How can we reconcile satisfying our growing needs for food, clothing, motor cars, etc., with protecting the environment, and what role should the media play in this question? The present study is intended to demonstrate how local media can help to shape an environmentally conscious attitude within the framework of sustainable development, which aims both at protecting the natural environment, and at transforming the economic and social order so as to establish harmony between mankind and nature. The realisation of sustainable development calls in turn for environmental education, a complex process of socialisation that affects economic and political life, locally, nationally and globally. Environmental education can be implemented in the traditional settings of formal education, but nonformal and informal education are becoming increasingly important. The authors are all employed at Debrecen University, Hungary: József Szabó and Kálmán Rubovszky at the Department of Cultural Studies, and Gyula Lakatos at the Department of Applied Ecology.
Informal Education and the Media
In order to survive, people need to produce and consume goods, and this process directly affects their natural environment. But today, the discrepancy between the laws of nature and human desires has turned into a spectacular clash, and unfavourable impacts on the natural environment can be detected on an ever-growing scale. In response, the concept of sustainable development endeavours to reconcile the interests of the present generation (to eat my fill, to have my own warm room, to wear my brand new clothes, etc.) with clean, breathable air, an enjoyable environment and a viable human existence for future generations. The question is no longer whether we can accept the above principle, but rather how it can be put across to the widest possible cross-section of the population.
The consumer society offers ready-made articles for purchase, and consumer education, which prepares individuals to arrive at conscious decisions, is increasingly efficient. However, advertising in the various media and other marketing activities both inform us consciously and manipulate us emotionally, encouraging us to purchase and consume goods. This input interacts with our basic knowledge derived from formal education, school teaching and family background, and with information subsequently received from the community and our networks of human relationships. Our habits and practices as consumers, and our attitude to the environment, are thus being constantly refined.
In 2000, a public opinion poll was conducted on attitudes to the environment in Hungarian society. Although this survey was non-representative, it produced credible and useful results. The poll was carried out in three localities, Budapest, Miskolc and Túrkeve, in order to compare different regions (the capital city, an industrial town and an agricultural area). Survey questionnaires were completed by more than 300 people – about 150 in Budapest, 100 in Miskolc and more than 50 in Túrkeve. The aim of the poll was to obtain information on public awareness of environmental problems, prevalence of environmentally conscious behaviour, effects of current environmental policy, attitudes to joining the EU and the presumed effects of Hungary’s European integration.
The results of the poll indicate that it is air and water pollution, and deficiencies in proper waste treatment, that the Hungarian population consider the most urgent environmental problems: people are thus mainly concerned with those issues that are immediately connected with their personal lives and affect them directly. People living in industrial areas are more preoccupied with environmental problems than the inhabitants of the capital city, presumably because the latter are less obviously affected. Women and older people are better informed about environmental conditions in the country than men and younger age groups.
According to the data obtained, most people do not stand up actively for the protection of their environment. While the economical use of energy and selective waste collection can be regarded as general, other practical ways of safeguarding the environment or assisting the activities of environmentalist groups have remained sporadic. Respondents who had already taken steps for the protection of the environment stated that they would do more if certain conditions were met. Most people named money, information and time as the prerequisites.
The poll confirmed that there is a general willingness to take practical steps to protect the environment, but that the majority of respondents lack information about national environmental policy. Although they are not sure about the initiatives taken by the relevant ministries and local government agencies, they consider the performance of these authorities to be unsatisfactory and inadequate. Some people even think that government is making no effort to preserve the environment. Information flow and informal education have proved insufficient to make the environment a fixed topic of education and to shape the desired environmentally conscious approach. Only one third of the people answering the poll could identify an organisation involved in the issue of environmental education.
Lack of knowledge is probably the most crucial single factor discouraging environmentally friendly behaviour. The results of the poll cannot be regarded as definitive, but they unequivocally demonstrate that greater attention needs to be paid at every level of communication to collecting, processing and conveying information, and to enhancing awareness of new knowledge and its skilled application. National authorities should give more care to publicity, guidance and interactive social relations. People generally have confidence in local authorities, which is one of the many reasons why citizens should be involved in environmental activities. Accordingly, at the local level, the population should be offered an opportunity to choose from among alternative ways of acting, which would increase public respect for state institutions.
The requisite knowledge can be systematically developed through education, training programmes and orientation. NGOs can play a significant role here. Many have built up a close relationship of trust with the public, so that they enjoy some advantage in mounting instructional campaigns and disseminating educational materials. On the basis of this public trust, NGOs can also collaborate productively with state authorities, making suggestions on environmental issues, while at the same time monitoring the activities of governmental bodies. Some NGOs, however, require more practical experience and background information in order to become serious partners with the state sector.
