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JOURNALISM NEEDS TO GET
POLITICAL ABOUT PLASTIC
POLLUTION: FRENCH VS US
Purpose: This paper offers a ﬁrst look into journalistic coverage on the enduring
issue of marine litter. The presented study seeks to identify dominating news
issue frames of marine pollution to analyse the prospective approaches of
Method: A content analysis of print news-of-record sources was conducted.
The theoretical background of Cultural Studies and Political Consumerism
Theory was employed to analyse environmental reporting in the United States
Findings: The main result is that French sources focus primarily on proposed
legislation and political commentary around the issue instead of ways for
readers to solve the problem themselves. Journalists who assert legislation as
the principal method for ﬁghting marine debris eliminate plastic from the
source. Conversely, American journalists predominantly framed the envi-
ronmental threat of marine debris as a cultural issue. This individualistic
approach aims to motivate privileged readers to make lifestyle changes that,
notionally, will suppress global consumption of single-use plastics.
Research limitations/implications: The individualistic approach common in
American news coverage aims to motivate privileged readers to make lifestyle
changes that, notionally, will suppress global consumption of single-use plastics.
This approach does not reﬂect the scientiﬁc communities overwhelming scepti-
cism of oversimplistic solutions to this global environmental issue.
The Sustainability Debate
Critical Studies on Corporate Responsibility, Governance and Sustainability, Volume 14, 191–204
Copyright © 2021 by Emerald Publishing Limited
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
Originality/value: This foundational paper offers issue frames through which
social science research on framing, rhetorical criticism and media effects of
marine litter news coverage can build upon.
Keywords: Marine debris; plastic pollution; marine litter; metaphor;
consumerism theory; news issue frames
Classiﬁcation: Research Paper
Campaigns and legislation against single-use plastics bridge borders and cross
oceans as organisations, governments and individuals propose solutions and
advocate for change at a global scale. Worldwide plastic consumption and waste
practices became characterised as a serious environmental issue when sailor-
turned ocean advocate Charles Moore claimed to have found a ﬂoating island of
garbage in the Paciﬁc Ocean the size of Texas. This hyperbolic characterisation
of suspended plastic particles caught the attention of the media and ocean
While the island metaphor was debunked over time, a more nuanced under-
standing of the issue has formed from research and advocacy. Plastic pollution
has now made its way into international legislation, gained global media atten-
tion and become a pop-culture phenomenon. The United States and European
Union (EU) have made signiﬁcant research contributions and presented policy-
driven solutions to marine litter. The state of California and the EU member state
of France both steered their regions policy as the earliest to implement a plastic
bag ban. This ﬁrst step against single-use plastics would encourage other nations
to follow and position marine debris as an environmental issue worthy of gov-
ernment attention and resources. Journalists, meanwhile, helped to make sense of
this issue that impacts marine ecosystems far away from most readers. Marine
anthropogenic litter has become increasingly relevant to the public as current
research demonstrates that plastics exist in the food we eat and air we breathe.
The unique position of journalists who interpret this scientiﬁc information and
highlight certain solutions has yet to receive attention from the social sciences.
This paper will offer ﬁrst look into journalistic approaches used to characterise
the issue of plastic pollution.
