Does the media seize on cases where humans benefit nature?

The single biggest fact about human impact on nature is that it is highly variable. We’re net cutting down forests in the tropics. But we are net increasing forest cover in eastern North America. Farmland birds are in decline in the US and Europe, but that is because farmland – a fairly intense human land use – is decreasing in area in those countries. Eutrophication is harmful to many organisms, but helpful to some. Local biodiversity is trending down in some places but trending up in others. In North America beaver and turkeys, after having been completely eliminated from most of their ranges, have made amazing recoveries trending towards near pre-European levels. Regional diversity, especially in plants, is often increased due to invasive species. Island diversity in birds is often flat or down.

None of those statements contradict the fact that humans are massively changing nature, in many ways for the worse. We have half the tree biomass today compared to what existed pre-human. We appropriate half the fresh water and terrestrial NPP annually. Extinction rates are elevated significantly. We have doubled the rate nitrogen is being introduced to the biosphere. Deer are above pre-European levels in the eastern US with devastating impacts on the structure of forests. Scientists have gotten very good about communicating these negative impacts and maybe have even evolved to a symbiotic relationship with much of the press in communicating this (media loves a disaster whether environmental or human).

But what do we as ecologists do about those facts that can be seen as positive impacts listed in the first paragraph?

There is a deep seated view that we need to bury them to keep a completely consistent message of unrelenting doom. I don’t give much credence to the simplistic version of such views, specifically the notion we should not publish such findings in journals – the goal of science is to find the truth, complex and nuanced as it might be, not to stay on message to manipulate the public. Anybody who disagrees with that should turn in their scientist card.

But there is a more subtle argument. If we acknowledge such positive events (even if we believe and the evidence supports the balance is negative), won’t the anti-environmental strains of the press get carried away and trumpet the in ways that undermines the overall message about human impacts? This argument is more palatable to me – its not about burying facts, its about being careful about engagement with the media. That certainly seems like wise advice.

But in the end I have a serious problem with this argument. Empirically, I just don’t believe that the media has much of a track record of taking stories where humans have benefited nature (positive events) and turning them into anti-environmental stories. I’ve heard a lot of worry about such coverage. I just haven’t seen much of it. Is there an anti-environmental branch of the press? Sure. And they can take even a very negative story (e.g. the recent IPBES statement about a million species going extinct) and attack it. But how often does this group grab onto a positive event and turn that into a claim that “everything is OK”? I am really hard pressed to find examples. I know my co-authors and I worried about this with the Dornelas et al 2014 paper that suggested the average trend in local biodiversity was approximately flat. But in the end we had exactly one story that interpreted the paper that way – and it was by an obscure right-wing organization that as best we could tell had very few readers. Plenty of other papers covered it in a balanced and nuanced way that net net increased awareness of the biodiversity crisis. Our fears were overblown. I increasingly think that mainstream media is pretty hard wired to find the negative in everything.

And I’m really hard pressed to think of other examples of positive outcomes turned into an attack on the notion of an environmental crisis. Were there a slew of stories saying that because the California Condor (or the beaver or turkey) made a come back so we don’t need to worry about extinction? Has the fact that invasions often increase species richness (or at least don’t cause a decline in species richness) led to stories about how invasive species are great? Or that the green slime growing off the deltas of rivers running through farm country should be celebrated for an increase in productivity? I just haven’t heard many (any?) of these stories. I increasingly think the media can accurately and constructively handle some  positive outcomes amidst the overall negative trend and that we ecologists should not be afraid of publishing such outcomes.

What do you think? Can you think of positive events that got swept up in the media in a way that was on balance detrimental to the environmental movement? Do the press even report positive stories (or do they have a bias towards negative over positive)? Do you think publishing positive events is more or less likely to change human behavior towards the environment?

 

32 thoughts on “Does the media seize on cases where humans benefit nature?

  1. Excellent post, Brian. I don’t know the answer, though. We recently published a paper pointing out that at least some long-term populations declines reflect (at least in part) regression to the mean rather than true decline. (https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2019/06/25/its-been-a-while-since-ive-been-this-proud-of-a-paper/) I’ve been very worried about that being seized on to support a (totally incorrect) argument that everything is OK and that scientists are collectively Chicken Little. Hasn’t happened yet, but I’m still worried…. so I very much hope you are right!

  2. This study on climate change outlines the importance of “constructive hope,” which is promoted in part by hearing success stories. So, overall, even if “because it’s the truth” wasn’t a good enough reason, we have some evidence that positive coverage is more motivating than negative coverage (there are studies on the latter, too, that find that the doom and gloom narrative can be immobilized).