While there is general public concern for environmental issues, while NGOs are increasingly active, and while politicians are also looking for a path towards sustainable development, the poll also confirmed that most commercial undertakings have not yet recognised the importance of environmental protection and sustainable development. And those who have a common interest in the environment still find it hard to join hands, so that the flow of information is ineffective. Among other things, the utilisation of the media, and specifically the local media, has been on a very small scale.
Local Population and the Local Media
In December 2000, a representative sample survey was carried out by the Gallup Institution in the major cities in Hungary on public attitudes to the local media, and on the influence of the local media on local societies. The results were somewhat surprising, suggesting that in the age of globalisation, and with the apparent dominance of the global media, a growing proportion of public attention is given to the local media. The reason appears to be that the global media only meet uniform consumers’ needs, while at the same time seeking to make consumers uniform. Modern technology serves these continuously expanding media. Both in print and the electronic media, a consistent idiom has been evolved which can be controlled from the centre, frequently from outside the national borders.
Commercial radio channels, for instance, require only three or four working staff, who can keep in touch inexpensively via the Internet or by satellite. Live radio programmes exist only in theory: music is stored in computerised form at the centre, and with the application of appropriate software, the entire output, including commercials, can be assembled and edited centrally for a week in advance, before being transmitted to the target station. The content of comments and news programmes is carefully controlled to promote uniform consumer behaviour since uniform consumers are the basic constituents of the market economy. If every age group actually conforms to the expected consumer behaviour, people will prefer the same products in every corner of the globe, thus sustaining continuous and constantly growing production – and ever-increasing profit – for multinational companies. And initial surveys have shown that people welcomed the birth of the new commercial media in every part of the country.
After a few years it has turned out, however, that a considerable proportion of local people are not responsive to indirect information, especially to commercials. The most recent survey indicates that the majority of daily information is acquired from the local media, nearly three quarters of the population in larger towns and cities preferring the local media, especially regional television channels. Just a year ago this proportion did not reach 50%. Naturally, regional television channels can only reach such a degree of popularity if they are able to provide people with high-quality programmes, and to transmit important local information within the shortest period of time possible. Hence, the local press has started to lose its significance: according to the Gallup survey, the proportion of the population reading the local press for daily information fell over two years from 85% to 65%, while the audience for local radio rose from 43% to 78%, and that for local television channels from 45% to 70% (in Debrecen). Regional television channels have achieved outstanding results in designing their own news programmes and devising informative and entertaining magazine programmes for various segments of local society. When these programmes are broadcast, even national channels have lower audience ratings. Alongside programmes on local politics, it is reports on public affairs, such as the economy, environmental protection, church matters and youth topics, that attract the greatest attention among viewers. In Pécs and Debrecen, the proportion of inhabitants who know about the magazine programme on environmental issues exceeds 75%, while the audience rating for this programme exceeds 50%. Among today’s media, it is television which provides the population with the most information. The simultaneous presentation of sound, picture and movement combines such a powerful quantity of information that – going beyond the significance of the information itself – it can influence patterns of behaviour. The local media, notably television, thus constitute an effective device for shaping an environmentally conscious attitude. They highlight local issues, and can present the effects of the local economy, local society and local policy on sustainable development.
It is not certain that local broadcasting will remain local, however. Part of the decline in the popularity of the local press can be attributed to its increasing use of standardised input from national sources. Some local radio stations have also been taken over by a global service, but their audience ratings have remained constant, at around 50%, while the ratings for true local radio have risen, as we have seen. This suggests that people consider local values more and more important in their lives, and disapprove of global media. However, television will not be exempt. The establishment of “globalised” local television channels is hindered by technological underdevelopment and the huge expense of the process, and some cities have recognised the advantages of local television stations, and started to make funds available. But this year sees the first steps towards a new national television channel which intends to transmit some of its (uniform) programmes through local television channels. It is also expected that the development of digital technology will soon allow image transmission and archiving of appropriate quality. This is next door to globalised local television which, according to preliminary assessments, may receive 2 billion HUF from the Hungarian national advertising market. And if multinational companies see the benefits of exploiting local channels, their financial security will be assured, but their independence will decline.
The model of sustainable development has been globally accepted by various interest groups, but at the local level conflicts are not infrequent between the representatives of the economic, social and political spheres. Temporary advantage often endangers long-term, harmonious co-existence. This implies that the model of sustainable development needs to be agreed at the local level, while the spread of environmentally conscious approaches needs to be promoted. Since the local media are attracting growing audiences, they can obviously play a prominent part in providing informal education as a part of this complex process. Television, in particular, can be used for environmental education, and can encourage positive patterns of behaviour. However, the use of television for educational purposes largely depends on the will of the local society and of the management of the media.