Dam the news: Newspapers and the Oldman River Dam project in Alberta

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  • Journal of Environmental Management (1999) 55, 219237Article No. jema.1999.0258, available online at http://www.idealibrary.com on

    Dam the news: Newspapers and theOldman River Dam project in Alberta

    R. C. de Loe

    The Oldman River Dam is a major water control structure built by the Government of Alberta to regulatethe flow of the Oldman River. Completed in 1992, the dam was the subject of intensive media coverage inAlberta, Canada. Newspaper coverage of the dam story in two Alberta papers, the Calgary Herald and theEdmonton Journal, was analysed for the years between 1975 and 1992. This study links coverage withevents that occurred in the case, and analyses the role of the media in the case. While the media playedan important role in shaping public awareness of the dam project, their influence on Government policywas mixed. In the early years of the case (19751980), there is evidence that the provincial Governmentchanged its plans in response to public protests documented in media such as the Herald and the Journal.However, after 1987, the Government came to see the media as biased, and not representative of publicopinion. Consequently, their influence on policy makers was negligible. Patterns in coverage of both papers,which included wild swings from year-to-year in the number, emphasis and tone of items, can be explainedwith reference to inherent characteristics of the media. These include: an inability on the part of the papersto consider positive and negative aspects of issues simultaneously for any length of time, and a consequenttendency to provide either a positive or a negative stance; simplification of very complex issues in anattempt to create accessible, newsworthy stories; rapid shifts in the tone of coverage, as attention focusedon different dimensions of the issue, rather than because of new information; a focus on conflict and othersensational aspects of stories; and a tendency towards a rapid loss of interest in a story once journalisticattention shifts elsewhere.

    1999 Academic Press

    Keywords: newspapers, decision making, Oldman River Dam, Alberta.

    Newspapers and other media outlets pro-Introductionvided extensive coverage of the Oldman RiverDam project. The aim of this paper is to

    Water management in Alberta underwent a analyse that coverage, in an attempt to un-major transformation starting in the early cover the role of the media in the case. The1970s. In prior decades, when major dams news media are represented by two news-were constructed, support from people in the papers, the Calgary Herald and the Ed-areas served by the dam was usually assured, monton Journal, the largest newspapers inand scrutiny from people in other parts of the provinces two largest cities. The studythe province was virtually non-existent. This period begins in 1975, when the dam waschanged in the early 1970s. When the pro- announced, and concludes in 1992, when itvincial Government proposed and then con- was declared operational.structed two major dams in central and Two linked approaches are used to exploresouthern Albertathe Red Deer River the role of the news media in the case. First,(Dickson) Dam in 1973, and the Oldman River events in the case are outlined, and, in par-Dam in 1975 (Figure 1)it met with un- allel, media coverage of those events is ana-

    Department of Geography,precedented opposition. The Oldman River lysed. Second, building on this foundation,University of Guelph,Dam project met with especially strong op- two key questions are explored: (1) To what Guelph, Ontario, Canada,

    position, and contributed to key changes in extent, and how, did the media shape or define N1G 2W1environmental management at both the the story through their coverage?; (2) What

    Received 23 July 1998;federal and provincial levels (Elder, 1992; impact did coverage of the case have on de- accepted 27 November1998Sundstrom, 1994; de Loe, 1997b). cisions made by Government officials? These

    03014797/99/040219+19 $30.00/0 1999 Academic Press

  • 220 R. C. de Loe




    Reservoirs(I) Irrigation(H) Hydro-power





    Irrigation districts

    Lethbridge NorthernIrrigation District


    0 30km


    Red DeerRiver(Dickson)Dam





    Red Deer













    Oldman RiverDam (ThreeRivers site)


    St Mary Dam





    th S






    Bow River


    an River

    Red Deer River

    Figure 1. Southern Alberta: Rivers, urban areas and irrigation districts. Source: baseline data extractedfrom Alberta Agriculture (1983).

    questions are complementary. The answers Researchers in the broad area of inquiryto them provide insight into the role of the referred to as agenda setting emphasize themedia in environmental management. way in which the mass media shape the issue

    agenda, both for the general public, and forpolicy makers (Kosicki, 1993; Rogers, 1993).Analysts following in the tradition es-The mass media andtablished by McCombs and Shaw (1972)environmental management pioneers in the area of agenda settingresearchhave attempted to match publicopinions, measured in various types of sur-Decision making in environmental man-veys, to media coverage of certain issues inagementas in most other areas in so-an attempt to show how the media tell uscietyis a complex interaction of issues andwhat to think about (Kosicki, 1993). Whileinterests, operating in a number of differentthe link between cause and effect is tenuousforums. The mass media play a number ofin this work, the implication is that the mediakey roles. Provision of information to thechannel public thinking towards certain is-general public and to policy makers is ansues, and away from others. Other authorsobvious one. Just as important, however, therefer to this phenomenon as framingmass media also focus attention on someissues (e.g. Fletcher and Stahlbrand, 1992;issues over others, and shape the way inEinsiedel and Coughlan, 1993).which the public and policy makers view

