Media and MPAs: Shaping of public opinion.

Marine Protected Areas or MPAs are an important means to preserve coastal and ocean environments. The public’s knowledge about the ocean bears a direct relationship with their support for marine conservation (Steel et al. 2005). A well informed public is more likely to support environmental issues and informing the public about marine protection presents a unique challenge.

The media play a significant role in the process of informing the public on environmental policies and due to the public’s low level of personal knowledge on the subject, this puts the media in a powerful position. How the MPAs are presented in the media will shape the public’s understanding and opinions. The agenda-setting theory states that the news media have a large influence on audiences by their choice of what stories are newsworthy and how much prominence and space to give them. It also considers salience transfer, the ability of news media to transfer issues of importance from their news media agendas to public agendas.

The paper ‘Murky waters: Media reporting of marine protected areas in South Australia’ Compas et al. (2007) looked at 65 online newspaper articles from January 1999 to March 2006, of these, 57 (88%) of the articles were written specifically about the MPA processes, the remaining only mentioning MPAs within their discussion. In the early stages of the MPA zoning process, the articles are largely supportive of MPAs with conservation groups and commercial fishermen being quite supportive, though the fishermen did show some concern over profits. In 2005, however, with the release of the draft zoning the tone changed completely due to the proposed closures of sites, with much of the media reporting on the debates between officials and those concerned about zoning. The overall findings of the research found that the media reporting on environmental issues were dominated by contested opinions rather than factual and contextual information.

The newspaper media which are seen as the most reliable media source, seemed to show in this paper that they conveyed very little information for the public to learn about marine environments and why their protection is necessary. As Compas et al. (2007) mentions, accessibility bias seems quite prominent, as the public have limited resources (such as time) and cannot learn about every subject, this is why the public turn to news media to gain information. The media, however, can sometimes decide to show a certain topic or opinion more than another and it can shape the public agenda and what they remember.            With gaps in information of policy making and the marine environment, the public may have been shaped to certain views about MPA zoning in South Australia.

References: Compas, E., Clarke, B., Cutler, C. and Daish, K. 2007. Murky waters: Media reporting of marine protected areas in South Australia Marine Policy, Vol:31 (6), pp. 691-697.
Steel, B., Lovrich, N., Lach, D. and Fomenki, V. 2005. Correlates and consequences of public knowledge concerning ocean fisheries management, Coastal Management Vol: 33 (1), pp. 37–51.

Caitlin Murray

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4 comments so far

  1. Beau Gamble on

    Thanks for the interesting post, Caitlin.

    This is such a relevant topic in WA right now, with drafts of a new network of MPAs being released just a couple of weeks ago. It’s been interesting to see the media coverage unfold in the months leading up to the announcement…

    The West Australian’s been publishing a fair bit of stuff from the recreational and commercial fisherman who are opposed to big new MPAs. Marine scientists have had some coverage though — Jessica Meeuwig from UWA wrote a detailed opinion piece about the importance of marine protection.

    Hopefully the public show support for an extensive network of MPAs but I’m betting the media’s had a strong influence in the opposite direction.

  2. Belle Lyons on

    Thanks for your post Caitlin.

    You said the paper found that overall newspaper media conveyed relatively little information for the public to learn about marine environments and why their protection is necessary. It is stated that instead, information presented to consumers was typically moulded to serve the purpose of making a headline and selling papers.

    For this reason, I found it interesting that little information was provided in the media releases about the specific locations of marine communities or habitats for individual species, as this topic could provide some particularly good headlines.

    The media didn’t take advantage of the public’s interest in the more popular types of marine species including: sea lions; seals; leafy sea dragons; and great white sharks.

    For example, an article that discussed the plight of baby seals losing their habitat would interest may readers – especially if a photo of a cute, sad looking baby seal was included.

    Or a sensationalist article about Great White Sharks, suggesting a link between decreasing seal and sea lion populations and an increase in attacks on humans. Whatever gets people thinking!

    MPAs are an essential part of marine conservation, and hopefully public awareness of their importance will increase over the coming years.

  3. gracerussell89 on

    Nice and easy post to read Caitlin and an issue that is very close or very distant to some individuals depending on their interests.

    I know that UWA do a lot in terms of studying and analysing MPA’s and the controversial opnions that some residents and recreational enthusiests have upon the issue.

    I completely agree that media have a great influence on public opinion. The selection of submission or omission of details and information on their behalf can be very strategic.

    However I do also believe that each individual has their choice to decide which media device they look at. If they are an educated individual they will base their opinion on more than one media broadcast and be selective at which ones they do look at. Newspaper articles compared to TV, which newspapers they look at and which channels they watch, is a very simple example. Therefore I do think that media is not the only source to blame or even consider in this type of topic.

    This is a topic that will be looked at more and more as time goes on. Hopefully the appropriate information can reach the public about MPA’s and there importance in our ecosystem.

  4. caitlinmurray9 on

    Thankyou for your comments guys. It is a very interesting topic, to look upon at the moment with it happening in WA. I totally agree that people have their own choice of what media outlet to go to, but unless it is a topic that interests them, I do not think they would look further for more credible sources. If they did make positive advertisement with the cute animals, I definitely think it would make people pay more attention. The commercial fishermen however, unless they get compensated, will always be against it.


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