Media construction of an elitist environmental movement : new frontiers for second level agenda setting and political activism
Kensicki, Linda Jean
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The modern environmental movement is comprised almost exclusively of upper socioeconomic members. This research traced incipient elite participation to the political climate of the sixties, dissipation of humanistic social movements, economic conditions, and early scientific discoveries. Yet, the movement’s divide has continued despite high levels of concern from those in lower socioeconomic classes. Several possible reasons were investigated but produced conflicting results — Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, elite decision-makers, the nature of volunteerism, environmental exposure, an omission of civil rights, structural obstacles and qualities indicative of unobtrusive social movements. Research has shown that media play a predominant role in crafting the public’s vision of movements by recruiting members, offering psychological support, generating activism and creating awareness. Further, the knowledge gap model has found that four factors are essential for information pursuit across classes: interest, locality, time and newspaper attention — all pertinent factors to the environmental movement. Thus, media content was essential in determining what all groups were learning about the environment and environmental organizations in order to determine if media constructed a movement that was ‘compelling’ for specific classes. Through an examination of 1,180 articles over 29 years from four newspapers with different socioeconomic readerships, this research found content that was decidedly more compelling to upper/middle class readers in particular and promoted apathy within the general public. Further, regardless of the newspaper’s socioeconomic readership, geographic location, specific topic or publication date, coverage was relatively unchanged over nearly three decades. It was concluded that this consistency was due to the pervasive values, norms, and routines of journalists. It was concluded that the entirety of media content constructed an imposing institution that was neither approachable nor compelling for those outside of ‘the system.’ In accordance with second level agenda setting theory, coverage of the movement and of air pollution was suggested to have played a fundamental role in contributing to the elitism of the modern environmental movement and apathy within the general public.
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