Local newspaper roles in the Love Canal disaster

Local newspaper roles in the Love Canal disaster

Ploughman, Penelope

This case study of the newspaper coverage given to the Love Canal hazardous waste landfill disaster is used to explore hypotheses regarding how newspapers with differing types of ownership report such events, and how news and editorial coverage are differentially distributed among competing newsmakers involved in such an event.

In August 1978, a leaking hazardous waste landfill located in the Love Canal neighborhood on the outskirts of Niagara Falls, New York became national news. The story of Love Canal involved a corporate giant (Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corporation and its parent, Occidental Petroleum), a grass roots citizens organization (the Love Canal Homeowners Association), a vast governmental bureaucracy (local, state, and federal levels), a local, in-state, chain-owned newspaper (the Niagara Gazette) and an environmental disaster. The story of Love Canal became the harbinger of the national and international hazardous waste crisis.

The Niagara Gazette uncovered the Love Canal story more than two years before it made national headlines. Gazette coverage defined the crisis and accelerated the underlying controversies regarding relocation, remedial cleanup, revitalization, and responsibility. As a consequence of this coverage, both the facts of the situation and the controversies regarding the cause of, the responsibility for, and the appropriate response to the situation, were publicized and legitimated. The Gazette’s coverage eventually prompted the attention of other newspapers, including the regional newspaper — the Buffalo Evening News, and eventually, the state/regional newspaper — the New York Times. Through the development of the Love Canal story, the salience of the situation and the underlying issue of the micro and macro level consequences of the careless disposal of hazardous wastes were diffused to the national and international publics and placed on the agendas of the public, the policy makers, and the news media.

Theoretical background

Chain newspapers are often criticized because they reduce diversity of ideas; have a profit emphasis that produces mediocre content; produce less editorializing on local issues; have a unified influence on editorial policies; have less coverage of local public issues; have shorter but more numerous stories; have more coverage of business news; produce a greater proportion of nonlocal coverage of government and business; support favored political candidates or the same candidates; and use economic force to eliminate competition.(1)

According to Clarice Olien, George Donohue and Phillip Tichenor,(2) the community press protects community institutions, reflects the concerns of dominant power groupings, and is unlikely to criticize industry in one-industry towns.(3) Despite the tendency to selectively reflect the concerns of the powerful, newspapers may play important roles in the development, acceleration, and diffusion of community controversies as they progress through the phases of initiation, conflict definition, publicity, legitimation, and diffusion.(4) According to Phillip Tichenor, George Donohue and Clarice Olien, “mass media reports may trigger or precipitate a public conflict, although basic initiation by media in the absence of other organized activity is probably infrequent.”(5) They identified three forms of newspaper entry into community conflicts: (1) presentation of a local interest based upon surveillance of the external environment which may precipitate a public phase of an issue and accelerate attention; (2) follow-up on prior reporting in the nonlocal media which emphasizes local connections and relevance; and, (3) primary reporting of an internal issue which originates with routine coverage of events, investigative reporting, or from official or interest group sources.(6)

In a subsequent work, Olien, Tichenor and Donohue(7) identified two major hypotheses regarding chain-owned newspapers and the influence of ownership on news coverage: the outside corporation hypothesis and the corporate influence hypothesis. The outside corporation hypothesis proposes that corporate interests have priority over community needs. Olien, Tichenor, and Donohue noted that there are contrasting findings on chain ownership with some studies indicating “minimal effect” and others suggesting “positive consequences.”(8) They concluded that the literature “does not provide a great deal of support for the traditional notion that ‘individual ownership is better'” and that the less-than-definitive literature on corporate effects, “holds open the possibility that news coverage of community events may be enhanced in corporate-owned newspapers as a result of the organized application of professionalism.”(9)

Donohue, Olien and Tichenor found that daily newspapers owned by coverage of business national, and international news, than newspapers owned by out-of-state corporations.(10) Their subsequent research also indicated that chain ownership by an in-state corporation was associated with more reporting of local controversy.(11) They tested the outside corporate ownership hypothesis in a study of Minnesota newspapers an found that business coverage was clearly prominent part of the role perception of editors.(12)

According to the corporate influence hypothesis, corporate ownership of the press creates a pro-bottom line orientation which results in news reporting which “maximizes profit and therefore excludes information which lack appeal to those who fund the corporation.”(13) According to this hypothesis new editors “stress the importance of business concerns” and “emphasize the importance of business news in coverage.”(14) Olien, Tichenor and Donohue hypothesized that corporate structure restricted the role of the editor to news information, and editorials and thereby relieved editors of concerns with the business aspects of the operation through a process of role specialization.(15)

The potential advantages of role specialization included: (1) the editor becoming a “managerial specialist in news work alone” and a “negotiator for the ends of the ‘news side'”; and, (2) “enhanced adaptability to local conditions.”(16) Olien, Tichenor and Donohue found considerable support for the version of the corporate influence hypothesis. Specifically, mention of profit by editors as a basis for satisfaction or dissatisfaction was negatively correlated with corporate ownership. This finding contradicts The accepted view that editors of corporate-owned newspapers are more influenced by profits than an editors under entrepreneurial ownership.(17) They concluded that editors at corporate-owned newspaper who have their role organizationally restricted to the single task of editing are less likely to reflect a profit orientation, while to financial survivability concerns of entrepreneurial newspapers result in edition with dual roles — “editing and business management.”(18)

