Perceptions of Newspaper Bias in a Local Environmental Controversy page
Perceptions of Newspaper Bias in a Local Environmental Controversy
Katherine A. McComas, Clifford W. Scherer, and Cynthia Heffelfinger,
Department of Communication, Cornell University
Presented to the Science Communication Interest Group at the
1997 AEJMC Convention, Chicago, Illinois, July 30-August 1
All correspondence should be addressed to Katherine A. McComas, Department
of Communication, 338 Kennedy Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York,
phone: (607) 256-1679, fax: (607) 255-7905, e-mail: [log in to unmask]
This study examines how perceptions of bias in local newspaper coverage
relates to communication and participation in an unwanted landfill siting.
Residents living within a one- mile radius offrom the proposed site received
mailed questionnaires measuring attitudes, perceptions of bias in local
newspaper coverage, communication behaviors, and policy-influencing activities
concerning the proposed landfill. Analysis of responses (n=267) suggests
perceptions of bias were unrelated to residents' newspaper reading behaviors and
only slightly related to participation in the controversy.
While mass media are frequently cited as sources for risk information (e.g.,
Ostman and Parker, 1986/1987; McCallum et al., 1991), their roles in local
environmental conflicts can vary considerably. Research on local media suggests
that sometimes media can "trigger" or precipitate a conflict, help to define a
conflict, help to legitimate a conflict, or bestow status on certain positions
within that conflict (Tichenor et al., 1980, pp. 113-114). Other times, their
roles may be negligible.
For instance, what if local media are perceived as biased? Would it affect
citizens' use of the media as sources of risk information or impact citizens'
activities in relation to the controversy? Some research suggests that citizens
do not expect local media to be unbiased, and perceptions of bias do not lessen
citizen satisfaction with the media (Burgoon et al., 1981). Yet given our
nation's traditional view that U.S. media serve as the "watchdog" the public, if
citizens believe the local media are biased against the public's interests,
wouldn't we expect some dissatisfaction with or at least a little less reliance
on local media as sources of information?
This study investigates the role of local newspaper coverage in a community
faced with hosting an unwanted land use, a new county landfill. We were
interested in how perceptions of bias in local newspaper coverage related to
citizens' communication behaviors and policy-influencing activities in the
environmental controversy. In particular, if citizens perceive local newspaper
coverage as biased, are they more or less likely to depend on the newspaper for
information about the landfill; furthermore, are they more or less likely to
participate in the conflict? A field survey of residents living adjacent to the
proposed site offers some answers to these questions.
Because of their visibility, media and the stories they tell are often
perceived as having great influence over public attitudes. Consequently, they
are often held responsible for the possible effects these stories have on their
audiences. For issues involving environmental risk and policy making, in
particular, researchers have pointed to media coverage as a possible factor in
the amplification of social concern about risk (Kasperson et al., 1988). Some
content analyses of media coverage of environmental risk lend support to this
argument, as researchers have found that when covering risk, media sometimes
mention harms more than benefits (Singer and Endreny, 1993) and are driven by
dramatic considerations (Greenberg et al., 1989 Barton, 1988).
Some argue, however, that increased media coverage, regardless of the content,
amplifies public concern about risk. In particular, Mazur (1981; 1990) proposes
a "quantity of coverage theory," arguing that the greater the volume of media
coverage about a risk, the greater the assessment of risk by the
publicDindependent of whether the media content is balanced, positive, or
negative. He continues:
In the case of a local project, such as a waste-disposal
site, extensive reporting increases fear in the adjacent
community and generally leads to opposition against the
facility, even if the treatment of the news is balanced (1990,
Mazur argues that presenting a "balanced" story suggests all sides are equally
credible and that even mentioning negative outcomes evokes more concern than no
mention at all (1990, p. 311). He attributes the "alarmism" effect to the
inattentive manner in which most people consume news, e.g., glancing at photos
or scanning headlines, which are parts of the article that tend to be
exaggerated to interest audiences. Mazur supported his argument by comparing
media coverage of nuclear power during the 1980s to public opinion about nuclear
power; he found that when coverage was greatest, opinions were most negative.
