Nature as Cute and the Optimism Imperative

Section
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context
Page
6.5

Thankfully, this page offers some relief from the truly depressing depictions of Nature and those who care for her in 6.3 and 6.4. This said, the ‘Nature is cute’ formula isn’t without its problems, particularly as to depth and context, but at least it is a positive construct that usually engenders supportive behaviours of care and nurturing.

In 6.3 we benefited from Lunney and Moon’s analysis of the print media over a year – portrayal_of_human-wildlife_interactions.pdf (murdoch.edu.au)  – and its presentation of ‘dangerous’ creatures. This was only part of their paper, though, the remainder being about other representations of wildlife, such as wildlife as ‘cute and lovable’. To recap, their abstract reads: We examined 287 newspaper articles over one year (7/10/05 to 9/10/06). The journalism was, by and large, informative, readable and entertaining. The usual pattern of reporting was a catchy headline, short story and/or a sensational photo. There is a paradox in our relationship with wildlife – we want to be both close and distant. Media coverage reflects this, presenting wildlife as either dangerous or lovable, depending on the reporter’s ‘angle’.”

Mostly, the ‘cute angle’ uses photographs, and Lunney and Moon found: “the print media approaches the subject matter in two ways – look for stories on subjects in which the public has a known interest, or take an available story and present it in a way (angle) which catches the readers’ attention. Human-wildlife interaction is ideal for this treatment, especially if a good photo is available. Of the 287 articles, 116 were accompanied by one or more photos. However, Fairfax website archives articles (46), letters to the editor (53) and editorials (2) do not carry photos, so of the remaining 186 that made it into print, the 116 with photos represent 62%. Eight of these contained that most photogenic of subjects – baby animals, viz: cheetah cub (1/12/05); gorilla holding kitten (3/12/05); mother snow leopard with two cubs at Taronga (21/12/05); tadpoles due for release (23/12/05); sleeping baby wombat (25/3/06); hunter clubbing seal pup (25/3/06); penguin chick (from movie) (30/3/06), and two white lion cubs (30/9/06). Half of the photos (66) contained humans, and 30 of these showed people and animals in the same photo – which is a de facto portrait of the human-wildlife comfort zone.”

With 62% of eligible articles largely following this formula, based around an engaging photograph, then it is a dominant theme. A good example of this type of reporting was presented as follows:

(Lunney, D., Moon, C. 2008. The Portrayal of Human-Wildlife Interactions in the Print Media)

 

The Echidna is engaging and the intent is good: people caring for wildlife. But, as Lunney and Moon point out, almost all of this type of article suffer from that great weakness of the media – lack of context, lack of cause and effect. The story is isolated and atomised, and this has only got worse with computer screens and internet media. They emphasise this problem in the abstract when they say: Safeguarding the future of our wildlife will need much more than a headline with a pun and an engaging photo of a charismatic creature. In its presentation of wildlife, the media plays a powerful role that will either further its conservation or leave it as a neglected element of our heritage.” At least here, unlike in 6.3 and 6.4, there is a positive foundation on which to try to build more meaningful stories and actions.

Although Lunney and Moon’s work was confined to the print media, this type of media story is every bit as common on TV and the Internet where the cute Nature story is often used as a filler, a bit of entertainment fluff at the end of the news or similar. These items are brief and upbeat, their role being to amuse and entertain, not to inform, or worse still, depress.

This is what I call the ‘Optimism Imperative’. These stories have a very defined role – to make the viewer/reader feel good – and are not about the subject matter itself. The Echidna, or roadkill, is irrelevant in the story above; it is about human engagement, care and positive emotions. The media outlets that present these images hope that these feelings will wash over onto the outlet in question, and if commercial, to their advertisers. With such a straight-jacketed role, woe betide the naturalist, or scientist, or wildlife carer that tries to mention the cause of the dilemma, or ways we might deal with it. Mostly, any such ‘intrusion’ is simply cut from the story, or if they are seen to be straying, dangerously, into negative territory, they are snapped at: ‘Well, that’s all very depressing; you have to give us something optimistic to go on, something hopeful’. How many times have I heard this! On radio, TV, in print or online, the reporter brings the recalcitrant scientists, or similar, to heel and directs them to play their required role for the media; that of upbeat entertainer. To make this childish nonsense even more annoying, it is not deployed universally; ‘important’ topics do not have to conform to it. Items on the economy, refugees, gender, security, race, crime, etc…are allowed to be presented straight, or even very depressingly, because, apparently, they matter sufficiently to gain the audience’s attention no matter how grim they may be, whereas out on the margins where the environment lives, things require very particular packaging before they are worthy of being brought before the audience.

I have no desire to distort environmental stories, to make them either grimmer or happier than they are, and have, as I hope all ‘environmentalists’ have, just one responsibility: to tell the truth. If this is deeply depressing and bad, then so be it; if it is hopeful and optimistic, so be it. Anything else is tawdry distortion and artifice, and in the case of the ‘cute story’ and the ‘optimism imperative’, inevitably diminishes the seriousness of what we are dealing with, and the adult and responsible ways in which we might respond.

(Masha Prokudina/Parks Victoria. 2020. Bushfire Regrowth, Victoria. Despite an estimated 3 billion animals killed and 18.6 million hectares burned in the Black Summer Bushfires of 2019-20, images and stories such as this from ‘The New Daily’ [“Green shoots emerging from scorched plants in bushfire-ravaged parts of Victoria have provided a glimmer of hope after months of devastation”] have become an essential post-bushfire cliché, an Optimism Imperative, for the Australian media)

Explore Other Media Environmental Context

6.1 Introduction

The media is one of the three, great ‘poles’ of power in the world (alongside political and corporate power) and how they frame and present ‘the environment’ has a profound effect on how we respond to Nature. Those who doubt the power of the me...

6.2 Media Structures and Filters

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6.3 Five Environment Stories: Nature as Dangerous/The Enemy

The understandable and primal fear of being out of our element, vulnerable, and exposed to danger, is fertile ground for the media. It seems that it doesn’t take much to turn caution into downright terror, and the famous film, ‘Jaws’, was a classi...

6.4 Nature as Classist/Racist

The old saying of: ‘To a hammer, everything looks like a nail’, informs much of this response to the natural world. If your framework of the world is race and class, and your modus operandi is uncovering racism and classism and repression, then al...

6.5 Nature as Cute and the Optimism Imperative

Thankfully, this page offers some relief from the truly depressing depictions of Nature and those who care for her in 6.3 and 6.4. This said, the ‘Nature is cute’ formula isn’t without its problems, particularly as to depth and context, but at lea...

6.6 Nature as a Stage

While listening to evening radio on the public broadcaster a few years ago, the presenter, who was new to radio, said how much he’d learnt from experienced radio people, such as the oft-lauded morning presenter, whom I have spoken of previously (s...

6.7 Nature as Important in its Own Right

Thankfully, after this sometimes profoundly depressing journey through the media’s use and abuse of Nature, there is a group of stories and a section of the media that takes Nature seriously, engages with it deeply, and nourishes our appreciation ...

6.8 Better Outcomes

There are many books, websites and training courses on ‘dealing with the media’, and a good, straightforward and commonsense structure is that adopted by CP Communications - 5 great media training tips (publicrelationssydney.com.au) – and I will b...

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