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The Journal of Environmental Education
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The Impact of Television News on Public Environmental
Christine C. Brothers , Rosanne W. Fortner & Victor J. Mayer
Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary , S. Wellfleet, Massachusetts, USA
The Ohio State University , Columbus, USA
Published online: 15 Jul 2010.
To cite this article: Christine C. Brothers , Rosanne W. Fortner & Victor J. Mayer (1991) The Impact of Television News on
Public Environmental Knowledge, The Journal of Environmental Education, 22:4, 22-29, DOI: 10.1080/00958964.1991.9943058
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00958964.1991.9943058
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The Impact of Television
News on Public
Environmental Knowledge
ABSTRACT: This study measured the impact of a television news program in educating adults about the Great Lakes environment. In May 1989, WJW-TV8 in Cleveland broadcasted selected knowledge questions and their answers, with accompanying explanatory video segments, on the station’s evening news program. Following
the broadcast, 461 Clevelanders completed the entire questionnaire at county and city library branches. A comparison of library respondents’ knowledge scores on
questions that had and had not been broadcast showed that the news program increased knowledge levels significantly. To the extent that the television news viewers
who voluntarily participated in the study are representative of the general public, it
seems that this media format can be an effective way to educate the public about the
Yet statewide tests of Ohio students’ knowledge about
the Great Lakes, administered in 1979, 1983, and 1987,
indicate that knowledge levels are low. Of over 3,700
ninth graders tested, about 40% could not identify Lake
Erie on a map of the Great Lakes. Ninth graders did not
know what PCBs are (34% correct) or what eutrophication means (310/0), even though these have been serious
issues in the Great Lakes for many years. In 1987, scores
for fifth and ninth graders were 39% and 50%, respectively (Fortner and Mayer, in press).
Whereas ignorance of the consequences of actions
such as building too close to the shore or using excessive
amounts of fertilizers is suspected of being a contributor
to environmental degradation, no studies have been
done to determine if indeed the adult public is ignorant
of basic environmental concepts about the Great Lakes.
Thus, the educational goals and efforts of public education groups are based on a perceived but undocumented
need for such education.
he five Great Lakes are an international resource
and asset. Each day, over 11 million people get their
drinking water from Lake Erie alone. The lakes generate billions of dollars in economic revenues through
recreation, power production, transportation, mineral
resources, and manufacturing. They provide habitat for
wildlife and moderate the region’s climate. The settlement and development of the continent were strongly
influenced by the Great Lakes.
Christine C. Brothers is program coordinator at the
Wellfleet Bay Wildlve Sanctuary in S. Welweet,
Mwachusetts. Rosanne Fortner 13 a professor of
natural resources and Victor J. Mayer is a profaor of
science education, both at The Ohio State University in
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We designed this project to docudent current levels
of Great Lakes knowledge among adults and demonstrate that a television news program can enhance that
knowledge. Questions and answers from the Great Lakes
Survey were broadcast, followed by video segments explaining and expanding upon each question. With the
broadcast, the public received important information
about environmental issues currently affecting the Great
Lakes. The complete survey, administered after the
broadcast, measured the impact of the television news
show in educating adults about the Great Lakes.
Research Background
Environmental knowledge and attitudes have generally been found to be positively correlated (Fortner and
Mayer 1988 and 1983; Hamilton 1986; Fortner and
Teates 1980). Research on public environmental knowledge has been limited in recent years, and environmental
knowledge levels have generally been found to be low
(Miller 1989; Arcury, Scollay, and Johnson 1987; Arcury and Johnson 1987; Buethe 1985; Resources for the
Future 1980). Much of the research on environmental
knowledge has been on school students, and knowledge
levels have also been low among this group (Brody,
Chipman, and Marion 1989; Mullis and Jenkins 1988;
Fortner and Mayer, in press; Blum 1987; Brody and
Koch 1986; Walter and Lien 1985).
Environmental knowledge is frequently found to be
correlated with educational level (Caron 1989; Arcury
and Johnson 1987). Males tend to be more environmentally literate (Blum 1987; Arcury and Johnson 1985; Arcury, Scollay, and Johnson 1987; Buethe 1985; Fortner
and Mayer 1988 and 1983; Fortner and Teates 1980).
