By Gersh, Debra
Editor & Publisher , Vol. 125, No. 35
Media shun crucial garbage, sludge issues for less critical global warming, water pollution coverage
Most journalists cringe at having the words waste and garbage associated with their work, but as environmental issues gain importance both politically and practically, more coverage has focused on these problems.
A recent survey, however, has found that the concerns of solid waste management specialists may not jibe with topics the media are covering and, in turn, what the public believes is important.
For example, the survey says that while specialists rate solid waste as America's number one environmental problem, "it ranks behind air and water pollution, hazardous waste and global warming in amount of media coverage, and the public's ratings mirror the media's environmental news agenda."
The survey, prepared for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), compared the opinions of those who specialize in solid waste with a 1991 Roper poll asking similar questions of people around the country.
Media content was analyzed by looking at all news and opinion pieces about solid waste issues in 1991 that appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post; Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, and on AB C, CB S, NB C and CNN evening newscasts.
Perhaps one of the most troubling findings was that the engineers gave the media extremely low ratings for their coverage of solid waste issues.
"Only 6% of specialists and 8% of non-specialists thought the media were doing a good job reporting on solid waste issues," according to the survey, which was prepared for ASME by S. Robert Lichter and Daniel Amundson of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C.
The majority of specialists (53%) said media performance was poor, with 41% calling it fair. Among nonspecialist engineers, 55% rated coverage fair and 37 % considered it poor.
Of the total 114 news stories and opinion pieces in the media selected for the study, the New York Times emerged as the leader with 68 articles (55 news, 13 opinion). The report noted, however, that the coverage was fueled by local New York-area issues such as a proposed incinerator at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, problems with the city's recycling program, and a strike by Manhattan building maintenance workers.
The Washington Post was second with 28 articles (26 news, two opinion) during that same time period, focusing on the closing of the city's main landfill and proposals to repair and utilize the city's incinerator.
Looking atthe number of stories in each newspaper on solid waste and comparing that with other environmental issues covered during the year, the survey found that "solid waste placed fifth on the list of each newspaper's environmental news agenda."
Solid waste issues would have dropped to sixth place had oil spills been included in the analysis. They were left out because they are unpredictable and are not a regular news feature.
"Overall, the stories were evenly divided between those focusing on national events and those looking at local problems ," according to the study. "This overall pattern masks clear differences between the newspapers and the other outlets examined.
"At the Times, a majority (56%) of stories looked at solid waste from a local standpoint. At the Post, the proportion was a nearly identical 57%. In the newsmagazines and television broadcasts, by contrast, only one of six stories (17%) adopted a local angle on the solid waste issue."
While the audience of each medium obviously dictates the national or local angle of its coverage, the fact that solid waste was not treated as a national policy issue in 1991 helps explain the variation in amount of coverage.
"On many public issues," the survey explained, "the national media set the agenda for coverage by local outlets. On this issue, however, even the major media tended to carry 'nationalized' discussions of local news. …