Article on the Impact of Narrating Endangered Species Across Media

The journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment has published an article entitled “Extinction Stories Matter: The Impact of Narrative Representations of Endangered Species Across Media” by W P Malecki, Alexa Weik von Mossner, Piotr Sorokowski, and Tomasz Frackowiak.

The article presents the results of a pioneering experimental study into how extinction stories impact the affective, cognitive, and behavioral aspects of our attitudes toward endangered species. Combining insights from the environmental humanities with methods from the social sciences in an approach known as empirical ecocriticism, the paper shows how the sensory modalities of extinction stories and the gender of their audience may inflect their social impact in often surprising ways. It also indicates how the use of drastic imagery may backfire by diminishing the persuasiveness of extinction narratives and generally problematizes their reliance on interspecies empathy.

There is a growing awareness that we are now on the brink of the sixth mass extinction (Barnosky et al.). It is also increasingly clear that, given its anthropogenic character, it cannot be prevented without changing the public’s attitudes toward endangered species (Ceballos et al.). Many ecocritics believe that narratives might be of help here by making us more attentive to both the uniqueness of endangered species and what they share with us. It is also believed that stories can do so particularly well, given their exceptional capacity to imaginatively transport us into worlds and perspectives we typically do not inhabit (Buell 2). While other kinds of discourse, say, scientific arguments, can also make us aware of our interdependence with other species, none of them seem to be as immersive as stories, or at least not for the majority of people (Green et al.). This also appears to be the assumption behind the attempts by many artists, journalists, and organizations who use stories to stoke support for conservationist efforts, be they feature films such as Michael Apted’s Gorillas in the Mist (1988), documentaries such as Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Coral (2017), or journalistic reports such as CNN’s Vanishing: The Extinction Crisis Is Worse Than You Think (2016).

But how do we know that extinction stories have a positive impact on the public’s attitudes toward endangered species? What if the widespread confidence in such beneficial effects is merely a relic of a sentimentalist understanding of art that Western culture inherited from the nineteenth-century? (Betensky). Could extinction stories be merely a form of “catastrophe-porn,” providing a dramatic aesthetic experience but failing to change people’s attitudes? (cf. Aaltola) And even if there is some impact on attitudes, is this widely shared by any audience or limited to those who are already concerned about the environment such as activists and academics? Continue reading here.