Throughout the last decade, topics related to the climate crisis, marine ecosystems and biodiversity have increasingly secured their place in the mainstream media (MSM) coverage. The climate and Ocean coverage is not only presenting the bad news, the seriousness of the ecological crisis but also focused on reporting marine conservation efforts. With widening opportunities to get the conservation message across to the public, activities related to communications and public relations are getting rapidly increasing attention within marine conservation organizations.
MSM & MARINE CONSERVATION
We can notice broadly three types of engagement between MSM and marine conservation groups. Conservation groups see the media as the partner, and/or tool, and oftentimes they find media as their critic.
- Conservation groups like to see the media as a partner in conservation. Because, how and to what extents media cover an issue significantly define and shape the public discourse on that issue, and conservation organizations clearly understand that. As media is supposed to serve the public interest and common good, conservation organizations see ‘common ground’ with media and reach out to them as potential ‘partner’. This partnership approach serves them well to manufacture consent in public for conservation and mainstream and strengthen the support for conservation in public discourses.
- In many cases, conservation organizations consider media as a ‘tool’ to get the words out in the public about their own institution, or projects, or to reach out to their targeted audience for fundraising, or to reach out to policymakers and other stakeholders for advocacy or engagement. In these cases, media oftentimes, play the role of ‘neutral’ validators of conservation groups and/or of their works.
- Sometimes, conservation groups find media as the watchdog on behalf of the public, or a critic of their institutions and/or efforts.
While coverage of Ocean and conservation in the MSM is ‘getting better’, internalizing this as a news agenda is not happening much in legacy media outlets. Globally, MSM has a lack of institutional capacity and editorial priority to cover marine conservation related affairs as part of its regular agenda. In many cases, the novelty of the subjects to the newsroom, and high resource needs to operate in remote coastal and marine areas are also restrictive. So, oftentimes MSM coverage of Ocean conservation is mostly based on the updates delivered by the conservationists themselves.
This practice deprives Ocean conservation and conservation groups of objective reporting and critical coverage which are cornerstones of transparency, accountability, and public trust for any crisis sector. So, I think, strong and dynamic ethical practices are imperative to address this challenge.
QUESTION OF PUBLIC TRUST
MSM is useful for conservation communication because of the public trust that legacy media traditionally enjoys. The traditional perception is that media covers current affairs to serve the interest of all citizens, and it is independent of the undue influence of outside actors, political parties or conservation groups, for instances. Therefore, when ecological crisis or conservation efforts are represented in media as a consequence of any types of relationship between conservation groups and media organizations, it is an imperative that, the very relationship do not cross essential ethical standards of PR and/or journalism in a way that impede the media’s role as the fourth estate that makes other entities accountable to public.
People should be able to rely on that the stories are done independently by journalists (not serving the institutional interest of conservation organizations as such) who are committed to serving only the public interest and pursuing truth through facts.
Most probably, the unquestionably approving coverage by influential global media outlets of top-down declaration of very large marine protected areas are one of the recent examples of what happens if media does not independently and objectively examine each case on its merits, rather commit itself to the cause of certain conservation groups as such and get busy in advocacy.
Within the echo chamber of social and/or political progressiveness, to which the conservation community is a part, by and large, it might be a little hard to accept that there is an ongoing erosion of public trust in mainstream media throughout the world. But it is real. It is happening because a large portion of the global population perceive that the MSM has lost its traditional editorial independence and objectivity to various liberal progressives’ ‘projects’ such as climate action and nature conservation, and are closely associated with ‘the establishment’, which they identify as ‘elite’ and ‘liberal’. This is not uncommon in other crisis sectors too. There is past evidence of the compromised ethical standard of development communication and journalism in other sectors, and reduced public trust in media covering the various global crisis, humanitarian issues and so on.
But, we need the public trust in mainstream media, because no matter how much a conservation group has sway over social media and it is own PR platforms that are not a replacement for independent journalism. Because what the conservation groups are saying is already expected from them by the public and the public generally do not perceive those contents as ‘independent’. While we should continue to strongly advocate for conservation, we should not make it difficult for MSM to do their job that is, informing the debate with facts and making all voices heard.
Therefore, whether coverage of marine conservation efforts by journalists is the result of sponsored/ embedded arrangements or not, there should be some ethical codes on behalf of the conservation communicators to let the journalistic contents be produced independently with objectivity and neutrality needed in the persuasion of the truth.
The basic premises of my observations are;
- This has to be presumed that the activities of conservation groups and the cause of conservation are not always necessarily compatible as such. That is to say, conservation groups should not prima facie considered as agencies who can do no harm through their policies and practices.
- Conservation groups should remain open to this idea that like any other crisis sector agencies (for example the development agencies) their activities and projects are subject to public scrutiny and accountability through the mainstream media.
- While the partnership between MSM and conservation groups is necessary for the cause of conservation that should not stand in the way of the MSM playing its original role as the agent of the public.
- Conservation groups more particularly the conservation communicators should have the opportunity to take a proactive role in enabling the media to maintain its independence while working as a partner in conservation or any other modes.
- The balance of being an enabler of media in covering marine conservation efforts and keeping the public trust intact into what is being reported can be best facilitated by adhering to an ethical code.
Exactly how such a guideline will reshape the modes and modalities of engagement between media and marine conservation groups are not clear yet.
But recently I co-authored an opinion piece (Erickson et al., 2019) proposing about what are issues we need to address through such and guideline. In the opinion piece published by Frontiers in Marine Science, we have explained why we think “professional ethical guideline for marine conservation communication is necessary. We also report on discussions from a focus group titled, “Overcoming ethical challenges in marine conservation communication” held at the 5th International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC5).”
Please read the article here https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2019.00304/full
The supplementary table attached with the article has some ideas about a potential media-ethics code for Ocean conservation communicators.
Erickson LE, Snow S, Uddin MK and Savoie GM (2019) The Need for a Code of Professional Ethics for Marine Conservation Communicators. Front. Mar. Sci. 6:304. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2019.00304