Evaluating Media Coverage of Land Use and Sprawl: Lessons from California

By Fulton, William | The Quill, May 2000 | Go to article overview
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Evaluating Media Coverage of Land Use and Sprawl: Lessons from California

Fulton, William, The Quill

The physical growth and change of any community is always high on the list of that community's issues --and, consequently, high on the list of issues for journalists to cover. Coverage of these "land use" issues is especially important in California, a state that has been growing continuously and rapidly for more than a century.

Furthermore, "urban sprawl" has emerged as a major political issue throughout the nation.

Evaluation of the how California journalists cover land use will be helpful to reporters across the nation. That's why the Foundation for American Communications recently commissioned two pathbreaking pieces of research on what journalists in California know about land use and how they cover it. FACS's survey of journalists and a content analysis of selected California newspapers was intended to provide a "baseline" of information about what journalists knew about land use and how it is covered.

The project is part of a major FACS initiative funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the James Irvine Foundation to significantly expand educational resources to help journalists cover land use.

Survey of California Journalists

The survey of California journalists was undertaken by American Opinion Research of Princeton, New Jersey. It sought to determine what journalists really know about land use and solicit their perceptions about how they cover the land use issue. The survey included approximately 25 questions, including several "truefalse" questions about specific land use issues and three land use "story scenarios, in which the journalists were asked to select one of several story "angles".

Among the most important findings were the following:

Journalists say that local government officials and environmental groups are the most useful sources of information on land use, while academics and federal officials are the least useful.

Journalists have an incomplete knowledge of land use and urban growth issues. Though most can identify basic terms, they are often misinformed about both broader trends and specific details,

Journalists are deeply divided over how to cover specific land use stories - though there appears to be more consensus on how to cover downtown development than other kinds of stories.

- An overwhelming majority of California journalists say they cannot find objective and unbiased sources of information about land use issues.

Journalists were also deeply divided on how to cover land use stories, at least based on their responses to the three-story scenarios. For example, in a scenario regarding the proposed approval of a 600-unit housing subdivision, the journalists were almost evenly divided in their inclination to focus on (1) the traffic congestion resulting from the project, (2) the question of where else needed housing should be built and (3) the identity of the opponents of the project.

By contrast, on a story scenario involving a proposed public subsidy for a movie theater in a downtown area, journalists were far more in agreement, They said their stories should focus on how the proposal would assist the city in reviving the downtown.

To some degree, the survey results confirmed our belief that journalists are sometimes poorly informed and often frustrated on land use assignments. In large part, however, it appears that journalists reflect the generally fuzzy public perception about what the goals of land-use planning are. In a case such as the downtown movie theater, the goal of the project - to revive the downtown - is clear and journalists understand that.

In most cases, however, the goal is not so clear. For example, is land-use policy regarding a suburban subdivision meant to facilitate the construction of more housing, or protect the environment or both? In most cases, the goal is to balance these goals and so it is difficult for journalists, like the public, to reach consensus on which aspects of a land-use story are most important to understand.

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