Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Great Basin Imagery in Newspaper Coverage of Yucca Mountain

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Great Basin Imagery in Newspaper Coverage of Yucca Mountain

Article excerpt

For most Americans, the Great Basin is nothingness. In the popular imagination, the basin is a dry, crater-pocked land of endless scrub populated by tarantulas and jackrabbits. It is seen as a place without use or value, a wasteland that has intimidated the most intrepid of travelers. After explorer John C. Fremont first identified it as a distinctive physiographic province in 1844, the basin entertained a succession of engineers, agriculturalists, and developers who tried to transform this part of the nation into a productive landscape (Raymond 1997; Francaviglia 2003). With the notable exception of Las Vegas, Nevada these attempts failed, and even this burgeoning metropolis is rapidly confronting the region's physical limitations on urban development (Moehring 1989). Perhaps as a consequence of its seemingly incalculable expanse, the basin's residents--urban and rural--have traditionally lacked a strong regional identity, a situation exacerbated by the recent influx of Californians (Starrs and Wright 1995). Nevertheless, the Great Basin is of great spiritual and cultural significance to many people; it is a place that "give[s] us a glimpse of both infinity and eternity here on earth" (Francaviglia 2003, 205).

Great Basin imagery has been instrumental in promoting Yucca Mountain, a ridge of lithified volcanic ash located some 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as an ideal site at which to entomb the nation's spent nuclear waste. On the surface, the debate over Yucca Mountain turns on the geological suitability of the site and the logistics involved in transporting loads of nuclear waste across the country to a single repository in the desert. But the debate itself is inherently geographical, and its central question undeniably spatial: Is it safer to bury nuclear waste in a single location or to maintain the current decentralized arrangement of more than 130 waste-disposal sites? Perhaps even less obvious is that participants in the debate engage Great Basin imagery to make specific arguments about the site. A cultural geographical struggle underlying the debate is to distinguish valued places from valueless in the network of nuclear production, consumption, and disposal. Proponents of the site draw upon understandings of the Great Basin as a useless wasteland--literally a land for waste--whereas detractors are challenging and reworking that image with a number of grounded perspectives.


This article presents the results of a content analysis of more than 2,000 newspaper articles related to Yucca Mountain. Using the techniques of critical media analysis, it explores how Great Basin imagery appears in arguments for and against the site and how the debate itself has become a forum for creating and promoting alternative ideas about the region through printed news media. The study also explores how journalists in particular have used connotations for the Great Basin to describe Yucca Mountain in their coverage of the debate. Highly stylized terms and descriptors often appear in news reporting, which makes it difficult for opponents to promote alternative proposals. Other journalists have challenged conventional views by visiting the area and interviewing its inhabitants, which casts the proposed repository in a much different light. So, although news reporting strives to present events in a balanced and disinterested fashion, it nonetheless draws from and promotes culturally specific images and labels for places, a practice that has a discernible impact on the course and character of public debate.

The article begins with an exploration of Great Basin imagery and then describes the theoretical context and methodology for the study. It next presents the results of the content analysis and concludes with a discussion of the broader significance of place imagery in the news coverage.


In a conventional delineation, the Great Basin encompasses an internally draining hydrographic depression that stretches from the Sierra Nevada to the Wasatch Mountains (Figure 1). …

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