01 - How is the media a culprit in environmental pollution? ft. Professor Justin Lewis

November 11, 2019

Justin Lewis is a Professor of Communication and Creative Industries at Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media and Culture, with a particular interest in news innovation. He has conducted research with many different creative organisations, including the BBC, the BBC Trust, Channel 4, the Guardian, as well as UK and European Research councils.   Justin is also the Director of Clwstwr. An ambitious five-year programme to create new products, services and experiences for screen. Clwstwr’s mission is to create a culture of innovation which will move the screen sector from a position of strength to one of leadership, internationally.

Pinar Guvenc  00:00

Hello everyone and welcome to the first episode of What's Wrong With: The podcast. My name is Pinar Guvenç and I'm the managing partner of Eray Carbajo, an award winning Architecture and Design Studio based in New York and Istanbul with a mission of creating concepts that address urban, social, and environmental problems. Today we have the honor and privilege to host Professor Justin Lewis. Justin lewis is a Professor of Communication and creative industries at Cardiff University's School of Journalism, media and culture, with a particular interest in news innovation. He has conducted research with many different creative organizations, including BBC, BBC Trust, Channel 4, The Guardian, as well as UK and European Research councils. Justin is also the director of Clwstwr, an ambitious five year program to create new products, services and experiences for screen. Clwstwr's mission is to create a culture of innovation which will move the screen sector from a position of strenghth to one of leadership internationally. Hi, Justin, thank you so much for joining us today.

Justin Lewis  01:07

Very happy to be here.

Pinar Guvenc  01:08

Can you please tell us a bit more about yourself?

Justin Lewis  01:11

Yeah, I guess I've worked in a number of areas. I'm interested, I suppose, in quite a wide range of things to do with the sort of interface between media, society and politics. So I've done a lot of work in recent years around media and the environment, media and consumerism, which is obviously a connected topic. I'm also very interested in media innovation. I'm currently directing a project that looks at how we can create a kind of sustainable ecosystem of smaller companies, around small independent companies and media that can compete with the large, integrated global media giants. And I'm kind of interested in not only the problems that we face, but thinking about solutions to them. 

Pinar Guvenc  01:58

Amazing, yes which is what want to hear today, anyway. So I've looked into a study that you've done in the past on mediated consumerism and its impact on climate change. And I was, honestly, I was fascinated by it and also amazed of how much I did not realize that before. So, you know, I would love for you to sort of like introduce that study, like how it came about, and also give a little bit more information on your research. 

