A need for nuance in media messaging

The polarizing effect of today’s media and moving focus to influential groups

 “Life is much more complex than the black-and-white sound bites that you get on television. There are nuances and shades of gray.
— Joe Berlinger

The media landscape of the millennia is increasingly black and white. The quick headlines and short videos we see scrolling through social media do not allow much space for nuance.

You can be conservative or liberal, a believer or a sceptic, introverted or extraverted, a cat or a dog person, and you either care about the planet or you are a climate denier. We always feel compelled to be one thing or another. The truth is however, that things in life- especially people- are hardly ever so well-defined.

Millions of small manipulations, actions, reactions, examples, feelings and thoughts make up a human being and the ideas they form. So do we become stuck in our own opinions as we grow up, or is media messaging partly to blame?

According to Nobel Prize winning economist Esther Duflo, as human beings we all want to behave in a way that causes no friction within our assumed social groups. But what if we are told what defines our social group through the media rather than our own experience?

She uses the politically polarized landscape of the United States as an example. During their fight against Covid-19 the messaging was clear: Republicans do not wear masks, Democrats do. The polarizing effect creates a strange behaviour which compels people to overlook their own instinct and information, in order to fall in with what they perceive the group wants from them.

Translating this to an individual scale from an environmental perspective we might consider a teenager out with their friends. They perhaps feel it would be best to bring their own water bottle, or avoid using a plastic straw. This could however mean straying from the group behaviour.

This is something that happens to me on a daily basis. I am 29, with very strong vested interest in the environment and sustainability. I have a strong personality, I do not often give in to peer pressure, nor do I object to going against the grain.

However, even I find that refusing a straw, asking for tap water or just filling up my water bottle at a petrol station will bring negative feelings, awkwardness and a certain level of fear of missing out. Many of those who are less invested in making sustainable choices often tell me that their choices are shadowed by guilt and shame. Making people feel bad about their choices has a tendency to create defensiveness rather than support an open mind.

I believe that abandoning the stark contrast between individuals and the choices they make would allow for more space to learn. We need to find nuance and remember that most people simply do not have the capacity to make decisions that complicate their lives further.

Not making the best choice for the planet is perhaps more to do with prioritising the best interest of their families, or saving time and money on the short term. This is certainly not something they should feel bad about.

Still, I am convinced that people have the ability to listen and learn given space and shown an alternative way of how things could be. I do not however believe that putting more and more pressure and responsibility on the individual will achieve that.

Empowering people and making sure they find self-esteem in every sustainable choice they make will provide positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement that is necessary to get individuals behind sustainability in a way that trying to convince every person to care about the planet will not.

While we all need to engage and bear responsibility we cannot assume that a problem of this scale and magnitude will be solved by individual actions only.

We need a shift in media approach to take pressure of the individual and apply it elsewhere. People in positions of power, such as those in politics or leaders of large global corporations need to assume more responsibility for the kind of demand they drive and supply they provide.

At the same time, environmentalists in the media need to make sure to adopt an interdisciplinary approach that relies more on and understanding of human psychology and social behaviour in order to empower people and create positive social change.

If you feel this resonates with you, we may well be on a similar path. If you ever feel guilty about not doing enough, anxious about the limited political consensus, or even embarrassed about ‘trying too hard’ in certain situations you are not alone.

I truly hope that reading this article might ease your mind a bit, and transfer any self-doubt or anxiety you might have into action. There is no one size fits all approach as to how this can be done, but please find below ‘prescriptions’ of what I found to be helpful.

For everyday anxieties and life overload...

Nuanced conversations on wide reaching topics, to broaden your horizons and to increase empathy towards those you may not agree with.

To join the Political Lobbying Network of Greenpeace.

And finally if you feel bad about having to make an unsustainable choice when shopping at large business turn the guilt around and make it productive. Leave a comment on their social media platforms or sign petitions until the only available choice is the most sustainable one.

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