Environmental concern, patterns of television viewing, and pro-environmental behaviors: integrating models of media consumption and effects.

Author:Holbert, R. Lance
 
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The study of media and the environment is long standing within the field of mass communication, with researchers examining media treatment of the environment from a wide range of epistemological and theoretical perspectives. Empirical studies typically focus on the influence of public affairs content on individual-level environmental knowledge, attitudes, or behaviors (Atwater, Salwen, & Anderson, 1985; Brother, Fortner, & Mayer, 1991; McLeod, Glynn, & Griffin, 1987). Other scholars focus on media and the environment from a cultural perspective, considering a broad range of communication content and consequences (e.g., Daley & O'Neill, 1991; Farrell & Goodnight, 1981; Meister, 2001).

To date, the most exhaustive empirical work completed on the relationship between television use and environmental orientations comes from Shanahan, McComas, and colleagues (e.g., McComas, Shanahan, & Butler, 2001; McComas & Shanahan, 1999; Shanahan, 1993; Shanahan & McComas, 1997, 1999; Shanahan, Morgan, & Stenbjerre, 1997). Their studies examine television's portrayal of the environment and the effects of these portrayals on individuals' environmental beliefs and feelings. Their effects studies are typical of cultivation research (e.g., Signorielli & Morgan, 1990), focusing on total television use and its relationship to environmental beliefs. Although Shanahan et al. (1997) provide a convincing argument for the utility of a cultivation approach for studying the effects of television use on environmental knowledge and attitudes, empirical support for this perspective in this context is generally mixed. Indeed, Shanahan and Morgan (1999) detail the assumptions about television made by cultivation theory and state that any insights provided by this line of research are in part a function of those assumptions. In short, cultivation is but one approach to the study of television influence.

In response, the present study merges insights from existing cultivation research with media uses and gratifications to examine the dispositional and motivational underpinnings of particular patterns of television viewing and the consequences of viewing certain kinds of television content for engaging in pro-environmental behaviors. We contend that research should consider a host of variables, including environmental attitudes, that are exogenous to behavioral variables such as television viewing and social actions. Thus, the perspective advanced by this research considers both the direct effects of various forms of television viewing and their potential mediating roles in the relationship between environmental attitudes and behaviors.

Thus, we expand on research by Shanahan and McComas in four ways. First, we focus on the criterion variable of pro-environmental behaviors. Although the study of media's influence on environmental knowledge and attitudes are important lines of research, most psychological models assert that these variables precede behaviors (McGuire, 1989). Second, we foreground the inherent limitations associated with a focus on total television use (e.g., Hawkins & Pingree, 1981; Potter & Chang, 1990), leading us to attend to individuals' consumption of five different types of television programming (public affairs, nature documentaries, situation comedies, progressive dramas, and traditional dramas). (1) Third, we argue that environmental attitudes and other characteristics can influence patterns of television use. Specifically, we contend that different types of television use support basic psychological dispositions and basic motivations (e.g., Blumler, 1979). We postulate that environmental attitudes, which are central to many individuals' sense of self (Backes, 1995), act as one of many internal motives that determine which types of television programming individuals consume, and treat environmental concern as antecedent to television use. Finally, we argue that certain forms of television use act as important mediators in the relationship between environmental attitudes and behaviors.

Television and the Environment

Mass communication researchers have focused on the potential influences of various types of television content on individual-level environmental knowledge, attitudes, or behaviors. These works are outlined below, with particular attention paid to the factual (public affairs and nature documentaries) and fictional forms of television programming (dramas and comedies) that are part of this study.