In their analysis of studies on environmental concern,
Van Liere and Dunlap (1980) conclude that younger
people, urban residents, and liberals tend to be more environmentally concerned than older people, rural residents, and conservatives. There is a moderately strong
relationship between education and concern. Sex, income, and occupation are not substantially associated
with environmental concern. Correlations between
various measures of environmental concern and sociodemographic characteristics vary considerably among
studies, suggesting that environmental concern may be a
fairly broad concept, that different types of concern
may be related to demographic characteristicsin different
ways, and that environmental concern may be widespread in American society (Van Liere and Dunlap 1981).
Television is often perceived to be the source of environmental information for most people (SIP1 1989;
Blum 1987; Fortner and Mayer, in press; Fortner and
Lyon 1985; Fortner 1985; Walter and Lien 1985; Fortner and Teates 1980; Alaimo and Doran 1980). Television documentaries have also been shown to increase environmental knowledge and produce positive, although
temporary, attitude shifts (Fortner 1985; Fortner and
Lyon 1985). Given the low levels of public environmental knowledge, the general assumption that public environmental literacy is a prerequisite of a quality environment, and the frequency with which television is cited as
a source of environmental information, television
should have an important role to play in the development of public environmental knowledge and concern.
Objectives and Definitions
The objectives of our research were to (a) determine
what an adult sector of the public knows about the resources of and issues facing the Great Lakes; (b) determine what opinions toward the Great Lakes are held by
an adult sector of the public; (c) identify demographic
characteristics related to public knowledge of and
opinions toward the Great Lakes; and (d) determine
what impact a television news show can have on public
knowledge of the Great Lakes.
Environmental knowledge was represented by scores
obtained on the multiple-choice section of the Great
Lakes Survey questionnaire. Environmental opinion
was operationally defined as responses to attitude and
belief statements provided on the Likert-type scale section of the survey questionnaire. Attitudes are statements of how people feel about something, whereas beliefs are assessments of what a person thinks is true or
false (Dillman 1978). The “mall test” was the baseline
study to provide data for WJW-TV8 to broadcast. The
“library test” was the postbroadcast survey administered at city and county libraries.
Research Design
Our study involved several research designs. First, we
used descriptive survey research to explore and describe
public knowledge of and opinions toward the Great
Lakes. Second, an ex post facto relational study was
conducted to explain the factors associated with public
knowledge and opinions toward the Great Lakes. A
one-page, two-sided written questionnaire was developed to collect data.
Finally, the study involved experimental research
using a posttest-only comparison group design. The
treatment was exposure to a television broadcast of selected items from the Great Lakes Survey. The observations were scores on the broadcast items and nonbroadcast items of the knowledge section of the surveys completed over a 2-week period in May 1989 by 461 respondents at Cleveland libraries. Library respondents
who watched the broadcast acted as their own comparison group because, in the treatment, they were exposed to only 4 of the 12 questions on the test instrument. Their scores on the broadcast items represent the
observation of the treatment group, whereas their scores
on the nonbroadcast items represent the observation of
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the comparison group. The library respondents were not
a random sample; rather, they self-selected to participate in the survey, either after viewing the broadcast, or
as a result of posters at the libraries.
Survey Development
We developed knowledge questions for the survey
based on significant Great Lakes issues identified by a
panel of experts representing Great Lakes agencies and
scientific institutions. A multiple-choice format such as
that used in the National Environment Test (Lynch and
Chandler 1971) and Arcury and Johnson’s (1987) statewide survey of public environmental knowledge was
chosen as the most objective measure of environmental
knowledge. Survey questions demonstrated either the
importance of the Great Lakes as a resource or the extent of an environmental problem. Proposed survey
questions and an issue list were sent to a second review
panel of Great Lakes experts in four states and Ontario.
This group examined the questions for accuracy, structure, vocabulary, and content validity, and the input
was used to further revise the survey questions. Splithalf reliability on the total item pool during field testing
was 0.72.
We rewrote environmental opinion statements used in
other studies to adapt them to the Great Lakes region. A
Likert-scale format was chosen for the opinion statements, with respondents indicating on a scale of 1 to 5
whether they strongly agreed, agreed, were undecided or
had no opinion, disagreed, or strongly disagreed with
each statement. Survey review-panel responses to the
opinion statements were considered the most appropriate response for each statement, and some statements
were reverse coded for analysis. A respondent’s environmental opinion score was the mean of responses to
the nine opinion statements, with 5 being the most positive score.
