Tabloid journalism – and MTV’s Environment News

What can be done to lure more young audiences to care for and discuss about issues of science and technoloy?

This question was put to a panel on ‘Science and television’ that I was on last week at the Fifth World Conference of Science Journalists in Melbourne, Australia.

Each panelist offered suggestions. Mine was just three words: think more tabloid.

Those who try to communicate science to the non-technical public are mostly trapped in the mindset of the classical documentary, or its print equivalent: broadsheet newspapers. That engages a certain kind of audience, but the masses — including many young people (15 to 25 years) — are not widely represented there. To engage the latter, we have to consider more tabloid formats.

Is that dumbing down the weighty issues we’re peddling? Not necessarily, I argued. We can make things in different formats, without over-intellectualising and not over-simplifying either.

A recent example of this comes from Music Television, MTV, and is discussed in an interesting piece appearing in the Columbia Journalism Review website, CJR Daily.

MTV Break the Addiction campaign

Here are some excerpts from the article written by Curtis Brainard, titled ‘Surprise: MTV’s Environmental News Rocks’

Just over a year ago, on Earth Day 2006, the station announced its “Break the Addiction” campaign, encouraging people to kick (or cut back on) habits that depend on fossil fuel. The campaign is a suite of on-air programming, MTV News stories, public service announcements, contests, online resources, and grassroots mobilization efforts. No, MTV is not the type of news outlet that one would reference in a scholarly paper, and it never will be. And although MTV has produced environmental stories intermittently for over twenty years, the “Break the Addiction” campaign was its first ambitious commitment.

“Historically, the environment never rated highly,” said Ian Rowe, MTV’s vice president of public affairs and strategic partnerships. “But we were starting to see signs that global warming was becoming a bigger story, even if our audiences weren’t clamoring for such news, so we made a proactive decision that we would connect the dots for our audience.”

On Earth Day (22 April 2007), MTV ran a special edition of “Pimp My Ride,” the popular automobile makeover show. Governor Schwarzenegger is a friend of the team at Galpin Auto Sports in California, where the program is filmed. He and the crew (mostly the crew) retrofit a 1965 Chevy Impala with an 800-horsepower, biodiesel engine. “We try to publicize celebrity involvement in these issues to show people it’s cool, and bring the unconverted into the fold,” said Pete Griffin, a public affairs officer who worked on the “Break the Addiction” campaign. It’s no Pulitzer-caliber exposé on the socioeconomics of biofuels, but, Griffin says, “Stand-alone half-hour shows on these issues can be less effective than integrating them into shows that people are already watching.”

With short public service announcements airing around the clock between scheduled programming, says Ian Rowe, “There is no way you can watch the channel without realizing that global warming is one of our central issues.”

Read the full article here