Rationality and risk: examining media portrayals of environmental racism
July 18, 2023
By Andrew Staltari
This story was synthesized from a report written for Dr. Paul Wagner’s "Risk and Rationality in Global Sustainability" course in Virginia Tech’s Master of Natural Resources (Online) program.
Social justice is incomplete without environmental justice. A history of slavery, segregation, and environmental racism spanning centuries has left perpetual impacts on African American communities across the United States. The lasting effects of this oppression are still evident today. But as we may see these effects in the communities that surround us, media coverage does not always mirror reality. Proper and accurate coverage of all demographics, especially the most vulnerable and disenfranchised, in the media is an important tool in engaging the public and policymakers. Specifically, let’s explore various media portrayals of environmental risks posed to the African American community.
Climate risks from redlining
In order to understand the risks, their disproportionate impacts on African American communities across the U.S., and how they are portrayed in various media, we need a bit of history. Following the abolition of slavery and the end of Jim Crow era segregation, there came redlining—a form of modern-day segregation wherein African Americans, as well as other people of color or low income, were pushed into specific areas or inner cities through various policies. These areas became cheap places for heavy-polluting industries to build in close proximity to these communities. Although a number of these policies were repealed or banned, the effects are still disproportionately impacting African American communities today, including the various resulting risks.
Climate risks to African American communities due to historic redlining and disinvestment include flooding, land loss, air pollution, increased health risks including asthma-related and extreme heat-induced illness and death, increased injuries from storms and wildfires, water contamination from poor infrastructure, decreased food security due to food deserts, increased vulnerability to diseases like COVID-19, increased exposure to lead, and additional environmental risks posed by the criminal justice system due to police brutality.
Portraying environmental racism and risks in the media
A number of articles on these topics illustrate the past and current decision-making processes, the decision-makers, the beneficiaries of the decision-making, and the bearers of the risks. Some go further to illustrate how current and future African American generations are regularly and systemically discounted in decision-making processes and risk assessments, while white communities are not discounted and instead have been prioritized to retain home values. The best-framed stories educate the audience on the history, issues, and risks, provide suggestions for making the risks reducible, and add a human element while also attempting to reduce “my tribe-isms” inherent in certain cognitive biases.
Media portrayals with good framing
Good media reporting of environmental racism in African American communities includes key historical context and seeks to relate to the reader or viewer. Some media provide an introduction to the complicated history of environmental racism and its impacts, like The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein and The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee, for audiences who are curious and need a knowledge base to build off of. Many media sources use empathy as a means to communicate the issues and build support for change, such as The Century Foundation’s article "Environmental Racism Has Left Black Communities Especially Vulnerable to COVID-19." Journalists also often choose a particular angle for their messaging. They may choose to highlight public health, climate change, natural disasters, or another aspect that can be drawn back to environmental racism. Still, the best media portrayals are non-partisan and nonconfrontational, and seek to educate, engage, and offer solutions.
Media portrayals with poor or divisive framing
Some media are more provocative, controversial, and spectacular in their coverage. Although this approach can shake some people into concern and action by reinforcing the dire impacts of environmental racism, it can also turn a large number of people off, especially conservative-leaning readers. Other outlets simply do not go far enough, offering some high-level information but failing to dive deeper, like Insider’s 10 egregious examples of environmental racism in the US. A great example of coverage that may be provocative, but likely far-reaching, is when Reverend Jesse Jackson addressed the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi in the Birmingham Times. He framed the environmental and climate change issues as not just impacting Black people, but also poor white people. In doing so, he brought a whole new demographic of people into the conversation, which is also important to further people’s understanding of the problems society faces. He did frame the issue as partisan, and discussed the environmental disasters in other states where the areas were mostly white. While it is important to demonstrate that environmental racism can affect diverse groups of people, it is unclear whether this messaging was effective.
Inclusion is the way forward
After reviewing multiple different media sources, I found that the best framing approaches, those that appeared to cater to broader audiences and reduce “my tribe-isms,” were ones where the writers were nonconfrontational, educational, and weaved in plenty of the human element in a manner that people could relate to. Additionally, it seemed like their coverage would be more effective if they provided different suggestions to reduce the risks and to show that addressing or overcoming the risks is not impossible.
Thus, framing in the media is important. Confrontational videos or articles can alienate and further polarize people, or even cause a loss of support for just treatment and solutions. Ultimately, by framing stories that reinforce that we are all part of the same human existence yet have different experiences, the media may be better able to reach more people and result in actions needed to address climate change, environmental justice, and social justice.
Andrew Staltari has worked at the New Jersey Division of Taxation since 2010 in a policy and regulatory role. In his time at the Division, Andrew was regularly part of a series of projects which involved various aspects of sustainable development, ranging from renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and green buildings to fighting inequality, where he was first introduced to and developed an interest in the field. Andrew discovered Virginia Tech when searching for a good program that allowed the flexibility to work and go to school part-time. Andrew is hoping to leverage his knowledge and experience from his time with the Division and the knowledge gained from the Master of Natural Resources (Online) program to effect positive change in whatever direction life may take him.