A poll conducted in 2013 by the Pew Research Center and Smithsonian Magazine found that 51 percent of Americans know that “fracking” is a process that extracts natural gas from the earth as opposed to coal, silicon or diamond. Does this mean that only 51 percent of Americans should be invited to participate in conversations about fracking? What role does the media play in informing the public about such a process? How do scientists communicate about fracking to the other 49 percent?
Environmental Communication & the Public Sphere (CJ 491) is a new special topics course being offered in the spring 2015 semester that aims to tackle questions like these and more. Dr. David Tschida will be teaching the course and it will be open to all students, has no prerequisites and can serve as an elective for any emphasis area. I sat down with Tschida to get a clear picture of what the course is all about.
“This will be a great course for students majoring and minoring in CJ,” he begins, “but those in the Watershed Institute as well as those in sciences, political science and sociology should all find relevance in this course material, especially if they are interested in environmental issues.”
“The course aims to get students thinking about the ways in which we communicate environmental issues in the public sphere and in different public formats,” Tschida tells me. To accomplish this, the course is broken down into different areas of content.
It begins by looking at the ways we define nature and elements within nature. As Tschida explains, “many of the words we use when talking about the environment are influenced by our families, our education systems and other values such as faith traditions.” An example he presents to me is nature. Nature may be defined as something we have dominance over or as something we have a responsibility to shepherd. Those definitions ultimately impact our responses, values and attitudes about an issue such as climate change.
“The course then switches gears,” says Tschida, “and investigates the context of discussions in the public sphere.” What sort of people are invited or not invited to participate in these environmental conversations? What do these citizen groups and public forums look like and how are they determined? As Tschida tells me, “average citizens will sit next to the scientist who is sitting next to the industrial person and a city council member. Yet at other times they’re restricted to only certain kinds of interests.” This section also looks at how access to information plays a role in these discussions.
After that is examining the role the media play in impacting and influencing environmental issues. This can range from news reporting to entertainment programs. Tschida’s primary research interest is in environmental communication and he has studied a wide range of areas involving the media.
“One of the things I’m really interested in is how the television series ‘Whale Wars’ on Animal Planet addresses issues and turns environmental advocacy into an entertainment program,” Tschida explains. “Some people may then view having a television program as conferring legitimacy to an issue and not pay attention to other issues that aren’t shown on television.”
This also touches on the next topic: environmental campaigns and advocacy. This involves advocates of clean environment, environmental protection and environmental justice issues. It will look at how these social movements form, the traditional and nontraditional communication strategies they use and what factors contribute to the success or failure of certain advocacy groups.
The final topic of the course will be scientific communication and risk communication. Scientific communication revolves around looking at the ways scientists communicate their research to an audience primarily made up of non-scientists. Risk communication is all about how scientists, government officials, health officials and others speak about risks involving dangers to people and to the environment.
“We are as a society quite scientifically illiterate and oftentimes misunderstand basic scientific terms as well as what a scientist’s notion of proof is,” says Tschida. “This leads us to falsely think that if there isn’t 100 percent certainty, which there never is in science, then we don’t have to be serious or concerned about an issue.” This creates a problem for the way we understand what science is contributing to discussions in the public sphere.
Tschida explains that the course is designed to meet three objectives. First, he wants students to be able to explain and critically examine the role environmental communication is playing in our formation of attitudes, values, beliefs. Second is to have students distinguish and be critical of the different elements of the public sphere where the environmental communication is occurring. The final objective is to think about the techniques that people use to be successful in addressing environmental issues when they are talked about in the public sphere and to think critically about strengths and weaknesses of these techniques people are employing.
This is a great course for anyone interested promotions of the “greening” of an organization through advertising or public relations and in environmental journalism and media.
Are there any alumni that would be interested in taking such a course? Share your thoughts about the new course by commenting below or emailing me at CJintern@uwec.edu.