Justin Lewis  02:29

So I suppose I think that I mean, there's so many ways I think that media industries intersect with is the key issue of our day really, which is the environmental issue and climate change. And I wanted to explore the ways in which that happens, how we've got to this place, because for me fundamentally, the our inability to act on something like climate changes is a limit of our imaginations because this is a problem we've known about for quite a while. It's a problem that's very fixable, you know, we're quite capable of fixing it if we want to. And yet, we haven't. So for me, it's not a technical problem. It's not a problem of, you know, lack of expertise or knowledge. It's a problem of lack of will. And that I think, opens up the whole area of, well how has that happened? You know, how is it that we've kind of sleepwalked into a situation where it's almost too late to do anything that halts climate change completely? We're now living with a world where it's just going to be, you know, hopefully not as bad as it could be, you know, how did that happen? And then how can we get to a situation where things improve? And I think once you start to ask those questions, you have to look at how we understand the world, how we understand issues, and that inevitably leads you to think about the role of the media in all of this, because, you know, we are very much creatures that consume media. We spend eight or nine hours a day consuming media. It's the industry that's fundamental to consciousness. So I tried to think about ways in which the media might have a role in shaping our understanding around those issues. And I suppose I focused on three areas in which that happens. One, I think, is to do with the ubiquity of the advertising industry, and the advertising industry is everywhere. And we've allowed it to be everywhere really, we as a society have decided that the main way we're going to allow our media industry and our information and entertainment industries to be financed is through advertising. And that means that our dominant creative industry actually is the advertising industry. The advertising industry is 15 times bigger than the global movie industry. I mean, it's huge. An awful lot of our creative talent resides--you know, if you're a creative person, that's an industry you're probably most likely to go into. And that's fine, depending on what the advertising industry does. But one of the problems is that most advertising is around the consumption of products. That means that...one of the most dominant discourses in our culture is a discourse that essentially tells us that the solution to every problem--the way to be happy, the way to be secure, you know, the way to a meaningful life--is through consumption. And that's the only route to those things, there is no other route. So you won't see an ad saying, you know, "maybe you should go for a walk in the park, you know, you might feel that might raise your mood!" And ironically, actually, it's more likely to have a good impact on your mood than going and buying something. But you won't see an ad for that because there's no money to be made out of it. So we have this repeated mantra, which essentially says happiness, satisfaction, and so forth, can only happen through consumption. And that, of course, is antithetical to the idea of doing something about climate change because it makes it really hard to say something along the lines of, "Maybe we should think about consuming less. Maybe there are other routes to a happy, meaningful life." And when we're surrounded by messages that tell you the opposite, it's very, very difficult to think in other ways. And I think if there is one discourse that makes it difficult to move forward, it's probably that kind of advertising discourse writ large. And I try to imagine what it will be like if you know, so imagine all the amazing creative energy that goes into advertising. Imagine if you said to every advertising creative tomorrow, okay, forget about selling a product. Why don't you just use your creativity to create a message about something you care about? Tell a story about something that matters to you. And if they all did that, imagine how different the world would look and how different it would be if you could tell a story about anything. It will be a very different place we live in and it would be a very, you know, will be much more contemplated, but with much more thoughtful will allow our imaginations to run a little freer. 

Pinar Guvenc  06:50

Would their number one question be who is paying for it? 

Justin Lewis  06:54

Well, of course, it wouldn't work economically because yeah, who would pay for that? Although, you know, again, I think that we as a society should think about that. I mean, how do we want our creativity to be paid for? And I mean, ultimately, if it's paid for by advertising, we will pay for it, we just don't pay for it in the obvious place. So you know, we pay for our TV programs in a supermarket or the department store, we just, you know, because we pay more for a branded product, because advertising costs money. So yes, it will get paid for, it's just sort of deferred payment. And I think, again, we perhaps need to take, as a society, a look at that. I think not all countries do that. Some countries will--I mean my own country--invest quite a lot in public service broadcasting, where we have, you know, our most popular TV channels are ad free, publicly funded corporations and independent of government, and yeah, that's another way of doing it. And I think we probably need to think a bit more about advertising-free space that allows us to think--there was an interesting project here that did a crowdfunding project and they, they took over a subway station in London. And they just paid for, I think for a week, because normally this is full of ads, and they just had pictures of cats, and these pictures of cats weren't doing anything. They were just pictures of cats. And so for a week, you just looked around and all you saw were pictures...quite cute, interesting pictures of cats, but it serves no other purpose. And just to say, "here's some pictures of cats!" And it wasn't pursuading you to buy anything. And I thought that was quite a nice way of them just pointing out how normally we're surrounded by messages that try and persuade us to do certain kinds of things in a certain kind of way. And they were replacing that, just saying, "let's just look at something and think about it". But we don't get as much of that as we might. So that's to me is one of the kind of pillars that we need to think about. We need to think about advertising as a political discourse as well as just a commercial one. Advertising tells lots of different stories, but the one story it repeatedly tells is that the solution to everything lies in consumption. And we have to challenge that a little bit I think. 

Pinar Guvenc  09:10

It's a bit of a balance act, right? Like you're not saying, like, all the, you know, advertising can be around positive messaging, but we need some part of it involved somehow. 

Justin Lewis  09:21

Yeah, yeah. And tell different kinds of stories that are about not just about consumption. Tell stories about, you know, the pleasures of going for a walk in the park or whatever it is, that, you know, stories that actually nobody necessarily financially benefits from, but might lead to kind of more interesting, fulfilling lives. 