Public Affairs

Studies focusing on the relationship between public affairs media and the environment can be broken down into two distinct areas, content- and effects-based research (Shanahan & McComas, 1999). Several content-based studies focus on how media frame environmental issues (e.g., Dunwoody & Griffin, 1993; Gilbert, 1993; Griffin & Dunwoody, 1997; Luke, 1987), and several other works study the narratives used by journalists when reporting on the environment (e.g., Daley & O'Neill, 1991; Ten Eyck, 1999). For example, Griffin and Dunwoody (1997) find that governmental frames are used more often than scientific frames in the coverage of environmental risks, and that those media organizations in more pluralistic communities are more likely to provide explicit details concerning "threats to human health" (p. 380).

There has also been considerable research focusing on how reporters cover environmental issues. In particular, researchers have focused on what drives coverage of certain environmental issues or incidents by news organizations (e.g., Krimsky & Plough, 1988). Several studies have found that journalists tend to cover specific, dramatic environmental events, most often those with negative consequences; stories about the risks associated with ongoing environmental public policy debates or particular individual-level environmental behaviors receive substantially less coverage. This particular area of study has focused most often on television. Several studies find that coverage of major environmental events often fails to provide adequate scientific detail to place the risks of the event in their proper context, leading some scholars to conclude that television news coverage of the environment is often "more influenced by the dramatic value of a story than by the actual inherent risk in a story" (Shanahan & McComas, 1997, p. 149; see also Barton, 1988; Gorney, 1992; Greenberg, Sachsman, Sandman, & Salomone, 1989).

On the effects side of the news-environment relationship, there have been several agenda setting studies performed to date (e.g., Ader, 1995; Atwater, et al., 1985). Ader (1995) finds that news attention to pollution influenced public salience about the issue. Atwater et al. (1985) conclude that "when individuals say environmental subissues are personally important to them, those judgments are not made independent of perceptions of media representations" (p. 397). In addition, Brother et al. (1991) find a relationship between television news coverage of the environment and individual-level knowledge of environmental issues. In short, there is a strong relationship between coverage of environmental issues by news organizations and individual-level knowledge and attitudes about this subject matter.

Particularly important for this study, research by McLeod et al. (1987) found public affairs media use was a strong predictor of environmental issue salience, but that the effects of this type of media use had less of an impact on environmental behaviors. In addition to the study of general public affairs media use, McLeod et al. also studied the influence of environment-specific media use, and found once again that this type of media use yielded a strong positive relationship with environmental issue salience but not on actual behaviors. More recently, Krendl, Olson, and Burke (1992) found in their study of the role of media in a broader environmental campaign that forms of mass communication can have a direct positive effect on environmental behaviors.

Nature Documentaries

Content-based summaries of nature television shows sponsored by the Audubon Society and other environmental organizations describe programs that emphasize "the positive impact people can have on their natural resources" (Wallace, 1987, p. viii). These types of shows often present natural habitats relatively undisturbed by humans and stress the importance of trying to maintain these environments over the long term. Nature is often revealed for its own beauty in these programs and narrators provide detailed information about how these landscapes evolved over time (see Brown & Pettifer, 1985). Many of these programs also stress the importance of environmental stewardship by current generations. These programs exemplify the "think globally, act locally" philosophy. By promoting awareness about environmental issues that are worldwide in scope, they convey how local actions can affect distant habitats.

The proliferation of cable television has brought a rise in the number of outlets showing nature documentaries, and with this increase has also come larger audiences (McElvogue, 1997; Robinchaux, 1995). Recent documentary series like The Blue Planet: Seas of Life present images of areas of the world relatively untouched by humans (Henderson & Lomasney, 2002; Stratchan, 2002). Overall, the thematic and generally positive messages found in most nature documentaries contrast sharply with the environmental content typically found in news, with its over-dramatization of episodic environmental events.

Prime-Time Entertainment Television

McComas et al. (2001) provide a detailed analysis of the presentation of environmental issues on prime-time entertainment television. These researchers collected prime-time entertainment television content on the major networks for the years 1991 through 1997, and analyzed this content for the presence of environment-related episodes (see Shanahan & McComas, 1997, p. 151, for definition of an environmental episode). They...

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