Environmental communication is defined as any form of communication that is concerned with environmental affairs and issues. Within this broad definition are many different types of communication, from sustainability marketing, to public relations announcements on environmental risks, to the arguments politicians make regarding issues of global warming, pollution, water shortages, and agricultural practices. Environmental communication is closely linked to science communication, and often uses scientific research to substantiate or refute arguments about environmental issues. The mission of environmental communication is to investigate and publicize issues affecting the natural world, and humans’ role in environmental protection and resource management. Environmental communication is a complex and interdisciplinary field of study and practice that engages scholars, industry practitioners, and members of the public.
According to scholar J. Donald Hughes’ book Pan’s Travail: Environmental Problems of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, written arguments pertaining to how humans should interact with their natural world have existed for thousands of years, from debates about ecologically friendly agricultural practices to animal rights. Moreover, environmental communication has been the medium of many artists and creators of popular media throughout the ages. For example, Wordsworth and Walt Whitman often wrote about people’s role in the natural world and lamented the effect that humans had on nature. And today, both niche and mainstream artists use writing and multimedia work to convey messages about the environment to viewers.
According to the North American Association for Environmental Education, the 1960s saw an increased prominence of environmental journalism as environmental activism became more widespread. Correspondingly, colleges began developing undergraduate and graduate programs in environmental journalism and advocacy. Organizations such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and International Environmental Communication Association have supported the growth of environmental communication through a combination of research, journalism training and environmental communication pedagogy, and advocacy and awareness promotion.
This Guide to Environmental Communication examines the discipline and its impact on different industries and aspects of society, from the political sphere to corporate marketing strategies, and outlines how individuals who are interested in environmental communication can enter and advance in this rewarding and impactful field of communication.
Types Environmental Communication and Journalism
There are many types of environmental communication that span different industries and disciplines. Below are just a few examples of prominent forms of environmental communication.
Environmental journalists research and write about the natural world and the impact human activity and natural events have on it. To create their articles, environmental journalists research, verify, analyze, and disseminate information about important environmental issues, and often have a strong foundation in the environmental sciences from which they can draw when writing content that is educational and impactful. Environmental journalists can work for major news media outlets, from The New York Times to NBC News, and well as smaller non-profit news and investigative journalism organizations, like National Public Radio. Environmental journalism is also present in specialized magazines such as Science Magazine, and National Geographic, as well as general news and business magazine such as TIME Magazine and The Economist.
Environmental journalism is distinct from other types of environmental communication in that it is disseminated to a wide readership, is the product of research and traditional journalistic publication practices, and is written with the intent to inform the public (as opposed to marketing and advertising which have the objective of promoting a product, service, brand, or organization). Environmental journalism plays a very important role in alerting the public to environmental issues and their impact on human life.
Scholars and researchers of environmental issues also employ environmental communication when they write up their results, conclusions, and implications of their research. Environmental research is defined as studies conducted by scholars at institutions of higher education and at research centers devoted to the study and protection of the environment. Scholars of environmental communication often publish their findings in research journals such as Environmental Research, Environmental Science & Technology, Global Environmental Change, and Journal of Environmental Quality.
Examples of studies that researchers might conduct include the effects of agricultural pesticides on humans and wildlife, the status of certain endangered species, the impact of air pollutants on climate change, and consumer recycling habits. As scientific journals are typically geared towards researchers and scholars at institutions of higher education, researchers of environmental science may rely on environmental journalists and larger media outlets to spread their findings to the larger public.
Environmental Communication in Politics, Government, and Advocacy
In recent years, environmental preservation and concerns about resource depletion have grown into forefront political and social issues for countries across the world. Environmental communication has become central in political legislation, campaigns, and government and non-profit advocacy. As politicians debate topics such as climate change, oil drilling, water safety, and waste management, government departments such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the National Park Service use environmental communication every day to develop, implement, and promote regulations and initiatives to protect the environment.
Closely linked to government are the many special interest groups that advocate for environmental causes, impact legislation that protects wildlife, and mobilize the public to vote for environmentally friendly laws. For example, both non-profit organizations that are subsidiaries of government departments, such as the National Park Foundation, and independent non-profit organizations such as the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, Conservation International, the Rainforest Alliance, and the World Wide Fund for Nature utilize environmental communication in its various forms to reach various audience members.