A significant correlation was found between corporate ownership and the extent to which editors identified business reports as among the three significant stories covered by their newspapers. The corporate influence hypothesis was also supported by the high correlation between corporate ownership and nonlocal business coverage. While corporate structure limits the role of editors to newswork, the corporate editor was more likely to rate business as among the more significant stories and to provide more coverage of non-local business.(19)

Ralph R. Thrift, Jr. found that chain-owned newspapers had fewer editorials regarding local issues than did locally-owned newspapers.(20) Dan Drew and G. Cleveland Wilhoit surveyed managing editors and found few differences in newshole size or proportion according to ownership.(21) A study of journalists by Lee Becker, Randal Beam and John Russial revealed positive evaluations of coverage and editorializing by large chain-owned dailies.(22)

Studies of editor autonomy at chain and independent newspapers have produced mixed results. John W. C. Johnstone, Edward Slawski, and William Bowman found that journalists at large newspapers had less autonomy than those at small newspapers due to organizational hierarchy and specialization.(23) David Weaver and G. Cleveland Wilhoit supported these findings and also reported a decrease in journalist control of story emphasis at large newspapers.(24) In 1979, an American Society of Newspaper Editors survey found that editors of chain-owned papers were more likely than independently-owned newspapers to take positions contrary to those of their publishers. Furthermore, editors at chain-owned papers reported that they did not have to get permission from owners prior to taking a position on controversial issues.(25)

Wilhoit and Drew found that editors at group-owned papers were far more likely to state that publishers and owners had little or no influence in determining editorial topic priority.(26) Philip Meyer and Stanley Wearden found no evidence that publishers, editors, or staff of publicly held newspapers were more likely to have a short-term orientation toward financial considerations than were their counterparts at privately held newspapers.(27) In addition, “product quality, editorial quality, and managerial quality” (rather than “financial health” and “earnings capacity”) were the major concerns of newspaper personnel — whether they worked for publicly- or privately-owned newspapers.(28)

David Demers and Daniel Wackman found that top editorial managers were more likely than non-editorial managers to mention product quality when asked to name the driving forces behind their newspapers.(29) In addition, they found that editors of chain-owned newspapers were more likely to mention profit as a driving force than were their counterparts at independent newspapers. Chain editors were not significantly more likely than independent editors to mention product quality as a driving force, while independent editors were more likely than chain editors to mention community service as an organizational goal.(30) Demers and Wackman concluded that the emphasis on profit by editors at chain-owned daily newspapers may be due to the fact that decentralization of decision-making and power, and clear articulation of organizational goals and policy from corporate headquarters, result in shared responsibility for the bottom line, while independent publishers may keep profit goals to themselves.(31) Stephen Lacy and Frederick Fico found no significant differences in news quality between group-owned and independent newspapers(32) and concluded that news quality depended to a significant degree on the policy of the owners and the financial resources available to individual newspapers.(33)

Demers tested the hypothesis that role specialization promoted increased emphasis on news and editorials and removed the influence of owners and publishers from the news production process and found no significant differences between chain and independent editors in terms of the role they play in improving editorial content. Significant differences were found between editors at the largest circulation newspapers and those at the smallest circulation newspapers in terms of the reported freedom of chain editors to make decisions. Demers concluded that “the larger the organization, the greater the autonomy”, noting that the relationship is nonlinear with autonomy increasing at a diminishing rate as organizational size increases.(34)

Carol Smith studied the Gannett Company’s corporate publications (the Gannetteer, annual reports and institutional advertisements) focusing upon Gannett’s organizational ideology. Editorial excellence, group, and business excellence were the major themes in the Gannetteer; group, business excellence, and editorial excellence were the major themes in Gannett annual reports; and editorial excellence and group were the major themes in Gannett’s Editor & Publisher ads.(35) Variations in theme emphasis were detected among these publications. Smith concluded that the message variations among these publications indicated that there were internal (resources, journalistic professionalism, public service, and autonomy) and external (investor and societal) pressures on the Gannett Company and that like most modern media companies, Gannett “…wants to run newspapers and build empires.”

The hierarchy of credibility hypothesis posits that newsmaking power and news coverage is differentially distributed by the American news media according to pre-existing power relationships of the political economy and the resulting societal “hierarchy of credibility.”(36) According to this view, occurrences are either socially constructed as events or news or deconstructed as non events and the news media are social subsystems responsible for the generation and distribution of information.(37) A “hierarchy of credibility” exists in that the right to be heard and the persuasive power of one’s viewpoint (newsmaking power) are differentially distributed in society. Five types of types of social power underscore newsmaking power: reward, coercive, legitimate, expert, and referent.(38) Newsmakers ranking high on the societal hierarchy of credibility include government — due to its legitimate, reward, expert, and coercive powers; and business — due to its reward and expert powers.

