Centre for Creative Media Research > Video Critical

Conclusion: Effects, meanings and methods

When starting work on the video production research, with teams of children eager to race a camera around the neighbourhood, and even when developing areas of theory in resistance to what were clearly weak aspects of the effects paradigm, it was not at all apparent whether the various elements of this study would fall together into a cohesive whole. In the end, however, the parts assemble into a line which leads straight to some solid, basic conclusions which I have sought to set out here. The more straightforward findings are followed by some theoretical consideration of their implications, and discussion of the methodology in that light. Unsurprisingly, it is found that more complex approaches produce much less simplistic answers.

Basic findings

Clearly, the 'findings' of an interpretative and ethnographic qualitative study such as this cannot be presented as straightforwardly as those for a simple survey. The preceding pages present detailed observations, and extrapolated arguments. To reduce these to a simple list of 'findings' would be counterproductive, and would contradict my argument that information about people's use of the media should be collected and handled sensitively, and not reduced to the level of the studies which I have criticised elsewhere for their maladroit simplicity and platitudinous accounts. Nevertheless, we can record some basic observations about the responses of the 53 children involved in this study. The sample is small, and not necessarily representative, but their attitudes to the environment have, at least, been explored in sufficient depth for us to be confident about the reliability of these points.

Children's media literacy

The most obvious and clear-cut finding of the study is that the children demonstrated a high level of media literacy in all age groups. Making a video came naturally to them. In their few years of experience as media consumers the children - some as young as seven - had learned elements of genre and presentation, as well as acquiring a lively awareness of the way in which things could be represented and misrepresented on camera . The children's familiarity with the constructedness of the media, their ability to conceive of the final text even as they recorded elements of it out of sequence, and the sheer speed with which they picked up how to operate the equipment and began creative activity, are all parts of the whole range of ethnographic findings which further convince this author that the effects paradigm can be cast aside as incapable of providing us with sensitive and pertinent understandings of the role of the media in the formation of consciousness. The study also shows powerfully that a methodology which avoids the patronising, positivistic stance of the psychology-based effects tradition, and allows children to show their intelligence and discretion in relation to the media, can transform the kind of conclusions which must be drawn.

Environmental concerns

The children generally demonstrated a reasonably high level of concern about environmental issues, particularly pollution and the need for green, open spaces. Whilst the children were very adept at producing slogans of the 'save the planet - it's up to you' variety, as well as some more heartfelt pleas - such as 'why are they doing this to our world?' - their actual everyday behaviour in many cases, as they came to admit, was not entirely consistent with these eco-friendly views. Nevertheless, this fact was recognised with some embarrassment, and the commitment of many of the children to basic activities such as recycling is not to be denied.

The children related to environmental issues most closely at the local level, although some global extrapolations were made. However, the children did not focus on global issues primarily in their videos. Even at the level of their own individual actions, conflicts were observed between the idealistic desire to be environmentally friendly, and the more pragmatic or hedonistic pull of enjoying themselves and not bothering.

Social class did not seem to be a predictor of interest in or concern about the environment, although the middle-class children may have had slightly more detailed knowledge about certain areas. The older working-class children were more likely to engage in challenging debate, between themselves, about levels of purported concern and actual environmental behaviour, and inconsistencies therein, than the middle-class children of the same age, whose politeness in relation to such fundamental points could be read as apathy .

Age was also related to knowledge about environmental issues, in the obvious sense that the older children would have experienced more information-providing material, whether at school, through the media, or other sources, than their younger counterparts, and could be expected to have a greater capacity to understand complex issues. However, the younger children were if anything slightly more enthusiastic in their expressions of environmental concern, and about the video project itself. The younger children also seemed just as capable of dealing with ecological concepts, such as the holistic worldview which recognises an integrated continuum between humans and nature.

As discussed in Analysis A, gender seemed to be generally unrelated to levels of environmental knowledge or concern. However, confident and engaging speakers on the subject were somewhat more likely to be found amongst the girls. Any indifference to the project shown by boys can only be attributed to the effect of gendered perceptions - in which ecological sympathies are associated with femininity - for a very small percentage of the older boys. If anything, the extent to which boys in the study were willing to express environmental concern was surprising.

The influence of television on perception of environmental matters

Again, the theory underlying this study means that it is almost necessarily impossible to simply describe a recorded effect 'x' of size 'y'. Rather, the observations made in this study suggest some conclusions about the nature of the influence of television's depiction of environmental problems on the way in which children seem to understand those issues, and consequently approach and re-present them in their own video productions.

