Atmospheric Ozone: A Global or Local Issue? Coverage in Canadian and U.S. Newspapers

Julia B. Corbett (University of Minnesota)

Researchers have suggested that media coverage of the environment, generally recognized as a persistent and newsworthy topic, now also reflects the global nature of many of its problems. Lowe & Morrison concluded that environmental reporting now takes a "global approach...both figuratively and literally" (1984, p. 75). Solesbury said that environmental issues take strength from "global concepts of environmental quality, improvement and conservation" (1976, p. 380). "Going global" in environmental reporting may have the added benefit of avoiding conflict surrounding sensitive local problems. Hungerford & Lemert (1973) found a tendency to illustrate local problems by reporting problems "up the road a piece," a practice they termed "Afghanistanism." Or instead, does environmental coverage localize issues and create "hometown" or national relevance? The importance of local relevance as a news value is well documented both in journalism textbooks and gatekeeper studies.

To test these competing theories about localizing or "globalizing" environmental problems, a comparison was made of the coverage of atmospheric ozone in the last two years in three Canadian and three U.S. newspapers. Ozone was chosen because of its truly global nature as an environmental issue; a thinning ozone layer is difficult to localize to any one particular location.

Topics under the environment rubric, including ozone, exist in very different stages. Solesbury noted three progressive stages: situation, issue, and response. He said it is important to note what gives an environmental problem force and moves it beyond a mere "situation" to an "issue" that people agree is deserving of attention. Only after an issue has captured public and media attention, and public resources does it finally receives a "response" from government.

Solesbury said an issue's ability to command attention and therefore a response also depends on the issue itself: its visibility and physical manifestations, and the relationship between the issue and prevailing cultural norms and values. Ozone is an issue somewhat lacking in these areas. The invisibility of atmospheric ozone and the delayed nature of its problems make it a difficult issue to picture and "make real" for the public and policy-makers alike. Scientific studies and international meetings receive limited media attention and, individually, may make little lasting impression on the public. And finally, solutions for "fixing" ozone holes often collide with the growth and progress valued by political and economic systems.

There is also confusion--by both the media and the public--over the two kinds of ozone. What is commonly referred to as the ozone layer lies in the upper atmosphere and protects plant and animal life on Earth from the sun's ultraviolet rays. "Holes" in the layer have been linked to skin cancer, skin allergies, and other problems. Atmospheric ozone is depleted by human-made compounds, mainly chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), now banned in most aerosol products but still used as solvents and coolants in air conditioners and refrigerators. Ground-level ozone is produced by a reaction of sunlight, oxygen, and various chemicals, mainly from vehicle exhaust. This ozone, a primary component of urban smog, can damage the lungs, affect the heart, worsen asthma and increase the risk of some cancers.

Research has indicated that media discourse on the environment is largely a science discourse, dominated by scientists and official bureaucratic sources (Hansen, 1991; Friedman, et al., 1986; Nelkin, 1987). Other researchers have noted a corresponding exclusion of interest groups or "claims-makers" (Corbett, 1992; Einsiedel, 1988).

A study of ozone coverage must also consider international news flow. Generally, research has found that, compared to Canada, the U.S. is a major international news source rather than a news receiver because of its "elite," dominant status and extensive network of news agencies and correspondents (Kariel & Rosenvall, 1990; Lent, 1977; Hart, 1963; Robinson & Sparkes, 1977). On the other hand, similarities between the countries in economic structure, location, and to a certain extent cultural background, might lead them to find similar parts of the world newsworthy and to present news in similar ways (Gerbner & Marvanyi, 1977; Larson & Rivenburgh, 1991).

Therefore, we may find that ozone coverage has not moved beyond a "science discourse" in either country. The invisibility of ozone, contradictory scientific claims regarding it, and an expected domination of "official" scientific and administrative sources also might contribute to ozone lingering at the issue stage rather than moving fully to the response stage as an active public policy issue.