Harvey Molotch and Marilyn Lester analyzed the newspaper coverage of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill and found a clearly discernible hierarchy among potential newsmakers in terms of access to newspapers. Newsmakers with institutionally-based sources of power or extreme wealth have routine and habitual access to news assemblers, while newsmakers who lack habitual access rely upon disruption.(39) Molotch and Lester concluded that a hierarchy of credibility existed to the extent that newsmaking power was “…clearly centered in the hands of the Federal executive branch, with Congress, the oil companies, and the State politician, in that order, composing the next most significant groups.”(40)

Hypotheses

Versions of the outside corporation, corporate influence, and hierarchy of credibility hypotheses were tested utilizing the three major categories of newsmakers (government, business, and the residents) who competed to have their version of the events at Love Canal made known through chain owned (Niagara Gazette, New York Times) and corporate owned (Buffalo Evening News) newspapers. Coverage was also analyzed on the basis of newspaper proximity to the situation — the local (Niagara Gazette), regional (Buffalo Evening News), and state/regional (New York Times) levels. The following hypotheses were tested:

1. The Niagara Gazette will produce more frequent news coverage of and more editorializing regarding the Love Canal controversy than will the Buffalo Evening News or the New York Times.

2. The Niagara Gazette will produce more frequent news coverage of and more editorializing regarding business newsmakers than other newsmakers involved in the Love Canal controversy than will the Buffalo Evening News or the New York Times.

3. The Niagara Gazette will produce more amounts of coverage (measured in column inches) regarding the Love Canal controversy than will the Buffalo Evening News or the New York Times.

4. The Niagara Gazette will produce more prominent (front page, top of page, headline, multiple columns) coverage regarding the Love Canal controversy than will the Buffalo Evening News, or the New York Times.

5. The Niagara Gazette will editorialize more favorably about newsmakers with routine and habitual access to the news media than about newsmakers with accidental or disruptive access than will the Buffalo Evening News, or the New York Times.

Methodology

Content analyses were conducted of Love Canal coverage published by the Niagara Gazette/ the Buffalo Evening News, and the New York Times between August 2, 1978 and October 2, 1980. This period encompassed the interval of Love Canal history from the date of the New York State Health Commissioner’s declaration that the hazardous waste dumpsite posed a situation of “great and imminent peril” through the date on which joint New York state/Federal legislation was signed providing for the relocation of all residents within a 10-block area surrounding the Love Canal. All articles and editorials published by the Niagara Gazette, (owned by Gannett Company) the Buffalo Evening News, (then owned by Blue Chip Stamps Company) and the New York Times(41) (owned by the New York Times Company) during this time period were content analyzed in terms of the frequency of coverage (numbers of articles/ editorials), amount of coverage (measured in column inches of coverage), prominence of coverage (front page, top of page, headline, column width of coverage), and favorability of editorial coverage received by each of the three newsmaker groups (categorized as either favorable or unfavorable depending upon the frequency of words with negative/positive, unsupportive/supportive, or critical/ affirming assessments as well as on the basis of the intonation of the editorial as a whole).(42)

The Niagara Gazette was the in-state, chain-owned, local newspaper. The Buffalo Evening News was the out-of-state, corporate-owned (division/ non-chain), regional newspaper.(43) The New York Times was the in-state, chain-owned, state/regional newspaper.

Findings

Frequency of coverage by newspaper

Hypothesis 1 was supported. The Niagara Gazette published 1,069 articles during the time period selected for study. During this same time the Buffalo Evening News published 780 articles and the New York Times published 158 articles regarding Love Canal. The Niagara Gazette published 98 editorials during the time period selected for study, compared with 58 in the Buffalo newspaper, and 12 in the New York Times. The extensiveness of the Gazette’s coverage established it as the newspaper of record and the editorial opinion leader regarding Love Canal.

Frequency of news coverage of newsmakers by newspaper

While government was the most frequently covered newsmaker, the residents, rather than business, were the second most frequently covered newsmakers in all three papers.(44) Although business newsmakers were the least covered newsmaker in all three newspapers, they received relatively more coverage in the Niagara Gazette (8.4 percent) than in the other papers (New York Times, 5.1 percent; 4.7%, Buffalo Evening News, 4.7 percent). Accordingly, hypothesis 2 was supported for news article coverage. When the news coverage received by the various levels of government was examined separately and compared to that of the residents and business, the residents were found to be the single most frequently covered newsmakers in the Niagara Gazette (30.1 percent of the total articles coverage), followed by the state government (28.1 percent), local government (17.4 percent), federal government (14.5 percent), and business (8.4 percent). Moreover the Love Canal Homeowners Association (LCHA) received the most frequent news coverage of any individual newsmaker in all three papers: 11.3 percent of the Niagara Gazette’s coverage, 19.1 percent of the Buffalo Evening News’, and 14.5 percent of the New York Times’. The next most frequently covered individual newsmakers in the Niagara Gazette were the New York State Department of Health (4.8 percent), the Environmental Protection Agency (4.7 percent), and Hooker (4.6 percent). The next most frequently covered newsmakers in the Buffalo Evening News were: the EPA, Congress and the New York State Department of Health. The next most frequently covered in the New York Times were: the New York State Governor, the New York State legislature and the EPA.