A word checklist was developed based on an examination of the vocabulary used in the multiple-choice items
and on existing environmental vocabulary tests (Buethe
1985; Buethe and Smallwood 1987). The purpose of the
checklist was to determine what environmental terms
the public reportedly understands and whether this understanding influences its ability to answer questions.
Respondents indicated whether they did or did not
understand each term. Word score was then computed
as the total number of words each participant indicated
knowing, out of 14 possible words.
We used three parallel forms of the survey to increase
the total number of multiple-choice questions and opinion statements that could be presented. Questions were
divided among the forms with 12 multiple-choice items,
nine opinion statements, and 14 vocabulary terms on
each. Two knowledge questions, one attitude statement,
and the vocabulary checklist were the same among the
three forms.
Demographic items provided information about where
people got most of their information about the Great
Lakes, whether they were members of an environmental,
fishing, boating, or civic group, their age, sex, number of
years of school completed, number of years lived in the
study area, approximate annual family income, and
which days they had viewed the WJW-TV8 broadcast.
Shopping Mall Bmeline Study
The survey was administered Saturday, 15 April, in
two shopping areas in the city of Cleveland, Ohio, located on Lake Erie. We chose these malls to provide a
range of socioeconomic levels and a racially mixed sample population. Surrounded by posters announcing the
WJW-TV8 broadcast, survey administrators attempted
to stop all adult shoppers as they passed by the survey
tables to request their participation. The three survey
forms were randomly distributed among shoppers.
Shopping mall respondents’ answers to the questionnaires were scored for broadcast in the televised survey.
The data from these 503 surveys provided baseline information concerning public knowledge of and opinions
toward the lakes and gave an indication of the difficulty
of the items.
Television Broadcmt
WJW-TV8 in Cleveland televised selected questions
from the surveys, two per day on the 6:OO P.M. news,
during the third week in May 1989, a ratings week for
the television station. On Monday evening, the series
was introduced by the president and station manager.
WJW-TV8 treated this project as a major series for the
week in which it was shown.
The selected survey questions, followed by the four
answer choices, were presented by the station’s meteorologist during the weather portion of the news. Written
questions appeared on screen and were read by the meteorologist; then news personnel attempted to answer
the questions. The correct answer was given, followed
by the percentage of people who answered the question
correctly in the shopping mall samples. In this way,
viewers were able to compare their responses to those of
other people. The station also presented a video segment
to illustrate and expand on the issue or topic covered by
the question. Each evening, viewers were invited and encouraged by the meteorologist to go to their local library
to take the full survey from which the questions had
been selected.
Library Test
Collection of public responses as an indication of the
television news show’s educational impact was accomplished through survey forms available upon request at
the Cleveland City and Cuyahoga County libraries. The
surveys were distributed by library personnel to adults
requesting them, and completed questionnaires were
returned to the researchers at the end of the 2-week data
collection period. Participants usually took about 10
minutes to complete the survey. As an incentive, all participants who returned a completed form received a
“Lake Erie Guide and Game” family board game developed at The Ohio State University. They also received
“The Lake Next Door” fact sheet containing the an‘swers to all the survey questions.
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Results and Discussion
Statistical analysis of the common items on the three
survey forms indicated there were few significant or
consistent differences between county and city library
respondents, between respondents from the first and
second weeks of the library survey, and between respondents taking each of the three survey forms. Data
from all library respondents were therefore combined
for analysis.
Great Lakes Knowledge
The mean knowledge score for the library respondents was 6.72, or 56% correct. We show item topics
and percentage of correct responses in Table 1. The
mean number of words library respondents claimed to
understand was 9.16, or 65.4% of the terms. Of all the
library respondents, 53.5% had watched at least one
day of the broadcast; thus, they had been exposed to
some of the survey questions. The entire series was
viewed by 135 respondents.
