What matters to us
It just seems to be unrelenting bad going-on-horrific news at the minute: the famine in Somalia, the massacre in Norway and Amy Winehouse’s tragic, if inevitable, demise. Anyone looking at the three stories objectively would rank them in that order of importance, yet this morning’s UK newspapers had it in reverse, with La Winehouse making most of the headlines and Somalia barely getting a mention.
You’ll see a lot of people getting very angry about this inversion of priorities on the Twittersphere. While I have sympathy with them, I’m afraid it has always been this way.
Human nature is driven not by logic, but by gut instinct. We are more interested in news stories that affect people we feel familiar with, at a level we can comprehend, those that are sudden, and those that are geographically close. The Somalis who are suffering are pastoralists, a lifestyle most Westerners have never experienced, so we can’t imagine this happening to us, and the tragedy has been unfolding for many weeks. The Norwegians live closer to us and have much the same lifestyle, so we can emphasise with the loss of relatives in such a shocking single event. And Amy Winehouse had touched millions with that extraordinary voice – so much so, that many of us felt we somehow knew her.
You will see the same factors in environmental issues. Last year’s Gulf oil spill got a lot of coverage, because it was a single dramatic event, it was easy to see the scale of the problem on TV and the people who were most affected had Western lifestyles. Climate change if a much, much bigger problem yet it rarely if ever gets the same coverage as it is incremental, its impacts are geographically dispersed and there are no pictures of people like us being affected.
So how do we account for this when formulating green communications? If you look at TV coverage of African famines, the presenter will usually do two things – first interview a Western (read: white) aid worker about the scale of the problem (someone like us) and then tell the story of the suffering of one family (get down to the human interest level). I used to get angry about this as I felt it continued a myth of “Western benevolence in terrible Africa” and then intruded in one family’s grief when I felt they had suffered enough. But now, while I still don’t particularly like it, I understand they are trying to make the story comprehensible to the audience back home.
Likewise, I always advise clients when they are trying to communicate green issues to copy the media and make the story relevant to the audience and, preferably, recount it through the eyes of someone just like them (the audience). For most people, talking about polar bears just won’t cut the ice.