Frequency of editorial coverage of newsmakers by newspaper

Examination of the frequency of editorial coverage reveals that business newsmakers were the least editorialized category in the Niagara Gazette (7.4 percent), business and local government were least editorialized by the Buffalo Evening News (4.5 percent each), and business (11.5 percent) and local government (3.8 percent) were the least editorialized newsmakers by the New York Times. The New York Times produced relatively more frequent editorializing (11.5 percent) regarding business than the other newspapers (Buffalo Evening News, 4.5 percent; Niagara Gazette, 7.4 percent).(45) The governmental category received the majority of editorializing in all three newspapers followed by the residents. The residents were the single most frequently editorialized newsmaker in the Niagara Gazette (30.2 percent), followed by the state government (26.8 percent) and the local government (20.8 percent). In contrast, the state government received the most frequent editorializing in the Buffalo Evening News (35.4 percent), while the federal government received the most frequent editorializing in the New York Times (30.7 percent). Accordingly, hypothesis 2 was not supported for editorial coverage.

Amount of coverage

Hypothesis 3 was supported. The Niagara Gazette published a total of 8,868 column inches of news coverage in contrast with 8,416 column inches in the Buffalo Evening News, and 1,158 column inches in the New York Times. Significant differences were observed among newspapers and newsmakers regarding this variable. As in the case of the frequency of news coverage, the government received the largest amount of coverage in the Niagara Gazette (61.9 percent), followed by the residents (30.1 percent) and business (8 percent). While business newsmakers received the least amount of coverage in all newspapers they received the largest relative amount in the Niagara Gazette (8 percent; Buffalo Evening News, 5 percent; New York Times, 4.1 percent).

Prominence of coverage: front page coverage

The Niagara Gazette published 32 percent of its Love Canal coverage on the front page (73.2 percent on front pages of all sections) compared with 20.8 percent of the Buffalo Evening News’ coverage (28 percent front pages total), and 13.3 percent of the New York Times’ coverage (29.8 percent front pages of all sections).(49) Hypothesis 4 was supported. Governmental newsmakers were found to have received the largest percentage of front page coverage in both the Niagara Gazette (35.5 percent) and the New York Times (15.3 percent) relative to the other newsmakers. Business newsmakers received the largest percentage of front page coverage of all newsmakers (23.5 percent) in the Buffalo Evening News. Business newsmakers received the largest relative amount of front page coverage in The Niagara Gazette (33.3 percent), compared with what they received in the Buffalo Evening News (23.5 percent), and the New York Times (14.3 percent).

Prominence of coverage: top of the page coverage

Hypothesis 4 was not supported regarding top of the page coverage. Significant differences were found among newspapers regarding placement of coverage on the page. The New York Times had more of its Love Canal coverage positioned at the top of the page (70.1 percent) than either the Buffalo Evening News (58.9 percent) or the Niagara Gazette (51.9 percent).(46) There were no significant differences between newsmakers in terms of the positioning of coverage on the page.

Prominence of coverage: headline coverage

Headline coverage measured the number of articles published with banner headlines (encompassing the entire width of the page). Significant differences were found between the newspapers in terms of the number of headline articles. The Niagara Gazette published 13.3 percent of its Love Canal coverage with banner headlines, followed by the Buffalo Evening News (8 percent), and the New York Times (4.5 percent).(47) Accordingly, hypothesis 4 was supported. There were no significant differences between newsmakers in terms of this factor.

Prominence of coverage: column width of coverage

Significant differences were found between newspapers in term of the column width of their Love Canal coverage. A plurality of the Niagara Gazette’s coverage (32.8 percent) was four columns wide. In contrast, only a minority of the coverage of both the Buffalo Evening News (17.4 percent),and the New York Times (15.2 percent) were four columns wide.(48) Accordingly, hypothesis 4 was supported. There were no significant differences between newsmakers regarding this factor.

Favorability of editorial coverage

Hypothesis 5 was partially supported. Governmental newsmakers received overwhelmingly negative editorial references in the Niagara Gazette (73.1 percent negative) and the New York Times (87.5 percent negative). The Buffalo Evening News, in contrast, referred to these same newsmakers in only slightly less than positive terms (47.4 percent negative). The Buffalo Evening News editorialized about governmental newsmakers in more positive terms (52.5 percent positive), than the Niagara Gazette (26.8 percent positive), or the New York Times (12.5 percent positive). The finding that the Niagara Gazette was second most positive in its editorializing about government provides partial support for hypothesis 5.

Within the governmental category, the Niagara Gazette’s editorial references to both the local and federal government components were in overwhelmingly negative terms (83.9 percent and 86.4 percent), while the references to the state government were slightly more negative than positive (57.5 percent negative; 42.5 percent positive). The Buffalo Evening News, in contrast, was favorable toward the local and state governments (80 percent and 66.7 percent) and negative toward the federal government (67.6 percent). The New York Times was the most negative of all three newspapers regarding the local (100 percent negative), state (85.7 percent negative) and federal (87.5 percent negative) governments. The Niagara Gazette was more negative toward business newsmakers than positive (54.5 percent negative vs. 45.5 percent positive), while both the Buffalo Evening News and the New York Times were totally negative toward business. The fact that the Niagara Gazette was the only newspaper to cover business positively supports hypothesis 4. However, the residents received the overwhelming majority of their editorial references in positive terms in all three papers thereby refuting hypothesis 5. The favorability of editorial references regarding residents increased as distance from the canal increased with the New York Times referring positively to the residents in all editorials regarding them. The Niagara Gazette editorialized about the residents with relatively more negative frequency (13.3 percent negative), than the Buffalo Evening News (11.1 percent negative), or the New York Times (0 negative).

