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.