Saturday cartoon – how the media work by Ralph Underhill


Last week when I did a short piece on the Today programme I was thinking something similar to Ralph – along the lines of wildlife stories are the fluffy ones.  The media coverage of environmental issues seems to have declined in quality over recent years and that must be partly because there are fewer and fewer specialist journalists (and knowledgeable commentators) on the main newspapers and in TV these days.

The media give us daily reminders about whether the FTSE100 has gone up or down – and we are mostly clueless about what significance that has.

On the other hand, we do not have even monthly updates about the amount of forest left in the tropics, or this month’s assessment of the state of world fish stocks or the state of SSSIs in England, or whether the UK is meeting its biodiversity commitments.  Why not?

It feels to me that there is less coverage of UK wildlife issues on Today, and fewer NGO wildlife spokespeople in the media in general.  Maybe I’m wrong, what do you think?  And if I’m right is it that the NGOs have stopped trying, or that the media have moved away from the subject.

I am reading a report on BBC media coverage of rural issues and will blog about it next week – probably on Monday  – because it is quite funny in places. And quite important. And quite wrong in places too.





7 Replies to “Saturday cartoon – how the media work by Ralph Underhill”

  1. I agree that stories about wildlife and the environment are generally the fluffy ones and even when portrayed seriously their coverage is poor – for example the ongoing portrayal of a notional “climate change debate” when all serious scientists and scientific institutions have long ago recognised its reality. Part of the reason for this is that even supposedly heavyweight media presenters (such as those on the Today programme) have at best a middle school grasp of science. Listen to this for an excruciating example –

    The reality of the problem is that most people in the UK do not know or indeed care a great deal about environmental issues. A recent Ipsos MORI poll didn’t list a single environmental or wildlife issue amongst the top ten issues worrying UK voters ( This is a significant challenge to conservation NGOs and perhaps explains the RSPB’s recent fluffy (in my opinion) “Give Nature a Home” campaign as an effort to reach out to those more preoccupied with who will win X Factor.

    The recent rise in concern about immigration is an interesting case study. Is it driven by people’s own experience, or is it driven by the media’s reporting it as an issue? The media’s skewed reporting no doubt explains why people’s perceptions are often so wide of the mark ( When the media report that immigration is an issue people tend to believe there is a problem and so the self-fulfilling loop continues…

    At the end of the day the media churn out what sells, so we must conclude that currently environmental stories are a niche market of limited general appeal. On a brighter note BBC Springwatch (and its seasonal counterparts) seem to me to be a rare opportunity to reach out to those slumbering masses who none the less enjoy a peek inside a robin’s nest. If Chris Packham was to promote the petition to ban grouse shooting live on air I suspect the campaign would benefit from a significant boost.

  2. Mark,

    I’ve been looking at the report from the BBC Trust’s investigation into rural affairs coverage as well, see here –

    Makes for very interesting reading at first skim.

    [Keith can post his views on the report on my blog when i publish it – I have edited out a long plot-spoiling 😉 comment here]

    1. Keith – you are very welcome to comment on my blog on this subject next week. If you want to write at length on the subject, or any other subject, you could get your own blog or take up the offer of a Guest Blog here.

    2. Mark,

      Not in any way intended to be plot spoiling – spent some time skim reading the 236-odd page long documents yesterday, as others will no doubt have done, so your mention was timely.

      Will be on the road in Scotland next week and, if the weather is favourable, bivvying out on the high tops surveying Dotterel – ‘birding with a purpose’ to use your memorable phrase – but will try to catch it at some stage.

  3. Most of my experience of the media these days is via Radio 4 which has some very good wildlife/environmental programmes e.g. Natural World, Shared Planet (yes, I heard you (Mark) on it!), however, as you say some of the other programmes leave something to be desired. For instance a week or so ago there was an item on the Today Programme about a butterfly (I think it was) sighting at or found breeding on one of the National Trust’s sites. The woman representing the Trust was OK but I felt she could have delivered the story in much better way. For me she failed to get across the significance of the presence of the butterfly species. I felt the item came across as a piece just as being about a pretty insect at a well known tourist attraction. If she had been interviewed by someone who either had an understanding of the significance of the story, or had been primed by someone else who did, the presenter’s questions could have being geared towards the item being covered in much more in depth in the available time slot than it actually was.

    It is also notable how little time is devoted to individual stories such as the one I mention above, when compared with single items about sports, celebrities etc.

    Having said that, I think Evan Davis (Today Programme) seems to have a good understanding of environmental and wildlife issues.

  4. And more generally …

    An article by Susan Watts, formerly science editor at Newsnight before her post was made redundant.

    I particularly liked: “It is science journalism that will expose the rushed policy-making, the undisclosed profiteering, the conflicts of interest and the vested interests, the bad experiments, or the out-and-out frauds.”

    Would Simon Barnes like it, too?

  5. I should have added earlier that I found Ralph’s cartoon particularly relevant in the month that the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club published a paper by R L McMillan in their quarterly Scottish Birds magazine.

    The paper entitled ‘Hen Harriers on Skye, 2000-12: nest failures and predation’ revealed that of 88 breeding attempts during the period, 47 nests failed with predation the most likely cause, and 65% of recent failures were attributable to Foxes (four nests cameras were installed – excellent tools for establishing ‘ground truth’).

    Last year, only 3 x HH nests were found in the North Skye study area, (down from 9-10 in 2010 & 11) the lowest number recorded since the study commenced. Doing a bit better this year with 5 breeding pairs so far.

    But if you aren’t an SOC member, don’t otherwise have access to the magazine or follow the Skye Birds blog, see here – – you’d never have known it.

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