Frequent Media Users See High Environmental Risks

Frequent Media Users See High Environmental Risks

Riffe, Dan

In the polluted “chemical corridor” of the Ohio River valley, respondents who most frequently read and view media reports about the environment are more likely to rate their own environmental risks as higher.

One durable generalization about the news media is that they collectively serve a surveillance function, observing and reporting on threats in the environment. That description has double meaning in the case of environmental threats and hazards that plague the Ohio River valley’s “chemical corridor,” 12 poor southeastern Ohio and western West Virginia counties1 in Appalachia. These counties are home to waterways polluted by dumping and mine acid runoff, high-emission coal-burning power plants, plants whose workers must handle chemicals and even radioactive materials, benzene-belching coke plants and brownfields-abandoned and polluted industrial sites that continue to leach into wells and aquifers.

In the interface of government agencies, special interest groups, corporate and industrial entities and citizens, the news media might seem to be particularly important, serving as the public’s “watchdog” and information source about environmental threats. However, the “structural-pluralism” model proposed by Tichenor, Donohue and Olien2 suggests that small-town newspapers are typically more consensus-oriented than are larger metro newspapers (because of what Harry3 describes as the small town’s “homogeneous, interpersonal social structure”). Thus, they could potentially be more reluctant to cover conflicts-including environmental ones-than would media serving larger more pluralistic communities. In fact, when local economic interests are involved and jobs at stake, local news media may shy away from conflict coverage of environmental problems jeopardizing those interests and assume a “lapdog” role, protecting the interests of those having power, and not the general public.4 Of course, some research shows that the public also tends to be more tolerant of environmental hazards when economic dependency is greatest.5

However, against the backdrop of the structural-pluralism model stands Harry’s6 counter-thesis that “allows for community papers to at least temporarily become more critical and opposition-oriented when a locally united community takes a vocal stand against a perceived Outsider.'”7 His content analysis case study of small-town and nearby metro paper coverage of a hazardous waste incinerator did, indeed, find some evidence supporting his counter-thesis about the local paper deviating “from its expected conflictavoidance role,” but the situation was confounded by the fact that many local power brokers aligned themselves with the “outsider.”8

Harry’s case study was based on a content analysis of published coverage. But how do the people who live with environmental problems on a daily basis evaluate the performance of newspapers and other media in covering environmental problems? Do they see the local paper as “watchdog” or “lapdog?”

Context for the Study

How one evaluates news media performance in providing environmental news coverage may depend on where one lives and how important one thinks the environment is. For example, while Atwater found that nearly two-thirds of Lansing, Mich., residents believed that their newspaper did a “somewhat good job” in covering the environment, they collectively indicated, nonetheless, that the media consistently gave less importance to environmental problems than was needed.9

Other research, examining information sources from an environmental justice perspective, has concentrated on people in specific regions or areas in which environmental problems are known to exist on a large scale-e.g., citizens living near the Savannah River Nuclear Weapons site,10 or residents of communities with chemical industries near a Superfund waste dump.” Focusing on class and ethnicity, such studies explore differences in how residents evaluate the news media. For example, lower income Savannah River site citizens-regardless of ethnicity-tended to use and ascribe more credibility to broadcast media, while higher SES citizens relied more on print.12 And residents of six communities with chemical industries and Superfund sites reported that local newspapers (76 percent) and local television (62 percent) were the source of their most recent information on environmental risks.13

In a survey of how Appalachian residents rated different sources’ usefulness, researchers found news media were collectively evaluated more favorably as sources of environmental information than were government or businesses and companies in an area known for heavy industrial pollution.14

Research Questions

The present study asks residents of an environmentally stressed region how active the news media are in covering environmental risks and how often they use the news media for such information.


How well did the residents rate performance of various news media as sources of environmental information?


How aggressive will the local newspaper be in covering an environmental story involving a local company?


How will different news media perform and use measures related to how informed citizens think they were on environmental issues; how important are such issues to them and what are their assessments of the environmental risk level they face?