Environmental issues remain principal topoi in the French and American
political arena. Recent surveys on American public opinion show that although
environmental legislation has become a partisan issue (Pew Research Center,
2016a, p. 33), the public majority (62%) are dissatisﬁed with their government’s
current efforts (Newport, 2018). In regard to actualising political views, the
French turn out to vote in signiﬁcantly higher percentages than US citizens, an
average of 70.46%–51.46%, respectively (ElectionGuide, 2017). The French pre-
dominantly associate the environment in terms of ‘how their children will inherit
it’(Eurobarometer, 2007). This reﬂects the French cultural phenomenon terroir
which translates to ‘the earth beneath our feet’but connotates a transgenerational
192 AARON MCKINNON
duty towards environmental stewardship. In the emerging case of plastic pollu-
tion, an examination of journalistic coverage could yield new insights into the
ﬁrst point of contact for much of the public to environmental science. To explore
this, this paper asks: What dominating issue frames do American and French
journalists employ to characterise the environmental issue of plastic marine
pollution? Before this analysis, an overview of the science behind the headlines
will offer context on what sources and data journalists must interpret for their
THE UNSETTLED STATE OF MARINE
Differences in scientiﬁc methodologies and a lack of collaboration between
governments and research teams have cluttered the state of research on plastic
pollution. Western research institutions have not fully joined forces on addressing
plastic pollution despite universal recognition of the environmental risks associ-
ated. In 2006, the United States brought together working groups and increased
ﬁnancial support to target pollution through the Marine Debris Research, Pre-
vention and Reduction Act (Congress, 2006). Two years later, the EU called for
marine litter to be incorporated into each member state’s mandated environmental
status assessment (European Parliament, 2008). Legislation from both governments
call for an internationally oriented research approach. However, each program
appears to be waiting for the other to adopt their assessment methods. For
example, the EU still lacks a universally accepted testing method for plastic debris
(European Commission, 2018, pp. 9, 24). The United States established their own
methodology through the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
in 2015 (NOAA, 2015).
The World Health Organization also called for its own unique micro-
plastics identiﬁcation method in a recent report targeting drinking water
(WHO, 2019). The report did not consider the NOAA’s approach nor the
research of the European Commission (EC) on micro- and nano-plastics. The
EC, who conducts research to inform European Parliament policy decisions,
has a project team at their Joint Research Centre dedicated to identifying
potential hazards of macro and nano-plastics on human health. What remains
of these institutions is a concerted effort to identify the scope of pollution and
seek solutions through a common research methodology and shared infor-
A juxtaposition of independent but similar-in-scope studies on plastic litter
that draw drastically different conclusions illustrates the ﬁeld’s underdeveloped
state of research. At the micro-scale, scientists examine plastic fragments of
degraded materials and virgin nurdles but have not agreed on sampling methods.
A study by the San Francisco Bay Microplastics project realised the NOAA’s
robust testing methodology and found car tire wear and single-use plastics to be
the most prevalent micropollutants (Sutton et al., 2019, p. 55). Meanwhile, a
study by Suria et al. (2016) on microplastics in the Mediterranean Sea used
Journalism Needs to Get Political about Plastic Pollution 193
exclusive laboratory methods and collection techniques despite having Americans
on their research team. Their study found polyethene (52%) and polypropylene
(16%), common in single-use plastics, as the most common sources of micro-
plastics and did not identify any tire rubber particles (Suaria et al., 2016, p. 3).
At the visible scale, organisations make sense of aggregate data from smaller
The Ocean Conservancy’s report on items picked up by volunteers globally
during their international beach clean-up day shows cigarettes as the most
common marine litter item (The Ocean Conservancy, 2019). In a more
extravagant effort, The Ocean Cleanup organisation purchased a C-130 Her-
cules aircraft to photograph from and enlisted 30 marine vessels to trawl for
debris. Their report ﬁnds that derelict ﬁshing gear comprises the largest (46%)
percentage of anthropogenic debris (Lebreton et al., 2018). In efforts to present
aﬁgure of plastic debris globally, scientists look at gross plastic production
and pathways for pollution into the ocean. Jambeck et al.’s study (2015) on
total ocean plastic debris, referenced by the United Nations (UN) in their
campaigns and Sustainable Development materials (UN, 2017;UNEP, 2017,
2019), forgoes data collection and instead produces a statistic based on an
approximation of probable litter behaviour in coastal communities concerning
regional plastic production. In lieu of educated guesses, researchers Hafeez
et al. (2018) have proposed a more empirical macro-level approach that uses
remote sensing techniques to quantify and track plastic ﬂow across oceans. A
research gap will remain if identiﬁcation and sampling approaches continue to
evolve independently. Inconsistencies in collection and ﬁndings cause a prob-
lem for scientists aiming to characterise the issue and the public trying to
Accurately reporting on plastic pollution should involve more than basic
scientiﬁc literacy, it demands a familiarity with the diverse research methods
and evolving sampling practices of isolated research teams. Reporters who
neglect the theoretical context of a study and instead only search for a statistic
to headline risk misinterpreting a data set’s value. Journalists cannot assume
that data from different studies relate to or even compare across time because
sampling techniques change frequently. Placing blame on a user of a common
litter source, such as water bottles or plastic straws, also becomes an issue
when statistics from different regions vary in part due to dissimilar testing methods.
