Graphics by Filippo Marino.

By Filippo Marino, Sarah Crowley, Nell Williams Foley, Robbie McDonald, and Dave Hodgson.

Read the full paper here.

Wildlife conservation is often complex and controversial because people can have opposing views on conservation measures and this can lead to conflict. Debates in the media between stakeholders have a large role in conservation conflicts. For example, through their discourses, stakeholders can form coalitions that can influence policy and conservation measures, and lead to stalemate and/or conflict escalation.

We aimed to investigate the characteristics and dynamics of discourses used by stakeholders in conservation conflicts. To do this, we focused on the conflict over the conservation of a bird of prey – the hen harrier – in the United Kingdom and its debate in the news media. In particular, we wanted to identify the coalitions based on different topics and the level of polarisation in the debate over time. We sourced newspaper articles published between 1993 and 2019 from an online dataset and analysed stakeholder statements to define the categories of content in the debate. Then, we analysed the level of polarisation, and its change over time, based on the number of cases where stakeholders agreed with each other on a certain topic.

By studying this conservation debate, we were able to identify the stakeholder coalitions and how these changed depending on topics such as conservation issues and proposed conservation solutions). We showed which topics of the debate have been more or less polarising and, although media might have a part in this, we found that polarisation has likely increased over time. This study shows the importance of investigating conservation debates. If we can identify the dynamics of any conservation debate that cause opposition and periods of debate intensification, we can inform the mitigation and resolution of current and future conflicts.