In summary, the Niagara Gazette, the in-state, chain-owned, local newspaper produced more editorials, more frequent, more amounts, and more prominent (front page, headline, wide, front page) articles than the out-of-state, corporate-owned, regional Buffalo Evening News, or the in-state, chain-owned, state/regional New York Times. In addition, the Gazette produced the second highest percentage of editorials about business, the most positive editorializing about business, and the most negative editorializing about the residents, relative to the other papers. The out-of-state, corporate-owned, regional Buffalo Evening News, produced the second most frequent number of editorials and articles and the second largest amount and prominence (top of page, headline, width, front page) of articles. In addition, the News published the greatest percentage of editorializing about government, the most positive editorializing about government, and the second most negative editorializing about the residents relative to the other papers. The New York Times, the instate, chain-owned, state/regional paper, published the greatest percentage of editorials about business and the most top of the page articles relative to the other papers. Government was the most covered newsmaker, followed by the residents and business. The single most covered individual newsmaker was the LCHA.

Discussion

Newspapers

The fact that the Niagara Gazette’s coverage was extensive may appear to be rather predictable given that the Love Canal was a local story for the Niagara Gazette, and therefore warranted more coverage than non-local events. However, local press coverage of local events is not always the most extensive. Marilyn Lester, for example, found that the local coverage of the 1968 Dugway Proving Ground, Utah nerve gas leak was less extensive than that of non-local papers.(50) Lester attributed this to the economic dependency of the locality upon the source of the disaster — the U.S. Defense Department. Despite the dependency of Niagara Falls on the chemical industry and tourism, the Niagara Gazette still published more extensively about the Love Canal controversy than either of the non-local papers. The Niagara Gazette continued to publish articles and commentary critical of Hooker Chemicals and Mastics despite Hooker’s attempts to influence the amount and intonation of coverage.(51)

It is also clear that Gannett could have made the Love Canal a national story (scooping the New York Times) by using its own wire service — the Gannett News Service (GNS). Niagara Gazette Publisher Susan Clark informed GNS of the Love Canal story in July 1978; however, GNS defined the story as too local and did not begin to disseminate Love Canal coverage until the official declaration that the situation posed an imminent peril to residents (August 2, 1978).(52) After the story broke, GNS served as a valuable resource for the Gazette by provided the latest federal and state developments, thereby freeing the Gazette to devote its time to on-the-scene coverage and relaying local developments to GNS.(53)

On August 4, 1978, two days after the declaration that the situation at Love Canal posed an imminent peril to residents, the Niagara Gazette received an emergency grant from the Frank E. Gannett Newspaper Foundation and set up the first fund to assist residents with temporary housing. Representatives of the Gazette also met with local hotel owners and, despite the busy tourism season, persuaded them to cut their rates and set aside rooms for displaced Love Canal residents. Subsequently, the paper announced that it would act as the official clearinghouse for offers of aid for Love Canal residents and coordinate efforts and administration with the local United Way.(54)

The tenacious and critical position taken by the Niagara Gazette was clearly the result of both chain ownership and investigative journalism. The newspaper’s role in the Love Canal situation demonstrates several positive ramifications of chain ownership including: enhanced adaptability to local conditions; insulation from local political and economic pressures and the critical reporting and editorializing that such insulation allows; greater resources; role specialization; and professionalism and autonomy.

The role played by the Niagara Gazette supports some of the findings of Olien, Tichenor and Donohue.(55) Specifically, the Niagara Gazette, an in-state, chain-owned paper, produced more coverage of local controversy. In addition, the paper served the interests of the community first and the needs of the chain second, and Love Canal coverage was enhanced by the Gazette’s organized application of professionalism. In addition, the Niagara Gazette played major roles as initiator, definer, diffuser, and legitimator of the Love Canal controversy. However, contrary to the findings of Olien, Tichenor, and Donohue’ that for chain-owned papers, in the case of Love Canal coverage, business was the least covered, across nearly every dimension, in all three newspapers, and editorializing about business was generally quite negative.

Many of the traditional criticisms of chain newspapers were not supported by the Love Canal case. The Niagara Gazette’s Love Canal coverage is an example of a local newspaper playing a direct, initiating role in a developing controversy. In October 1976, Gazette business editor, David Russell began to explore the local angle by following-up on a September 1976 Albany Times Union article that referred to Hooker as the suspected principal source of the insecticide Mirex in Lake Ontario game fish, and the Niagara Falls area as the suspected source of the contamination. Accordingly, the Gazette’s initial role in the Love Canal controversy is an example of what Tichenor, Donohue and Olien referred to as the second type of newspaper entry into community conflict — the follow-up of prior reporting in nonlocal media.(57) When Gazette education reporter David Pollack scooped up of a sample of the leachate in the basement of a Love Canal home and wrote that the results of chemical analyses linked Hooker to the leachate, the Gazette became an initiator of the Love Canal controversy. This investigative reporting is an example of what Tichenor, Donohue and Olien referred to as the third type of newspaper entry into a conflict — primary reporting of an internal, local issue in the absence of prior reporting about the issue in the external media.(58) Subsequently, city hall reporter Michael Brown, in the process of continuing the investigation of the situation, conducted and published the results of his own health survey of residents. Brown’s reporting accelerated and defined the controversy, legitimated the views of nonroutine newsmakers, and diffused the story to a larger public. In this way, a story that began on the Gazette’s business, education and local government beats resulted in the uncovering of a major environmental disaster.

