Newspapers’ Web sites add little to print version of environmental news

Newspapers’ Web sites add little to print version of environmental news

Randazzo, Ryan

Americans have become increasingly concerned with the interaction of our society and the environment1 and have turned to the news media for information on that interaction. To quench the public thirst for information, the news media have increased their coverage of environmental issues.2

Critics, however, say this coverage is fraught with problems. One common complaint is that the media do not put issues into proper context.3 Context, defined as coherent analysis that helps makes complex topics understandable, is necessary in newspaper reporting because of competition from other media such as television and radio, which offer little context.4 In addition, research has shown that readers learn more from articles with background and context included.5 Another frequent criticism of environmental coverage is that it is too focused on controversy,6 which could mean space that could have been devoted to context is spent explaining battle lines. The World Wide Web, with its unlimited space and hyperlinking ability, offers news organizations the potential to correct such flaws.7

This study examines the types of context leading U.S. daily newspapers include in their environmental coverage and whether they are using the Web’s potential to improve context in their coverage. The following research questions are posed:

RQ1:

How much and what types of context do leading U.S. daily newspapers provide in their print versions of environmental articles?

RQ2:

Are leading U.S. daily newspapers using the Internet to provide more context in online versions of environmental articles than in the print versions?

RQ3:

Does presence of an adversarial frame relate to the amount of context provided?

Method

A content analysis was conducted to get a picture of what is typical in both print and Web coverage of the environment in leading U.S. dailies.

The four opinion-leading newspapers in the country are The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times.8 USA Today was used in this study in place of The Wall Street Journal because of USA Today’s greater circulation and influence.9 The Christian Science Monitor, another national newspaper, also was examined because of its depth in science and environmental coverage.

Most Web content analyses emphasize data collection during a particular time frame because of rapidly changing site content and lack of uniform archiving standards online.10 Therefore, this study is based on data from a fixed, three-week period (Feb. 22 to March 14, 2001). Each print version of an environmental article collected during the sample period was one unit of analysis and the Web version of the article was another. All environmental articles identified in the print version of the newspaper were included in the study.11 Two coders tracked the print newspapers for any environmental articles and then looked for articles on the respective newspaper’s Web site.12

This study borrows nine measures of context from prior research, each coded as present (1) or not present (0). These were references to research on which the articles was based, historical context,13 comparisons using similar examples,14 references to other related research, sources of additional information,15 maps, photographs, diagrams/illustrations and audio and/or video. Scores from the variables above were added to produce a context score, which theoretically could range from zero to nine. In addition, the number of paragraphs and number of visual elements were recorded. Finally, the presence of an adversarial frame, or dichotomy or duality, was noted. The most obvious example of such a frame is a representation of issues in terms of two distinct, mutually exclusive camps.16

Results

Two-hundred and fifteen environmental articles were coded from the print versions of the five newspapers. Of the articles, 96 percent (N = 206) appeared on the Web, adding to a combined total of 421 coded articles from print and the Web.

The first research question examined the eight context variables that could be present in the 215 print articles. As Table 1 shows, historical information was the most frequently occurring in the sample while maps were least likely to be included. The mean context score for all of the print articles was 2.73 (median = 3, mode = 2). While the mean number of paragraphs was fairly sizeable by newspaper standards (M = 22, median = 20), visual elements were rare. The mean number of photographs per article was 0.83, and maps (M = 0.19) and diagrams or illustrations (M = 0.42) appeared even less frequently (median = 0 for all three visual elements).

To test the second research question, which examined whether the newspapers were using the Internet’s potential to enhance context, independent samples t-tests compared the mean number of photographs, maps, diagrams and illustrations, audio and visual elements and total context scores in print vs. online. The number of paragraphs was virtually identical online as in print, largely a function of the exact same text being used in both versions. As Table 2 shows, however, the peripheral elements surrounding the story, such as visuals and links, did differ. While total context scores were virtually identical between the print and online versions, print articles had a higher average number of photographs and maps than did online articles. To further analyze these differences, Chi-square analyses compared print and online articles on the discrete context variables. Online articles were significantly less likely to contain photographs than their print counterparts (c^sup 2^ (1) = 10.82, p

The final research question asked if the presence of an adversarial frame affected context scores. Context scores for adversarial articles (M = 1.84) were significantly lower than for articles written in a non-adversarial frame (M = 2.97, t (419) = 6.79, p

Discussion

Without a baseline for comparison, making a statement about the context leading U.S. newspapers provide in environmental coverage is difficult. Interpreting the average context score of 2.73 (of a possible 8 for print articles) in the best light is to say that the leading newspapers provide some degree of context in their environmental articles. Overall, newspapers are providing a variety of context in these articles, but just not in every article. To look at the results another way, newspapers have ample room for improvement, given that so many of the contextual elements were absent in the average article.

