Was this caption added by another hand, one wonders? Usually, such photographic texts at BBC News Online underscore the hegemonic language of the written text (e.g. great belching smoke stacks for 'global warming'; swathes of cut forest for the Amazon).{End of Deconstruction}

Now, if you want something interesting to exercise your mind this lovely Sunday while you sip your glass of sauvignon blanc, then try to rewrite the above report using a different set of 'words of power', say those that support a free-market mythology or those that view development as positive. The result may be illuminating with regards to the hidden, and often subconscious, agendas of journalism.

As I warned in my little booklet: "The intrinsic and extrinsic power of the words used as key signifiers should not be underestimated... they form a core mythic language... which is repeated like a mantra, in text after text, the world over."

If neither journalists nor readers are fully aware of this and are unable to deconstruct themselves, journalism soon becomes little more than political niche marketing. Moreover, it is precisely the failure of many scientists to understand this problem that is causing such a current public crisis for science.

And for a further Sunday exercise, why not deconstruct the text of my own Comment in yesterday's The Times (March 27): 'Quick, hide, the bin police are coming' (no link for copyright reasons - just go to The Times)?

Philip, off to deconstruct a wine label - 'reflects the subtlety of the local mineral soil' = too acid. Enjoy.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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