      • Fred – I should probably start with the fact that I am no expert on the bird/farmland topic. Two things everybody agrees on are that farmland birds are declining faster than other bird groups and that modern high intensity agriculture is wildlife unfriendly. Beyond that I think it is a complex story with a lot of regional variation. Certainly in New England, where I live, peak farmland was about 1860 and it is mundane to walk through a forest and see an old farm fence. While slower, these trends have continued into recent decades (although here in Maine there is actually a growing trend of “back to the land” organic farms although I think the overall trend in farm acreage is still down). In the central (prairie) US loss of native grassland habitat to high intensity agriculture has been unmistakably bad to the grassland (slight shift in emphasis from farmland) birds there. I don’t have data at hand but one thing about high intensity agriculture is that yields improved dramatically which while completely devaluing some land for wildlife can have the effect of net freeing up other agricultural land, which I think is part of the overall story for the US (although any gains are not necessarily in the same regions as the losses). I’m much less aware of the dynamics elsewhere in the world, although I believe I’ve read the UK is having some dynamics similar to New England. So probably best to just leave this as an example of a complex, regional, multifaceted biodiversity impact where in at least some places one could say farmland birds are losing even as nature is “winning”. And in other places farmland birds are losing because nature is “losing”.

  3. Great post.

    “Can you think of positive events that got swept up in the media in a way that was on balance detrimental to the environmental movement?”

    In answering this question, do we need to distinguish between partisan news outlets (e.g., Fox News in the US, the Sun or the Mail in the UK) and non-partisan outlets like CNN or the BBC? Are we looking for partisan outlets intentionally spinning “good news” environmental stories to score political points? Or are we looking for non-partisan outlets unintentionally leaving readers or viewers with a mistaken impression that everything is fine? The former seems to me like something ecologists can’t do anything about. Partisans are going to say and think whatever they want and there’s no way ecologists can prevent them from doing so, no matter what results we do or don’t publish or what we say in our publications.

    Off the top of my head, I agree with you Brian: I can’t think of any examples of good news environmental stories being presented (intentionally or unintentionally) in a way that sends the broader message that “everything is fine”. But maybe this just shows that I don’t watch Fox News or read Breitbart (or in the UK, the Sun or the Daily Mail), so I’m unaware of how right-wing partisan outlets present environmental stories? There must be a literature on this, I’d be very curious to read some of it. (But again, even if partisan outlets do often spin positive environmental stories this way, I don’t think there’s anything ecologists can do about it.)

    I can think of a few partisan attempts to spin bad environmental news into good news. I’m thinking for instance of the talking point that increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration is good because plants need CO2 to grow. But even there, I don’t think those sorts of talking points have ever been the main anti-environmentalist response to bad environmental news. Denying bad news has always been a much bigger part of anti-environmentalism than trying to spin bad news as good news.

    • Its kind of two tiered in my mind.
      1) Do the hardened anti-environmentalist media pick things up?
      2) Do the more traditional neutral media pick things up.
      I Agree #2 is much more of an indicator and one wouldn’t need to worry hugley about #1, but I’ve been curious to note that I haven’t even seen #1 happen much,.

  4. Fred & Jacquelyn – I tend to agree about the positive messages. Indeed I had a whole paragraph written at one point in this blog about how the anti-smoking campaign got much more traction when it switched from the negative (it will kill you) to pushing social (it is hurting kids, nobody wants to kiss you) and positive (millions have quit, help is available call 1-800-NOS-MOKE for strategies). Unremitting gloom is: a) paralyzing, and b) probably not very credible.

    But I am curious what others make of this piece: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0169534719300448

    My sense it is addressing the question at a fairly fine grain of question and that at the courser grain of broad questions of should we do something about the environment the hope message is more successful. Or at a minimum the paper shows we need a mixture of positive and negative so a pure doom and gloom strategy is ineffective.

    • I’m reading this paper as saying that we currently do not know how to frame optimally conservation issues, which I assume must be true (and may be very much dependent on culture/countries anyway). And if they don’t have a definite answer on how to do this in medecine, a definite answer may indeed not exist…

      As in medecine not only there’s the question of what is efficient but also what is ethical. How many conservation success stories do we have the right to showcase given that in most of the planet biodiversity is being destroyed, even if that seems more efficient for action? Personally, although I enjoyed the Balmford book, I don’t think that’s the sort of material that I would recommend for a course to high-school teachers if they have limited time. I would much prefer that they focus on the IPBES report & similar instead so that students keep the big picture in mind.