Commenting on the Buffalo Evening News’ Love Canal coverage, managing editor Murray Light explained that concern with Buffalo’s high unemployment rate may have contributed to a downplaying of the environment and an emphasis on employment.(59) Inasmuch as the News was under corporate ownership but not part of a chain it is possible that its editors were more entrepreneurial in orientation and rated (local and nonlocal) business as more newsworthy than other topics. It is possible that the findings regarding the length, width, and placement of articles are the results of technical factors such as layout format, newshole constraints, and general publication style of the News rather than indication of editorial decision making. The role of the News, as an out-of-state, corporate owned newspaper supports the finding of Donohue, Tichenor and Olien that dailies owned by out-of-state corporations produce less coverage of local controversy than in-state, corporate-owned papers.

As in the case of the Buffalo Evening News, findings regarding the Times’ placement of Love Canal coverage on the page may simply represent technical or stylistic differences. The significance of the New York Times coverage lies in the prestige of the Times as a medium and the inherent power of its immense circulation to communicate the salience and emblematic nature of Love Canal to the state and national audiences and thereby place the issue of Love Canal and hazardous waste disposal on the public agenda. The seemingly minuscule frequency of the New York Times editorial coverage must be evaluated in the context of the power of the Times as a national opinion leader and public agenda setter. In this context, the fact that Love Canal events were covered by the Times is quite significant and underscores the transition of Love Canal from a local community controversy to the national symbol of the hazardous waste crisis.

Newsmakers

The hierarchy of credibility hypothesis that the more pre-existentially powerful newsmakers with routine and habitual access to the news media (i.e., government and business newsmakers) would be more newsworthy and receive more coverage than newsmakers with accidental or disruptive access (i.e., the residents), was partially supported. Government was the most frequently covered newsmaker in articles and editorials; the residents were the second most covered, and business was the least covered in all three newspapers. The LCHA was the single most covered individual newsmaker in all three papers.

It is hardly surprising that government received the majority of news and editorial coverage in the Love Canal situation — a consequence of its power in general, and particularly, in a disaster situation. What was surprising was the extent of in-fighting within and between the governmental entities and the coverage of these conflicts. The amount of coverage the government received functioned as a double-edged sword — demonstrating its inherent power in the situation as well as exposing its decision-making and actions to public scrutiny. As a consequence of bureaucratic in-fighting and numerous questionable actions, the credibility of the government was repeatedly challenged by the public and the news media.

These challenges were particularly evident when the favorability of editorial coverage of the government was examined.

What is most significant about these findings is that a relatively resourse-poor group — the Love Canal residents organized into LCHA — succeeded on more than one occasion in having amounts and types of news coverage that were comparable to that received by government and business. The fact that the residents were able to maintain a considerable level of coverage throughout the extended duration of this event is quite significant in and of itself and is contrary to the patterns demonstrated by other studies. For as Molotch and Lester determined, getting access to the mass media once (through “disruptive” or “accidental” means) may not be a problem for a resource-poor group. However, getting and maintaining “routine” and “habitual” access can be a much more difficult task.(61)

Edie Goldenberg found that the most important resources for gaining access to the news media are status and officiality, location near mass media, information and knowledge, money, size, legitimacy, intensity, and credibility.(62) The resources in relatively short supply for resource-poor groups, such as the LCHA, are status, officiality, information, money, and knowledge. In contrast, size, legitimacy, intensity, and credibility may be in abundant supply for the resource-poor.

The residents achieved newsmaker status by effectively organizing and mobilizing their resources and in the process they acquired additional resources, funds, information, knowledge, credibility, and status. Even more striking is the fact that the residents on occasion received more frequent and more prominent coverage than the governmental or business newsmakers. The most dramatic illustration of the residents’ comparative news making success is the overwhelming favorability of the editorial coverage they received in contrast to the overwhelming negative coverage the government and business received. The residents succeeded in gaining access to the news media through a combination of disruptive and routine methods.

The LCHA, in particular, recognized very early in the situation that sympathetic reporters and supportive media coverage were major resources, and they used the news media as an intermediate target between themselves and the policy makers. In the process they became mediacized as well as politicized, adapting their schedules to mesh with the news media deadlines, and staging numerous and often elaborate media events when they sensed that official or news media attention were declining.(63)

The Love Canal residents were a David in conflict with numerous Goliaths — a local economy dominated by the chemical industry, a powerful subsidiary of a giant corporation, and the local, state, and federal levels of government. This juxtaposition of known principals and ordinary citizens immersed in a timely, proximate (both physically and psychologically), exemplary, and high impact situation contributed to the media’s extension of access to the residents and made them newsworthy.

As a consequence of the coverage the residents received, they gained status as a legitimate and reliable news source. While the initial attention they received was a result of the overall newsworthiness of the situation as an emergency/disaster and their status as victims, when the LCHA was formally organized as the official representative of the residents, it was further legitimated in the eyes of the news media. Consequently, residents were routinely contacted by the news media for their comments and interpretations of governmental policies. The residents’ primary resources throughout each of these conflicts were the frequency, prominence, amount, and favorability of the news and editorial coverage which they received and learned to cultivate.