The demographic characteristic that most highly and
most consistently correlated with knowledge score and
words known was education (r = 0.34). Knowledge
score was also correlated with number of words known
(r = 0.36). This is not too surprising, as the multiplechoice questions and the vocabulary checklist were really both measures of what people know about the Great
Lakes, with the checklist being a more subjective measure because respondents were asked to indicate what
they thought they knew rather than to demonstrate what
they actually knew. (Respondents may think they know
what a word means when they actually do not, or they
may be unwilling to indicate that they do not understand a term.) Correlations between respondents’ indication of whether or not they understood specific
terms and whether or not they correctly answered
knowledge questions using those terms were low. This
may indicate that respondents were able to understand
and respond to questions correctly even if they did not
understand all the words used in the questions. It may
also indicate that even if respondents understood the
terms, they were unable to apply them in answering
TABLE 1.-Knowledge Item Topics on the 1989
Great Lakes Survey, with Percentage of Cleveland
Area Library Respondents Choosing Correct Answers
to Multiple-Choice Items
Importance of Lake Erie in food fish
Great Lakes’ share of North America’s
fresh water
Most economical method of shipping goods
Main products shipped on Great Lakesa
Deposits of salt and natural gas under
Lake Eriea
Major source of phosphorus in lakes
Phosphorus level changes in last 15 years
Nutrients monitored to prevent algae blooms
Definition of eutrophication
IJC to oversee uses of Great Lakes
Management difficulty because of number
of governments
Greatest consumptive use of water
Most common shoreline use (residential)a
Waves cause most shore erosion”
Human exposure to hazardous chemicals
through fish
Fish cooking to reduce contaminants
Fish advisory in Lake Erie on carpa
Air transport of toxics to upper lakes
Dredging stirs up hazardous wastes
Nuclear power plants use lake water for
Why sea lampreys were a problem in the
Fish endangered by loss of spawning areas
Marshes disappearing by fmng in for
Reason to protect estuaries
Economic value of fisherp
Fruit crops related to lake climatea
Economic value of water-based recreation/
Cause of seasonal changes in lake levelsa
Effect of proposed diversions of lake water
Meaning of ecosystem approach
DDT problems from air transport
aTelevised survey item
Great Lakes Opinion
Mean environmental opinion for the library respondents was 3.9 on a Likert scale of 1 to 5, with 5 representing the most favorable environmental opinion. This
compares with 3.8 for the mall sample. Opinion items
from the survey were not included in the broadcast; thus
library respondents had not previously been exposed to
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this part of the questionnaire. This suggests that respondents who watched the broadcast and went to the library
to take the survey may have held positive opinions even
before watching the broadcast, and those opinions were
shared widely in the area.
Environmental opinion was most closely correlated
with score on the knowledge items (r = 0.28), but number of words known (r = 0.15), and education level (r =
0.07) were only remotely related. Whereas males were
significantly more knowledgeable environmentally than
females (males 60% Correct, females 53%, p <
0.001), males and females were equally concerned about
the environment and held similar environmental opinions (both sexes 3.9 out of 5). Males and females did not
differ in information source used or in membership in
fishing, boating, civic, or environmental groups; thus
these factors did not explain the significant differences
in knowledge or word scores between males and females.
Information Source and Membership
Television was the primary source of Great Lakes information for most respondents (44%), followed by
newspapers (28%). Respondents who cited newspapers
or lake activities as their primary information source
scored significantly higher on the knowledge items and
knew significantly more words than those who cited
television (p < 0.01). There were no differences in
mean opinion scores among respondents citing each of
the six information sources (Table 2).
Respondents who cited newspapers as information
sources were significantly older and had significantly
higher educational levels than those who cited television, museums, or other. These results are consistent
with earlier studies finding that newspaper readers generally are more educated than people who use broadcast
sources, especially for science topics (Ostman and Parker
1986; Larson, Zimmerman, and Scherer 1982). There
were no differences among the six information groups in
income or number of days viewing the broadcast.
Five to ten percent of respondents indicated belonging to a fishing, boating, civic, or environmental group.
Respondents who belonged to these groups tended to
have higher knowledge scores, opinion scores, and word
scores than nonmembers. Although members of such
groups also tended to have higher educational levels
overall, they did not appear to differ from nonmembers
in other demographic characteristics. Previous studies
have suggested that environmentally knowledgeable and
concerned people often use specialized media sources,
although this seems to depend on the sample selected
(Larson, Zimmerman, and Scherer 1982). In this study,
respondents who belonged to fishing and boating clubs
cited lake activities as their information source more
often than those who did not belong to such a club;
otherwise, membership had only low or negligible correlations with information source cited. Media source for
respondents in civic and environmental groups does not
differ from that of a more general public.