Environmental paralysis

The conflicting messages from mass media coverage of the environment seem to have produced, if anything, a kind of paralysis. The pro-environmental activities which children are encouraged to participate in are small-scale, and so readily appear cosmetic and meaningless when the problems are put in a global context. Major environmental revolution, at the same time, is so profoundly unlikely that it is not even discussed. These confusions are further confounded when the media gives children a powerful potential role as planetary saviours on the one hand, emphasising the power of 'the kids' more unconvincingly than punks ever did, whilst children are still disenfranchised in much of the rest of social life and even, it could be said, within that patronising discourse itself.

Any element of pro?environmental inspiration is, then, quashed by a dampening force of at least equal power. Even the middle-class children in this study, whom we might expect to be more taken with the possibilities for bringing about change themselves, since they have greater realistic scope for seeing themselves as those 'in charge' in future years, seemed to feel as fundamentally powerless as any of the other children.

Adorno revisited

As noted in chapter two [of the book], Adorno famously argued that the products of the culture industry kept people sufficiently occupied that they were unlikely to think critically about the capitalist system, much less seek to overthrow it and realise their true potential as human beings. This superficial satisfaction was not considered to be genuine contentment, of course; as Cashmore has put it, Adorno saw that the culture industry 'promised happiness, but delivered only amusement' (1994, p. 29).

An interesting situation therefore arises when individuals have the opportunity to produce videos, which inevitably bear some similarities to mass media products, but which apparently challenge the social order to a certain extent, through their environmentalist agenda. Whilst the children in this study were serious about the issues which they wanted to convey, superficial amusement could also be seen to have a role. The production of a video is empowering on the one hand, but could dilute the strength of feeling about the actual subject on the other, since the very novelty of video generates excitement at the expense of the non-stylistic content - the 'message'. As I argued in chapter two, the substitution of fundamentally harmless media participation in the place of real political action is one of the ways in which the status quo may be maintained. However, this argument understates the degree of genuine, campaigning feeling put into the videos by many of the children, who felt that their work was worthwhile and contained an important message, and were keen for the videos to be shown to as many people as possible, sent to the City Council, or, ideally, broadcast on television. Most of the children involved in the project also expressed the feeling that the process of making a video had focused their attention on ecological matters, particularly in the local environments which they had explored on tape, and some felt that the video-making had established a link between their individual actions and the world around them.

The Adornoesque argument that mere media reception could replace political participation did nevertheless appear to have the beginnings of support in some of these children, whose pride that they had watched particular programmes suggested that they felt that they had done more than just watch a television show. Whilst the material had clearly stirred them intellectually or emotionally about ecological matters, an escalation of the satisfaction with having simply watched the programmes might be, for some, at the expense of actual related activity. Conversely, however, the palpable satisfaction might be because the children in question actually felt that they had 'grown' as a consequence of their viewing, and it remains a possibility that their media interests might inspire these children towards real-world environmentalist activity - or at least basic environmentally-responsible behaviour - in later years.

A new ecological paradigm for a new generation?

Riley Dunlap & Kent Van Liere, and others, have suggested that a 'new ecological paradigm' is developing support in Western populations, in which human survival is understood to depend on the health of the global environment (Dunlap & Van Liere, 1978, 1984; Catton & Dunlap, 1980; Drengson, 1980; Noe & Snow, 1990; Stern, Dietz, & Guagnano, 1995) . British TV viewers will recognise this as the weak version of the model which Edge of Darkness pressed upon them back in 1985. (The stronger version suggests that the planet will act to defend itself, by whatever means necessary ). This archetype can be contrasted with, say, the belief that human ingenuity and straightforward instinct for survival will be sufficient to overcome any problems, and is directly opposed to the view that the role of 'mankind' is to dominate nature. The new paradigm is accordingly associated with a loss of faith in the traditional dominant social paradigm's values of support for economic growth, individualism, private property rights and laissez faire government (Dunlap & Van Liere, 1984) . Stern et al have equated the new ecological paradigm with 'a folk ecological theory' which takes a holistic and integrated view of the planet, its biosphere, and the future of humankind generally (1995, p. 726). With research having generally found that the relationship between concern about the environment and environmentally-friendly behaviour is almost non-existent (Hamid & Cheng, 1995, p. 680), and that sociodemographic variables have been 'ineffective' in accounting for environmental concern (Hallin, 1995, p. 559) - presumably because such concern has a widespread distribution in Western societies - this folk ecological theory is seen to provide a way of understanding which concepts and beliefs might actually encourage an individual to engage in positively pro-environmental actions .