Even the deﬁnition of plastic litter was until recently up for debate (Underwood,
Chapmana, & Browneb, 2017, p. 1332). Marine debris should not receive coverage
in the same way that more established environmental issues, with governing bodies
and wealth of research, do because the scientiﬁc community lacks consensus on
testing methods, pollutant deﬁnitions and, consequentially, solutions (Bonanno &
Orlando-Bonaca, 2018, pp. 147–151). On one hand, journalists who choose to
critically examine the methods of a pollution report in order to contextualise a
story risk making an article too technical. On the other, journalists have an
opportunity to highlight sampling practices that lend insight into the actors and
complex environment involved in marine research.
194 AARON MCKINNON
POSITIONING MARINE LITTER IN
THE PUBLIC SPHERE
The prevalence of plastic in modern commodities and its damage as litter to
marine ecosystems globally involves stakeholders from the political, market and
public spheres. Plastic producers have situated responsibility for their waste
onto the consumer by encouraging them to recycle or purchase environmentally
conscious products. Total accountability of commodities is transferred to con-
sumers once they purchase a plastic product; as established in messages inherent
in policy and advocacy groups that assert individuals must clean up after
themselves. Compared to energy producers held accountable for their waste
emissions through tax, caps and quality control, producers of single-use plastics
enjoy absolution from their product’sﬁnal stage. Instead, single-use plastics
producers must respond to the market where the perceived environmental
impact of a used product has become an increasingly important factor in con-
sumer choice (Hamilton, 2009, p. 572). In response, marketing and plastics
packaging that meets the standards of prosocial consumers has become more
common. Environmental consumerism advocates also weigh in on consumer
choice by encouraging citizens to ‘vote with their wallet’by choosing products
that align with their political values. However, messages that encourage polit-
ical consumerism do not signiﬁcantly motivate citizens to make environmentally
conscious choices beyond boycotting a single product (Gotlieb, 2015,p.559).
Above all, the effectiveness of prosocial consumerism and social solutions to
environmental issues has received scepticism and invalidation from the aca-
demic community as demonstrated next.
In their article ‘The Politics of consumption’(2003), sociology professor
Juliet Schor criticises the privileged assumption inherent in American prosocial
policy that assumes citizens can simply evolve into rational consumers when
called upon to make eco-conscious purchasing decisions. Schor argues against
political demands on consumer choice because they reduce lifestyle norms to
matters of personal preference in need of government supervision, ‘the pro-
foundly social nature of consumption ensures that these issues will not be
resolved by pure acts of will’(Schor, 2003, p. 187). Instead, Schor advocates
for policy that acknowledges the social factors that inﬂuence consumer
The basis of a new consumer policy should be an understanding of the presence of structural
distortions in consumers choices, the importance of social inequalities and power in
consumption practices. (2003, p. 188)
Culture, class and identity all impact a consumer’s choice (Hamilton, 2009,
pp. 571–573). Policy-driven solutions that transcend demographics and indi-
vidualities include strengthening recycling infrastructure, promoting universal
access to sustainable commodities and limiting single-use plastics where
effective alternatives exist. Environmental science professors Brown and
Vergragt (2016) ﬁnd that while cultural partiality towards ecological products
can develop incrementally, ‘the transition we contemplate here cannot be
Journalism Needs to Get Political about Plastic Pollution 195
successful without active policy support’where ‘…essential-to-wellbeing
amenities must be tackled by local and state governments’(2016, p. 315).
To summate, a cultural intervention cannot occur by education or evolution
of consumer taste alone, but by the policy that holds producers accountable to
their product waste and broadens consumer access to eco-friendly options.
Journalists who frame the issue of marine litter as a moral crisis remedied with
education do so without consideration structural forces on consumer behavior
and the proven inﬂuence of policy-driven solutions.
