On Friday morning, the first annual Michigan Symposium on Media and Politics at the University of Michigan brought together journalists and academics to discuss how communications media relates to public engagement with environmental issues. The focus of the symposium, hosted by the Communication Studies department, was “Environmental Advocacy in a Polarized World.”
Nojin Kwak is department chair of Communication Studies, as well as the director of the University’s Nam Center for Korean Studies. He said the objective of the yearly symposium is to bring together scholars and journalists to discuss solutions for issues such as the politically polarized perception of environmental issues in the United States.
“Environmental science and climate change is one of the most important issues that face the country,” Kwak said. “It has come up during the presidential campaign, congressional elections and is one of the issues that divide the public, too.”
Kwak said about 80 percent of the audience were scholars and about 40 percent were actively involved in some aspect of journalism. Kwak said he took note that these numbers add up to more than 100 percent, meaning there was a lot of overlap.
“Some of them did journalism in the past, and (then) went into scholarship,” Kwak said. “You could say they are who’s who in science and environmental communication.”
The first presenter was Dominique Brossard, a life sciences communication professor and chair at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As a scientist, she spoke about scientists’ roles in environmental public policy.
“Some people view scientists as partisan,” Brossard said. “But any of us in the room who have studied philosophy of science, the nature of science and so on — — we all know that science actually is political.”
Another presenter, Jim Malewitz, a reporter for the nonpartisan and nonprofit Bridge Magazine, gave a presentation titled, ‘‘Climate Change: How to report on the existential threat of our time?” He described himself as an “environment reporter,” differentiating this term from the descriptor “environmental reporter.”
“Sometimes people might think that the ‘-al’ at the end of that word means that I’m some sort of activist,” Malewitz said.
Rather, Malewitz said, he considers himself a public advocate of environmental issues.
In the next series of presentations, the focus of the speakers was primarily the role comedy has in increasing public engagement with current environmental issues. This intersection of comedy and environmental issues like climate change attracted LSA junior Rosalie Luo to the symposium.
“I love comedy in general, and these two worlds colliding is just bizarre, but it’s also really inspiring,” Luo said. “To know that it does (exist), and there are people that are actually studying it professionally — that’s really cool.”
Luo is a student in the Program in the Environment. Although she does not study communications media and the environment specifically, she said she was interested in how the two fields interact.
“I’m just genuinely interested in the communication part,” Luo said. “It is definitely a necessary thing to learn about if you want to talk about climate change, so anytime you can talk about how to portray these issues in a way that doesn’t really get people thinking about it in such a negative way, but in kind of a more hopeful and positive way.”
The symposium ended with a meeting in which attendees were free to participate in open discussion of the event’s topic. The goal of the meeting was not to critique the papers that were presented that day, but rather to moderate self-driven discussion among peers.
Malewitz said though he has attended journalism conferences that talk about similar issues of environment and politics, the Michigan Symposium on Media and Politics was a unique experience because of its academic focus.
“I’m sort of stepping into a different sphere,” Malewitz said. “I’m not an academic, so I don’t go to as many of the academic conferences.”