Impact of the Television News Program
Because the library surveys included the 10 questions
to which answers were given on television, it was expected that library respondents who had watched the
broadcast would be able to answer those items correctly.
The library surveys thus provided a measure of the station’s potential for educational impact on the community. They also demonstrated whether and how television can be used to enhance public information levels
about the Great Lakes.
Survey items were divided into two groups, broadcast
and nonbroadcast questions. Each of the three survey
forms contained four questions that had been broadcast
on television and eight that had not been broadcast.
Questionnaires were selected for comparing means
based on the survey form completed and the days on
which respondents had watched the broadcast. For example, because items 1, 9, 10, and 11 from form A were
broadcast on Monday and Tuesday evenings, only form
TABLE 2.-Mean Knowledge Scores by Information Source Used
Lake Activities
aGroups between which there was a significant difference.
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A respondents who had actually watched the broadcast
Monday and Tuesday evenings were selected. In this
way, these library respondents served as their own control group because they had been exposed to the treatment, the WJW-TV8 broadcast, as measured by the
broadcast items and not exposed to the treatment as
measured by the nonbroadcast items. Library respondents watched a mean of 2.89 nights of the series. The
statistical test used was a t test for paired samples, with
alpha set a priori at .05.
Combining the three forms of the survey, library respondents’ mean scores on the broadcast items were significantly higher than on the nonbroadcast items. However, it was possible that the broadcast items on the
questionnaire were easier than the nonbroadcast ones,
which would explain the higher scores on the broadcast
items. To assess the difficulty of the questions, we also
compared the mean knowledge scores on broadcast and
nonbroadcast items for all of the mall respondents. For
the mall sample, there was no significant difference in
the means between the broadcast and nonbroadcast
items (Table 3). Therefore, the higher scores on the
broadcast items compared with the nonbroadcast items
for the library respondents were most likely a result of
the televised broadcast and not item difficulty.
It is important to note here that the impact of the televised broadcast was not determined by comparing the
mean knowledge scores of library and mall respondents.
Library respondents scored significantly higher than
mall respondents on the total knowledge score, the
broadcast items, and the nonbroadcast items. These differences were probably caused by the demographic differences between the two sample populations and the
fact that only the library respondents received the treatment. Impact of the televised broadcast was determined
by comparing scores among the same population, the library respondents who had watched all of the relevant
days of the broadcast. Because these respondents acted
as their own comparison group, differences in mean
scores resulted from the treatment, not the demographic
differences. Higher scores .on the broadcast items than
on the nonbroadcast items indicate that the broadcast
was effective for that sample.
Whereas library respondents who watched the broadcast were more knowledgeable and had more positive
environmental opinions than library respondents who
did not watch the broadcast or than mall respondents
and, though there were a number of differencesbetween
the groups in demographic characteristics, it seems reasonable to suggest that the knowledge scores of both
these latter groups could also have been increased had
they seen the televised broadcast.
Recommendations for Further Research
This study investigated the impact of a television news
show on public environmental knowledge levels; how-
TABLE 3.-t Test Comparison of Knowledge Scores
on Broadcast and Nonbroadcast Items by Library and
Shoppiog Mall Respondents on the 1989 Great Lakes
Combined forms
Mall t test
Library t test
ever, it did not measure the impact of such a broadcast
on opinions. This should be investigated in future
studies. The sample populations used in this study limit
the generalizability of the findings. Ideally, a more random sample of respondents should be used. Because the
questions used on the library survey were identical to
those on the broadcast, they really only measure respondents’ recall of the question and answer. Information
gain and retention were only tested for a 2-week period.
Future studies should investigate higher order learning
resulting from television broadcasts and retention of
such learning.
In this study, we asked respondents to identify their
primary source of Great Lakes information but only
measured the impact of one of these sources in educating about the Great Lakes. Future studies should compare the relative effectiveness, in obtaining knowledge
gain or opinion change, of different media sources providing the same information. We used only Pearson correlations and cross tabulations to measure relationships
between environmental knowledge and opinion and
demographic characteristics. Future studies should use
multiple regression analysis in order to assess the relative contribution of each of these characteristics.