Mazur, however, makes little or no mention about other factors contributing to
the increase or decrease in public concern about risk. As Dunwoody and Peters
(1992, p. 218) point out, "social environments are rich places, and it is
becoming increasingly clear that the mass media are but a subset of many
channels available to individuals." Mass media may serve to alert public
attention to an environmental risk, but once aware of the risk, people often use
other channels of communication, such as interpersonal networks.
For instance, studies examining the influence of mass media on judgments about
risk have found that people sometimes rely on media to assess whether society is
at risk; however, they usually rely on personal experiences to determine
personal risk. Tyler and Cook (1984) examined this notion as the "impersonal
impact hypothesis," which posits that media coverage generates societal level,
not personal level, judgments of risk. From their analysis of survey data, the
authors conclude that mass communications may not be as effective at generating
behavior change as other communications (a finding also suggested by Robertson
 in his study of seat belt campaigns) and that the more removed people
perceive themselves from a risk, the less likely they are to take actions to
avoid that risk. Park et al. (1996) found support for the impersonal impact
hypothesis when investigating survey responses for factors influencing risk
judgments about water contaminants, radon, AIDS, and heart disease. Their
analysis showed interpersonal communication primarily drove personal concern
about risk, while mass communication drove societal concern. Citizens scoring
high on community involvement were, however, less likely to exhibit this
discrepancy in concern.
Culbertson and Stempel (1985) identified a similar effect, termed "media
malaise," wherein people use media to evaluate society's well being, but not
their own. Examining how media coverage of health care influenced public
attitudes toward health care, the authors found that when people thought media
coverage of health care was negative, they also tended to view health care
negatively. These tendencies were strongest when people rated health care at the
societal rather than the personal level. The authors conclude that personal
experiences were more important when audiences were judging for themselves than
when they were judging for society.
Proximity to the risk also mitigates the influence of media coverage on
personal assessments of risk. Wiegman et al. (1991) compared attitudes of
residents living adjacent to a chemical plant to residents living 15 miles away
from the plant regarding the potential risk of contamination. The authors
hypothesized that residents living next to the plant would use direct
experiences in a "verification process" to filter media information and downplay
information contradicting their own experiences. Conversely, people living
farther from the plant would depend more on media coverage. Should that coverage
be alarming, they would perceive the risks greater than those living close to
the plant would perceive them.
The authors analyzed media coverage about the plant and found it was generally
negative. In addition, they found that people living adjacent to the plant were:
(1) more negative about the media coverage, (2) less likely to use media for
information, (3) more likely to rely on informal channels of communication, and
(4) generally less concerned about the risks from the plant. In comparison,
people living further from the plant were more concerned about the risks and
said they relied more on mass media than interpersonal channels for risk
The authors discuss their findings in relation to Bandura's (1969, 1977, 1986)
social learning theory, which holds that the more media dominate a person's
life, the more people will learn vicariously from the media and less from direct
experiences. In this sense, people living farther from the plant must rely on
media for information about the plant and would take their cues from media
stories, a sort of media-constructed reality.
Another explanation comes from research on "optimistic biases" (Weinstein,
1980; 1989; Weinstein & Lachendro, 1982), or those tendencies people have to see
themselves less likely to experience a risk than others. In the case of the
chemical plant, people living near the chemical plant may have downplayed the
probability of risk. For instance, research has found that when people choose or
are forced to "live with" a risk, due to economical, social, cultural, or
political reasons, they may ignore a risk or prefer not to acknowledge its
probability of occurrence (e.g., Lave and Lave  on how people rationalize
living in flood plains). Studies suggest, however, that direct exposure to a
risk may alter attitudes and even create pessimistic biases (Dolinski et al.,
1987), though this pessimism may be short-lived following a decrease in media
coverage (e.g., Burger and Palmer  on the aftermath of a California
earthquake on residents' attitudes).
How trustworthy or credible people view an risk information source can also
impact its influence on attitudes. For example, McCallum et al. (1991) found
that while local media were survey respondents' most frequently cited sources of
environmental risk information, media only scored mid-range on a trust index. In
comparison, friends, relatives, and physicians were infrequent sources of risk
information, but they tended to score very high on trust. Ostman and Parker
(1986/1987) also found that although citizens must frequently cited newspapers
and television as sources for environmental information, they though other
sources, such as books or magazines, were more credible. In general, the authors
found that respondents were quite critical of media coverage of environmental
issues, with 58 percent agreeing that media were likely to adapt stories to fit
their own political leanings, and 81 percent agreeing that media were likely to
sensationalize human interest aspects of the story.
