Environmental Information Access: Media & Public Learning

Access to environmental information for the public is challenging. Find out what obstacles prevent people from taking environmental action.

How do we learn about the state of the environment?

It never ceases to amaze me how much we already know about the environment. What’s even more surprising though, is how much information gets delayed or stranded through inefficient communication.

 

Information about the environment can take decades to become public knowledge. It often requires extensive ‘translations’ from the difficult-to-read science publications into more accessible language. This shows that there are barriers between the science and the public knowledge.

 

And these barriers are, at least partially, the reason why people don’t take more sustainable actions.

“Only when information is transformed into meaningful knowledge and can be effectively channelled through integrated social action networks can information become a resource to improve sustainability and environmental quality."

European Environmental Agency

Take for instance our climate emergency and the past few years. How much momentum have these debates got in the recent years? Yes, finally!

 

But scientists in the 1970s already knew that we’re headed in a direction that poses severe threats of climate disaster [1].

 

Why did it take so long until this knowledge became mainstream?

By now, the scientists have a good understanding of what is happening to our planet. Yet, it seems that the knowledge is still rather reserved for the academic communities.

 

The access to environmental information often seems limited to those, who work with it. That makes it professionals like scientists, policy makers and other.

 

But it is still protected by many gates; price, level of education or even other social barriers.

 

We will have a closer look at these barriers later.

We have the information, not the knowledge to act

When it comes to understanding of what is happening to the environment, the lay public often gets a skewed view. It has access to bits of information. But the access to comprehensive knowledge that would inspire more sustainable actions is limited. People may also lack on the language capacities to understand the complex terminology of science[2].

Thus, the learning curve is rather flat and the general public depends on non-scientific content. But journalists and media broadcasters may be struggling with the same issues.

 

As a result, this leaves the public with learning through plain news or hard-to-grasp science texts about what the reality is.

 

This is neither very entertaining nor motivating. So, if we want people to act more sustainably, we have to motivate them and give them the vision of a better future. That’s why we also need to find ways to communicate and educate the public about how the reality should be.



If we fail to do so and stick to the plain news or hard-to-grasp science texts, communities learn from messages that were not entirely written for them. This often leads to misunderstandings. And misunderstandings polarize the public or even make them completely ignore the problems.

 

What is Environmental Information?

Before we get deeper into the barriers to environmental information, let’s go over what is environmental information is[3]. Here’s a definition:

“the state of the elements of the environment, such as air and atmosphere, water, soil, land, landscape and natural sites including wetlands, coastal and marine areas, biological diversity and its components, including genetically modified organisms, and the interaction among these elements”

itspublicknowledge.info

So basically, it is an information that refers to the state of the natural environment and its workings and doings.



Let’s take the example of climate change again. In simple terms, ‘climate change’ is a piece of environmental information. But each environmental information carries many important relations to it.

 

‘Climate change affecting the well-being of nature or humans’ is a good example of how relations make environmental information more complex. More complex in what they contain, but also complex in ways we communicate it.

 

So, for instance when I publish an environmental information, I can and should decide how complex I want it to sound. That will affect how many people can understand it, relate to it and react to it. And this is where things tend to go wrong, slow and inefficient.

Environmental information exchange

"There is already a wealth of information that could be used for the management of sustainable development, but people have trouble finding the information they need when they need it.”

European Environmental Agency

These misunderstandings and delays show quality rather than quantity being at fault.

 

So how can we make sure that people can access environmental information?

 

We need to invest time in how to transform environmental information into knowledge. Environmental knowledge that would inspire the public to take meaningful actions.

The European Environmental Agency (EEA) defines two models on exchange of environmental information[4].

image description. The traditional and new models of environmental information exchange as define by European Environmental Agency.
The traditional and new models of environmental information exchange as define by the European Environmental Agency.

The traditional model with linear and fragmented transmission of information. It tends to appear through sensationalism of ‘click-bait’ titles and non-specialised news. The trouble with the traditional model is that it informs in a general way. It presents information that doesn’t inspire meaningful action.

The alternative model, looks into the context of environmental problems. It works with it in ways that transform consumption information into useful information. In this model, environmental information is accessible to the right audience at the right time. But it requires systemic changes. Changes that above all foster the use of technological means for environmental communication.