Pinar Guvenc  09:39

Right. Because I feel like we've been sort of brainwashed for years. Like even if we see a happy feeling on the television is always tied to, as you said, to a product, and it gives the message like you will be happy only if you consume this, right? So how can we start changing our mindsets and have you seen any studies, or how many studies have showed this changed? 

Justin Lewis  10:03

Well, there are a lot of stories, a lot of bits of research around consumerism and wellbeing, and you know, they all show pretty consistently that people that are particularly immersed in consumer culture actually leave more miserable lives. So, you know, the more kind of attached you are to the ideology of consumerism, actually, the less happy you are, which is, in some ways, counterintuitive, but quite interesting. And I guess that raises another question which is around the whole area of well-being which is, you know, is quite striking that well-being we've always assumed that well-being would be attached to consumer culture. You know, the more you have, the happier you are, but actually all the research around that tells us that there is no real--once you get to a certain level of comfort, you know, which many of us, many people--who, kind of middle class people--in developed countries reached, an increase in all our income is actually not going to make us as a society any healthier or happier. And that's pretty striking, you know, it suggests that actually, we're so fixated on economic growth and just consuming more and more. But actually, as an idea that's stopped working. And that's partly because we're in a culture now where we've got kind of hyper-consumerism. And we did a little study a few years ago, where we just went into a local supermarket and we counted the number of shampoos and conditioners, that one sale in that one supermarket on that one day, we found 188 different brands. Now, how are you supposed, as a consumer, to cope with that? I mean, that's, that's an absurd degree of choice. Now, if you were rational consumer, you'd go and do lengthy research on every one of those 188 products. But it would take you years to do it and know who's got time to do that to the end, we have to make an irrational choice. So we're in a world now where there's so much choice, so many different products that it doesn't really function that well anymore. And a lot of the psychological research around that shows that when you give people so much choice, it doesn't make them secure, happy, they kind of have to turn away from it. You know, if you. I mean, one experiment, for example, gave people a choice to 24 different kinds of jam. People just said, I can't cope with that many choices, I'm going to go and do something else. If you give them six choices of different kinds of jam, they might think, "Well, I can cope with that." So yeah, that's fine. But once we get too far into that world of kind of hyper, hyper-choice, choice starts to work against us when we have so much of it. Because it takes so much time to do it. And there are lots and lots of examples of that where, you know, we've just opted out of making choices because, frankly, we don't have the time and we'd rather do something else. If we spend all our time researching the best product at the best price, our lives would be pretty narrow. That's all we do. We wouldn't have time to have fun. 

Pinar Guvenc  13:00

You know, like when you go to a restaurant and see a very crowded menu, you can't decide what to eat. So forget about the shampoo options, I mean, it's terrible. I mean, and you know, I don't know how it serves to the brands who are actually trying to do it right, or you know, having a circular model or a sustainable model, but how does their messenge or story get out there when they're competing with all these options to and the consumers are not being aware of whether they're making the right choice or not. So it's just, you know, a crowded mess. 