While one might not initially connect health communication and environmental communication, the two disciplines are in fact intimately linked, especially in certain contexts. For example, many of the arguments that environmental journalists and advocates make to the public about refraining from environmentally unfriendly practices have a basis in the ultimate harm such practices have on human health. Sustainability advocates often employ arguments about the health effects of unsustainable choices to motivate communities to enact positive change. Recent examples of this include the argument against the use of plastics due to its ingestion by fish and subsequently by humans, and the promotion of bike to work days to reduce air pollution and subsequent Spare the Air days that aggravate respiratory systems for people with sensitivities.
Risk communication is another form of health communication that connects to the environment and environmental hazards. For example, health education specialists engage in environmental communication when they write content about the impact environmental pollution has on health issues such as cancer, lung disease, and asthma. Furthermore, in the event of an environmental crisis, such as an oil spill, fire, or hurricane, communication specialists are responsible for conveying these risks to the public in a timely fashion to maximize community safety.
(Note: To learn more about risk communication and one example of its role in health communication and public safety, read our case study on Risk Communication and Social Media Campaigns.)
Environmental Marketing and Public Relations
With the increase in environmental awareness amongst the public, more companies have integrated environmentally conscious and pro-sustainability messages into their marketing and communications with stakeholders. Companies across different industries—from agriculture to gasoline manufacturing, appliances, food and dining, and fashion—have adapted to increased consumer expectations by changing their practices and advertising their sustainability-centric philosophies. Examples of this include a grocery chain’s stated commitment to only purchase goods from sustainable farmers, or a commercial depicting a car company’s mission to develop cars with minimal emissions. In addition, there are companies whose entire business model centers on environmentally friendly products, such as compostable bags and dining ware companies. All of these organizations require communication professionals to advertise their products and services, promote their mission, and manage their relationship with the public, investors, business partners, and other stakeholders.
Popular Culture, Social Media, and Social Discourse and Action
One of the most important creators (and recipients) of environmental communication are members of the public. They respond to environmental journalism, political debates about environmental issues, and sustainability or “green” marketing through statements of their own, which can take several forms: social media posts and discussions, consumer choices, grassroots volunteering and other movements, and also day-to-day interpersonal communication that impacts their community’s collective choices around sustainability and consumer responsibility. As public awareness of environmental issues increases, social media platforms have become another venue for environmental communication as people share and comment on articles, videos, and statements from their peers.
Commentary on the environment and sustainability are also present in popular entertainment media, from novels and poetry to blockbuster films. The prevalence of themes of nature and humans’ responsibility to protect it across various art forms is another testament to how important this form of communication is. In fact, members of the public engage in environmental communication on a regular basis, when they use interpersonal communication and social media to discuss and/or advocate for practices that protect the environment, from biking to work to using fewer plastic products and adopting sustainable diet practices.
Careers and Training in Environmental Communication
As the examples above illustrate, environmental communication is an important discipline that provides a wide variety of career opportunities. Examples of roles that individuals can take on within the discipline include:
- Environmental Journalists
- Scholars and Professors
- Government Lobbyists
- Non-profit Communication Specialists
- Campaign Managers
- Business Development Specialists
- Marketing Specialists
- Public Relations Managers
Professionals in environmental communication should know how to combine principles of research, media production, and editing with an understanding of key environmental issues, the natural sciences, and how environmental factors connect to human behavior, psychology, politics, and economics. As the field of environmental communication has grown, institutions of higher education have developed programs to train people interested in environmental journalism and reporting.
Many of these programs are at the master’s level, and are geared towards students who have worked several years in a position that is related to environmental communication, including journalists, researchers, environmental advocates, and marketing and public relations professionals. However, for high school students who have a strong interest in the environment, there are also undergraduate programs in environmental journalism and communication that can give students the skills they need to enter this industry. The curriculum at the bachelor’s degree level typically covers more foundational concepts in communication research, journalistic ethics, and environmental reporting. In contrast, master’s programs in environmental communication often include more advanced courses and projects (including a thesis or professional project), with the aim of cultivating students’ media management, research, and/or leadership skills.
Bachelor’s Degree Programs in Environmental Communication
Bachelor’s degree programs in environmental journalism and communication provide students with a foundation in the research, writing, and editing of scientific, technical, health/medical, and environmental concepts. These programs in environmental communication are generally comprised of between 120 and 160 credit hours, with between 50 and 70 course credits devoted to the student’s selected major in environmental communication, and the remaining credits devoted to fulfilling general education requirements and electives to earn the baccalaureate degree. Bachelor’s degree programs in environmental communication may also allow students to specialize their studies in environmental political writing, scientific media management, and environmental and health risk communication.
