Television as a Tool of Environmental Adult Education: Limits and Possibilities

By Kow, Janet Kushner | Adult Learning, Spring-Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Television as a Tool of Environmental Adult Education: Limits and Possibilities


Kow, Janet Kushner, Adult Learning


Television has been a conveyer of environmental information particularly since the 1960's. However, critics have accused the mass media of supporting the status quo "because of market forces, journalistic standards, and work requirements" and even of being "a tool of suppression used by the ruling class. (Neuzil & Kovarik, 1997, p. xiii)

To date, the potential of television as a tool of environmental adult education has been given limited attention. This paper addresses the present state of environmental programming in Europe, Canada and the United States. It begins with a brief review of the literature on television and delivery of environmental information and then critically examines three sample programs as a way to explore the educational potential of this medium. In general, American programming tends to be emotionalized and less cognitively focused than Canadian and European programs. There is a variable lack of critical analysis and placement of environmental issues within the larger socio-political contexts. To improve the effectiveness of television programs within an adult education framework, efforts should be made to increase dialogue and interaction with viewers. Possible adjunct methods would include interactive programs, Web sites and/or the possibility to develop discussion groups.

Television as a Conveyer of Environmental Issues

Since the 1960s, there has been a general increase in environmental programming on television. Although this trend seems to wax and wane with the prominence of environmental issues, the public often uses mass media as a source of information on environmental issues (Hansen, 1993, p. 3). Ostman and Parker (1987) found that in a sample of residents of Ithaca, New York, television was second only to newspapers as a source of environmental information, and ranked above magazines and radio. In addition, those with less formal education were the most likely to use television.

Unfortunately, Greenberg (1988) has shown that American network news coverage tends to use the traditional journalistic determinants of news-timeliness, proximity prominence, consequence, and human interest, plus the broadcast criterion of visual impact to determine the degree of coverage, rather than public health risk. As such, the objectivity of the news media as a source of environmental information has become suspect in the minds of the general public. Environmental groups, particularly those such as Greenpeace, use the mass media as a primary forum for their claims-making, and use it as a means for establishing legitimacy and influence (Hansen, 1993, p. 150). Cracknell (1993, p. 19) warns, "there is a danger that such organizations will start to see column inches, rather than political effectiveness, as a measure of success." In fact, Ostman and Parker (1997) found that their respondents felt that television journalists were among the least reliable compared to authors of books or magazines.

Generally, studies show an inverse relationship between hours of television viewing and measures of environmental 'concern' in U.S. college students (Shanaban, 1993, p. 195). However, a study of teenagers in Hong Kong found television news viewership had positive correlation with students' environmental knowledge (Chan, 1998). It is unclear if this is a comment on the viewing habits of either cohort, the quality of their programming, or how they processed this information. It is possible that the choice of programs viewed and how it is handled by the viewer may be more important than the hours watched.

Television as Environmental Adult Education

Since most contemporary 'environmental education' has been developed for children and not adults, it is not surprising that the vast majority of media literature in this area focuses on children's programming in schools. In this, there tends to be an emphasis on program planning for nature and science modules rather than critical appraisal of programs. …

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