In-kind with other global environmental issues, the news media has at times
produced an idea of marine debris as an overwhelming mess that humans can
engineer their way out of. Stories like BBC’s‘The Dutch Boy Mopping Up a Sea
of Plastic’(Venema, 2014), CNN’s‘New plastic-eating bacteria could save the
planet’(Ap, 2016) or Popular Science’s‘Plastic-Eating Underwater Drone Could
Swallow the Great Paciﬁc Garbage Patch’(Boyle, 2012) all deliver a premise that
technology will single-handedly solve plastic pollution. To date, none of the
solutions featured in the aforementioned articles has made a signiﬁcant impact.
Still, the promise of a quick ﬁx to a global issue rooted in capitalism and con-
sumption can make a great headline. One could reason that any attention on this
issue is a success. A problem exists, however, when misinformation initiates
doomed solutions or broods public distrust towards exposed but well-intentioned
advocates. The framing and effects of media coverage go beyond this papers
glance. Instead, this paper lays the groundwork for future studies by looking
more generally at what descriptive language the media uses to make this issue
relevant to the daily lives of readers.
EFFICACY IN ENVIRONMENTAL
The news can serve as an important mediating variable to the public debate of
environmental issues. The way a journalist frames a topic can shape public
understanding, albeit with varying consistency (Entman, 1993). The frequency of
articles devoted to a political issue can make it appear more important to voters
(McCombs & Shaw, 1972, p. 180). However, too much coverage can lead audi-
ences to ‘compassion fatigue’where sympathy wanes from a sense of futility
towards persistent issues (Moeller, 1999). The media can also ‘privilege marginal
views’by covering perspectives that ‘lie far from the main consensus’(Boykoff &
Luedecke:, 2016, p. 5). As an example, the efforts of The Ocean Cleanup orga-
nisation receive considerable media attention despite overwhelming scepticism
towards their methods by the scientiﬁc community. This study will take a step
back from identifying media effects and instead examine the language used in
news articles to better understand how journalists present this narrative to audi-
ences (Phillipov, 2013, p. 211).
Contemporary science communication has built upon the ideas of early
rhetoricians and sociologists that ﬁrst explored how language can clarify
information, make distant topics relevant to audiences and motivate behaviour.
196 AARON MCKINNON
Rhetoricians Richards and McLuhan argue that rhetorical exposition can
provide an emotive context to the sterile language of science (Richards &
McLuhan, 1949, p. 110). The specialised lexicon of scientists diminishes the
signiﬁcation of language to ﬁt its objective means, thereby depriving the rhet-
orician of their opinion ﬁlled information channel (Duffy & Jacobi, 1993,
p. 161). To make science memorable, rhetoric employs persuasive tools that
encourage audiences to invest themselves in unfamiliar topics. Metaphors, for
example, illustrate complex ideas in forms recognisable to target audiences. One
could trace popular news metaphors that depict marine debris from ocean
garbage patch and trash island to plastic soup and plastic confetti (McKinnon,
2013, p. 8). There exists an inherent deception when metaphors are ‘imagined
to be that very thing which it only resembles’(Richards & Dolch, 1936,
pp. 100–101). This misdirection became evident when organisations and poli-
ticians naively suggested the North PaciﬁcGyre‘garbage patch’get swept up as
if approaches to land waste management applied to the ocean’selements.This
paper will look closely at the deterministic language of journalists who must
construct a story of a global environmental issue that exists in an ecosystem
foreign to most.
The communication of environmental issues by scientists and experts to the
general public has until recently relied heavily on the information deﬁcit model
(Madden, Cacciatore, & Yeo, 2016, p. 401). This approach assumes that citi-
zens resist learning scientiﬁc information simply because no one had told them
about it. By this logic, scientists need only share their results and, voil`
now understand and care. To the contrary, social science research suggests that
the public forms perceptions about environmental science through complex
social, political and physical ﬁlters. Perception of risk (Morgan, Fishoff,
Bostrom, & Atman, 2002), political afﬁliation (Pew, 2015) and an individual’s
identity (Smith & Joffe, 2012) can determine how a person responds to science
and environmental issues. These informed approaches get implemented by EU
policy reports through dedicated writers’associationsandinUSnationallabs
by staff science communicators. Communication practices in the mixt arena of
print and digital news, however, varies according to each outlet’s standards and
SURVEYING THE MEDIA LANDSCAPE
Insights into the distinctive narrative styles of French and American journalism
will help contextualise both region’s approach to writing the story of plastic.
