An abundance of scholarly studies how media representations frame a variety of policy issues nationally, however there is a comparative dearth of study on local representations of similar issues (Firmstone and Colman, 2014). This is especially true for issues such as climate disruption. Our national government is not only in a deep-seated disagreement over the facts of climate disruption, it is also increasingly contested over how it is represented and portrayed. Recently, academic study of local media representation has been developed in the context of Narrative Policy Theory, which is a theoretical framework for analyzing how stories are deployed by actors over political issues (O’Donovan, 2018). This paper will analyze how different political actors in Virginia, but particularly Harrisonburg City, deploy different examples and narrative frames in covering climate disruption, how that coverage changes civil and political entities’ ability to respond to climate disruption, and how framing an issue in journalism can set political agendas for climate disruption.
There are several different types of actors represented in climate disruption coverage in Harrisonburg, such as politicians like Northam and members of the General Assembly, those who participated and are affected by the climate strike, and side issues to climate disruption such as recyclable straws and lids. We found in our research that coverage of politicians and climate disruption change was collectively neutral, as topics like the climate strike were covered as generally quite positive, while some of the more tangential issues were covered in a more negative light. For instance, WHSV had two articles covering politicians and climate disruption that reflect this. One was about Northam’s renewable energy legislation, which seeks to make Virginia run on 100% renewable energy by 2050 (North, 2019). The other was about the General Assembly elections in Virginia Congress and different candidates’ climate policies (Williams, 2019). These articles quoted some elected officials and organizations, but no businesses or citizens, which separates the opinion of elected officials from residents. Neither were shared on social media which indicates that citizens were not engaged in the reporting, but several factors could have affected this. This is ultimately compounded by the context of local governance which is poorly studied and the rise of social media which changes the way that local governments can relate to citizens. Indeed, the rise of E-governance and its new ways of relating to citizens is of critical importance, as government campaigns can influence local newspapers by offering them easy to report stories (Darr, 2016). But while scholars say that communication, public relations, customer services, and public consultation and engagement are critical for government officials in the age of social media, that is not represented in the coverage of Virginia politics (Gao and Li, 2017). Both articles represented the issue as already being addressed by local government which isolates citizen interests from representations of elected officials and climate change. Conversely, the climate strike was widely covered in Harrisonburg by local outlets such as WHSV, The Citizen, The Breeze, and the Daily News Record. The general coverage was optimistic and emphasized grassroots organizing and allying with Greta Thunberg, while generously quoting citizens and few other actors (Manley and Murphy, 2019). On one hand this portrayal empowers citizens, however an overly optimistic coverage of the climate strike as citizen organizing can distract from its actual goals of changing government policy. While it emphasizes grassroots opposition to climate disruption, it does little to cover the gap between citizen and politician understandings of the issue. This is proven by Staunton’s decision to discontinue plastic recycling. The resident response was to start a small company that profits off of recycling plastics instead of using organizing to get Staunton to change the policy (Baxter, 2019). This makes sense given the changing nature of government resident relations due to social media and smart cities, where technological utopian imaginaries can result in more privatization, or at least a greater gap between government officials and citizen interests (Grossi and Pianezzi, 2017).
These different types of coverage also change the way civil and political entities respond to climate disruption. While it is easy for political agents to exert pressure on local newspapers, the politicians being covered are not proximate enough to pressure Harrisonburg newspapers for positive coverage, which results in a failure to entice or even include a civil role in coverage of government action (Darr, 2016). This is proven by businesses quoted in coverage of Northam’s renewable program, which further separates the business-friendly long-term strategy of political coverage from the angry and immediate energy covered with the climate strike (Rankin, 2019). This contributes to political polarization as citizen and elected official timelines differ on climate disruption expectations. It also decreases citizen engagement with policymakers and increases their likelihood to work outside of government systems. The coverage of the climate strike is an inversion of the coverage of elected officials, as it emphasizes civil action in order to send a message to the government, but it isn’t clear what the government’s role is supposed to be. Thus, the overt focus on grassroots climate campaigns separates policy literacy from demands made by climate protestors. This is certainly true given that all of the coverage of the strike was done on or around the event itself, and quickly dissipated afterwards (Manley and Murphy, 2019). Such framing might even decrease the amount of citizen participation since the coverage was mired in extreme optimism without reference to policy details. However, given the opportunities for private interest development of climate technology it is possible that coverage of activism will cause civil actors to see climate disruption as an opportunity for personal expression or growth that is subject to business interests (Grossi and Pianezzi, 2017; Baxter, 2019).
There are several categories for local climate disruption coverage in Harrisonburg, such as political coverage, climate strike coverage, and coverage of niche issues that open up climate disruption to businesses. Analysis of these different categories is produced through different journalistic frames which shape reader’s understanding of an issue. There is comprehensive literature which suggests that narrative elements and political leverage are key to how local coverage of political issues is cast, which appears in the literature reviewed in this piece which juxtaposes “renewables” to “grassroots” and “political” to “protest” (Darr, 2016; O’Donovan, 2018). Analyzing these different frames complicates what it means to set and understand a political agenda through local media and reveals underlying tensions between civil standards and political leadership in Virginia. It is important to analyze who benefits and who is hurt from choices in framing. The framing of climate disruption as an issue for elected officials emphasizes advocacy groups and corporations, while the climate strike frame is good for citizens and ignores advocacy groups and corporations, and the niche issue frame is good for businesses, but bad for citizens. Overall, it is important to understand how these issues are covered in the media, how such coverage affects the ability of stakeholders to address the issue, and how it affects the attitudes of politicians and the public to fully analyze and grasp the ways in which environmental issues are covered in local media.
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Rankin, S. (2019, September 17). Virginia governor sets renewable energy goal: 100% by 2050. Retrieved October 13, 2019, from https://www.whsv.com/content/news/Virginia-governor-sets-renewable-energy-goal-100-by-2050-560579121.html.
Williams, M. (2019, September 27). HHS Students Walk Out To Protest Climate Change Inaction. Retrieved October 13, 2019, from http://www.dnronline.com/news/harrisonburg/hhs-students-walk-out-to-protest-climate-change-inaction/article_0386a641-699e-518e-b78a-7129f32a6d80.html.