The support for the ideas at the heart of the new ecological paradigm represents, of course, one of the most prominent of the 'new social movements' which are the subject of a growing sociological literature (as noted in chapter four of the book). In Ron Eyerman & Andrew Jamison's (1991) study of new social movements as processes within which individuals 'create new kinds of social identities' - based in part on research on environmental movements in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands - the authors identify three dimensions of attitude and belief systems amongst environmentalists in such groups (pp. 66-78). These aspects provide us with a useful way of considering the character of the approaches to the environment which children in this study had taken to heart sufficiently for them to be conveyed in their videos. Firstly, Eyerman & Jamison's 'cosmological' dimension describes a general ecological worldview relating to ideas of balance in the relationship between nature and society, and directed towards a utopian vision of an ecologically harmonious world. The children incorporated some aspects of this worldview into their presentations - most notably a pressing feeling that humans should be kinder to the natural environment, and the occasional glimpse of a broader notion of an ecological, integrated system . However, although a limited number of the children applied this model to several areas of their lives - including a few of them being vegetarians - none of them had taken such ideas on board wholesale.

Secondly, the 'technological' dimension refers to the specific topics of practical environmental concern, and their potential solutions. This informational area is where the children were most at home, demonstrating a reasonably abundant knowledge of environmental problems and potential reforms. Finally, the 'organizational' dimension refers to the anti-elitism of environmental movements, which - in common with other new social movements - aim to democratise the processes of knowledge production and dissemination, and deprofessionalise expertise. The children had not really adopted this aspect of environmentalism at all; whilst their videos reflected confidence that they, as children, had something to say about the environment, their behaviour in a group, and throughout the production process, did not seem to be informed by unusually egalitarian values.

Eyerman & Jamison argue that the combination of these three dimensions into a 'core identity' is what has made environmentalism into a social movement (p. 77) . This movement is seen to have 'transformed a scientific theory into a way of life, but even more perhaps into a set of beliefs', thereby providing 'the social context for a new kind of knowledge to be practiced' (p. 73). In these terms, it would seem that television - in conjunction with whatever other sources of environmental input the children in this study had encountered - had been a carrier of environmentalism for some of the children, within limits. For others, it had been simply a carrier of environmental information, but not environmentalism. The 'transformation' of a collection of facts into a broader set of views and beliefs had progressed half way, for a number of the children, but had not blossomed into a full ecological consciousness. This, of course, is not surprising, not only because the group studied were so young, but because we would not expect the media to have such a dramatic effect in any case. Whilst Claus Offe (1985) has noted that new social movements seek 'to politicize the institutions of civil society in ways that are not constrained by the channels of representative-bureaucratic political institutions' (p. 820), thereby identifying Newsround (as well as the more radical Undercurrents) as sympathetic to such interests , most of the individual-centred coverage of environmental problems and solutions in the media could not be expected to carry environmentalism, per se, as an ideology. In particular, the elements of established ideologies, such as anti-capitalism, which inform the ecological perspective (Scott, 1995), are shorn from environmental material in its journey through the media to the audience. The results of this study confirm these points: it would appear that those who had extrapolated broader worldview points from the environmental information provided by the media, had done so through the application of their own intelligence, rather than as a direct consequence of messages carried by the media.

The hegemonic bending of environmental problem interpretations

In Analysis C, we saw that the children's accounts of environmental damage and its solutions placed individual actions at their centre, rather than identifying institutions or social structures as the focus for causes, and change. Environmental problems were seen as due more to the carelessness and apathy of individual adults, and some children, rather than being a consequence of organised adult activity. In chapter four [of the book], an examination of environmental programmes showed that this was also the perspective suggested most commonly on television - problems caused by forgetful or ill-advised adults, to be solved by minor reforms and the individual environmentally-responsible actions of the public.

Whilst it would be too simplistic to infer that the children's approach to environmental matters has been brought in wholesale from television, we do know that the children considered television to be a primary source of environmental information (see initial interviews). It is therefore reasonable to argue that children's perception of environmental matters has been influenced by television in a particular way . To use the theoretical terms established in chapter two, their understanding of the agents relevant to environmental problems has been hegemonically bent, away from structural and societal explanations and towards personalised, individualistic accounts. Therefore the children do know about environmental issues - it is not that the subject has been kept from them. However, the characteristics of the way in which that material has been relayed to them - via programmes which cannot be too contentious even on an important subject, and which aim to be reasonably reassuring for children, and to convince young viewers that they can make a difference - has led to a particular interpretation of the problems being conveyed. Environmental damage is thus domesticated and individualised, and opposition to it is similarly disengaged from effectively focused action. At the same time, a degree of 'oppositional' action - at this individualised level - is incorporated into the media world, with programmes (notably Blue Peter, but also less regular series such as ITV's Go Wild!) encouraging viewers to participate in environmentally-friendly schemes. Whilst apparently challenging on the one hand, this situation means that young viewers may feel that they are both well-informed and doing something about environmental matters, without being aware that these interpretations are, at least, partial and questionable.