Examples of undergraduate programs in environmental communication include:
- Lehigh University offers a Bachelor of Arts in Science and Environmental Writing, as well as an undergraduate minor option. For the Bachelor of Arts program, students take core courses in basic science and technical writing, the environment and the public, and the handling of environmental and health controversies.
- University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Bachelor’s of Science in Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Communication prepares students or careers in environmental advocacy, public services, and natural resource protection and management. The curriculum combines classes in mass communication, social science, natural science, and agricultural and environmental principles.
- Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism offers a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a specialization in environmental journalism. Students can take classes in investigative environmental reporting, health and science journalism, media coverage of environmental, medical, and science controversies.
Master’s Programs in Environmental Communication
Master’s programs in environmental communication offer advanced coursework in areas that allow students to assume greater leadership roles within the areas of environmental journalism, campaigning, marketing, and organizational communication management. In general, these programs are comprised of between 30 to 36 course credits, and include either a thesis requirement or a professional project as students’ culminating experience in the program. While a thesis is a formal and extended research project that investigates an academic query around environmental and science communication, a professional project typically takes the form of a written or multimedia work that students can then use to build out their professional portfolio in environmental communication.
The following table contains a comprehensive list of master’s programs in environmental communication currently offered nationwide.
For more information about the programs listed above, please read through the program summaries detailed below:
- Michigan State University’s Master of Arts in Journalism with a Concentration in Science and Environmental Journalism is designed to provide students with advanced training in communicating critical and actionable perspectives about the natural world. Students of this program take classes in research methods in journalism, multimedia reporting, and key topics in environmental, science, and health journalism. Students of this program also have the opportunity to work with renowned faculty at the Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.
- New York University’s Master of Arts in Science, Health, & Environmental Reporting (SHERP) is a globally acclaimed program that trains communication professionals to convey advanced science, medical, and environmental research into accessible published content. Students take classes in medical and environmental reporting, journalistic ethics, and fieldwork, with a particular focus on research, reporting, writing, and editing across different forms of media, from online publications to magazines, podcasts, and videos.
- North Carolina State University’s Master of Science in Technical Communication is a flexible program with Elective Clusters in Environmental Communication and Agricultural Communication. Students take five core courses in topics such as technical publication management, research and theory in professional writing, and advanced technical editing. Afterwards, students can take classes in environmental policy and administration, urban ecology, science writing, risk communication, and environmental resource economics, as well as agricultural sociology, community development, and agricultural communication.
- The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Master of Arts in Media and Communication offers a Program of Study in Journalism with several Electives in Environmental Journalism. Students take core classes in media law, research for journalists, news reporting and writing, narrative journalism, and multimedia storytelling, after which they can choose electives in areas such as environmental and science journalism, documentary production, medical and science reporting, and environmental storytelling.
- The University of Utah’s Master’s in Communication offers an Area of Emphasis in Communication, Science, Health, Environment, and Risk (CommSHER) that encourages students to examine how environment, science, and health impact human culture, policy, and practices, and vice versa. This program focuses on timely issues such as hazardous waste removal, the effectiveness of health education campaigns, obesity prevalence and its environmental causes, and environmental sustainability.
- University of Colorado Boulder’s Master of Arts in Journalism has an Area of Expertise in Environmental Journalism. Students of this program take core courses in gathering and analyzing news, multimedia storytelling, media technologies, journalism ethics, and precision journalism, after which they can take a combination of electives both within the Journalism Department and outside of this department. Classes that students can take may cover topics in environmental justice and ethics, renewable energy, sustainability, and environmental policy.
- University of Minnesota’s Master of Science in Scientific and Technical Communication offers students a Field Competency Area in Environmental Science. This program requires students to take classes in scientific and technical communication, information design, visual rhetoric, usability, advanced technical editing, and professional practice. Students then take a class in either grant proposals or science, medical, and health writing. Those who want to focus on environmental science design a customized curriculum including courses outside of the Department of Writing Studies, in collaboration with their advisor.
- University of Missouri’s Master of Arts in Journalism with an Emphasis in Environmental Reporting trains students in newspaper journalism, quantitative and qualitative research methods, advanced reporting, science and society in mass news media, and science, health, and environmental writing. Students also have the option to take classes in investigative reporting, ecology and renewable resource management, and environmental research for journalists.
- University of Montana’s Master’s in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism gives students the opportunity to produce news about environmental issues, natural resource management, and other related topics across multiple broadcast, digital, and print media channels. Students of this program take 18 credit hours of journalism classes, and 12 credit hours of classes on natural resource issues and environmental science. They then work on either a portfolio or a documentary project on a topic in environmental or natural resource journalism.