Trained interviewers using computer-assisted telephone interviewing equipment conducted the survey interviews during October 2003. Despite reliance on numbers (drawn in proportion to the counties’ populations) furnished by a commercial sampling company (which guaranteed only working and nonbusiness phone numbers), the most conservative estimate of completion rate was 36 percent (453 completed interviews out of 1,260 working connections). Of course, given the number of cell phones, two-landline households, faxes, etc., in the universe of potential phone numbers, it is becoming increasingly difficult to calculate an accurate completion rate.

An additional 35 interviews yielded partial data. The sampling error associated with a sample of 453 is +/- 4.6 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

Respondents were initially asked an open-ended question about any serious environmental problems where they live that came to mind and were later given a set of specific problems to rate in terms of seriousness. They rated information sources on how well they performed in providing people with information; how often television and the local newspaper carried environmental stories; and, how often respondents actually watched or read those stories. They also evaluated how likely the local newspaper would be to run an environmental story critical of a local company. Finally, they rated their own environmental knowledge level, the importance of environmental knowledge to them and their risk of developing health problems related to the environment.


RQ1: How well did the residents rate performance of various news media as sources of environmental information?

Table 1 provides data exploring RQ1 about how respondents evaluate the news media as sources of information about environmental risk. Generally speaking, the news media fared well in comparison to government and business and companies in “informing people where you live about environmental issues.” Three-fourths judged television as “very” or “somewhat good” while newspapers received positive ratings from 68 percent of respondents. In an era of increasing public distrust of the media, these very positive ratings of both media as sources of environmental news are encouraging and might stand as a bellwether for a future, even more important, role for newspapers seeking to serve these publics and these communities. After all, despite television news’ slight ratings “advantage,” for many residents of these rural Appalachian counties (counties not served by a local television station) the term “television news” may evoke judgments of Columbus, Ohio, and Huntington or Charleston, W. Va., stations, and even the networks.

While those television stations can do a fine job of providing visual images that highlight environmental problems, it is the local newspaper that, for many of these respondents, can address their own local problems.

But despite these generally positive ratings for news media, more than half the respondents report that both media “seldom” or “never” carry stories about environmental problems. On the other hand, 85 percent “always” or “sometimes” watch television stories about the environment, while 71 percent reported “always” or “sometimes” reading such stories in the newspaper.

RQ2: How well did the residents rate performance of various news media as sources of environmental information?

RQ2 was answered when nearly three-fourths (72 percent) of respondents agreed that the local newspaper would be “very” or “somewhat likely” to “run a story about a local company or factory damaging the environment.” We did not, however, ask those 72 percent if they approve of such “watchdog” journalism. Future research, moreover, should more directly ask about the role of the local newspaper’s coverage and the “balancing” of environmental problems and economic impacts (e.g., loss of jobs and cleanup costs) so often discussed in poorer areas of the country.

Table 2 provides data on RQ3, examining the relationship of news media performance and use rating (both now dichotomized into positive and negative categories) to self-reports of knowledge level about the environment, the importance of that knowledge, and personal risk of developing environmentally related health problems.

Knowledge and importance were measured using two statements (“I consider myself knowledgeable about the environment” and “Knowing about the environment isn’t that important to me”) and a 1-10 rating (10 = “describes you perfectly” and 1 = “doesn’t describe you at all”). Another ÉÏ-point scale (1 = “no risk” and 10 = “high risk) permitted respondents to assess their likelihood of developing environment-related health problems.

Table 2 mean scores show that higher self-reported knowledge is associated with more positive evaluations of the source, (e.g., those who rate the local newspaper “good” in informing about environmental issues rate their environmental knowledge higher (M=6.3) than those rating it “poor” (M=6.0). While positive evaluations of television are similarly associated with higher knowledge scores, it is only higher reported actual use of television and newspaper reports that are significantly related to knowledge (by the t-test).

