Michael Maher

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Michael Maher

Prof T Michael Maher  has a Ph.D. in Journalism, from the University of Texas, at Austin; 1995.

His Ph.D. dissertation title, Media Framing and Salience of the Population Issue, included (i) The Triumph of Anthropocentrism at World Population Conferences
(1999), and (ii) Population: The Once and Future Environmental Crisis (1995).

He is the author of the study, How and Why Journalists Avoid the Population-Environment Connection [PDF], published in Population and Environment, Volume 18, Number
4, March 1977.

He has been the Professor and Head of the Dept. of Communication at the University of
Louisiana, since November 1974 (became Head in 2003); Fulbright Professor, at the
University of Regensburg, Germany (Sept. ’07 – July ’08).

Expert Witness Affidavit in EoP Leg Submissions Case

Prof Maher submitted an expert witness affidavit in The Citizen v Robert McBride: 22 May 2010: Written Statement of Consent of T. Michael Maher, Ph.D, to testify as expert witness for How and Why Journalists Avoid the Population-Environment Connection and Media Framing and Salience of the Population Issue [PDF].

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Excerpts: How and Why Journalists Avoid the Population-Environment Connection

Abstract

Recent surveys show that Americans are less concerned about population than they were 25 years ago, and they aren’t connecting environmental degradation to population growth. News coverage is a significant variable affecting public opinion, and how reporters frame a problem frequently signals what is causing the problem. Using a random sample of 150 stories about urban sprawl, endangered species and water shortages, Part I of this study shows that only about one story in 10 framed population growth as a source of the problem. Further, only one story in the entire sample mentioned population stability among the realm of possible solutions. Part II presents the results of interviews with 25 journalists whose stories on local environmental problems omitted the causal role of population growth. It shows that journalists are aware of the controversial nature of the population issue, and prefer to avoid it if possible. Most interviewees said that a national phenomenon like population growth as beyond the scope of what they could write as local reporters.


Introduction

In 1992 the National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society issued a joint statement urging world leaders to brake population growth before it is too late (Royal Society, 1992). That same year, 1,600 scientists (including 99 Nobel laureates) issued a statement warning all humanity that it must soon stabilize population and halt environmental destruction (Detjen, 1992). That same year, a Gallup poll showed that Americans were less concerned about population than they had been 20 years before (Newport & Saad, 1992). That same year, world leaders ignored population growth at the largest environmental summit in history, the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro.

Why are the American public and political leaders so indifferent about this issue that so concerns the world’s leading scientists and environmentalists? Not because Americans are anti-environment: Another recent Gallup Poll (Hueber, 1991), showed that 78 percent of Americans considered themselves environmentalists and 71 percent favored strong environmental protection, even at the expense of economic growth. How can Americans express strong concern about the environment, yet a diminishing concern about population growth, which many environmental experts consider the ultimate environmental problem?

It seems likely that Americans are not connecting population growth to environmental problems. In addition to the above-cited Gallup poll, a series of nationwide focus groups conducted for the Pew Global Stewardship Initiative confirmed this. The study sought to determine attitudes on population among 10 different voting groups, among them Catholic Anglos, mainstream Protestants, Jewish groups, and environmentalists.

The focus group summary report noted, “The issue of population is not invisible but most often it is a weak blip on the radar screens for most of the voting groups —with the exception of the committed environmentalists and internationalists” (Pew, 1993, p. 22).

Focus groups are ideal for getting beneath the surface of public opinion, for finding out why people think what they think. And most tellingly, when the Pew-sponsored focus groups were evaluated on whether respondents could connect population growth with environmental degradation, environmentalists and some of the internationalists and Jewish men’s groups could make the connection, “but overall most of the others do not make any direct, unaided connections between population and environment;” the 1993 Pew report stated (p. 26, italics in the original report).

But why is the American public not making the connection? This paper explores the possibility that news stories, from which Americans may infer causality of environmental problems, may keep them from making the connection between population growth and the problems it causes.

Population researchers Paul and Anne Ehrlich opened their book, The Population Explosion, with a chapter titled, “Why Isn’t Everyone as Scared as We Are?” They acknowledged, “The average person, even the average scientist, seldom makes the connection between [disparate environmental problems] and the population problem, and thus remains unworried” (1990, p. 21). But while they noted that the evening news almost never connects population growth to environmental problems, the Ehrlichs chiefly blamed social taboos fostered by the Catholic Church and “a colossal failure of education” (p. 32) for public indifference about population. Howell (1992) also minimized the role of the media in influencing public aptitude about science and the environment, and pointed instead to education:

The obvious starting point for the individual is the public schools …. Education proceeds into undergraduate programs, which can play more than one major role in enhancing scientific literacy (p. 160).

The Ehrlichs and Howell seem to assume that education is the chief factor driving public opinion about environmental causality. But in Tradeoffs: Imperatives of Choice in a High-Tech World,Wenk (1986) offered a more media-centric view of how the public learns: “Whatever literacy in science and technology the general public has reached is not from formal education. Rather, it is from the mass media. That responsibility of the press has been almost completely ignored” (p. 162).

This study will examine press responsibility for the public’s indifference to population growth by exploring two questions:

  • To what extent do press reports about population-driven environmental problems link those problems to population growth?
  • What reasons do reporters give for ignoring population growth in stories about environmental problems?

» How and Why Journalists Avoid the Population Environment Connection [PDF]…

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