To summarize, while some have argued that the quantity of media coverage of
risk influences public assessments of risk (e.g., more coverage about risk
promotes more public concern about risk), other research suggests that media's
impact may be differential or short-lived. Additionally, personal or direct
experiences with the risk may amplify or mitigate the influence of media
messages on personal risk judgments, as may opinions about the credibility of
media coverage. Although mass media serve as frequent sources of environmental
risk information, people tend to trust information from interpersonal sources
more. Other research in communication suggests that interpersonal sources often
carry more weight than mass-mediated ones in securing attitudinal or behavioral
change (see, for example, research building on Katz and Lazarsfeld  and
Rogers  on the role of interpersonal influence).
What has not been examined is how perceptions of media bias relate to
attitudes and behaviors about environmental risk. Particularly, if local media
are perceived as "teaming up" with the "opponent's" viewpoint, does that impact
citizens' reliance on the newspaper for information about the conflict or their
participation in the conflict? The following study endeavors to answer these
Building upon the above theoretical framework, this study examines the role of
local newspaper coverage in an environmental conflict. The controversy erupted
when an upstate New York county government proposed siting a new county landfill
in one of its communities. Community residents opposed; a drawn-out and
emotional debate ensued. Using field survey of residents' attitudes and
behaviors, this study examines how perceptions of bias in local newspaper
coverage related to residents' communication behaviors and participation in the
The survey was commissioned on behalf of the community's Citizen's Advisory
Committee (CAC) as a participation tool for identifying residents' concerns and
opinions toward a variety of host-community benefit possibilities. A series of
communication-related questions (not of particular interest to the CAC) were
included in the questionnaire for subsequent and secondary analyses. The data
from these questions allowed, with some limitations, to construct the conceptual
framework for testable hypotheses.
Research Questions, Hypotheses, and Rationale
The first research question examines the relationship between citizens'
attitudes toward newspaper coverage and their use of newspapers for information
about the landfill. Did opinions about newspaper bias relate to citizens' use of
the newspaper? Previous research identified a relationship between attitudes
toward media coverage and use of media for risk information: people who thought
newspaper articles lacked credibility were less likely to read them (Wiegman et
al., 1991). However, earlier research suggested that audiences expected bias in
local media and were therefore not overly negative about it (Burgoon et al.,
1981). Thus, we were interested in investigating whether a relationship existed
between perceptions of bias and newspaper readership, and if so, to identify the
nature of that relationship.
The second research question examines the relationship between citizens'
attitudes toward newspaper coverage and their participation in the controversy.
Did perceptions of bias in newspaper coverage relate to their activities? For
example, would people who believed newspaper coverage favored the county's
position (i.e., wanting to site the landfill) be prompted to take action and
protest, or would they perceive participation as somewhat of a "lost cause" and
therefore not worth the effort?
Moving away momentarily from questions regarding perceptions of bias, this
study's hypotheses focus on the relationship between communication behaviors and
concern about the landfill. The first tests Mazur's (1981) quantity of coverage
hypothesis, which contends that the more media coverage that an individual is
exposed to, irrespective of the coverage's content, the more negative that
individual will be about the risks. We hypothesized: (H1) People who reported
reading more newspaper articles would also be more concerned about the landfill.
As noted earlier, we believe Mazur's hypothesis may oversimplify the
relationship between media coverage and concern and ignore that media are among
multiple information sources, among them interpersonal contacts. In particular,
the number of times individuals talk with others about the landfill could also
relate to how concerned they are about the landfill. Therefore, we also
hypothesized: (H2) People who talked more with others about the landfill would
also be more concerned about the landfill.
Finally, we wanted to examine how the number of newspaper articles respondents
reported reading related to their participation in the controversy. That is,
were citizens who read more articles also more likely to participate in the
controversy? Studies suggest media coverage of risk influences concern primarily
at the societal as opposed to the personal level (Tyler and Cook, 1984;
Culbertson and Stempel, 1985); therefore, reading more articles may not make
people feel personally more at risk. If people do not see themselves personally
at risk, they may not act to reduce exposure to that risk, like becoming
involved in the decision-making process. Thus, we hypothesized: (H3): The
quantity of newspaper articles that citizens read about the landfill would not
relate to their likelihood of participation in the controversy.