That is, those who more often read stories about the environment rate themselves as significantly more knowledgeable than do those who report they seldom or never read those stories. The pattern is repeated for reported television viewing. Those who report frequent viewing do not rate themselves as knowledgeable as do the frequent readers; infrequent readers rate themselves as less knowledgeable than do those who report infrequent viewing.

The pattern is repeated with the importance measure (because of question wording, lower scores indicate that environmental knowledge is more important): Heavier readers rate environmental knowledge significantly more important to them than do infrequent readers. Heavy viewers rate environmental knowledge significantly more important to them than do infrequent viewers. Somewhat surprisingly, the general performance evaluations (“in informing people where you live about environmental problems”) of television and the newspaper did not locate significant differences in the importance measure.

Those who viewed the newspaper positively in terms of performance in covering the environment rate their risk significantly lower than do those who view the newspaper as doing a poor job. The risk scores are almost identical for television: Those who rate it as doing a good job rate their risk as significantly lower than those critical of television.

However, that “good job-lower risk” pattern reverses within the media use measure. Those who more often actually read environmental stories rate their risk as significantly higher than do those who seldom/never read such stories. That relationship of use to risk is repeated for television, where those who report viewing often rate their risk significantly higher. Whether risk perception is fueled by media coverage or provides a motive for viewing or reading such coverage is problematic.

RQ3: How will different news media perform and use measures related to how informed citizens think they were on environmental issues; how important are such issues to them and what are their assessments of the environmental risk level they face?

Table 3 extends RQ3’s focus on risk, addressing the relationship of news media performance and use measures to respondent identification of specific local environmental problems, operationalized in two different ways. First, the “unaided” mean score involves a salience dimension: it is based on how many specific environmental problems respondents could name when asked an openended question at the beginning of the interview about any environmental problems in the area. The overall mean number of problems named was .72 (45 percent could name no problems; 41 percent identified one problem; 11 percent identified two; and three percent named three or more).

The Total Environmental Problem Score (TEPS) in Table 3, on the other hand, is a summed scale based on a list of 14 environmental problems presented later in the interview.15 Each problem was scored “1” if it was “somewhat serious” or “very serious” where the respondent lives (and 0 if not serious) and individuals’ scores across the 14 items were summed, yielding the TEPS that ranged from 0-14, with a mean of 5.86 and standard deviation of 4.05 (Cronbach’s alpha = .87).

Table 3 shows that there were no significant differences on number of unaided identifications between those giving the local newspaper a positive rating and those giving it a “poor” rating. There was also no significant difference in mean TEPS for the two groups. Note, however, that those who “often” read newspaper stories had a significantly higher number of unaided problem identifications than those who “seldom/never” read, and a significantly higher TEPS.

The same significant differences appear with use of television stories on environmental problems: those who often view such stories named significantly more problems (unaided) and had higher TEPS. Note also that those who rate television’s overall performance as “poor” had significantly higher TEPS than those who think television is doing a good job.


Like many research studies, this one has limitations, but the study has gained some ground, both methodologically and substantively. The methodological gain is contrasting the open-ended problem salience measure with the list of TEPS items. The substantive gain is linking the information source ratings and consumption of environmental stories to knowledge, importance and risk measures. These gains offset the limitations of a somewhat low response rate and the fact that the study reflects only a 12-county area, albeit one that draws considerable attention in the region from environmental and health groups because of environmental conditions there.

The residents of these environmentally distressed counties along the Ohio River valley had what might be seen as a generally positive view of the performance of local news media in covering environmental problems. In fact, most believe their local newspaper would be aggressive in going after “a local company or factory damaging the environment.” However, we did not gauge whether such a watchdog action would be met with approval, or whether some respondents might fear the economic consequences. Similarly, despite the generally positive view, more than half indicated that environmental news was seldom covered locally.