Shaping Environmental Information vs. Environmental Knowledge and Action

Environmental information shapes environmental knowledge, which leads to actions. But this process is lengthy and requires transition from the traditional model to the new alternative ones.

 

image description. The process of transforming environmental information into public knowledge that results in environmental action.

When we learn a new piece of information it doesn’t immediately become knowledge. We need to reason, verify, and make sure we understand it. Only when we understand it, we start forming opinions through discussing it. And that’s what shapes our actions.

 

This is a time demanding process. Unless, of course, we explore new non-linear methods of transmitting the environmental information.

 

Let’s have a look on where we can find environmental information.

Origin of environmental information

Environmental information, although not limited to, originates through research.

 

So, the extent, to which one can comprehend it, depends on the level of education or even on a social status.

 

For the public to make sense out of the information, we use a more or less linear journey of the information flow. That means starting from research (often academic), through mass media to the public.



This slows down the process and the information that originates through research takes months or sometimes even years to reach the general public. On top of that there is the risk that important information gets lost or misrepresented.



In times of a climate emergency, it is saddening to see how ‘inaccessible’ our scientific knowledge to many people actually is. The public only has access to pieces of environmental information that are not enough to form informed knowledge. Thus, we cannot expect that it would result in meaningful actions.

Academics, governments and environmental professionals

Nowadays, to be able to critically verify information, higher education becomes almost a prerequisite. Not to mention for learning about the climate and the environment.



I do not want to blame nor offend any scientists here. It is not their main role to communicate their findings to the public (yet). But chances are, if I had never studied at a university, my knowledge of environmental sciences would be fairly poor. Nature has always fascinated me, but only with curiosity to study it, my passion for and understanding of it intensified.



But I only got a chance to learn more about the environment because I paid tuition fees and read academic journals. It was my conscious decision (and had the means to do so) to pursue my environmental learning through academia.

 

But had I not attended university, never would I invest $30 to read a scientific paper. Most likely I’d be dead disappointed because I couldn’t even understand it.

Open and closed access to environmental information

Thus, the public access to environmental knowledge remains rather poor. High price tags and difficult language often protect most of the scientific knowledge. Although we may see more ‘open-access’ publications (which is a positive development), the language barrier remains.

 

 

image description. Public access to environmental information closed to the less wealthy public, who cannot afford to purchase a pricey academic paper.
Oh the irony of access to environmental information.

Moreover, researchers need to publish ‘closed-access’ articles to advance in their careers. That’s because open access articles do not rank so well for their academic impact.

Academic impact is ranking, through which researchers gain authority in their fields. This is a rather harsh reality of the scientific world. Especially in the context of the 1998’s Aarhus convention granting citizens the right to access and competency to participate in environmental matters[5].

 

Another barrier to environmental information is the scientific jargon. But the reason researchers use a language with hard-to-follow terminology, is to remain objective and accurate.

 

This comes across as a hard nut to crack as the messages are often very plain and not very engaging. To be objective, researchers detach themselves from personal and emotional interests. They simply present data in the most plain but accurate language not intended to speak to the public but to their fellow researchers…

 

But how should the public make sense out of it?

 

Journalism and environmental information

Journalists are there to help raise awareness of environmental issues. They even may have the means to overcome the financial barrier to access the information. But the language issue remains and it’s mainly specialised, environmental journalists, who can fully understand and interpret the scientific messages. And not every journalist has this specialized knowledge.



Journalists study university to prepare themselves well for their jobs. Knowledge about the environment and ability to decipher a message from a dense scientific paper are extra and not necessarily part of their study. Moreover, agenda of the publishing media can interfere with how and what to publish. Not to mention the agendas linked to (not) publishing environmental information.



An environmental journalist can only benefit from her/his environmental sciences background. This can prepare one well to be able to understand the scientific language.

 

While this is essential, many papers still lack a clear call to action. And that’s fine because the purpose of a scientific paper is not necessarily a call to action. But that means that understanding a scientific paper may not be enough to get the message across.

 

To communicate a clear message and potentially a call to action, journalists need to be inventive in effectively interpreting environmental information too.

