News stories are told as “self-contained, isolated happenings.” Events from wars to union strikes are presented without historical or social context, which would take too much time or space. Environmental problems become a series of events that emphasise individual action rather than social forces and issues.
Reporting of environmental problems tends to be superficial, narrowing the focus to specific events in isolation rather than looking at systemic problems that caused them such as the international monetary system or the unregulated power of corporations, and concentrating on the costs of environmental measures.
Current affairs programs do expose corporate misdeeds, accidents and environmental and health problems resulting from unsafe products and production processes but in a way that does not call into question “fundamental political or economic structures and institutions”.
By treating business wrongdoings as isolated deviations from the socially beneficial system of ‘responsible capitalism’, the media overlook the systemic features that produce such abuses and the regularity with which they occur. Business ‘abuse’ is presented in the national press as an occasional aberration, rather than as a predictable and common outcome of corporate power and the business system. The expose that treats the event as an isolated and atypical incident implicitly affirms the legitimacy of the system...
Environmental disasters are not followed up and environmental revelations that are uncovered by journalists are “seldom incorporated into the body of knowledge and perspective” that environmental journalists draw on in their work. Miranda Spencer, writing in Extra!, gave the example of the exposé in Christian Science Monitor that air pollution reductions reported by corporations were “based on paperwork tricks” which failed to inform later reporting of the Clean Air Act.
Former Boston Globe journalist Dianne Dumanoski admits, with reference to environmental reporting, “Our coverage is all too often driven by our business’s appetite for novelty and conflict. We often don’t do a good job of reporting on the science of complicated issues, and we generally do a lousy job of helping our audience understand uncertainty, which is the central dilemma faced in making environmental policy.”
Coverage of former communist countries during the 1980s concentrated on the pollution and environmental degradation in these countries, implying it was far worse than anything in the West and “an inevitable by-product of a centralized, totalitarian system.” This treatment of environmental degradation as being the result of the prevailing political system contrasted with the way it is usually treated in the West, where rather than being the inevitable result of a capitalist system that puts profit before environmental protection it tends to be treated as the result of isolated accidents and misdemeanours of individual companies.
In the US, for example, Love Canal and Times Beaches and the thousands of other Superfund sites represent exceptional circumstances whereas sites such as these in the East are ‘symptomatic’ of a socio-economic system. Also the role of West Germany in exporting 10 million tons of toxic waste to East Germany was neglected. As Peter Dykstra of Greenpeace has pointed out, this highlights a double standard where: “Under Marxism, the environment is ‘sacrificed’ to production goals; under capitalism, the environment is ‘balanced’ with production goals.” This sort of reporting enables corporate funded think tanks to claim that pollution in Communist countries proved that the free market was necessary to prevent environmental degradation.