Subjects in this survey who gave news media positive overall evaluations tended to judge their risk of environmentally related health problems as lower than did those with a very negative view of media performance. Yet respondents who most frequently use the media-reading or viewing stories about the environment-are more likely to rate their own risk as higher. In the present study, this pattern may be a function of a critical perspective: Those who read and view the most also report a higher knowledge level than infrequent consumers and indicate that environmental knowledge is more important. One must wonder about the evaluations of information sources offered up by respondents reporting only limited use of those sources.

The active reader/viewers here are apparently not, however, “overestimating” their knowledge. The most frequent readers and viewers are those who identify more environmental problems where they live as serious and for whom environmental problems are more salient-and thus readily identifiablewithin an open-ended query format.


1. The five Ohio counties are Monroe, Washington, Meigs, Gallia and Lawrence. The West Virginia counties are Mason, Wetzel, Tyler, Pleasants, Wood, Jackson and Cabell.

2. Philip J. Tichenor, George A. Donohue and Clarice Olien, Community Conflict and the Press (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1980); Clarice Olien, George A. Donohue and Philip J. Tichenor, “Conflict, Consensus, and Public Opinion,” in Public Opinion and the Communication of Consent, eds. T.L. Classer and C.T. Salmon (New York: Guilford Press, 1995).

3. Joseph C. Harry, “Covering Conflict: A Structural-Pluralist Analysis of How a Small-Town and Big-City Newspaper Reported and Environmental Controversy,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 78, no. 3 (autumn 2001): 419-436.

4. Olien, Donohue and Tichenor, “Conflict, Consensus, and Public Opinion,” 305.

5. Bryan L.Williams, Sylvia Brown and Michael Greenberg, “Determinants of Trust Perceptions among Residents Surrounding the Savannah River Nuclear Weapons Site,” Environment and Behavior 31, no. 3 (May 1999): 354-371; Michael Greenberg, Karen Lowrie, D. Krueckberg, H. Mayer and D. Simon, “Bombs and Butterflies: A case Study of the Challenges of Post-Cold War Environmental Planning and Management for the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Sites,” Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 40, no. 6 (November 1997): 739-750.

6. Harry, “Covering Conflict,” 421.

7. Harry, “Covering Conflict,” 422.

8. Harry, “Covering Conflict,” 427.

9. Tony Atwater, “Reader Interest in Environmental News,” Newspaper Research Journal 10, no. 1 (fall 1988): 31-38.

10. Bryan L. Williams, Alex Vallei, Sylvia Brown and Michael Greenberg, “Frequency of Use and Perceived Credibility of Information Sources and Variations by Socioeconomic Factors among Savannah River Stakeholders,” Risk 11, no. 1 (2000): 69-92.

11. David B. McCallum, Sharon Lee Hammond and Vincent T. Covello, “Communicating about Environmental Risks: How the Public Uses and Perceives Information Sources,” Health Education Quarterly 18, no. 3 (1991): 349-361.

12. Williams, Vallei, Brown and Greenberg, “Frequency of Use,” 82.

13. McCallum, Hammond and Covello, “Communicating about Environmental Risks.”

14. Daniel Riffe and Jan E. Knight, “Environmental Threats, Information Sources and Optimistic Bias: Environmental Risk in Appalachia,” (paper presented at AEJMC, Miami, Fla., 2002).

15. The problems were: declining water quality in lakes, rivers and streams; people having to work with dangerous materials as part of their jobs; unacceptable outdoor air quality because of pollution; accidental spills or leaks of chemicals; improper disposal or dumping of industrial or factory chemicals; unacceptable quality of drinking water; declining quality of water in underground wells; indoor air quality problems because of asbestos or radon; improper disposal of toxic waste; exposure to lead; abandoned mines; abandoned industrial sites; lack of garbage or trash disposal facilities; and improper disposal of nuclear waste. This inventory of problems was adapted from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s Ohio State of the Environment Report (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, 1995).

Riffe is a professor and the Presidential Research Scholar at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.

Copyright Newspaper Research Journal, Department of Journalism, University of Memphis Winter 2006

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