Young people, critical thinking, and the forest  


In 2018, the Académie d'Agriculture de France awarded Julie Matagne a silver medal for her thesis on forest literacy. What do young people understand about media coverage of forests?  

At a time when young Belgians are taking to the streets to demand more of environmental policy, Julie Matagne’s PhD thesis(1) sheds light on forest-related Media literacy. ‘We’re witnessing growing public ownership of environmental issues and challenges’, says Dr Matagne, a researcher at UCLouvain's Knowledge Mediation Research Group (GReMS). ‘The public’s ideas and representations concerning the environment are mainly shaped by media messages, which most often seek to convince on an emotional level. This mode of communication has a drawback: it doesn’t promote autonomous thinking. That is, the ability to step back from media messages and the emotions they seek to induce.(2)

What is autonomous thinking?

Autonomous thinking or cognitive autonomy, in the context of media literacy, is defined by – and assessed on the basis of – four types of skills:

  1. Understanding: identifying the meaning and point of view expressed by the media message.(3)
  2. Contextualising the media message. That is, identifying the author (who is speaking?) and his or her target audiences (to whom?) and intentions (why?). 
  3. Comparing a given media message to other messages and comparing authors.
  4. Critically judging the media message, taking a position on conflicting messages, and so on.

Autonomous thinking is an intellectual toolbox’, Dr Matagne says. ‘The more tools you have, the higher your cognitive autonomy ... as long as you know how to choose, combine and use the right tools!

Critical thinking that leaves something to be desired

As part of her thesis, Dr Matagne interviewed 183 secondary school students and 120 first- or second-year master’s degree students (in communication, bioengineering and other fields). Her goal was to assess their autonomous thinking with regard to forest-related media messages.
The verdict? Overall, autonomous thinking is insufficiently developed. ‘While the understanding of messages is good, the other three skills are rather limited or even weak’, she says. ‘In contextualisation, for example, young people can identify the authors but much less the institutions behind them. Yet it's fundamental to understand their intentions. The comparison capabilities are also (very) weak. As for making a critical judgment, the results differ according to the curriculum. Students with forest-related knowledge are better able to step back from such media messages. As for communication students, they have been more successful in certain tests, but their cognitive autonomy is not noticeably better.’   

‘Untouchable’ forest?

In the end, she found a gap between public opinion and those who manage or exploit the forest. ‘Today, many people see the forest as an untouchable symbol of nature. No more cutting trees! But the reality is more complex. Everyone, including those who exploit the forest (lumberjacks, sawmills, lumber companies, etc.), has an interest in the forest being managed sustainably. In this context, the role of authorities such as the Walloon Region is to ensure a good balance between forest preservation and exploitation.’ The public remains to be convinced.

Toward genuine media literacy

How? For Dr Matagne, the key to reasoned opinions, based on the analysis of facts rather than emotions, is autonomous thinking. From this point of view, forest stakeholders would first have to give up advertising – which uses simplistic and often emotional messages – in favour of an educational approach. Because ‘the more young people know about the forest, the more they are able to take a step back from forest-related media messages.’

Secondly, media literacy should be strengthened in the school environment. ‘There are occasional initiatives in some schools, but that's not enough’ she says. ‘The school should significantly strengthen media literacy in its programmes. Today, young people are becoming consumers and media players very early on. Giving them the tools to exercise and refine their critical thinking is an important social issue that goes well beyond the framework of forest communication.’

Candice Leblanc

(1)Julie Matagne, "Littératie médiatique et environnement : évaluation de l'autonomie cognitive des jeunes envers les médias traitant des forêts", décembre 2017.  
(2)Inspirées by advertising marketing, these campaigns use ‘strong’, simplistic slogans intended to rouse emotions (anger, pity, sadness, etc.).
(3)In this context, media messages are essentially like advertising posters.


A glance at Julie Matagne's bio

Julie Matagne is a researcher at GReMS and a lecturer at the University of Mons. She holds a master's degree, a DEA and a PhD in information and communication, obtained in 2005, 2006 and 2017 respectively at UCLouvain. She was responsible for communication at the municipal administration of Braine-l'Alleud from 2007 to 2013, and performed temporary missions for the Walloon Region Department of Nature and Forests (2013) and the Royal Forest Society of Belgium (2018).

Her research on forest literacy was funded by the FNRS.

Published on March 13, 2019