The work of journalism scholars Hallin and Mancini in Comparing Media
Systems (2004) examined differences within the social focus of French and
American news. Hallin and Mancini selected The New York Times as a repre-
sentative Anglo-American news source for comparison to the Polarised Pluralist
style of France with Le Figero and Le Monde (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 90).
Their study of articles from the 1960s and ‘90s found that American sources
focus primarily on ‘information-oriented journalism’while French sources were
Journalism Needs to Get Political about Plastic Pollution 197
descriptive and focused on ‘commentary that reﬂects its political roots’(Hallin &
Mancini, 2004, p. 99). The most recent Worlds of Journalism Study conﬁrmed
the permanence of French media’s political emphasis where, ‘amajority(67.9%)
of journalists in France found it important to provide information people need
to make political decisions’(Mercier, Frost, & Hanitzsch, 2017,p.2).The
majority American (91.4%) and French (63.4%) journalists share a high sense of
autonomy (Mercier, Frost, & Hanitzsch, 2017;Vos & Craft, 2016). Cultural
studies scholar Carey has criticised American journalism’s mix of individualism
and autonomy which encourages reporters to rely on their personal inferences,
especially when presuming the motives of people (Carey, 1997,p.174).Inline
with this evaluation, Hallin and Mancini ﬁnd that when giving an opinion, US
journalists predominately drew personal ‘conclusions about disputed facts’
(Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 99). Meanwhile, a French journalist was ‘more
likely to involve policy advocacy or value judgements about political actions’
(2004, p. 99).
The media systems of France and the United States bear similar hindrances to
their potential democratic function largely due to rising stakeholder inﬂuence
and commercialisation. The news media in post-war France has historically
functioned as a public service, chieﬂy producing stories to build an informed
electorate. French newspapers receive signiﬁcant state-funded subsidies intended
to buttress their democratic purpose. However, the imposition of partisanship
from recent increases in privatisation and an absence of an oversight body have
helped to degrade their World Press Freedom Index to 32nd place (Lardeau,
2019a,2019b). The United States, ranked 48th in press freedom (Reporters
Without Borders, 2019), does not provide subsidies but instead partially funds
public broadcasting stations. Media conglomerates dominate the market and
subtly transport their political biases through news messages (Hallin, 2019).
Nuances between the style and market orientation of French and American
media systems present an interesting case to compare dominant narratives of a
global environmental issue.
In order to understand the emerging debate of marine debris in the United
States and French media, this study will heed Hallin and Mancini (2004) and
examine articles from the Le Figero,Le Monde,The New York Times and
include the LA Times.TheLA Times is the largest US newspaper with a com-
bined weekly digital and print readership of 4.6 million (About, 2019). The New
York Times offers a weekend section on US Bay Area news and has 3.8 million
total subscriptions, with 2.9 million of those being digital subscriptions (The New
York Times, 2018). Both selected US newspapers cater to a more liberal-leaning
audience (Media Bias, 2018;Pew Research Center, 2016b). In France, Le Monde
reaches a circulation of 302,624 print and 160,000 digital readers (Lardeau,
2019b;Statista, 2018). Le Figero has a print circulation of 306,737 (Adler, 2019).
Le Monde and Le Figero both serve as news of record and carry a slightly left
political leaning (Briancon, 2015). Although these sources do not represent the
comprehensive spectrum of their public’s opinions, each paper’s substantial
198 AARON MCKINNON
reach and extensive coverage of the plastic pollution issue offers an insightful
chronicle of the public debate.