Questionnaires were mailed to all residents (n=368) living within one mile of
the proposed county landfill site. This parameter was requested by the CAC to
ensure that key stakeholders or residents directly impacted by the landfill
decision were included in the sample. The questionnaire consisted of 48
questions, measuring approximately 140 variables. Questions in the survey
addressed residents' concerns, their attitudes toward the proposed landfill,
their attitudes toward landfills in general, their preferences among a range of
host mitigation and compensation measures, and their activities related to the
siting process. A total of 267 completed questionnaires were returned, yielding
a 75 percent adjusted response rate. Responses were entered into SPSS for
To measure perceptions of bias in the newspaper coverage of the proposed
landfill, the questionnaire asked a series of questions about the coverage:
"Newspaper articles I have read favor my position on the landfill," "Newspaper
articles are generally fairDunbiased in discussing the landfill," and "Newspaper
articles favor the county position." Responses were scaled from 1 to 5
("strongly disagree" to "strongly agree").
To gauge their exposure to local newspaper articles, respondents were asked
whether they had read any articles concerning the landfill in the local
newspaper during the past year and, if so, to estimate the number of articles.
To measure participation, citizens were asked a series of questions, such as
whether they had written or called local media, talked to local or county
officials, or attended any public meetings about the landfill. We focused on
three behaviors: writing letters to the newspaper, talking to elected county
officials, and participating in public meetings. Participation in public
meetings was measured as "did not attend," "attended but did not speak," to
"attended and spoke out." For all three factors, higher scores signified higher
levels of participation.
To measure concern, the survey also asked respondents how "bad" they expected
a list of possible negative effects of the landfill to be, from "very bad" to
"somewhat bad" to "not bad" to "not sure." These included traffic effects (e.g.,
noise and litter), landfill site effects (e.g., litter, smells, animal pests,
etc.), and other possibilities (e.g., pollution of private wells, changes in
property values, pollution of county reservoir, bad images of this part of town,
etc.). In total, survey responses to 15 questions were summed to provide a
measure of respondents' perceptions of "bad effects" from the landfill
(alpha=.92), where higher scores signified more concern.
Interpersonal communication was measured by asking respondents how many times
they had talked with their spouse or members of the household, with neighbors,
or with coworkers about the landfill in the past year. Choices were "not at
all," "once or twice," "3 to 5 times," "6 to 9 times," or "10 or more times."
These questions were added to form a measure of interpersonal talking behavior
Table I shows the range of responses to the questions about perceptions of
bias in the newspaper coverage of the proposed landfill siting. Generally, there
is a fairly uniform distribution in opinions about the newspaper coverage.
Although 51 percent agreed that the newspaper was unbiased in its coverage of
the landfill siting, 41 percent disagreed that coverage was unbiased. Regarding
the direction of the bias, 45 percent of respondents agreed with the statement
that the coverage favored the county position on the landfill, whereas 36
percent disagreed. Finally, 40 percent agreed with the statement that the
coverage favored their own position, and 44 percent disagreed.
To investigate whether the 40 percent who believed coverage favored their own
position also thought coverage favored the county position (i.e., their personal
position agreed with that of the county), we constructed two variables, each
representing those who agreed or strongly agreed with the above two statements.
The variables were negatively correlated (r=-.26, p=.000), suggesting that if
respondents believed coverage favored their own positions, they were unlikely to
believe coverage favored county positions, and vice versa.
Table II shows the bivariate correlations between variables, also illustrated
in Figure 1. The results suggest some interesting biases, and not only on behalf
of the newspapers. People who responded that the newspaper coverage favored
their personal positions about the proposed county
landfill were significantly more likely to also agree that the coverage was both
unbiased (r=.25 and .47, p<.01). In comparison, those agreeing with the
statement that the coverage favored county positions were significantly more
likely to judge the coverage both inadequate and biased (r=-.33 and -.52,
p<.01). Thus, it appears that respondents were less critical of newspaper
coverage when they perceived coverage as favoring their personal positions.
