Local Press Coverage of Environmental Conflict

Article excerpt

An examination of 600 items in the local press coverage of environmental conflict during a fen-year period showed that a community daily in a small, but heterogeneous system (1) did indeed favor government/industry sources rather than activists/citizens through all five stages of the conflict; (2) supported local industry in editorials and staff opinion columns in only two stages (Mobilization and Confrontation); and (3) legitimized local industry and marginalized its opponents through all five stages.

There is a rich tradition of research on the mass media and community conflict in small, homogenous and large, pluralistic communities, but far less attention has been paid to environmental issues in "fragmented" communities.l In the rural south where such groupings are situated between small-- homogenous and large-pluralistic metropolitan areas, the existence of such "fragmented" communities poses an important yet unanswered question about how news media function in covering the conflict of protracted environmental struggles.

American environmentalism in the 1990s has been credited with precipitating "a collision with long-dominant political and economic values."2 Whenever there are angry citizens in debate, whether it is about a nuclear power plant, an urban renewal project, or location of a chemical waste disposal site, it often becomes a question of whose ox is being gored.3 In a community conflict case involving a meat packing plant, for example, residents with little to lose if the plant were to close were most supportive of efforts to stop that town's largest employer from dumping raw sewage into a river.4

Residents of small communities experiencing high unemployment tend to welcome new industry that promises to create hundreds of jobs and pour millions of dollars into the stagnant economy. When it involves hazardous waste, however, community reaction often divides residents into two groups: those who applaud the windfall of new employment opportunities and those who point ominously at the potential health and safety risks. The size and fabric of such a community, the level of local journalists' interest, and the parent company's attempts to mold public opinion also influence the development and outcome of such conflicts.5

By tracing the evolution of one "fragmented" community's experience during a ten-year period, it is possible to discern how coverage of an environmental dispute over a planned hazardous waste incinerator was framed in terms of the powers involved at different stages during the community conflict. By doing so, we attempt to assess how the local press framed the conflict and sought to influence the outcome of this potential health and environmental hazard.

Several stakeholders were identified in this study, but the primary conflict pitted Marine Shale Processors (MSP), the fourth largest employer of a south Louisiana Parish, against environmental activists, including Greenpeace, who voiced angry opposition to this hazardous waste treatment plant. The following account reveals how the fear of carcinogens provoked citizen wrath and produced mediated expressions of opinion based on health and environmental regulations directed at the incinerator's firm.

Shortly after installing a nonhazardous oil field waste incinerator in 1985, MSP began accepting and burning hazardous materials in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana. Company officials explained that the toxic waste was to be recycled into nonhazardous materials and used as fill for roads and properties. News of the hazardous waste burning galvanized residents of east St. Mary Parish (Amelia, Morgan City, Berwick, and Patterson), and polarized those concerned with environmental and health safety against those supporting MSP's infusion of capital and jobs into an area suffering from a slowdown in the oil and gas industry.

Opponents claimed that MSP repeatedly violated federal environmental regulations, and was a sham recycler exempt from stringent hazardous waste incinerator laws. …