READING INTO MARINE LITTER COVERAGE
This paper will conduct a qualitative content analysis of marine debris coverage
from French and American newspapers of record in order to understand the
unique journalistic approaches evident in these regions’textual depictions of the
issue. To accomplish this, we produce an inductive coding list of dominant news
frames. Print articles will be analysed through a qualitative analysis of paragraph
function as employed by Hallin and Mancini (2004). A total of 98 newspaper
articles from 2018 were selected with keywords plastic pollution,microplastics and
The theoretical background of science communication will help contextualise
how journalists attempt to appeal to readers. Additionally, this study draws from
social practice theories as employed for conservation policy by Lananca and
Bertoldi (2018).Lananca and Bertoldi (2018) examine policy language to identify
underlying demands on either behavioural change from individual consumers or
quality improvements by industry to meet the dynamic social demands of the
public. A preference for social practices refers to a policy that synchronises
innovation with existing consumer activities. Conversely, a policy that relies on
changes to an individual’s behaviour credulously sets consumption targets
without restricting options, incentivising alternatives or implementing tools of
cultural change. The authors explain
…practices of modiﬁcation generally require a systematic policy approach whereby
conservation policies can be conceived by taking into account a wide variety of framings
and qualitative considerations concerning how people activities may possibly be reorganised to
advantage people themselves. (Labanca & Bertoldi, 2018, p. 495)
The insights drawn will offer the ﬁrst look from a social science perspective
into the journalistic approaches used to describe and make a salient marine litter.
Ten dominant issue frames arose from an inductive coding of French and
American news of record sources (Box 1). Disaster, Political and Cultural
Dilemma occur most frequently among both regions. Coding by paragraph
worked effectively as articles normally grouped a single idea across three or four
sentences. All articles incorporated multiple frames throughout a piece. The majority
of issue frames identiﬁed were unique to plastic pollution. However, the issue
frames of Disaster, Health and Political resemble ones associated with climate
change as identiﬁed by O’Neill et al. (2015) in their review of Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change reports. Three issues not considered dominant (,1%)
arose with reference to unsettled science, cosmetic impact and relationship to
Journalism Needs to Get Political about Plastic Pollution 199
In French newspaper articles, the majority of coverage framed the issue as
political (40%). This ﬁnding remains consistent with Hallin and Mancini (2004,
p. 99) who found that French coverage predominantly focusses on political
commentary. The next most frequently occurring frames were Disaster (17%) and
Cultural Dilemma (12%). Most notably, French articles featured almost twice the
proportion of political framing than America (40%–21%, respectively), who
relied heavily on the individualistic frame Cultural Dilemma. French articles less
frequently framed marine debris as an issue that demands a technological solu-
tion to solve than American articles. Interestingly, many Le Monde and Le Figaro
articles with the same publishing date virtually mirrored the other, which suggests
that journalists seek press releases as a primary source of information for this
issue. This was not found in American coverage.
In American newspaper articles, coverage featured the Cultural Dilemma frame
most (24%), slightly more than Disaster (23%) and Political (21%). American
articles were typically longer and more descriptive. Many paragraphs singled out
Box 1: Issue Frames of Marine Debris.
Frame Brief Description
Disaster Predicted impacts are dire to the (marine) environment. Impacts are
numerous, discussed in detail. Impacts will get worse (O’Neill et al., 2015,
Political A matter of government responsibility carried out through policy that bans
pollutant sources, incentives alternatives or regulates production.
An individual’s competence and intelligence necessary to make prosocial
lifestyle choices gets suppressed by a culture of consumption, which requires
Social Structures Capacity of local waste management infrastructure and access to affordable
plastic alternatives that affect a community’s relationship to
Industry The quantity and type of plastic litter correlates to industry action or their
response to consumer demand and market forces.
Technology Innovation will create effective solutions and requires entrepreneurs and
engineers to protect the ocean or humanity altogether.
Economic Ethics An ethical crisis of a nation’s economic model. The pursuit of economic
growth inherently harms the environment, especially in the case of plastic
Health Plastic litter poses a threat to human health, for example, in bioaccumulation
of plastic and plasticisers or from direct consumption of pollution.
Opportunity The potential proﬁt for people who capture, recycle and sell unclaimed plastic
litter will lead to a signiﬁcant reduction in marine plastic debris globally.
Fishing Impact Signiﬁcant harm caused to the marine environment from ﬁshing equipment
loss, waste and illegal use.