Logically, if they replied that coverage favored their personal positions, they
should have also responded that the coverage was biasedDeven if it was biased in
The first research question explored the relationship between perceptions of
bias in newspaper coverage and use of the newspaper for information about the
landfill. Almost all of our respondents (99 percent) reported reading some
newspaper articles about the landfill in the past year, with the average number
of articles being 41. Furthermore, the results suggest that those who perceived
coverage favored their personal positions were significantly more likely to read
newspaper articles (r=.14, p<.05). Perceiving that coverage favored county
positions or perceiving coverage was unbiased was unrelated to the quantity of
newspaper articles that respondents reported reading.
The second research question concerned the relationship between perceptions of
bias in newspaper coverage and citizen participation in the conflict. The
results suggest perceptions of bias were unrelated to writing letters to the
newspaper or participating in public meetings. Those who believed newspaper
articles favored their personal positions were, however, significantly more
likely to talk with elected county officials (r=.13, p<.05).
The first two hypotheses tested the relationship between communication
behaviors and concern about negative effects from the landfill. The first
hypothesis stated that citizens who reported reading more newspaper articles
would be more concerned about the landfill. The results support the hypothesis
(r=.19, p<.01): the quantity of articles read increased with concern about the
landfill. The second hypothesis predicted that citizens who reported talking
more with family, neighbors, and coworkers about the landfill would be more
concerned about the landfill. This hypothesis was also supported (r=.31, p<.01).
In sum, people who were more concerned about the landfill also tended to read
more newspaper articles and talk more with others about the landfill.
To determine which factor had the stronger relation to concern about the
landfill, we ran the first test again, only this time we controlled for talking
behavior. The significance between quantity of articles and concern about the
landfill disappeared. When we ran the second test and controlled for number of
articles, the significance between quantity of talking and concern about the
landfill remained (r=.32, p,.01). This finding suggests that talking about the
landfill has a stronger relationship with concern than reading newspaper
The third hypothesis stated that the quantity of newspaper articles citizens
reported reading about the landfill would not increase with increased
participation in the conflict. The results do not support this hypothesis.
Citizens who reported reading more newspaper articles were significantly more
likely to talk with elected county officials (r=.36, p<.01), write letters to
the local newspaper (r=.31, p<.01), and participate in public meetings (r=.36,
Perceptions of bias in the newspaper coverage were fairly polarized, with
about one-half believing that the coverage supported county positions and
one-half thinking the coverage supported their own positions. Interestingly,
when respondents thought newspaper coverage favored county positions, they
thought the coverage was biased and inadequate. On the other hand, if they
thought coverage favored their own positions, coverage was unbiased and
adequate. Evidently, respondents' own biases were at work here.
We might have expected that citizens who believed coverage favored county
positions would have written letters to the newspaper to voice their
dissatisfaction or make sure their side was heard; yet, the results suggest
otherwise. Perceptions of bias in newspaper coverage were unrelated to writing
letters to the newspaper or participating in the public meetings. Several
explanations come to mind. First, attending meetings or writing letters to the
local newspaper requires time and motivation that citizens responding to our
survey may not have had. Second, should some respondents have been motivated to
attend meetings or write letters to the newspaper, one deterrent could be that
they feared an attempt to present another viewpoint would be "attacked" in the
public forum or editorial page. Third, respondents may simply be negative about
the decision-making process and believe nothing positive would come of their
Interestingly, those who thought coverage favored their personal positions
(yet, according to them, were still "unbiased") were more likely to have talked
with elected county officials. Perhaps perceiving their own position as
advocated in the newspaper gave our respondents added confidence of local
support and made them more willing to talk with those involved in the
Concern about the landfill was related to the number of newspaper articles
respondents read. Those who reported reading more articles were more concerned
about the possible risks of hosting a landfill. Concern about the landfill was
also related to talking with family, friends, and coworkers about the landfill.
The use of partial controls on the analysis suggests, however, that
conversations with others offers a better gauge of overall concern in this study
than quantity of newspaper articles. Thus, while the findings lend support to
Mazur's quantity of coverage hypothesis, the support is tempered by the
demonstration of interpersonal communication's relation to concern about risk.