      Perhaps it is more important for actual conservation scientists to hear positive stories to stay motivated, than for the general public which is sometimes blissfully unaware that biodiversity even exists (“Bees, several species of them, really?” — heard not long ago…). So I view very factual “1 million threatened / 8 million species” statements as more key to change than positive stories.

      That said, movie documentaries are perhaps better than university press releases (making the research look good) and short media articles for communicating to the general public (and non-scientists in general). I would tend to think that we have more chances convincing political leaders of the urgency of the biodiversity crisis by making them sit through the whole 8-hour Netflix Our Planet series rather than by reading the communiqué of the IPBES report 🙂

  5. Great post Brian, thought I’m not sure about this statement: “Farmland birds are in decline in the US and Europe, but that is because farmland – a fairly intense human land use – is decreasing in area in those countries.” Do you know any studies that back it up?

    On a sort-of related note, have you read Steven Pinker’s recent book “Enlightenment Now”? Really interesting, has made me even more of an optimist than I already was, even if he downplays the damage that human progress has made to the environment.

    • Jeff – fair point about farmland birds and I think you have called me on it before. I give a much longer, more complex answer to Fred above.

      • I agree its hard to find such things written about (the point of the article), but e.g. in Maine you see exactly the phenomenon I am talking about with grassland sparrows declining and various woodpeckers, nuthatches, warblers, etc increasing: https://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/cgi-bin/atlasa15.pl?ME&2&15&csrfmiddlewaretoken=3YKakk7LxT2ki6NSpl4mstudYCqdW02C

        And as always, the BTO report contains quite a complex story with variability being the only consistent theme. “Woodland species such as Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Spotted Flycatcher and Willow Tit have shown the most serious declines (more than 80%) since 1970, whilst numbers of Long-tailed Tit, Blackcap and Nuthatch have almost doubled, and the Great Spotted Woodpecker is three times as abundant as it was several decades ago.” I don’t know the biology of these birds well, but I note that the Willow Tit (one of the most severe declines) is described on a conversation site as preferring “scrub and young forest” which is not a contradiction to my story.

        But in the end I am not an expert in UK birds, so I only know what I’ve heard (admittedly not in published studies).

      • And here is data on trends on land allocated to farming in the UK – down: https://tradingeconomics.com/united-kingdom/agricultural-land-percent-of-land-area-wb-data.html

        And I note in your BTO report that wodland species *are* increasing in Scotland. It may well be that in England land is going straight from farmland to cities. Not a great story for nature on the whole, but not necessarily contradicting my claim that farmland birds are down due to loss of farmland.

      • Hmmm, that drop in farmland is at most 3% since 2006 which is probably not even within the confidence limits for assessing the proportion of land use in different categories in the UK. There are big debates on how to define “urban”, “agriculture”, “forestry”, etc. Urban is estimated anywhere between 6% and 10% for instance. I would be surprised if such land use changes had had that big an effect on bird populations, as opposed to changes in human behaviour which have had positive impacts on garden bird numbers, including Long-tailed tit.

        It’s a complex picture, for sure.

      • Click on the max button under the times series. It is 11 points (82-71 %) from 1969-2019 and except for a brief blip in the 2000s that I suspect is tied to some policy change and/or to the Great Recession an entirely consistent trend in one direction of down. I don’t know what the error bars are, but I have a hard time believing that they are 11%!

        I have conceded that farmland bird declines are not universally due to declining farmland (it was only brevity that would have ever led me to make such a sweeping claim).

        Are you still trying to suggest there are not places where loss of farmland plays a substantial (i.e. primary) role?

      • Ah, apologies, I missed that button. OK, that’s an interesting trend and it does sort of correlate with decline in UK farmland birds over that time period, I agree. Even the early 2000s blip seems to have leveled off the decline. But most of the bird decline happened in the 1970s and 1980s, when there were big changes in UK farming practises, e.g. sowing winter wheat crops, removal of hedgerows, etc. There may be parts of the world, or species, where loss of farmland has played a role, but I don;t see any evidence that it’s major driver in the UK. More detail on the farmland birds index can be found here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/754432/UK_Wild_birds_1970-2017_FINAL__002_.pdf

      • Jeff – I followed that report to the end for the claims about drivers (Evidence appendix section 3.2.3.1) and I don’t see any peer reviewed literature citations or data. Just scores for different drivers that in the context appear arbitrary. Do you know where the peer reviewed evidence is? Or is it just expert opinion? And whether any of them examined land quantity change?

  6. One small example illustrating that the media is structurally biased towards bad news (thus making it unlikely that good news will be seized on and trumpeted): https://twitter.com/page_eco/status/1149275316147200001

    As another example, think of how most people in the US think violent crime is getting worse–when in fact it’s been dropping rapidly in per-capita frequency pretty much everywhere in the US since at least the early ’90s.