Students interested in environmental communication should note that, due to the integral connection between environmental and science communication, many master’s degree programs in science communication provide substantial coursework in environmental communication, journalism, and sustainability. For example, Boston University’s College of Communication offers a Master of Science in Science Journalism that includes courses in environmental policy, medical communication, and science communication’s role in social justice. Students in this program can take classes in global ecology, environmental justice, and global health.
Examples of Master’s Degree Courses in Environmental Communication
While the required courses for graduate programs in environmental journalism and communication vary from school to school, examples of common courses for degrees in this area include:
- Environmental Reporting: This class covers the principles and process of writing compelling stories about environmental topics. Students also learn how to incorporate interdisciplinary elements such as epidemiology, environmental law and ethics, climate change science, and risk assessments to substantiate their arguments. Assignments in this class include newspaper columns, blog posts, narrative essays, investigative articles, and analyses of contemporary environmental journalism.
- Research Methods for Environmental Reporters: The quantitative and qualitative research methods that environmental communication professionals use to write effective content for a variety of audiences. Students delve into the processes of identifying a news story, interviewing sources effectively, collecting and analyzing relevant data, and writing cogent news stories that incorporate a variety of media.
- Health and Science Writing: This course explores different forms of science and medical/health writing, from journalistic articles to literary writing, interviews, and personal essays. Students write on a number of topics, including nature/sustainability, space, biology, medicine, and technology, and also engage in writing workshops with their peers.
- Risk Communication: This class delves into the theories and principles of effective risk communication from an organizational and a mass communication perspective. Students learn effective strategies for planning, implementing, and evaluating risk communication across a variety of environmental, health, or science-related contexts.
- Policy and Politics in Science and Environmental Communication: Students learn how politics and governmental structures impact the fields of science, medicine, and sustainability. The role of the environmental journalist and communication professional in impacting science and environmental policy is also explored.
- Journalistic Ethics in Health, Science, and Environmental Reporting: Students examine and discuss the legal and ethical considerations when producing quality journalism and other forms of communication on topics in health, science, and the environment. Students study and complete assignments on the essential statutes, regulations, and court cases that have shaped current practices in the field.
Professional Resources and Associations in Environmental Communication
In addition to the wide variety of academic programs that students and professionals can choose from in environmental communication, there are numerous organizations that advocate for environmental journalism and communication, support environmental communication professionals through trainings, and educate the public on crucial issues in the global environment. Examples of such organizations include:
- The Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ): Through a combination of advocacy, conferences, mentorship programs, and creative and research partnerships, the SEJ seeks to strengthen the quality and reach of journalism and other forms of media that promote the public’s understanding of important environmental issues.
- The International Environmental Communication Association (IECA): The IECA is an alliance of environmental journalists and other media professionals, scholars, educators, and creative professionals who are committed to creating content that promotes awareness and helps to mitigate environmental challenges and conflicts.
- The National Communication Association’s Environmental Communication Division (NCA): The NCA supports the interests of communication professionals, scholars, and researchers through a variety of programs, including advocacy and public engagement programming, the publication of numerous academic journals on communication, annual conventions and conferences, and mentorship and networking programs.
- The Earth Journalism Network (EJN): EJN was created by the organization Internews to support and empower journalists in developing countries who investigate and write about international environmental issues. The EJN provides training and resources, fellowship programs, and networks and partnerships that have helped train over 7,500 practicing journalists across the world in writing about issues of environmental health, water quality and availability, biodiversity, climate change, and ocean resources and pollution.
- The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE): The NAAEE’s mission is to support and advance environmental literacy amongst professionals and the public alike, and to promote civic engagement in environmental protection initiatives to promote a sustainable global future. This organization hosts educational webinars and workshops, and offers members a variety of professional resources, including a network of sustainability professionals and educators, and an annual conference.
Environmental communication has been an essential part of human society for centuries. With the help of ever-advancing communication technologies, a greater public awareness of environmental issues, and the commitment of professionals in this field, environmental communication as a discipline will continue to grow, impacting entire industries, consumer behavior, public advocacy, academia, and politics. Professionals who succeed in environmental communication possess a combination of research skills and environmental science, the ability to write clear and compelling content, and an understanding of the underlying mission of environmental communication, which is to help people navigate their relationship with the natural world in a way that advances humans’ interests while also protecting the environment.