This dissertation examines U.S. news coverage of environmental issues from 1890 to 1960, a subject that has rarely been studied, even though abundant evidence exists of journalistic interest in the environment before it was declared an official news beat after 1960.
Using agenda-building theory bolstered by frame analysis, this quantitative study focuses on how environmental news content was constructed over time and includes measures of journalistic salience as well as three types of frames: sources, attributions of responsibility, and moral evaluation, operationalized as environmental world views. It also provides a definition of environmental news that can be applied across different eras.
At the aggregate level of data, the study establishes that environmental concerns ranging from air pollution to wildlife protection were highly evident in news content from 1890 to 1960. The ecocentric world view also was amply present in news texts throughout the time period studied. All of this runs counter to standard historical works that peg U.S. environmental concern to the post-World War II era.
The study also shows that journalists of the past relied most on government sources, especially state and local ones, to frame environmental news at the expense of other views, including citizen activists and citizens directly impacted by environmental problems. Additionally, environmental news articles most often placed blame in broad brushstrokes or blamed individual actors, rather than explicitly linking environmental degradation to accepted social practices driving individuals’ actions. They also most often identified governments as responsible for solving environmental problems and rarely suggested alternative solutions, such as organizing a public protest to call attention to a problem or using a less harmful technology. Taken together, this suggests that past news coverage distanced environmental problems from the public to such effect that it discouraged environmental problem resolution.
Finally, the study shows that intermedia agenda-building is the most influential factor when it comes to environmental world views in news stories. For factors external to the news media, attentive interest groups were more influential than any other factor, including the U.S. president; environmental events, such as national park creation; and real-world environmental conditions, such as increasing emissions of air pollution and disappearance of wetlands and other wildlife habitat.