It’s hard to keep up with recently published qualitative studies, but here are two studies that examine media that you might want to look at, namely Tar wars: Oil, environment and Alberta’s image by Geo Takach, and Ken Howley’s Drones: Media discourse and the public imagination.
Some of you may have had the good fortune to visit Alberta, Canada at some point. My own images of Alberta from almost 30 years ago include vast open spaces, beautiful peaks and valleys of the Rocky Mountains and the modern skyline of Calgary. Geo Takach (2017) explores the images of Alberta in film over the course of 10 years (2005-2014) in his book, Tar wars: Oil, environment and Alberta’s image. His focus moves to the northeast of the province to examine how the world’s largest industrial project (p. 3) involving the recovery of oil buried deep beneath the boreal forest is depicted by documentary film and video makers. Takach uses the term “bit-sands” to refer to the “bituminous sands” or “tar sands” from which oil is extracted. To gain some insight into the enormity of this project, Takach informs readers that 2011 estimates forecast gross domestic product (GDP) of $2,106 billion for Canada from the project (76% of which was in Alberta), with 25-year forecasts of $3,865 billion in GDP impact (p. 5). Takach’s study takes a critical approach to examine “how place-identity is contested and produced in Alberta in the context of extracting bitumen, from diverse viewpoints and interests” (p. 12). Through interviews, he examined the diverse perspectives of key participants of documentary films and advocacy videos, and then analyzed the “frames” presented in these films and videos. According to Takach, portrayals of the bit-sands are highly polarized and fraught with emotion. Through a four-step process, Takach aimed to provide a nuanced portrayal. Steps included:
- Identification of documentary films and videos
- Interviews with directors and producers of these films and videos
- Critical analysis of the framing at work in the films and videos, and
- Locating the frames used within discourse on environmental concerns about the bit-sands (p. 13).
The initial frames identified by Takach span from instrumentalist (e.g., “progress” and “money”), through conversationist/preservationist, moralist (e.g., “greed”, “eco-justice”) and transformational (“ecocide”) (p. 41). On completion of the study, additional frames were added, including a middle ground position (“conflicted”) (p. 117). The book is organized in 6 chapters, with the final chapter outlining recommendations for how the findings contribute to environmental communication, critical research, place studies, and media studies.
Although this study examines the context of Alberta, it is relevant for all of us, since we all rely each day on the extraction of fossil fuels. Takach’s book asks important questions about media portrayals of environmental issues and provides suggestions for a way forward in portraying complex issues such as the bit-sands project. Takach concludes his book with a recommendation for the application of arts-based research methods in the area of environmental communication, commenting: “The health of Earth affects human beings not only as individual hiccups in history but as a species, just as the planet’s well-being influences the condition of every other known resident form of life that we have purported to master” (p. 165). Takach has also produced a film script, eco-comedy stage play, and an online video. I learned a lot from this book. It provided me with tools to be a more critical viewer of documentary images, as well as helping me to think about the larger issues at stake that relate to the care of the environment.
Ken Howley (2018) explores media discourse around drones in his book, Drones: Media discourse and the public imagination. Prior to this book, my own knowledge of drones was limited to occasional sightings in the neighborhood, along with media reports of airport closures due to drones and the use of drones for military purposes. Howley uses critical discourse analysis to examine media texts for “purposes of cultural and ideological critique” (p. xxi). Organized in 12 chapters in four parts (“Perpetual war”, “Domesticating drones”, “Witnessing” and “Resistance”), Howley begins the book by discussing the discourse surrounding the use of weaponized drones. Part 2 explores what Howley describes as the “discourse of domestication,” which includes chapters that survey how drones are portrayed by enthusiasts and in marketing for consumer goods. Part 3 turns Howley’s exploration of media reports of testimony from survivors of drone strikes. Finally, Part 4 explores discourses of opposition, including activist campaigns and popular culture (e.g., internet memes). The final chapter uses the work of media theorist Harold Innis to consider the relationships between technology and culture. Throughout the book, Howley uses the idea of the “technological sublime” to discuss drones, drawing on the work of cultural historian Leo Marx. Howley asserts that “on the one hand, sublime technologies embody ideals of freedom, equality, and morality; on the other hand, these same technologies portend tyranny, repression, and corruption” (p. 8). According to Howley, the “rhetoric of the technological sublime pervades much of our language and a great deal of thinking about drones” (p. 271), which allows the US military to pursue warfare in countries far removed. I found this book to be eye-opening, and like Takach’s book, it provided me with the tools to be a more critical reader of media reports concerning drones, and drone warfare.
Both of these books illustrate different approaches to the examination of media reports. On the one hand, Takach’s primary data includes interviews with documentary film and video directors and producers, accompanied by careful analysis of the framings used in the films. Howley’s study examines a wide variety of media reports, including television and newspaper reports, satirical news shows, cartoons, and internet memes. For students who want to critically examine media, both of these books provide exemplars to follow.
Howley, K. (2018). Drones: Media discourse and the public imagination. New York: Peter Lang.
Takach, G. (2017). Tar wars: Oil, environment and Alberta’s image. Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta Press.