Finally, this study focused on one population, people
in the Cleveland, Ohio, metropolitan area. People in
other areas of the Great Lakes basin may have different
knowledge levels and environmental opinions, which investigators might study and analyze. Because the Great
Lakes are a shared international resource, studies
should also investigate whether Canadians differ from
Americans in knowledge and opinions.
Conclusions and Implications for Environmental
Our study provided information about what the
public does and does not know and the opinions that
people hold about critical environmental issues, many
of which extend beyond the Great Lakes region. In addition, our research provided data concerning public
media use in obtaining resource information. Such information about public knowledge, opinion, and media
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use should prove valuable to those concerned with public education and its role in resource management.
Our study has also indicated that public knowledge
levels about the Great Lakes in a lakeshore community
are generally low, even among the volunteer respondents who came to libraries to participate; yet opinions
about issues facing the lakes are generally environmentally favorable. Television, followed by newspapers, is
the primary source of Great Lakes environmental information for the majority of the group studied. It is
through this source that the adult public is learning
about and forming opinions on the resources of and environmental issues facing the region.
However, newspaper readers in this study tended to
be more knowledgeable about the Great Lakes environment and to have higher educational levels than those
who relied on television for information. Educational
level was the demographic characteristic most closely
associated with environmental knowledge and opinion.
Focusing exclusively on newspapers as the medium for
educating the public about the Great Lakes may then
lead to an “information gap,” with those who are more
knowIedgeable becoming even more informed while less
knowledgeable people remain relatively uninformed
(Bailey 1971).
Television documentaries on the environment, often
shown on public television stations, may have a similar
effect if they are watched by those people who are
already knowledgeable and concerned. This study attempted to reach a more general adult public by using a
local network television news show to convey information about the Great Lakes. Still, the group that voluntarily responded was older, better educated, and had a
30% higher income level than the most recent census
figures for the county in which the research was done.
Results showed that the news show broadcast was indeed effective in increasing knowledge levels among
those who viewed the broadcast, but because of the
sample characteristics, the estimate of knowledge is
probably high compared to the public at large. To the
extent that the television news show viewership is representative of the general public, the TV news format can
be an effective way to educate the public about the
Great Lakes and about environmental issues.
Environmental coverage and reporting on television
has increased over the past few years, with magazine
news programs covering environmental issues in detail.
Several news series focusing on the environment are also
in production. According to the National Wildlife Federation (1989), although the environment ranked 13th
out of 18 categories in network news coverage in 1988,
air time dealing with the environment increased from 68
minutes in the first quarter of the year to 150 minutes in
the fourth quarter. The dramatically increased environmental coverage surrounding Earth Day 1990 was further evidence of this trend.
WQED’s executive vice-president Thomas Skinner, in
discussing the role of television in reporting environmental issues, stated, “We’ve saturated the market with
programs that tell us how wonderful the natural world
is. There isn’t a night that goes by without PBS viewers
seeing something that swims, flies, crawls, or runs over
the landscape. People’s awareness has been heightened.
There aren’t a lot of animals and habitats left to report
on. Environmental coverage is the next step, the next
generation of this kind of material” (Daviss 1988, p. 6).
According to the present study, news programming
could take an effective lead in such coverage.
Fred Jerome, executive vice-president of the Scientist’s
Institute for Public Information, has said, “For the vast
majority of the American public, the TV set is the only
teacher. . . .The medium that more than any other molds
the American consciousness is television. I’m talking
about commercial television” (SIP1 1989, p. 9).
A review of the resource and environmental issues addressed in this survey shows clearly that they extend beyond the Great Lakes basin. Loss of wetlands, endangered species, toxic materials, eutrophication, agricultural runoff, air pollution, pesticides, exotic species,
water use, energy production, shoreline erosion, and
land development are problems and issues facing much
of the country. Great Lakes environmental communication is not just about regional issues but about the entire
spectrum of environmental concerns as they are evidenced in the relative microcosm of the Great Lakes.
This research was part of a public education project, Using Television to Enhance Public Information Levels about the Great Lakes,
funded by The George Gund Foundation in Cleveland, Ohio. The
authors gratefully acknowledge the contributions of WJW-TVS in
Cleveland, the Cuyahoga County and Cleveland libraries, and The
Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.
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