In both Canadian and U.S. newspapers, stories about atmospheric ozone will be more "science" (situation/issue stage) stories than "public policy" (response stage) stories.
Scientists and scientific officials will be more predominant sources of information than will policy-makers or claims-makers.
There will be more U.S.-based stories about ozone in Canadian newspapers than Canadian-based ozone stories in U.S. papers.
A more global perspective will be apparent in ozone stories in Canadian newspapers than in U.S. newspapers.


Three newspapers were selected in the mid-sections of Canada and the U.S.: Toronto Star, Edmonton Journal, Ottawa Citizen, Chicago Tribune, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Cincinnati Enquirer. A database search located 242 news stories in which "ozone" appeared in the headline between May 1, 1990, and May 1, 1992. The average number of stories in Canadian newspapers was 43 (range 39 to 50); the average number in U.S. newspapers was 38 (range 32 to 47).

Each story was coded for story location, the first four sources quoted or paraphrased and by stage of the issue represented. Because of the small number of "situation" stories (which described the ozone layer or said it was not in danger), these were combined with "issue" stories (which agreed that ozone depletion was a problem or discussed consequences). "Response" stories said that ozone depletion was bad and discussed specific solutions, actions or regulations.

To assess global perspective, in addition to story location, up to four specific countries were coded, as were countries of each quoted source, and the story credit or byline. All stories were coded by the author; intracoder reliability on four key variables was 97.8%.


For the first hypothesis, only 58% of the stories from the six newspapers fell in the issue stage. There were, however, significant differences in the stage by the year published (chi-square, p = .001). From May-December 1990, 40 of the 65 stories (62%) were in the response stage. In 1991, ozone moved backed to the issue stage in 61 of 76 stories (80%). The 101 stories in January-May 1992 were fairly evenly split between stages.

In summer 1990, negotiators from around the world met in London to discuss amending the Montreal Protocol, a 1987 treaty to protect the ozone layer. In 1991, much of the coverage consisted of announcements of recent scientific studies, but with little or no mention of whether their findings warranted action or policy. Attention once again shifted to policy in 1992 after U.S. government scientists raised dire forecasts about new ozone holes opening over North America, particularly over Canada. What is interesting about these shifts in stages is that although ozone has been a topic for media coverage and concern for almost 20 years, what seems to determine the focus depends largely on events (such as conferences) or "apocalyptic" warnings, such as Nelkin noted in media coverage of ozone in the 1970s. These findings also suggest a much more situation-specific, fluctuating progression through the issue-situation-response stages than that posited by Solesbury.

Both Canadian and U.S. newspaper stories focused most heavily on scientific findings as a story theme (36% and 43% respectively), followed by a policy/regulation theme (23% and 19%). But differences by country also exist (chi-square, p = .0000). Canadian newspapers focused on health hazards more than U.S. newspapers (17% to 6%), while U.S. newspapers printed more stories on the ramifications for industry and consumers (22% to 7%). One could speculate that both countries are committed to the cultural value of scientific problem-solving, but that political and economic power structures in each country dictate how this value is played out as an issue. According to Shepherd, the application of scientific knowledge to human problems is not simply a technical matter but is fundamentally ideological, determined by the cultural perspective and value system (1981, p. 130).

The second hypothesis, which predicted more scientists and scientific officials as sources, was strongly supported by the data (chi-square, p < .001) and supports previous research on sources quoted for environmental issues. Over 64% of the sources were either independent (e.g., academic) scientists or scientists with the government, such as Environment Canada or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In line with story theme, Canadian newspapers quoted more health professionals (10% of Canadian sources and only 2% of U.S. sources) and U.S. newspapers sought out more industry representatives (15% of U.S. sources versus 4% of Canadian sources). There was a surprising lack of involvement by policy-makers (4% of Canadian and 12% of U.S. sources), given the high number of stories which concern ozone policy. However, government scientist sources are a powerful link between science and policy because of their location in the power structure. Interest group or claims-makers accounted for only about 10% of news sources in each country.