The hegemonic bending of environmental coverage is not to be seen as a deliberate plan devised by broadcasters to protect the status quo: this is not a conspiracy theory. Rather, it is the consequence of a range of forces and choices - including the idea that children should be assured that they can do something about the problems, and the unspoken requirement that 'political' content should be avoided - which are part of the professional socialisation of journalists, broadcasters and producers, and implicitly prescribed by their normative working parameters. Whilst their presentations are generally informed by liberal values and are not intended to be conservative, their focus on the power or weakness of separate bricks, as it were, prevents children seeing the size and shape of the whole house.

Creative data: The video method in review

The foundations and design of the video production methodology were discussed in chapter five [of the book], prior to elucidation of the findings. In this conclusion we have the opportunity to examine the benefits of the method in the light of the data thus obtained. Unlike the psychological studies which have been criticised in this book and its predecessor - where the researcher would define the variables and parameters of the study in advance, and should normally be able to guess the results - the latitude and flexibility offered by this study meant that the researcher, frankly, had no idea what might be produced in the way of data, and almost necessarily had no expectations as to the outcome.

The findings more than bore out the assumption that the extended time spent with the groups, centred around the activity of making a video, would produce a greater level of understanding about their actual feelings regarding the environment. In several cases, it was found that the impressions generated in the first week's group interviews - the equivalent of the focus group that is the beginning and end of many 'qualitative' studies - were inaccurate to say the least, with some being distinctly misleading. Children who had seemed indifferent to the environment in conversation were found to have quite strong views on some issues (particularly where related to the quality of their own lives), whilst others who had emerged from the focus group as keen environmentalists were found to be rather less committed where significant amounts of actual effort would be required. Over time it also became clear that the children were more familiar with environmentalist values and discourses than had been initially apparent.

These research findings are not a matter of having 'caught out' the participants, but rather that those young people were ultimately able to present and specify their particular concerns once they had become comfortable with the research situation. The initial group interviews represented a kind of 'brain dump' of potential interests and concerns, which in subsequent weeks were sifted and filtered to reveal the more genuinely-felt opinions. The video-making process also gave the children a voice not only to provide considered answers, but to set their own questions. They were even able to use the persuasive vehicles of humour and satire to make their points. With childhood being traditionally seen both in society and in sociology as a time of limitation and constraint (Jenks, 1996), it is important to give child 'subjects' the opportunity to demonstrate creativity and transcendence over such prescribed roles. In terms of media literacy alone, the method gave children a unique key with which to break apart traditional expectations, and demonstrate their wit and discrimination in media use .

Methods, meanings and hegemonic bending

Whilst it is well recognised in the social sciences that methodology can affect research results in a variety of ways, there can be few areas where method has had such a deterministic impact upon the understanding of an area as in the case of media effects. Different research approaches have not produced disparate perspectives upon similar findings, but rather have provided different answers altogether. Traditional effects research was seen, in chapters one and two [of the book], to approach the issues with neither a sound methodology nor any cogent theoretical foundation. Chapter three reflected upon the patronising and utilitarian approach to child 'subjects' at the heart of that paradigm, and chapter four sought to provide - as most effects studies do not - some background and analysis of examples of the actual media content under consideration.

Whilst the effects tradition represents a substantial proportion of previous media research, and would favour methods and modes of explanation which differ markedly from those of the present study, these chapters draw attention to a catalogue of deficiencies in the paradigm which, taken together, terminally weaken the claims made by those studies. Furthermore, whilst the consideration of influences on perception of social issues will always necessarily be complex and somewhat equivocal, this study can claim to have a more sound basis for its findings than many simpler projects because it established the nature and intentions of relevant mass media content prior to making inferences about its consequences; because it found that such media was of importance to children's perception of the issues; and because of the extended and reasonably intensive time spent with research participants in an issue-focused activity.