Justin Lewis  13:34

Yeah. And I think that's one of the things that sort of classical economic theory has not really acknowledged, that actually, you know, the assumption is, is that more and more choice is always good, but they haven't factored in that we live finite lives. We live for a certain amount of time and we are there only 24 hours in the day. So actually, the time we have to buy things, to learn about what to buy and to enjoy the things that we buy is limited, so you can't just keep expanding the number of options endlessly. And at some point, there comes a point where you have to stop doing that and think about how can we use our time in ways that are meaningful and more interesting. A couple of other areas that relate to kind of media's role here in consumer culture, I guess, in the environment. And the two other areas I've been interested in one is around news and what stories the news media tell about the environment. And there's quite a lot of research on that. And the news media, I think have, in a lot of countries, done quite a poor job. I mean, since the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produced its first report in 1990, which is, you know, they're an expert panel that's made up of experts across a whole range of disciplines from all around the world, and they produce their first definitive report basically saying, "We have to do something to limit our carbon emissions, or greenhouse gas emissions, otherwise the climate is going to alter more quickly than we can control." That was 1990. That's nearly 30 years ago. Since then, we've increased our level of greenhouse gas emissions, we've made the problem worse, which is quite striking. So what role is media industry played in that in another way? Well, part of the media industry's way of making money, especially in recent years, has been their genius, absolute genius for built-in obsolescence. And they made things that wear out more and more quickly, and you think about phones, you know, there was a time when phones lasted quite a long time. You know, whereas now phones lasts around 18 months, and we're constantly being told that the old phone has to be shut down, you have to get a new one. And for, you know, for companies that make phones, that's a very profitable model, but in environmental terms, it's a disaster because the environmental cost is not in using phones, the amount of energy we use in phones is not that great, the real environmental cost is, is all the kind of energy and resources used to make them in the first place. So if we're being encouraged to keep on buying the new thing, environmentally, that's incredibly costly. It means that some of the reasons why the media industry has the same kind of carbon footprint as the aviation industry, the amount of effort being used is huge. And we're all part of that we're all consuming these kind of smart new devices very quickly, and with a very kind of high turnover and being encouraged by the industry to do it. But the industry is actually you know, you can see why it's doing that. It's a great business model, but they could be working in much more sustainable ways. The people who make telephones, quite a while ago, decided that they were going to make their telephones hermetically sealed. So if your battery ran out, you couldn't change it. Or if you wanted to upgrade a particular part of it, you couldn't do it. You couldn't open it. I mean, Apple was in the vanguard of this because they created something called the pentalobe screw. Which was a screw thatwas  custom built that you could only open if you had a five way screwdriver, which nobody does, then nobody could open anything, they created. And they did that for only one reason, which is to stop people opening and fixing their phones, so that people would have to buy new ones. And since they've done that, you know, a lot of companies have follow suit. I mean, there are there is one company that's kind of bucking against that trend. They're a cooperative called Fairphone. They basically make phones that you can take apart really easily and that they will replace components as a battery runs out, you just get a new battery, you want to upgrade something on it, you just upgrade that bit, so that you're not constantly chucking away the new thing. So I just, you know, the media industries have done, I think, not a good job environmentally of persuading us that we can live in an economy that's fixable. It tells us actually progress is bound up with the buying and getting rid of things as quickly as possible. You know, if you're not replacing the old device pretty quickly, you're not progressing and that's a very powerful idea. And I think that's got fixed in our minds that we've got to keep getting the new thing. You know, the I mean, apple, again, very good at that, at creating this massive hype around the latest version of a phone, people queuing outside stores, great excitement for this new thing that replaces a thing that they only bought 18 months ago. There's an ideology around that about hyper-consumption. And I think the media industry have not been good at encouraging us to live more sustainable lives. They've forced us into that mindset that it's all about producing and wasting. And of course, you know, the problems caused by e-waste is absolutely huge. These are phones are highly toxic devices. They don't, they're very difficult to recycle. Yeah, they're toxic when you put them in water, or burn them, put them to the air or put them in the soil. So you know, we're creating a massive problem for ourselves here. So I do think the media is connected to the environmental problems in all kinds of ways. Some of the news industry, I think has been--I don't know how things are in the states these days...

Pinar Guvenc  19:07

You know, we consume information and news the same way we consume products, you know, with the new news, you know, we're always on to the next. 

Justin Lewis  19:15

Yeah, no, I know. And I do find, I mean, we did a study about that looked solely at breaking news stories. And we compared them with other news stories. And we found that breaking news stories were on the whole, less accurate, less informative, and less analytical than most other news stories, so they tell you less, but journalists are obsessed with them. Because it's all about the latest thing, the new thing, rather than saying, you know, actually, here's a piece of information that you might find useful to understand. It doesn't disappear tomorrow, actually, you can hold on to that. And it's a very different way of thinking. There's an online newspaper called Deferred Gratification, and their their kind of tagline is "Always the Last with Breaking News" and their pitch is well, we're not going to tell you the story now, we're going to spend a couple of weeks thinking about it, researching it. And then when we've really thought hard about what it means and why, why it matters, we'll write a story. That's a refreshing way of thinking about news. 