200 AARON MCKINNON
companies that had helped or hindered the environmental movement against
plastic waste. In doing so, they provided audiences with a product to support or
boycott. Although American articles featured a nearly equal proportion of cultural
and political frames, a large number of articles ﬁnished with a call to action for
The cultural impact can be game changing…When achieved, these small changes to our daily
routines can be surprisingly empowering. (Curtin, 2018)
‘We must tackle this through cleanup and, above all, by making our citizens conscious of these
issues’, Ms. Rosauro said. (Haag, 2018)
Even in coverage of a political event, articles would wrap up a report by laying
blame to citizen behaviour, as if the political event was somehow evidence for the
failures of the readers:
After seeing the masses of garbage ﬂoating in the bay, Ms. Swanson also pointed out another
source of blame apart from states and corporations. ‘Everyone who is using a plastic bottle
should feel responsible’, she said. (Jacobs, 2018)
While ending on a note to consumers may make this issue relevant to indi-
vidual readers, it could undermine an entire paragraph about successful political
action. An examination of responsibility framing was beyond the scope of the
study. However, the future analysis could examine the role of calls to action in
audience understandings about marine debris.
The garbage patch and plastic island metaphors remain in both French and
American articles. Le Figaro and Le Monde often referred to the impacted marine
area as the ‘seventh continent’while The New York Times hailed it as the ‘Great
Paciﬁc garbage patch’. Even when articles explained the misrepresentation
inherent in the patch metaphor, journalists would use it in the headline. For
example, The New York Times article ‘The “Great Paciﬁc Garbage Patch”is
Ballooning, 87,000 Tons of Plastic and Counting’has a subhead titled ‘The garbage
patch is not exactly a “patch”’ (Albeck-Ripka, 2018). This ﬁnding suggests that
despite overwhelming evidence against the metaphor and urges from outlets as far
back as 2009 (Douccette, 2009), journalists continue to perpetuate the catchy but
false description. Future rhetoricalstudies could trace theevolution of the metaphor
across regions and time.
Marine debris will likely remain a salient environmental issue in the public sphere in
the comingyears; so too will newscoverage of the issue’s extent, impact and potential
solutions. Journalists must navigate inconsistent ﬁndings among the international
research community and the opinions of a diverse stakeholder group. Different
understandings of how to research and solve plastic pollution make coverage
multifaceted. Still, journalists have a range of science communication tactics at their
disposal. The prominence of marine debris in the new media and unique positions of
journalists to interpret scientiﬁcﬁndings warrants further research from the social
sciences. This study offers a ﬁrst look into how journalists frame the issue.
Journalism Needs to Get Political about Plastic Pollution 201
An inductive coding of marine debris coverage from French and US newspa-
pers of the record revealed 10 dominant issue frames. The three-issue frames of
Disaster, Political and Cultural Dilemma comprised the largest percentages of
coverage from both regions. Several differences exist in the proportion of dominant
issue frames that US and French sources use in their description of plastic marine
litter. American articles were more individualistic and slightly more descriptive
than in French coverage. French articles featured more politically framed sections.
Even in cases of US coverage that featured a predominantly political article, the
narrative would often conclude with an individualist frame. Both US and French
outlets had extensive coverage of the issue and often covered events from the
other’s region. The two regions also predominantly featured the same ten-issue
frames even if their proportions differed.
The United States’emphasis on culture as a cause and solution to global plastic
pollution assumes that changes to the lifestyle of readers will empty the ocean of
plastic. This approach does not acknowledge the limited bandwidth choices and
pressure that average citizens have. Asking readers to change their behaviour
arrogantly assumes that readers can easily give up part of their life to improve just
one among many pressing environmental issues. It also assumes readers simply lack
the will and information needed to rally against plastic pollution. It fails to consider
aperson’s accessibility to waste management infrastructure and accessibility to
single-use alternatives. In doing so, it disparages readers and ignores the central role
of companies and governments in allowing plastic production, a known contaminant,
into the markets. Conversely, French outlets focussed on the action of policymakers
and legislation. This approach highlights efforts that remove potential sources
from ever entering the ocean or examines holistic action plans, such as the Circular
Economy, to reinvent humankind’s relationship to plastic. Marine debris is a
deceptively complex problem, seemingly just plastic going from land to sea, made
difﬁcult by unsettled research and a myriad of actors calling for action from
multiple levels of society.
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