Factors influential in the coverage of environmental issues by the South African press

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

The past three years (1987 -1990) have seen an increase in environmental coverage and a widening of the press' interest to include broader environmental issues. This increase raises the question of the way in which the press is presenting environmental issues, since the press could play an important role in the development of environmental awareness among the public. The aim of the study was to identify factors that could be influential in encouraging or discouraging environmental coverage, and the type and extent of coverage. The study identified factors influential in the coverage of three environmental issues, global warming, atmospheric ozone depletion, and the Sappi paper mill effluent spill into Eastern Transvaal rivers (1989), in two South African daily newspapers, The Star and The Citizen. A combination quantitative-qualitative content analysis was undertaken on reports by these newspapers to assess the nature of the news values operating during coverage (to determine what made the issues newsworthy), and the existence of editorial bias toward or against the environment. Interviews were conducted with a small sample of news personnel and individuals active in the Sappi effluent spill issue to contextualise the results of the content analyses. The study method was undertaken within the theoretical frame of newspaper agenda-setting. The results showed that despite differences in editorial bias and source use, the newspapers on the whole displayed the same news values in covering the issues. The main news values operating were a focus on the dangerous and controversial aspects, a preference for 'hard news' events, the relevance of an issue for readers and the activities of elite persons or nations in the issue. This indicated event-orientation by the press, and a tendency to sensationalise environmental issues. Some over-simplification of the full ramifications of the issues, particularly the atmospheric issues, was found to be operating. The implications of these approaches for environmental reporting and the reader's perception of the environment were discussed. Logistical factors (intra- and extra-organisational constraints) were also found to play a part in coverage. A wide range of factors were identified that operate, to a greater or lesser degree at different times, in press coverage of environmental issues. These were : - the newspaper perception of its role in society, - editorial policy, resources of the newspaper, area of distribution, the 'hardness' of news, the complexity of the issue, - the availability of accredited sources, the health of the national economy, international economic trends, the amount and type of other news, 'competitive bind', public awareness of environmental issues, and the role of an environmentally-committed individual in the newspaper organisation.

Bibliography: p. 134-137.