Posted by: Rachel C. Cicigline | September 25, 2010

The Media Underdog

Aside from being major environmental disasters, what else do these five things have in common? I will give you a hint:  it’s not their 15 minutes of fame otherwise known as two solid weeks of top story media coverage. Give up? They are all events that made headlines because of the damage and the disaster.  The key issues that led to the events like, oil demand, energy consumption, toxic waste disposal and pesticide usage fell to the wayside in the mainstream media.

When “the media” were only black ink that smeared all over your fingertips,  there was limited page space to discuss all of the current affairs. Only the issues considered the most “newsworthy” made it to the front page; the rest were hidden in-between the sports section and the classifieds. Now that mainstream media have gone digital, there is room for every topic to be considered a headliner. Yet, one topic consistently remains in small print:  environmental issues. And now, after the disasters have had their fame, the remaining problems – you know, the ones that created the news in the first place – fade into little blue links hidden within the bigger text.

I guess the real question that remains would be… why do we not see more media coverage about underlying environmental issues? Granted, some major national news media have a section within their websites dedicated to environmental news. MSNBC has a great environmental section, but good luck finding it from the main page. In order to find good, up-to-date information about current environmental affairs, we must walk further afield to places like ENN: Environmental News NetworkThe Sierra Club or Blue Planet Almanac. Apparently, the mainstream media know what people want to hear and it’s not about the environment.

My curiosity was piqued and I decided to ask a few people what it was that they wanted to hear more about in the news. Not one person said, “the environment.” Actually, one of the most common responses was, “let’s hear more about health care reform and the state of the economy.” In fact, at one point I even heard, “I would rather hear about my health care costs and where my tax dollars are going, rather than about the research done on some algae in the ocean.”

Fish habitat in algae atop coral. NY Times.

Yes… and that, my friends, is why we do not hear about the underlying environmental issues in the media. The problem that we now face is that society does not realize such issues impact everything around us. You think health care costs are bad now?  Do you think that algae living in the ocean does not affect the state of the economy?  Think again.  The environment works in conjunction with everything in it. Microbes, plants, animals, humans, and even pieces of lint off of your shirt have a purpose. This is called balance. Think of the earth as a scale; when one side weighs more than the other, everything goes crooked.

Triclosan. Ever heard of it? Let me give you a little background. Triclosan is an antimicrobial chemical that is found in many over-the-counter products like your antibacterial hand soaps, dish soap,  deodorant, toothpaste, and to my surprise, even in make-up!! What does that matter to you, you ask? Think of it like this:  With a little bit of an antimicrobial used daily in your dish washing, your make-up removal, and your sweet-smelling hand sanitation… you are allowing microbes to evolve and  to become immune to the product you are using. How do you think Methicillin-resistant staph (MRSA) happened?  At the same time, people are being advised to prevent MRSA by using anti-microbial soaps… that sounds like a never-ending scary circle to me.

And just how does this affect your health care costs? The more resistant we become to certain bacteria, the more treatment we are going to need in order to cure an infection. This means longer hospital visits, larger quantities of intravenous medications, more time invested by nurses and doctors to care for you, and follow-up care after your recovery. Your insurance company gets billed an incredible amount of money and how are they going to pay for it?  What else can they do except  increase your premium and/or increase the employer premium?

And algae? Why in the world would we wonder about algae?  I mean, c’mon, it couldn’t possibly have any effect on the current state of the economy! Let’s get one thing straight:  algae are crucial, especially to the food chain. While algae makes its own food, it is also a great supplier of nourishment to several different populations including fish and even humans. In fact, seaweed, a form of algae, is loaded with nutrients and is often used in Asian cuisine (think sushi!). It contains beta carotene (good for the eyes), iron, magnesium, and even calcium.

Now, let us swing back to triclosan for a moment.  According to Aviva Glaser’s article on Beyond Pesticides, triclosan is not only damaging, but life threatening to some types of algae. When this multi-faceted, unicellular, sometimes multi-cellular organism starts dying, so do the organisms that feed off of it. A fish population dies. A crustacean population dies. Snails die. Worms die. And while humans will not necessarily die directly from a loss of algae, certain job markets will.

Overfishing looks like this. Photo Duke University

Fishermen are the hard-working clan that goes off to sea to collect all of the above for the local markets. They make their living catching and selling. So, what if there is a limited amount of fish to catch because the algae was a missing food source? First and foremost, the fishermen would be struggling to catch as much as they could as quickly as they could, which in turn would lead to overfishing. This is not only damaging to the broader environment, but to the fish population itself. Once again, seafood goes on the decline.

Without seafood, there are no fishermen and without fishermen, there is a larger economic problem. It is a downward spiral. Consider the markets they sell to: Restaurants, wholesalers, and grocery markets would suffer a profit loss, as well as a loss of jobs.

It may not seem like a big deal now, so why worry, right? Let’s wait 20 years for it to become another economic and environmental catastrophe before the mainstream media decides to inform the public. Right? Hey… if we can’t see it, it must not really be there. All I am really saying is that the next time you turn on the television, or your laptop, or even your handy, dandy new iPad to catch up on the latest world gossip, remember to scope-out the issues with the underdog:  The environment.

Think of the underlying issue like a heart problem. It’s a little, gentle reminder to you to search out the cause of the problem and aim to fix that. We can’t always focus on the current fix to cover up the symptoms… we all know that the problem just comes back and usually, with a vengeance.

Rachel C. Cicigline

Rachel Cicigline has a freshly minted bachelor of science in applied biology and science reporting from Sage College in Albany, NY, Magna Cum Laude. As an intern at ZooWorld zoological and botanical conservancy in Panama City Beach, FL, she performed presentations to conservancy guests and assisted in animal care, including veterinary procedures.

Rachel looked beneath the obvious surface connections of natural history during her personal outdoors perambulations, and became even more curious about the balance of life. Her personal turning point happened in 2008 when, in a cybergroup about environmental balance, she was shocked after a chance viewing of a Pacific Garbage patch video. Her grandfather’s anecdotes and coaching, about his profession as a homicide detective, then helped catalyze her desire to right wrongs. There came a moment when Rachel understood she had to do more, because the vast Web of life on Earth needed more human voices, more champions to protect it.


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