After the chaotic experience of trying to communicate with an auditorium full of upset and frightened residents, New York State officials eventually recognized the newly formed LCHA as the organized representative of the majority of residents. This official recognition served to further legitimize and establish the LCHA as an independent news source. Consequently, the LCHA was routinely contacted by the press for its comments and interpretation of government policy. Perhaps the most legitimating event for the residents was when local and regional newspapers presented the LCHA’s alternative swale theory of chemical migration as a viable alternative to the State’s rigid insistence on a rectangular, concentric zonal theory of chemical migration from the landfill. The LCHA developed its referent power by promoting the representative salience of Love Canal as a microcosmic emblem and by repeatedly placing Love Canal within the macro level context of the thousands of hazardous waste dumpsites in the U.S.

The lessons of Love Canal include recognition of the possible roles of local newspapers in the development of the W.I.M.B.Y. (what’s-in-my-backyard?) syndrome which precedes the activation of the N.I.M.B.Y. (not-in-my-back-yard) syndrome. The significance of the experience of the LCHA for other citizen activists lies in the fact that groups with great referent power can acquire other types of power and successfully compete with the traditionally empowered. Accidents, emergencies, and disasters all disrupt social organization and provide a skeletal view of social structure. News and editorial coverage of accidents, disasters and community controversies provide a lens through which one can view the social organization of news.

The nonroutine nature of Love Canal contributed to the superseding of traditional editorial gatekeeping, the extension of access to nontraditional newsmakers, and the emergent norm of open gates.(64) While the news media do tend to support the traditional hierarchy of credibility, the emergence of new or unexpected situations can create conditions for social conflict, provoke new actors to compete for access to the news media, and ultimately, circumvent the established hierarchy of credibility.

Notes

1. Ben Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly. Boston: Beacon, 1992; John Busterna, Trends in Daily Newspaper Ownership. Journalism Quarterly, 1988, pp. 831-838; Stephen Lacy and Frederick Fico, Newspaper Quality and Ownership: Rating the Groups. Newspaper Research Journal. 1990, pp. 42-56; Clarice Olien, Phillip Tichenor, and George Donohue, Relation Between Corporate Ownership and Editor Attitudes About Business. Journalism Quarterly, 1980, pp. 259-266.

2. Clarice Olien, George Donohue, and Phillip Tichenor, The Community Editor’s Power and the Reporting of Conflict. Journalism Quarterly, 1968, pp. 243-252; see also, George Donohue, Phillip Tichenor, and Clarice Olien, Gatekeeping: Mass Media Systems and Information Control, in Gerald Kline and Phillip Tichenor, eds., Current Perspectives In Mass Communications Research, vol 1. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1972, p. 51.

3. Phillip Tichenor, George Donohue, and Clarice Olien, Community Conflict and the Press. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1980, pp. 219-220, emphasis in the original.

4. Ibid., pp. 110-113.

5. Ibid., pp. 113-114, emphasis in original, citation omitted.

6. Ibid., pp. 115-118.

7. Clarice Olien, Phillip Tichenor and George Donohue, Relation Between Corporate Ownership …, op. cit.

8. Ibid., p. 260.

9. Ibid., p. 261, emphasis in the original.

10. George Donohue, Clarice Olien, and Philip Tichenor, Reporting Conflict by Pluralism, Newspaper Type and Ownership. Journalism Quarterly. 1985, pp. 489-499.

11 . Clarice Olien, Philip Tichenor, and George Donohue, Structure, Editor Characteristics and Reporting of Conflict, 1965 and 1985, paper presented at the meetings of the Midwest Association for Public Opinion Research, Chicago, 1986.

12. Olien, Tichenor, and Donohue, Relation Between Corporate Ownership…, op.cit., p. 264.

13. Ibid., p. 259.

14. Ibid., p. 261.

15. Ibid., p. 261.

16. Ibid., p. 261, emphasis in the original; see also, Drew and Wilhoit, Newshole Allocation Policies of American Daily Newspapers, op.cit.

17. Ibid., p. 264.

18. Ibid., p. 264.

19. Ibid., p. 265-266.

20. Robert Thrift, How Chain Ownership Affects Editorial Vigor of Newspapers. Journalism Quarterly, 1977, pp. 327-331.

21. Dan Drew and G. Cleveland Wilhoit, Newshole Allocation Policies of American Daily Newspapers. Journalism Quarterly, 1976, pp. 434-440

22. Lee Becker, Randal Beam, and John Russial, Correlates of Daily Newspaper Performance in New England. Journalism Quarterly, 1978, pp. 100-108.

23. J. Johnstone, Edward Slawski, and William Bowman, The News People: A Sociological Portrait of American Journalists and Their Work. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1976.

24. David Weaver and G. Cleveland Wilhoit, The American Journalist: A Portrait of U.S. News People and Their Work. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1986.

25. American Society of Newspaper Editors, News and Editorial Independence: A Survey of Group and Independent Editors. Washington, D.C.: American Society of Newspaper Editors., April 1980,

26. G. Cleveland Wilhoit and Dan Drew, Editorial Writers on American Daily Newspapers: A 20-Year Portrait Journalism Monographs. 1991, p. 31.

27. Philip Meyer and Stanley Wearden, The Effects of Public Ownership on Newspaper Companies: A Preliminary Inquiry. Public Opinion Quarterly, 1984, pp. 564-577.

