On a November 2007 episode of the NBC comedy “30 Rock,” former Vice President Al Gore makes a guest appearance and network executive Jack Donagy tries to demonstrate his company’s commitment to the environment.

“We’re with you on this whole planet thing,” he says to Gore, “Look at the set we built with the smiley-faced earth, and some green things.”

“We’re way beyond that,” Gore deadpans, challenging the network to “use entertainment for substance,” incorporating environmental themes into all of its programs for one full week.

Donagy is unimpressed, uninterested.

Can NBC news maintain objectivity on ‘green’ issues while it goes green?

But now, two years after that episode aired, life is imitating art. The real-life NBC Universal has its “Green is Universal,” encouraging sustainable practices throughout the company’s various production divisions and featuring green themes on its programs one week each November.

When Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” was released in 2006, winning an Academy Award for best documentary feature, the environment was rarely tackled by traditional entertainment television directors and producers.

Michael Feldman, a former senior advisor to Vice President Gore, who also handled publicity for his film, says it was the first – and only film at the time – to launch a substantive public dialogue on climate change.

Now, a few years later, things have changed dramatically. Whether it’s sit-coms, reality TV shows, children’s cartoons, green tie-ins like sustainably-sourced tiaras on the most recently televised Miss USA Pageant, or large-scale documentaries – like Ken Burns’ “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” – environmental issues increasingly are a focal point for entertainment, even as interest waxes and wanes in many “hard news” newsrooms.

Celebrities ‘Open Possibilities’

As the subject permeates mainstream entertainment venues, it raises the question: Is this a more effective way of broadening awareness of environmental issues? Or does it result in a dangerous oversimplification of these issues? And will it have more lasting effects than traditional, in-depth, here today/gone tomorrow news coverage?

Many believe the answer to those questions is “yes,” according to a series of Yale Forum telephone and e-mail interviews.

“When you get celebrities talking to the mainstream public, it opens possibilities for people,” says Katie Mandes, with The Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Va. She’s worked recently with the network Nickelodeon and with independent filmmakers to get the message out on how to begin addressing climate change. Americans are less inclined to believe solutions coming out of Washington, D.C., and more likely to trust entertainment vehicles that don’t seem to have an “agenda,” Mandes says.

The latest popular vehicle to take the environment by storm is a low-budget film with an ear-catching, and for some fairly grating, title – “The Age of Stupid.”

More Punch … ‘Greatest-Ever Public Uprising’?

The brainchild of British filmmaker Franny Armstrong, the movie was simulcast on September 21st in 500 theaters across 45 countries. It takes place in the year 2055, and portrays the bleak universe that could result in the absence of effective measures to address climate change.

Armstrong is an unapologetic advocate. With her “10/10” campaign, she’s calling for a 10 percent reduction in greenhouse gasses in the year 2010. And she hopes the film will lead to “the greatest-ever public uprising,” forcing governments to agree to cut global emissions.

“Independent documentaries are currently the number one way to pack the biggest emotional punch while disseminating ideas to the most number of people with the least number of editorial restrictions,” she said in a recently published interview. Documentaries, with their mix of spoken words, images, music, and graphics, provide more punch to deliver the message than “single-media,” like books, songs, and newspaper articles, she added.

Climate Change Meets Reality TV?

Suzanne Blais, who owns a film company called Black Dog Productions, in Bellingham, Washington, has just finished filming an environment reality television show. “The Greenest House” features two families competing to see who can do more to reduce their carbon footprint, everything from using alternative transportation sources to taking five-minute showers.

Families today are just too busy to sit down and think about what they can do, so they’re looking for a list of concrete actions, Blais said. They want someone to help them put it all together, and “I was making an attempt to do that.”

Reality television is far more effective than doomsday news reports, she said. The public needs to receive the information “in a way that makes them think it’s possible” to positively impact change, something that reality television facilitates, she said.

Television “reaches a greater number of people who would not normally engage in environmental issues,” said Steve Cowan, director of the nonprofit Habitat Media in Portland, Oregon. His film “Empty Oceans, Empty Nets” was seen by more than a million viewers on PBS. Viewers could download seafood cards to guide their purchases. Whenever the program aired, especially in major markets, there were “huge spikes” in the number of cards that were downloaded, Cowan said.

The First Step … Wake People Up …

The first step … wake people up.

Mark Jeantheau’s website “Grinning Planet” provides lists of environmental films and attracts 150,000 visitors a month. He says films succeed in getting the public to think about these issues, and “waking people up is the first step.”

John Hoskyns-Abrahall, president of Bullfrog Films in Oley, PA, which distributes environmental films, said the effect comes from having a “shared experience” at the same time, in the same room. “It’s a speedier way to get to the point, so it has a tremendous impact.”

… and Captivating the Kids

Kids have become a prime target. The Nickelodeon network launched “The Big Green Help” on Earth Day 2008. Described by spokeswoman Jean Margaret Smith, as a “pro-social anchor initiative,” it includes public service announcements by such child celebrities as ICarly star Miranda Cosgrove.

Kids can play interactive digital games online, with the motto “play it, pledge it, live it,” playing through the game, learning ways they can help and then making a pledge to do something in their own lives. So far, kids have pledged more than 2.5 million hours of “green” activity and racked up 26 million game plays. The network, together with The National Education Association, has awarded $200,000 in grants to public educators for programs supporting “green concepts” for elementary and middle school students.

