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Updated: Apr 29, 2020

Today's post was created by Prof. Eric Freedman, who chairs the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism in MSU's College of Communications

Tired of being a symbol

If somebody mentions extinction or endangered species, chances are pretty good that the first picture that comes to mind is a polar bear perched on a lone ice floe. This isn’t just happenstance. It’s true that the pace of extinction is accelerating around the world, not only because of climate change, but illegal wildlife poaching, overdevelopment in habitats that formerly belonged to animals and non-human causes like predators. But those are hard things to see; they happen slowly and intermittently, and when they do happen they’re scattered around the world. As a result, when we do experience extinction, it’s not likely to be a direct experience but a secondhand one, through media messages.

My colleagues and I believe it’s important to study these messages about extinction and endangered species. We know that messages of all kinds shape public opinion and public policy, but we also know messages about extinction aren’t identical to the thing itself. They are shaped by all the things that traditionally shape media messages, including human attitudes and beliefs. In other words, some media messages aren’t telling “the truth” as much as reflecting back to us the things we already believe about extinction. Our task in this research is to show the special ways the media portray extinction and endangered species and how those portrayals shape our political response to the problem of extinction.

Take polar bears, for example. While their habitat makes them especially vulnerable to climate change, we also know the process that turned this species into the poster child for climate change wasn’t started by the bears themselves but grew out of an existing stock of meanings that humans attribute to wildlife. It’s long been known that when people think about endangered species, they don’t focus on all species equally but on a small group that experts call the charismatic megafauna. These are the big, highly visible animals such as lions, tigers, elephants, bears, pandas and rhinos, that have always attracted the most attention and created the most excitement. Sometimes this is because people project human qualities onto these animals. You know the drill: We think of lions as noble, elephants as dignified and pandas as cute and cuddly. Media organizations, which are edited for people rather than animals, gravitate to these ideas in their coverage, partly because media are part of the broader culture in which we all swim, partly because media have to connect with their audiences or they won’t survive. Environmental groups know that focusing on the charismatics draws attention to their cause and attracts dollars, even though the dollars they raise may ultimately benefit lesser-known species that are at greater risk. This is why you’re more likely to see a wolf on a wildlife calendar than nerdier species like a humphead wrasse.

Would love to be the poster child too

My colleague Dorothea Born showed how two popular science magazines, GEO and National Geographic, used images of polar bears in sharply different ways. These not only reflected their different editorial policies but contributed to the process that turned polar bears into environmental icons. This is entirely a human social process. The bears themselves have no idea they’ve been recruited into an environmental campaign that may ultimately help save them from extinction.

Closer to home, I was part of a team of researchers who studied U.S. and Canadian news coverage of the moose on Isle Royale and the wolves who were transferred there in 2018. The two species had a predator/prey relationship on the island for seven decades when the National Park Service made a controversial decision to introduce new wolves to enlarge the wolf gene pool and prevent inbreeding. Does media coverage reflect the actual scientific controversy, which includes reservations about changing the existing special relationship? Or is it focused on the island as a kind of environmental paradise? That’s what we’re hoping to find out.

You'll be able to read more about the work of Prof. Freedman and his colleagues in the forthcoming book Endangered Species and Us: Environmental Communication, Culture, Public Opinion and Public Policy

Image credits: Gerard Van der Leun, Creative Commons (1); tetzl, Creative Commons (2)

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