Like a wet catfish on a dock, the messaging provided by fishing advisories about toxic chemicals flops, flails and fails when it reaches communities of color in some parts of the United States. That’s the implicit conclusion of an article in Scientific American.
Much of the article is based on the failure of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fish consumption advisories in Madison, Wisconsin. I lived in Madison for many years, bike-commuted along Lake Monona, and often saw people of color fishing there. During the entire time I saw them fishing, I did not see a single sign about fish consumption posted near the spots where they set up their poles. I didn’t even see any brochures left out for them to read.
Local environmentalists such as Maria Powell, who is quoted in the article, have been aware of this problem for years, but it has received relatively little media attention. Powell and I had a conversation about the fishing advisories in 2004 when I told her I wanted to study news coverage of environmental justice.
The DNR, to its credit, has translated its brochures into multiple languages. However, I am not sure how the DNR is putting these brochures into the hands of the people who need them.
As a communications professional, I see multiple issues with the DNR’s approach. These are issues I see frequently in outreach to multicultural populations.
- There is no guarantee that the DNR’s audience can read the literature. If Powell has difficulty reading the brochures, it’s unlikely that people without college degrees will be able to make head or tail of them (to use a fishy cliché). Why isn’t the DNR buying advertising on Spanish and Hmong radio and TV shows? Why doesn’t the DNR buy bus ads in minority neighborhoods?
- There is something fishy about using science-oriented messaging when one is dealing with a minority culture where subsistence fishing is both culturally sanctioned and economically necessary. Why don’t these brochures address cultural beliefs and economic realities?
- Given that the fishermen quoted in the article are very skeptical about the advisories, why doesn’t the DNR enlist respected people from minority communities as messengers? It sounds as if the author of the article was not seen as a credible source herself. Why not engage well-known community members in spreading the message about fish safety?
Environmental justice outreach requires being aware of these basic issues – seeking credible messengers, being culturally aware, using appropriate media, and knowing people’s literacy levels.
If any environmental organization staff happen to read this blog post and are seeking models of culturally appropriate outreach, I’d like to direct them to Population Media Center, which conducts entertainment-based public health education in many nations. In some ways, public health organizations are ahead of environmental organizations when it comes to handling issues of cultural diversity. I’d like to see more environmental groups borrow public health communication and messaging tactics.