The strong relationship between the number of articles read and the number of
times respondents talked with county elected officials, wrote letters to the
newspaper, and participated in public meetings was unexpected, given that
previous studies have shown mass media are often ineffective at generating
action at the individual level. One explanation for this discrepancy may be that
the earlier studies measured personal vs. societal on a much larger scale (i.e.,
U.S.-wide) than our study, which looked at personal vs. societal in one
community. Although studies have examined local media impact on community
involvement (e.g., Stamm et al., 1997), few have examined media and community
involvement within a risk-based context. One that did found that local community
involvement seems to mitigates the differential impact of risk perceptions (Park
et al., 1996). Additional studies are needed to examine local media's impact on
risk perceptions at the community levels.
This study offers one example of the role of local newspaper coverage in a
local controversy. The findings are at the micro- rather than macro-level;
generalizations should therefore be applied cautiously. Though communities often
share the very common experience of facing a locally unwanted land-use, the role
of newspapers is likely to vary considerably. In addition, the nature of
cross-sectional data precludes making "cause and effect" assumptions. Therefore,
we hesitate to state, for example, whether concern about the landfill preceded
reading about it in the newspaper, or vice versa.
Still, it seems clear that residents in this community used the local
newspaper as a source of information about the landfillDwhether to confirm
information received via interpersonal channels or gather information for
conversations with others. Moreover, it seems that perceiving newspaper coverage
as biased did not decrease their reliance on newspapers for information about
Why would residents continue to read articles they perceived as biased or
favoring county positions? One possibility is that their information-gathering
behaviors were routine, and perceptions of bias were insufficient to prompt them
to seek out new information channels (not to mention that they may have still
considered the newspaper useful for other sorts of information). People may
perceive a source as biased, and interpret it as such, but they are unlikely to
change traditional consumption behaviors over a few incidents. Few would argue
that it is easy to change behaviors. Similarly, perceptions of bias in the
newspaper may not motivate people to cancel a subscription or seek out new
sources of information, i.e., to change their media consumption behaviors. As
some have suggested, people may even expect local media to be biased (Burgoon et
Perceptions of bias in newspaper coverage were also not directly related to
concern about the landfill. Indirectly, however, a relationship exists. Those
who thought coverage favored their own positions were more likely to read
newspaper articles, and those who read more newspaper articles, tended to be
more concerned about the negative effects of the landfill. Again, our data do
not demonstrate cause and effect; therefore, the order of these relationships
remains unclear. It seems, however, that reading articles tended to reinforce
these citizens' concerns about the landfill, as opposed to alleviating them.
Finally, perceptions of bias were unrelated to whether citizens chose to
become involved in the controversy, with the exception of those who thought
coverage favored their own positions. Believing coverage was aligned with county
interests or was just plain "biased" did not appear to motivate citizens to
become involved in the decision-making process.
Table I. Description of Responses to Questions on Bias in Newspaper Coveragea
Articles favor county
Articles are unbiased
Articles favor my position
aResponses range from 1=Strongly Disagree to 5=Strongly Agree.
Table II. Pearson Correlationsa
Articles are unbiased
Articles favor my position
Coverage is adequate
Number of articles read
Expect bad effects from landfill
Times talked with family, etc.
Times talked with officials
Letters written to local paper
Participate in public meetings
Articles favor county
Articles are unbiased
Articles favor me
Coverage is adequate
Number of articles read
Expect bad effects
Talked with family, etc.
Talked with officials
Letters to local paper
*. Correlation is significant at the 0.05 level (1-tailed).
**. Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (1-tailed).
a Listwise N=192
Figure 1. Diagram showing relationships between variablesa
[--- WMF Graphic Goes Here ---]
a Pearson correlations between variables are all significant at the 0.01 level.
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 The 3-wave mailing included individually addressed and personally signed
letters to each resident household. Of the 368 questionnaires, 13 were returned
unanswered due to bad addresses or ineligible respondents (e.g., deceased), 3
were refused, and 267 were completed. The overall response rate of 72.6% was
adjusted for the bad addresses and ineligible respondents yielding a response
rate of 75.3%.
 Was newspaper coverage of the landfill biased? Preliminary results of a
content analysis of local newspaper articles appearing one year prior to the
survey suggest that coverage was generally objective: 46 percent of the
statements reported were neutral, 34 percent were critical of the county's
position, and 21 percent were supportive of the county's position.