Pinar Guvenc  20:17

That's amazing. My question, I guess on that is like, what do you think in terms of regulations? I mean, we don't want regulated information, like I'm imagining maybe like, you know, if you're advertising about a clothing, can I also, you know, learn more about where it was made? Was it sustainably made? Or was it a fair trade and all of that, like, what do you think? Like, do you think it's possible? Or do you think once regulations start coming to play, it's not going to be good for business? 

Justin Lewis  20:47

I think the way through this is to think about kind of the opposite of censorship, that you regulate to create more information, not less and the way you were just describing it as a good example of that. I mean, in France, for example, they're introducing regulations that say that when you produce something, you have to put, on the object, the date at which it's going to wear out, it's going to fall apart. So actually, what does that do? That encourages manufacturers to think about creating things that will last a bit longer and not wear out so quickly. You know, if you see something on something that says this will be obsolete in 18 months, you can think, "hang on, that's not really that long, maybe I'd rather have something that lasts for five years. So a regulation like that actually gives gives the consumer more information. And I think more information about where things are made, how they're made. I'd love to see information about how much of the cost of the thing you're buying is actually spent on advertising it to get you to buy it. That would be interesting, because the way we think about advertising is weirdly counterintuitive. I mean, if you see a really slick, well-made ad full of celebrities, you think that product must somehow be a kind of slick, well-made product, but the rational response should be they just spent a million dollars on an ad campaign--who's paying for that? Well, I'm paying for it when I buy it. Because, you know, that goes on the cost of the product. See, actually a rational response to an advertising campaign would be, "Maybe I should buy the product that doesn't get much advertising because it's probably better value for money." But none of us think like that. But it would be a more rational response to the kind of the hype around advertising. 

Pinar Guvenc  22:30

I also agree how it could be like a solution, but at the same time, like how realistic that is for it to happen, and how does the industry go there is the main question. 

Justin Lewis  22:43

Well it is, but although the fact that they are doing that in France and that the European Union now is thinking about bringing in regulations around providing people with information that's actually listed on the product packaging shows that it is possible to do. I mean, you know, there will be huge lobbying power against it because a lot of companies won't necessarily want to give out that information because it doesn't necessarily make what they're doing or the way they're doing it look good. But it's hard to argue that there's a kind of freedom of speech issue when you're just telling people to be more informative about what they're doing. You know, freedom of speech doesn't mean freedom to conceal the truth. It's within the spirit of freedom of speech actually, to say, well let's have more information. Let's give people more information about what they're doing, what they're buying. It could only be a good thing. 

Pinar Guvenc  23:33

How do you think social media is affecting all of this? 

Justin Lewis  23:39

It's a tough one. And in some ways, I don't have a kind of absolutist view on this. I think there are things about social media which are good in that in some ways it can be a more democratic conversation because the barriers to entry are low, you know, anybody can jump in. You don't have to own a newspaper or whatever to be involved in it. And that's a good thing. I suppose the thing that is a shame is that the whole online world, we allowed it to kind of come into creation very quickly. And we allowed that creation to be determined by market forces. And it means that pretty much all of it is now funded almost exclusively by advertising. And that means that an awful lot of what goes on online is absolutely chock full of ads. I mean, if you watch something on news, if you watch--the other day I was showing an ad in my class, and you look at the ad on YouTube, and there's an ad you have to go through before you can even watch. The layers of advertising are quite extraordinary. So it's absolutely everywhere. And I do think that's a pity. An awful lot of social media is funded that way. And, you know, I think that that's an issue in that it affects the way they think about the world having the recent controversy we've had around Twitter and Facebook, with Twitter's They are not going to accept paid political advertising because they think they put it, you should, the quality of your message shouldn't be bound up with how much money you have, which I think is a very kind of it, that's quite a principal stand. Now you might be a cynic, and say they can probably afford to make that stand because they don't make a huge amount of money from advertising. But Facebook's position is clearly compromised. I mean, they've not gone along with that, and why they're not going along with that is because they make huge amounts of money from advertising. Of course they're not going to go along with it. But that's the problem, I think. I mean, in the United States, that's a huge issue. I mean, the way in which, essentially, you can't get elected to any position in office unless you have a massive ad campaign behind you, clearly favors candidates backed by wealthier corporations. I mean, that's built into the system. And it's a huge problem. 