None of the newspapers appear to be using the potential of the Internet consistently to add more context to their environmental articles beyond the addition of links. Often, these links were to previous articles published by the same newspaper. Text elements like references to research and historical context were equally likely to appear in both versions because in virtually all cases the text appearing online was identical to what appeared in print. One surprising result was that the average online context score was slightly lower than the print context score. Also unexpected was that only 5 of the 206 articles appearing online had audio or video and the online versions had significantly fewer photographs and maps. While some enhanced interactive diagrams online were present online, only a handful of articles were longer online than were their print counterparts. These minor enhancements didn’t appear in a large enough quantity to indicate that the context is being enhanced online. The findings clearly indicate that newspapers are not using the Web’s potential to add context to environmental articles to any significant extent, at least at this point.

Finally, the results show that when conflict was a dominant theme in the article, less context was provided. These articles focused on the opposing sides and their positions rather than on the contextual information that could give readers a deeper understanding of the issue. While controversy is impossible to avoid in journalism, the findings show that newspapers could provide readers more information on such topics.

If one believes that newspapers have a responsibility to contribute to an informed public regarding environmental issues, then these results show that specific enhancements can be made to most articles to better fulfill that responsibility, especially when they are placed online and when they involve controversy.

Notes

1. Emilia Askari, “Readers Thirst for More Information About Their Environment,” The American Editor 771 (October 1995): 14-17.

2. Foundation for American Communications, The Press and the Environment: How Journalists Evaluate Environmental Reporting (Los Angeles, Calif.: Foundation for American Communications, 1995).

3. David Tenenbaum, “Writing for the Web,” SEJournal 7 (summer 1997): 2.

4. J. Sean McCleneghan, “Searching for ‘Analysis’ in the Southwest: AM vs. PM Newspapers in Four ‘Fire Zones,'” Social Science Journal 34, no. 1 (1997): 21-33.

5. Jeffery L. Griffin and Robert L. Stevenson, “Influence of Text and Graphics in Increasing Understanding of Foreign Language News Contexts,” Newspaper Research Journal 13 (winter 1992): 84-98.

6. Michael Karlberg, “News and Conflict: How Adversarial Frames Limit Public Understanding of Environmental Issues,” Alternatives Journal 23 (winter 1997): 22-28.

7. John V. Pavlik, “The Future of Online Journalism,” Columbia Journalism Review 36 (July/August 1997): 30-37.

8. Michael Krantz, “Still Setting America’s Agenda,” Mediaweek 4 (25 April 1994): 22.

9. John Vivian, The Media of Mass Communication, 2^sup nd^ ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2001), 75.

10. Sally J. McMillan, “The Microscope and the Moving Target: The Challenge of Applying Content Analysis to the World Wide Web,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 77 (spring 2000): 80-98.

11. Any environmental article with a staff byline in the news, business, local, lifestyle or science sections of the newspapers was used. Opinion/editorial pieces were not included. Environmental articles were those that regarded any of the following: air pollution, water pollution, solid waste, deforestation/logging, endangered species, population growth, government departments such as the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Interior including state-level agencies, natural resources, urban sprawl, animal rights, invasive species, biotechnology, genetically engineered food, ecology, mining, global warming, wildlife, wilderness areas, national parks, national forests, environmental racism, eco-feminism or any other topic germane to the environment. The article had to have a major focus, which revealed itself in the headline or first five paragraphs, on one of the topics listed above.

12. Only two articles were found online and not in print. One was an advertorial; the other included a page number for the print edition, suggesting that it was inadvertently left out of the print version. Two trained coders working from a uniform protocol dually analyzed 10% of the stories (N=41) to determine consistency in filling out the code sheet. Reliability in arriving at the same conclusions regarding the measures ranged from 87% (N = 2) to 100% (N = 16), with an average of 96%.

13. Jack Hart, “Finding Meaning,” Editor & Publisher 127 (July 1994): 5.

14. Hart, “Finding Meaning,” 5.

15. These included maps and phone numbers.

16. Karlberg, “Adversarial Frames,” 22-28.

Randazzo is a reporter at the Reno Gazette-Journal and an adjunct instructor, and Greer is an assistant professor. Both teach in the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada-Reno.

Copyright Newspaper Research Journal, Department of Journalism, University of Memphis Spring 2003

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