To be effective, green messages need to be interwoven into kids’ everyday lives, says Smith. “It comes alive when it speaks to them in an entertaining way,” in a manner that empowers them, she says. Smith says the Nikelodeon / “Big Green Help” initiative offers ways to guide childrens’ attitudes so they in the future can be part of the climate change solution … and in the meantime help influence their parents’ decisionmaking.

Those are attitudes certain to raise among some Orwellian notions of childhood propagandizing, thought-control, and flat-out “brainwashing.” But that’s a view not shared by all.

‘Behavioral Placements’ Can Mean ‘Small and Big Changes’

To Beth Colleton, vice president of the “Green is Universal” initiative, the most powerful feature lies in NBC’s audience of 100 million people each month. “We want to capitalize on that and help them make small and big changes to live a bit greener,” Colleton says. She says production studios have a target of green goals, so that films and television shows operate more sustainably. And the network pushes “behavioral placement,” where characters on shows can be seen recycling or buying organic products, subconsciously incorporating these attitudes into a consumer’s life, says Colleton.

For audience members simply wanting to come home from work and relax, “we’ve found a subtle way to deliver important, yet simple, environmental themes.

Dare We Call It Journalism? Dangers Ahead?

It’s important to consider whether that is an appropriate role for an operation that includes straight news. If nothing else, a news organization’s appearing environmentally proactive can create the appearance of conflict.

Curtis Brainard, Columbia Journalism Review‘s environmental editor, says, in the case of NBC, it is important to distinguish between the entertainment and news programming.

“Attempting to get people to change light bulbs or ride a bike is fine. It doesn’t present a threat to journalism” as long as those attitudes don’t seep into the news division, he says. On the other hand, NBC news shouldn’t be cheerleading for action on issues like climate change, and they need to cover environmental issues impartially, as must any good journalist, he says.

That dividing line becomes more complicated when environment is the news, as in the case of a September 28th Newsweek cover story, “The Greenest Big Companies.” Brainard is skeptical of attempts to single-out such companies, especially if the media outlet is running ads from the same companies profiled in a positive, green light.

Newsweek’s rankings:  A starting point for reporters?

But he says he considers that Newsweek initiative a well-researched, thorough 18-month effort resulting in an impressive ranking system. “If you have a good database and have meaningful criteria by which to judge these things,” such stories can actually be a starting point for journalists who cover the issue, he said.

Roy Peter Clark, vice president of The Poynter Institute, agrees. There’s a difference between advocacy and drawing sound conclusions from hard evidence, as Newsweek did. And he says it’s impossible to be entirely neutral on an issue like the environment, when the premise is that environmental degradation has long-term bad consequences.

Informing the Public vs. Pushing an Agenda

Daniel McGinn, the author of the Newsweek piece and the magazine’s senior articles editor, says he thinks consumers are becoming more interested in how their own behavior affects the environment. Rankings and “Top 10” features are popular media tools, and ranking companies provides a way to help people better understand what the business sector is doing and can do.

“It was driven by the idea that this would present an opportunity to empower our readers with information,” McGinn said. Implicit in the decision to rank companies was an inherent value judgment that climate change is a problem and that businesses should be doing something to address it, he said. But he argues that the scientific consensus is strong, along with public opinion supporting the need for action, and that there is substantial public interest in the issue.

Rather than raising consciousness, Newsweek was merely responding to the public thirst for information on this issue, he said. Newsweek plans to update the rankings annually.

Sharon Begley, Newsweek‘s veteran science editor and a frequent target of those skeptical of climate change science, said the magazine’s goal is to inform the public, not to push an agenda. The magazine’s decision to run a science column was based on the cutting edge research that bears exploration, rather than a sense that “this is good for our readers.” It’s all about covering a great story, she says.

Begley acknowledges that the public may be far more likely to be swayed by entertainment vehicles, which tap into emotional factors, than by her science and policy articles. “We have a falsely inflated sense of our importance of power if we think we’re changing any minds,” she said.

Value in Making It Mainstream … ‘Part of People’s Lives’

Seeing environmental issues tackled in mainstream films has been gratifying for Abigail Foerstner, an instructor in science, environmental and health reporting at The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

In particular, Foerstner applauds the Ken Burns documentary series on national parks, which showed the importance of government’s taking action to save public lands at a time when Americans didn’t believe in big government.

Burns, in an interview with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s OnEarth blog, said he hopes his film will fuel an interest in park visits and drive Americans to support future parks protection efforts.

For Foerstner, bringing that message “into popular culture and making it part of peoples’ lives is really important,” moving such issues from the scientific and political realm and resulting in “a compelling and innovative way to get people excited and interested.”

With more Americans more apt to get environmental news from Jay Leno’s monologue or from “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart than from hard-news outlets, Gore senior advisor Feldman acknowledges inevitable questions about the “dumbing down” of environmental news as a result.

Notwithstanding such concerns, the fact that more information on the environment is available in many forums “is ultimately a good thing,” Feldman says.

Time – and more coverage via entertainment media – will tell if others come to share that optimistic view.

Julie Halpert

Julie Halpert is a freelance journalist with more than two decades of experience covering the environment. Her work has appeared regularly in dozens of national publications including Newsweek, The New...