Pinar Guvenc  25:54

It is, it is because we are just so crowded by advertising, as you said, and it sounds like, based on all of this conversation, it is sort of impossible to--like we're surrounded by advertising and all, basically media outlets. And it's impossible to avoid that unless we're off the grid. But how we can sort of change at least the content a little bit and create a more positive impact with it is to change the messaging or the content that is pushed out there to sort of create opportunities of well-being, or education, or maybe push people to become not only environmentally conscious but environmentally proactive. 

Justin Lewis  26:31

Yeah. One of the one of the huge ironies in what you're talking about that being proactive. I mean, one of the things that quality of life research teaches us is that one of the things most strongly and positively correlated with well-being is taking a proactive role in--you know, whether it's volunteering for a charity or being active in civic life. Those things are incredibly positively correlated with people's well-being. But you wouldn't necessarily know that. That again, that seems counterintuitive that apparently you're making a sacrifice by going out and doing something. But actually, if you do that, that actually makes you happier. And but that's a message that we don't really hear that much. The message you get on the whole is a very different one. 

Pinar Guvenc  27:14

One thing I want to ask is really so, you know, a lot of the people who are listening to these podcasts or attending our What's Wrong With panel discussions are either small businesses or organizations, or medium sized businesses or organizations or students and faculty who are doing research on these topics. Or, in their day-to-day they're trying to tackle some of these problems as a business. So if you were to meet a progress maker, and you had one or two sentences to say, what would be your message? 

Justin Lewis  27:45

Well, I guess it's, you know, we work from, the job I'm doing at the moment, which is, as I mentioned before, I'm working on media innovation with mostly small SMEs, micro-businesses and others. And that, you know, when you talk to people in those businesses, and you know, what makes their lives worthwhile and what makes them tick, you know, an awful lot of them are quite passionate about what they do. And they're passionate about wanting to make sure what they do makes the world a more interesting, better place in some way. And you know, for those businesses, I think, in their own lives as businesses become so much more meaningful, you know, their role in the world becomes more certain if they do that. And I think that's something that a lot of businesses have learnt. I think it's something that perhaps smaller and medium sized businesses are better at, because they're more in touch with the communities they live in. And they contribute actually much more to the communities they live in. And one of the reasons why we're doing what we're doing is because we think that actually an economy is better off with lots of small and medium sized businesses, because those businesses tend to pay the taxes. They tend to to shop locally, they tend to be involved in local communities and, you know, rather than a few giant mega corporations where the profits will get funneled through tax havens and off to someplace somewhere else. So, you know, these businesses are playing a really important role in the places that they work in. And I think, you know, none of them do have that kind of commitment to to community in this broader sense, and to making the world a more interesting and better place. So, you know, to all of those people doing that, you know, that's fantastic. We need more of that. 

Pinar Guvenc  29:33

Yeah. So basically, we need more of you.

Justin Lewis  29:35

Absolutely. Yeah. carry on doing what you're doing. And be proud about it as well. 

Pinar Guvenc  29:44

Yeah true. Well, thank you so much. This was an absolute pleasure. 

Justin Lewis  29:50

My pleasure. No, it's been it's been a good chat. Thanks very much.

Pinar Guvenc  29:54

Thank you so much, everyone for joining our first episode. If you're in New York City on Friday, November 8, join us at The Parsons School of Design for our fifth panel discussion of our What's Wrong With series. What's Wrong With: Design will focus on how good design can enable a sustainably better future. For more information on the event and our podcast series, visit us at whatswrongwith.xyz. Thank you

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