Time-Space for Environmental Information

But that’s not all. The media time-space is a competitive factor of publishing environmental information. That’s why we often see negative news that make for sensational titles. These also often offer little hope and solutions for the future.

 

This strips even the most potent academic finding into rather meaningless information fragments.

 

Yes, it might generate views and clicks, but it doesn’t really educate the public. As a result, the public doesn’t learn much nor acts.

 

Facing these publishing pressures, journalists are simply not given enough creative space. They lack the ‘time-space’ resources to write engaging and educative stories. The pressure they face makes it hard to inspire the public into action.



Besides, journalists often cannot be physically close to the event in question or to the decision-makers. The inability to access the environmental information ‘first-hand’ results in misinterpretations and further fragmentation.



When it comes to other temporal restrictions, we build news on novelty. The scientific trend is to report updates on alarming news with only a mere focus on solutions.



What do articles reconfirming the negative state of the environment do? They maintain rather sensational than educative value.

 

The message is often: “We already know it is bad. But it is actually even worse than we thought”.

 

This does not really motivate people to take action and change anything. More likely it makes people give their hopes up instead or radicalize with no solution in mind.  

Social Media and Marketing

There are initiatives that try breaking the scientific knowledge into engaging environmental information. They are more or less pioneering the new model of environmental information exchange. It’s been increasingly easy to engage the audience through social marketing and media.



By engaged audience I mean people that learn through mutual interactions. These interactions occur, for instance, in reaction to a specific environmental information. They verify the information, discuss it and exchange opinions, which leads to actions.



But the internet is a fast-paced environment and companies realised this. In fact, way before academia. And through these interactions they gained sometimes even more trust than the scientific knowledge.

 

This is of course a serious issue since it again bears the risk of misinformation and misinterpretation. For instance, greenwashing comes to mind here. And in the worst case it simply results in fake news.

Greenwashing the environmental information

When it comes to information understanding, it’s easy to tweak it in one’s favor. Especially online through social media. This often happens to convince people to, for instance, become responsible consumers.



That’s why some critics disapprove of how we use environmental information for promotion. Environmental information should rather imply to change the current consumption system rather than solely the habits. They believe that like this, environmental information feeds to more economic growth resulting in environmental deterioration.

 

Yes, marketing and public engagement through social media is important in the context of sharing environmental information and fostering environmental learning.

 

But if it is used solely as a response to the consumers demand or for offsetting for a company’s wrong doings, it may be more harmful. Not only to the environment but also to the overall company’s image.

Influencers and environmental information

The urgency of environmental action inspired many people to engage in a call to action. People use social media to get quick access to the environmental information.



But also to disseminate information and form communities based on misinformation. If it wasn’t for social media ‘the Flat Earth society’ would probably not witness such a hype.



People gain authority through sharing information online. But their audience is often built around their personalities rather and worldviews.

 

Although it forms a strong sense of community belonging, it also runs the danger of using the wrong tone, which to some may appear patronizing.

 

This may well create yet another barrier to accessibility to environmental information. So it is important to listen to the audience and involve those that disagree in conversations.

 

Anyhow, the image of an influencer does not always have to be a negative one. Isaias Hernandez, for instance, built his entire online presence on breaking down environmental science to the public. He publishes under Queer Brown Vegan on many social media platforms. Moreover, the Yale Centre for Environmental Communication endorses his work for explaining difficult environmental topics to the public.

Environmental Communication and Environmental Knowledge

The role of environmental communication for public awareness in creating meaningful knowledge is increasingly important. It ensures the right people get the right messages and inspires action through engaging communities.

 



We need to acknowledge the lengthy process of transforming environmental information into public environmental knowledge and action. Especially when it comes to enabling access.



Because spreading information linearly doesn’t mean that people will understand. We need to invest time effort and money in understanding the audience and engage it. Only then can we truly pass the knowledge onto those that could help act.



Universities particularly could focus more on their science communication and accessibility of environmental information. Public outreach should become more prestigious to incentivize researchers to dedicate their time and resources to it. That would help nurturing creative and engaging environmental journalism that is built on collaboration and engaging the public.