28. Ibid., pp. 570, 575.

29. David Demers and Daniel Wackman, Effect of Chain Ownership on Newspaper Management Goals. Newspaper Research Journal. 1988, pp. 59-68.

30. Ibid., pp. 64-65.

31. Ibid., p. 66.

32. Stephen Lacy and Frederick Fico, Newspaper Quality & Ownership: Rating the Groups. Newspaper Research Journal. 1991, pp. 42-56.

33. Ibid., p. 52.

34. David Demers, Effect of Corporate Structure on Autonomy of Top Editors at U.S. Dailies. Journalism Quarterly, 1993, pp. 499-508.

35. Carol Smith, Running Newspapers or Building Empires: Analysis or Gannett’s Ideology. Newspaper Research Journal, 1988, pp. 37-48.

36. Howard Becker, Whose Side Are We On? Social Problems, 1967, pp. 239-247.

37. Tichenor, Donohue, & Olien, Community Conflict and the Press, op.cit., p. 119; Carl Jensen, Censored: The News That Didn’t Make The News And Why. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995.

38. J. French and B. Raven, The Bases of Social Power, in D. Cartwright and A. Zavaler, eds., Group Dynamics. London: Tavistock, 1968.

39. Harvey Molotch and Marilyn Lester, Accidental News: The Great Oil Spill As Local Occurrence and National Event. American Journal of Sociology. 1975, pp. 235-260; Harvey Molotch and Marilyn Lester, News As Purposive Behavior On the Strategic Use of Routine Events, Accidents. and Scandals. American Sociological Review, 1974. pp. 101-112.

40. Molotch and Lester, Accidental News…,op.cit.,” pp. 244, 247.

41. Penelope Ploughman, The Creation of Newsworthy Event An Analysis of Newspaper Coverage of the Human-made Disaster at Love Canal. Ph.D. Dissertation, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1984. The New York Times was not published from August 10, 1978-November 5, 1978 due to a strike by press operators.

42. The intercoder reliability was 89 percent regarding news article coverage coding and 94 percent regarding news editorial coding.

43. During the time period of this study Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. (a public corporation headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska) owned 59.6 percent of the Blue Chip Stamps Company. In 1982, the Buffalo Evening News was acquired by Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. as a wholly-owned division (The Knowledge Industry 200: America’s Two Hundred Largest Media and Information Companies. White Plains, NY: Knowledge Industry Publications, 1983. p. 51).

44. X2 = 13.69, df = 4, p

45. X2 = 27.2. df = 8, p

46. X2 = 39.3, df = 6, p

47. X2 = 19.6, df = 2, p

48. X2 = 79.5, df = 6, p

49. X2 = 869.1, df = 6, p

50. Marilyn Lester, Toward a Sociology of Public Events. M.A. thesis, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1971; Molotch and Lester, Accidental News…, op.cit., p. 237; See also, Tichenor, Donohue, and Olien, Community Conflict and the Press, op.cit.; Jensen, Censored: The News That Didn’t Make …, op.cit.

51. Michael Brown, Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals. New York: Pantheon, 1979, p. 26. See also, Jon Swan, Uncovering Love Canal. Columbia Journalism Review. Jan/Feb: 1979, pp. 46-51.

52. Swan, Uncovering Love Canal, op.cit., p. 50; see also, Brown, Laying Waste…op.cit.; Fletcher Clarke, The Love Canal: Still the Gazette’s Story. Gannetteer: A Magazine for Gannett Group People. Rochester, NY: Gannett Company, Sept. 7-8, 1978.

53. Susan Clark, Newspaper Staff Prompts the Civic Minded to Help the Homeless. Gannetteer: A Magazine for Gannett Group People. Rochester, NY: Gannett Company, Sept. 8-9, 1978, p. 6.

54. Ibid. The extent of the Gazette’s public service reporting prompted the New York State Health Commissioner, Robert P. Whalen, to comment that he “…had never seen a newspaper react to a crisis in the community in such a responsible and compassionate manner.” Gannett Annual Report 1978, p. 11.

55. Tichenor, Donohue, and Olien, Community Conflict…, op.cit.; Donohue, Olien, and Tichenor, Reporting Conflict…, op.cit.; Olien, Tichenor, and Donohue, Structure, Editor Characteristics…, op.cit.; Olien, Tichenor, and Donohue, Relation Between Corporate Ownership and …, op.cit.

56. Olien, Tichenor, and Donohue, Relation Between Corporate Ownership and…, ibid., p. 261.

57. Tichenor, Donohue, and Olien, Community Conflict and the Press, op.cit, pp. 1152-116.

58. Ibid., pp. 115-116.

59. Swan, Uncovering Love Canal, op.cit, p. 50.

60. Donohue, Olien, and Tichenor, Reporting Conflict by …, op.cit;” Olien, Tichenor, and Donohue, Structure, Editor Characteristics and …, op.cit.”

61. Molotch and Lester, News as Purposive Behavior, op.cit., p. 107; see also, Todd Gitlin, The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media In the Making and the Unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

62. Edie Goldenberg, Making the Papers. Lexington: D.C. Heath, 1975, p.144.

63. See, Lois Gibbs, Love Canal: My Story. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982.

64. James Waxman, Local Broadcast Gatekeeping During Natural Disasters. Journalism Quarterly. 1973, pp. 751-758.

Ploughman is assistant professor of sociology and director of the Law and Society program at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.

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