Environmental Reporting vs. Reporting on the Environment: The Intersection of Marriott and Extinction Rebellion

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by Kyle Rosenthal

The concept of topic-specific vs. general reporting can greatly affect a story. Environmental reporting is quite different from general reporting on an environmental story. Environmental reporting is often done by someone specializing in that topic and is in its own section of a website or newspaper. Reporting on the environment is essentially any other type of reporting on the environment, often as part of a general or "front-page" story.

This separation is not often recognized as profound, yet its occurrence with any topic-specific story affects the general perception of that topic more than it would seem, and often in a negative way due to today's headline-skimming culture.

It is important for readers to recognize this difference as well as for reporters who may or may not specialize in a topic, but are covering a major environmental story. I want to preface this article with the fact that I have a great deal of respect for reporters and journalists and am incredibly grateful for the work that they do. Most progress in this world would not have been accomplished without them and they are and will be indispensable in the fight for environmental justice. However, certain issues which I discuss in this article have led me to apply a critical lens to reporting for the sake of the environmental movement.

It is important to note the efforts of groups like Extinction Rebellion in regards to the media. They have been successful in pushing publications like The Guardian to update their style guides to "introduce terms that more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world." These style guides apply to all reporters, but are also part of larger efforts to increase overall and general reporting on the climate crisis. Extinction Rebellion NYC released Standards for Media which were brought into the spotlight back in June after activists occupied the street outside the New York Times. There are few things which the current U.S. administration and environmental activists agree on besides criticism of the media.

Some people may rightly argue that "daily headlines on the climate crisis" will lead to an oversaturation in which people just ignore such stories altogether. However, clearly not enough reporting is being done to get the world to reach its environmental goals; therefore, something has to change. Significant progress has been made though, and there is much room for optimism.

It is exciting (for people in the environmental space) and necessary to see environment-related "general" headlines from major news sources, particularly when scrolling through a series of headlines quickly. These are stories that the average person who does not follow environmental accounts or news sources may never have seen. However, those stories may end up being detrimental to the environmental movement if their headlines misrepresent the story simply to draw people in.

A great example of this disconnect in regards to mainstream reporting on the environment can be seen in recent stories on single-use plastics.

Marriott and many other hotel chains have been attempting to phase out single-use plastic bottles for years. While this has been happening for awhile, formal commitments to totally phase out the bottles have been happening more recently.

It is also important to note that the reason for the phase-outs are almost entirely for environmental reasons, and explicitly not because of "stealing." Guests have been taking bottles from hotel rooms since they began; if hotels cared about the "lost" money, they would have taken action years ago.

However, many stories about these official phase-outs have framed them as either hasty and unnecessary decisions in response to activist pressure or a response to guests stealing the bottles, including: "Marriott Wants You to Please Stop Hoarding Shampoo" and "Marriott bans single-use shampoo, bath gel bottles." These stories seem to place an extra burden on the consumer with words like "you," "hoard," and "ban," none of which are relevant to the actual reasons which are related to the environment.

Marriott's own press release about the new commitment was much more in-line with Extinction Rebellion and environmental activists' standards than the media stories. They discuss how a pilot program has already seen success and was accepted by consumers, using words like "convenience."

It may seem tempting to write a story about a corporate attack on consumers rather than a piece celebrating a company for taking an action for the good of society. However, such negative stories are simply meant to draw in more readers and mischaracterize the true reasons for action while simultaneously painting sustainability actions as anti-consumer and inconvenient - which they are often not.

In fact, systemic action is much more effective and convenient rather than one or a few consumers attempting to take action by bringing their own shampoo. Obviously, this is much more impactful and, by placing the burden on an institution (company, organization, government) rather than the consumer, the argument for sustainable action only has to be made a few times instead of a massive behavioral campaign targeting all consumers in the hopes that so few people actually use the tiny bottles that hotels just get rid of them anyways. This is clearly a time-consuming and ineffective approach. When an institution takes action, it also brings financial benefits that will ideally also be passed on to the consumer. Large-scale environmental efficiency measures will always lead to financial savings whereas environmental actions by an individual consumer may be more costly due to a lack of infrastructure and logistics.

This disconnect has led to inaction in all areas as executives often initially cower away from environmental action out of fear of its costs when, in fact, it will likely lead to savings. Their initial reaction is reasonable, though, since they are also individual consumers and have experienced price increases for purchasing particular products. They bring the mind of a consumer into corporate decisions which is influenced by stories like the ones about Marriott. They therefore wrongly assume that taking action will cost more. As a consumer it might, but as a corporation, it will actually decrease costs for everyone involved.

This fact is why institutional and systemic action is so important and why messaging and reporting on such action is also incredibly influential. Early-adopters incur switching costs (i.e. electric vehicles), though they may have lower total costs (fuel and maintenance) over the life of a product. Prices also decrease significantly following mass-adoption which is why early-adopters see higher prices and why individual consumer action is more difficult than institutional action in which prices can be negotiated much more easily due to higher purchasing volumes. However, stories on electric vehicles or other sustainable products focus on early adopters and the overwhelming costs associated with them. This focus can dissuade mass-adoption and creates a reinforcing cycle in which people fear high prices, fail to purchase a product, and thus, those high prices remain since there is not a mass-adoption. If stories touted the benefits and reduced total cost of a product, many people would buy it and costs would go down.

We're told not to judge a book by its cover, yet many of us only have time to skim some headlines and tweets rather than read all of the articles we come across. Therefore, a headline must convey even more truth than the actual content of an article. Of course, the entire article should be accurate, but the headline must never deceive or it can cause fear and confusion for consumers and business leaders.

I'd love to hear your thoughts, especially if you are a reporter. My purpose for writing this article was simply to ensure that environmental actions are accurately represented and to begin a discussion on the way topic-specific reporting overlaps with general/mainstream reporting which can be applied to other issues in addition to the environment, as well as how social media and headline-only reading must be recognized as a primary way that people consume news today.

I also want to validate people who take individual action such as going vegan or driving an electric car. That is commendable and does have an impact. However, I hope this article also illuminates the benefits of collective and systemic action like passing laws that provide incentives to purchase electric vehicles. That is the reason I work on campaigns related to divestment from fossil fuels. I believe it is the way I can have the greatest impact.

If you're wondering how you can get involved in collective action, maybe you'll join an upcoming Climate Strike event. Maybe you'll sign a petition or write to your representative and senators. I hope you'll register to vote and actually do so as so many elections are decided by so few votes.

You can have a major impact by taking individual action as well as by pushing institutions that you are a part of to change. You must also be sure to apply a critical lens to any story you read, especially if it implies that environmental action will be an inconvenience. The time to act is now. I hope you'll join me in the important mission to ensure a sustainable planet for us all.

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