Covering Conflict: A Structural-Pluralist Analysis of How a Small-Town and a Big-City Newspaper Reported an Environmental Controversy

Article excerpt

Structural-pluralism theory pertaining to differences in how metropolitan and small-town news media cover the news is used to frame a comparative analysis of source-quotation patterns by a small-town and a nearby big-city newspaper covering the same environmental conflict. Results suggest that some aspects of structural-pluralist theory may merit re-examination as the social structure of small towns undergoes change, meaning some community papers may perform more like their big-city counterparts for sustained periods of time.

How the news media cover social conflict is strongly influenced by the nature of the community, or social structure, in which the media operate. This is the essence of the well-known structural-pluralism hypothesis: The more diverse or pluralistic the range of power-brokers in a community, the more these sources will openly argue their positions given a certain dispute, and the more will local media report these conflicts. Structural pluralism itself is defined as "the extent to which one community is characterized by a greater diversity of potential sources of social power than another community."1 Ever-larger communities are categorized as being higher in diversity, defined as a relatively high number of independent sources of social power, the news media being but one sub-system within the larger social system. Thus, news media in more pluralistic environments are viewed as routinely more impersonal and critical-more conflict-centered in their news reporting than are media in smaller, more homogeneous, interpersonal, consensus-driven communities.2 As the chief proponents of this view, Tichenor, Donohue, and Olien, put it, news media "content decisions, dependent as they are on community structure, constitute a pattern of information control that has far-reaching implications for what the community will hear about, think about, and talk about."3

The structural-pluralist model of news diffusion seems to be more than just a well-supported hypothesis; it arguably constitutes a theory, inasmuch as it predicts how media will function given community size. In fact Demers, working within the structural-pluralism model as applied to corporate newspaper performance in larger cities,4 casts structural pluralism specifically as "a theory which holds that newspapers located in more pluralistic communities...are more critical of the status quo."5 Therefore, the notion of news media criticality is an important element of structural pluralism. The phrase social-structural media theory will be used in the present article as a synonym for structural pluralism.

The above theory of variable news content and differential knowledge acquisition has acquired relatively strong and consistent support over roughly three decades from its chief proponents.6 Other scholars have employed the paradigm in conducting diffusion-of-information and health-campaign studies;7 in media effects and process research on social movements; and in general studies of conflict reporting, news-sourcing decisions, and the like.8 But apart from scattered examples in Tichenor, Donohue, and Olien's own work, few studies have examined very closely how smaller-town media perform in direct relation to larger, more pluralistically centered media. A few recent studies do get at this contrast. For example, Griffin and Dunwoody,9 in testing whether larger newspapers were more likely to run risk-- oriented, conflict-centered environmental stories than were smaller papers, found only minimal support for a structural-pluralist explanation. The only study to date (which remains unpublished) examining an East Liverpool, Ohio, newspaper,10 which is also the focus of the present article, found some initial support for the structural-pluralism hypothesis, with a somewhat greater but fairly limited presence of more conflict-- centered, opposition-inspired themes pertaining to the Waste Technologies Industries (WTI) controversy found in the metropolitan Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch compared to the East Liverpool Evening Review. …