As predicted in hypothesis three, there were significantly more U.S.- based stories in Canada than Canadian-based stories in the U.S. (chi-square, p = .039). About 71% of U.S. newspaper articles were based in the U.S., with only 1% based in Canada. Canadian articles based in Canada accounted for 55%, while 25% were U.S.-based articles. To test the concept of "Afghanistanism," this analysis was broken down by stage of the issue. One could theorize that it is easier to report problems in the issue stage in one's own country than in the response stage, which admits that the problem is serious enough to warrant action. In U.S. newspapers, there was some tendency to address ozone as a problem more serious "up-the-road" than at home, although the difference between stages was not significant. In Canadian newspapers, significantly more of the response stage stories were based in Canada than in other countries--the opposite of "Afghanistanism" (72%, chi-square, p = .001). Because of the size of the two countries and the crude inside-outside country measure, further analysis is needed to discern "Afghanistanism" in this and other environmental issues.

This author suspects, however, that the nature and stage of an environmental conflict greatly influences whether "Afghanistanism" is employed. For this issue, a reporter's ability to localize and make newsworthy an abstract, impersonal topic might far outweigh avoiding it altogether or reporting it as a distant story. If ozone were portrayed as a highly divisive issue with a high degree of conflict between individuals, especially in a small town, a reporter might indeed resort to distant scenarios and players to report the issue.

There was qualified support for the fourth hypothesis, which predicted that Canadian newspapers would present a more global perspective. Although all of the multiple measures of this hypothesis are in the predicted direction, much of Canada's global--or outside Canada--perspective comes from its attention to the U.S. and to U.S. news sources, which is not reciprocated by U.S. attention to Canada.

There were few differences in the specific countries mentioned. Canadian stories contained 173 mentions of other countries, 52 (30%) of which were mentions of the U.S.; U.S. stories contained 130 mentions of other countries, of which only 15 (12%) were mentions of Canada. With the exception of Canadian newspapers' propensity to quote Americans, there were few differences in the home countries of quoted sources. In Canadian stories, 132 of the 238 sources (56%) were Canadian and 73 (31%) were American; in U.S. stories, 158 of 180 sources (88%) were U.S. sources and only 4 (2%) were Canadian. Overall, 45% of news sources for Canadian articles came from outside Canada, compared with only 12% of outside sources in U.S. articles.

There were significant differences in the credit for ozone stories (chi-square, p = .0000). U.S. newspapers relied on other U.S. news sources (such as AP and other U.S. newspapers) for 66% of their bylines, and secondly (32%) upon their own newspapers' staffs. Canadian newspapers relied most heavily on their own staffs' resources (44%) and other Canadian news sources (such as Canadian Press or other Canadian papers) (35%), and less heavily on U.S. news sources (22%). Canadian newspapers also relied on Reuter news wire for 11% of their bylines, while just 1% of U.S. bylines came from Reuters. One can speculate that Canadian newspapers consider the ozone issue important enough to localize and commit resources to gather information.


On one level, Canadian newspapers do present their readers with a more global perspective on atmospheric ozone, through the variety of countries of quoted sources, a mix of story bylines and a range of story locations. However, without the U.S. presence in Canadian stories, the different locations and story credits are very similar to those found in U.S. newspapers. Despite its ramifications as a global problem, ozone remains a rather localized issue in the newspapers studied. Canadian newspapers have used the health angle to localize ozone, and the U.S. has kept the focus local by relying on U.S. scientists and businesspersons. Creating relevance (and hence newsworthiness) for local audiences may have as much value as pointing to someone else's ozone hole up-the-road.

However, in some regards, ozone thinning is remaining an issue up-the-road because it lacks the visibility and cultural resonance necessary to remain firmly in the response stage. The events surrounding scientific debate--the degree, the exact locations, the time table, the culprits and the solutions to ozone depletion--have captured media attention and caused the ozone issue to waver at the issue stage. The media display a heavy reliance on scientists to create a science-dominated discourse regarding ozone, to the exclusion of sources more concerned with policy than scientific findings. These newspaper stories may give the impression that ozone policy is not worth worrying about--it is "up the road," or in this case, "way up in the air"--until the scientists are finished studying and debating. The continuing scientific debate protects the policymakers from decisive action; scientists are likewise insulated by the alleged value neutrality of scientific study.


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