This analysis has suggested that media coverage of environmental issues may have had the subtle but significant effect of stimulating children's perceptions of the causes and solutions to ecological problems in a way which counteracts serious challenges and is functional for maintenance of the status quo. The issues have not been disregarded or buried, but rather have received a treatment which has bent the flow of critique into a hegemonically neutral zone, where fault is found in individual rather than organised social behaviour. It is interesting to note that this bears striking similarities with the treatment of television violence, where the focus of both media coverage and effects research itself draws attention away from sociological explanations of crime and violence (which criminologists generally agree are the consequence of life circumstances, such as poverty and unemployment, which can be affected by social policy), and towards individualistic explanations regarding media use and behaviour. Here again, a serious social issue is given considerable treatment, but in a form which hegemonically bends attention towards accounts which carry little substance, but which are more congruent with a stable status quo.

Whilst the notion of hegemonic bending could be said to be little more than a broader version of Chomsky's view that 'there is a system of shaping, control, and so on, which gives a certain perception of the world' , it draws more upon critical theory than Chomsky's news-politics arguments - taking in, for example, Adorno's ideas about the media's role in generating political apathy - and is based on the findings of qualitative research on both the media and the audience. In addition, rather than being concerned with big, structural stories being told with a bias favouring the interests of one country rather than another, my notion of hegemonic bending tends to concern stories being reduced to an individualistic or psychological level at the expense of structural, sociological or political accounts. Therefore it is not so much that one 'big picture' is swapped for another, but rather that the viewer's attention is pressed so close that they can only see bits of the canvas .

The theory intersects in some relatively simple ways with Habermas's conception of the mass media as presenting a glamorised platform for a trivial, manipulated and non-rational discussion of contemporary issues (Habermas, 1989, first published 1962); both clearly upbraid the media for providing shallow and inadequate communications. However, to risk repetition, my point is not that media environmental coverage is just the victim of 'cultural impoverishment', but that the specific character and direction of the material which is provided has a particular significance. The argument is not that the approaches to environmentalism presented in the media will therefore be the only ones which occur to the young viewers. Nor, of course, is it my intention to suggest that the audience are passive and manipulated dupes to the spectacle of mass communications, as Habermas's early work on the media can seem to suggest (Thompson, 1990, p. 116). It is just that one can reasonably expect that the media's failure to mention a particular range of causes of environmental problems might bring these causes to be viewed as less consequential, and perhaps less credible, than might otherwise be the case; or may lead such causes to be ignored or overlooked. The findings of the fieldwork reported here support such a hypothesis.

This study has sought to demonstrate that children are far from being simply passive or reactive in relation to the mass media. The content of television programmes goes through complex processes of critical interpretation and integration with existing knowledge and understandings, and so is not at all likely to have direct or predictable 'effects' on attitudes or behaviour. Indeed, to seek to account for the origin of social problems by turning first to the mass media is to make a leap of judgement with no sociological basis. Children are generally sharp and cynical readers of the mass media - as they are able to demonstrate when given the opportunity to be writers of such media.

The mass media inevitably has some influence upon the perceptions of those who come into regular contact with it, however. In modern industrial societies, media content, whilst not necessarily excluding contentious issues, may deliver accounts of them which bend in favour of hegemonic stability by focusing on people, as autonomous individuals, rather than on institutions and the social-structural foundations underlying individual behaviour. Whilst a certain proportion of adults might see through such accounts, younger children cannot be expected to have the political awareness and knowledge required to realise that such explanations may be partial (although they would not be incapable of doing so). They therefore acquire a conception of environmental issues which can be seen as overemphasising the role of 'ordinary' people both in having created the problems, and in being able to solve them at a local level. Causes such as individual wastefulness, and solutions such as recycling and energy conservation, are prioritised at the expense of a focus on the much more damaging activities of industries, the failure of governments to control them, and the place of both of these in a wider social system.

If children acquire the individualistic interpretation of ecological problems from the media aimed at them (or mass media more generally), however, this does not mean that they would treat any information about the environment uncritically, nor that they will be affected by specific bits of media content. If the individualistic approach is inherited, it is as a product of the whole flow of environmentally-related material. The traditional effects research methodologies are incapable of detecting such subtleties. Media audiences are not uncritical or indiscriminate consumers, and research must allow people to demonstrate their capacities, rather than the reductive notion of specific responses. Only then will we be able to appreciate the character, extent and limitations of audience autonomy, in its ongoing struggle with social and structural pressures.

The text and images on this site are by David Gauntlett, © 1997, 2004.
Back to > Video Critical home.