    Noah Smith (@noahpinion) harps on this a lot in the context of global poverty and human well being. People are largely unaware of the massive good news on this front, and many political activists on the left deny the good news.

    Closer to home, ecologists’ beliefs about many aspects of the N. American ecology faculty job market are biased in the pessimistic direction (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2018/07/18/ecology-faculty-job-market-pessimism/). People believe that the proportion of women among recent ecology faculty hires is much lower than it really is, that you need many more publications to be competitive than you actually do, that most new hires got their PhDs from “elite” institutions when in fact they didn’t, etc.

    An off-the-wall speculation to explain the apparent bias towards bad news: https://worthwhile.typepad.com/worthwhile_canadian_initi/2011/12/why-reality-is-skewed-and-so-newspapers-are-biased-towards-bad-news.html

  7. Seems like the relevant question isn’t so much how a particular media story is spun, for better or worse, from the perspective of the environment.

    The question that’s emerging is: to what degree does ecology and the natural environment even matter to humans?

    The simple fact is that most of the natural environment no longer exists. Europe, eastern North America, much of SE Asia, likely have only superficial resemblance to pre-human times. Even the Amazon seems to have been intensively altered by humans before the arrival of Europeans. Yet humans thrive.

    So what if biodiversity declines? So what if natural landscapes are replaced by agricultural landscapes? How do we explain human progress in the face of species loss if biodiversity is critical to humans? Or is it time to recognize that humans are nearly completely independent of the environment?

    • I guess “humans thrive” isn’t my only metric. I agree that the links between biodiversity and human well being aren’t massively strong, but I personally subscribe to a strong moral obligation to biodiversity in its own sake in addition to the fact that our handful of generations aren’t entitled to deprive future human generations of the glory of biodiversity for marginal benefits to our economic “wellbeing”.

      And ” to what degree does … the natural environment even matter to humans” even an engineer would say a lot. Clean water, flood prevention, air quality, agricultural support via grazing, pollination, etc. Very tangible and measurable.

      For all those reasons I care about not aiding and abetting the undermining of the environmental movement.

      • Agreed, human populations are far from “nearly completely independent of the environment”. In fact one could argue that we have never been more dependent on the environment given that extreme and unpredictable weather patterns are now interacting with an ever-increasing global population. “Dependent on the environment” can have negative as well as positive connotations.

  8. Measuring whether media coverage has detrimental impacts on environmental progress requires long term data, so hard to answer that question. But there are plenty of examples of some media presenting positive stories in a misleading light that suggests ‘it’s not that bad’. Recent example here in Australia of a study showing recovery on a unique island in the Great Barrier Reef (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-07-02/new-hope-for-great-barrier-reef-with-remarkable-coral-growth/11268014) – the headline and some text on this have been edited following public comments (e.g. original headline can be partly seen here https://twitter.com/JoannaAKhan/status/1145983580167782400). Ironically, from other side of coin, exaggerated media coverage of negative stories can also have detrimental effects on conservation progress, e.g. insect apocalypse narrative, for which there is limited evidence.

    You link to the Kidd et al. paper on Hope vs. Fear in your comment above…I think the positive vs. negative ideal is a false dichotomy that we keep perpetuating, especially in agricultural systems (https://ecologyisnotadirtyword.com/2015/10/08/the-good-the-bad-and-the-ecology/). The reality of ecological systems is that nothing is inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – interactions have ecological context. I think we need to do better at communicating this context, as well as methodological limitations and uncertainty.

    • Thanks Manu for insightful and fact-informed comments as always.

      I have to confess reading the article it didn’t seem too over-the-top to me (other than perhaps the original headline which is not written by the reporter usually). And the good news (One Tree) takes the first half and the bad news (Lizard) waits for the second half. But you say it has been changed so maybe the most egregious aspects are gone.

      For sure change is not inherently good or bad – that is a human value. I can’t make up my mind though if that means we should eliminate “good” and “bad” from our vocabulary or if they are a bedrock of human perception and scientists need to just start owning the normative nature of these words and work with social scientists to start quantifying what they mean.

      • I think we just need to get better at talking about context and variation. Humans have a tendency to label things and popular media are especially good at this…eg science stories are often presented as ‘The Global Answer’ with little acknowledgement of the context of the study and variation in the described patterns.

      • I agree heartily – if there is one thing I’ve learned in my Anthropocene ecology work it is that it is more sensible to talk about the high variability range of outcomes than the one trendline. Its not the kind of answer people want.

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