    In raising public awareness, media cov-those issues. Consequently, it is important toerage consequently may instigate policyunderstand the role of the mass media inchanges (Fletcher and Stahlbrand, 1992).environmental management, particularly the

    way in which they influence decision making. Downs (1972) issue-attention cyclewhich

  • Dam the news 221

    has policy makers responding to high levels (Fletcher and Stahlbrand, 1992; Baumgart-ner and Jones, 1993).of public concern regarding an issue, and then

    abandoning that issue once public concern Taken together, these kinds of factors con-tribute to an explanation of why the mediawanesis one model of this process. How-

    ever, the process by which a governments focus on certain kinds of issues at particulartimes, and why patterns of coverage rise andactual agenda is formed can be both more

    complicated, and less obvious, than the one fall. The fact that media coverage displaysthese characteristics also explains whydescribed by Downs model. Baumgartner and

    Jones (1993) emphasize that media coverage Baumgartner and Jones (1993) have de-scribed the media as a major source of in-can be a very poor indicator of a governments

    actual agenda. Furthermore, the media are stability in US policy making. As they lurchfrom topic to topic, frequently changing theonly one among many sources of influence on

    a governments policy agenda. For example, tone of coverage dramatically, the media cap-ture public attention and focus it on somewhile interest groups of various types play

    an important role in shaping policy debates, issues, which can lead to a change in theagenda of policy makers. Instability is createdgovernment policy agendas are influenced

    much more by some interest groups than because public attention can shift when themedia lose interest in a story, sometimesothers. Cracknell (1993) notes that there are

    many examples of environmental groups causing a shift in the attention of policymakerswhether or not the problem firstdominating the media debate on an issue,

    but failing in the end to influence the policy reported has been solved (Downs, 1972). Sev-eral researchers have mapped long-termagenda.

    The ways in which the media set agendas trends showing this pattern in the contextof coverage of environmental issues (e.g.are complex. An obvious consideration is the

    inherent bias associated with a particular Parlour and Schatzow, 1978; Einsiedel andCoughlan, 1993; Lacey and Longman, 1993).medium. For instance, because of its political

    leanings, a newspaper might downplay or The agenda-setting role of the media, andthe routines of news production which ac-ignore some stories (Burgess and Harrison,

    1993; Lacey and Longman, 1993), or frame count for patterns of coverage, reinforce thecomplex link between policy makers, the pub-them in certain ways (Fletcher and

    Stahlbrand, 1992; Einsiedel and Coughlan, lic and the media. There are no hard-and-fast rules regarding these relationships. In1993). Burgess and Harrison (1993) also point

    towards aspects of the news making process some cases, policy makers take the level andtone of media coverage as a surrogate forwhich influence the agenda setting process.

    For instance, they note that the national public attitudes. For example, in Deardens(1985) analysis of responses to a perceivedpress responded slowly to the environmental

    story, which they analysed in their article, problem of Eurasian Water Milfoil in theOkanagan Valley of British Columbia, Gov-because at first it was categorized by media

    personnel as a financial story. Baumgartner ernment officials backed down in the face ofopposition to their plans to control the weedand Jones (1993) explore considerations re-

    lating to the news-making process in their using the herbicide 2-4-D. He concluded thatcoverage of the issue in local newspapersstudy of agenda setting in US politics. They

    note, for example, that the tone of coverage played a significant role in this decision(Dearden, 1985). However, in other cases,of an issue can shift radically when the story

    moves from one beat to another, e.g. from such as the one analysed in this paper,policy makers may come to see the mediascience to business. Other characteristics of

    the media that bear on the question of agenda as completely unrepresentative of publicopinion.setting include: a tendency to emphasize

    either positive or negative sides of a story,but rarely both for any length of time; sim-plification of complex issues; a focus on cer- The data settain types of stories over others, e.g. violentrisks vs. chronic ones; a fascination with con-

    The principal data set used in this analysisflict, competition and criticism; a tendency topresent stories in a way that encourages sales is coverage of the Oldman River Dam story

  • 222 R. C. de Loe



    Population of Edmonton, Calgary and Albera




    438 152

    403 325

    1 627 874


    541 992

    592 808

    2 237 724


    616 741

    710 675

    2 545 553


    aCities defined as Statistics Canada Metropolitan areabCities defined as Statistics Canada Census Division

    Major Daily Newspaper Circulation in Edmonton and Calgary

    Edmonton Journal 1903

    Start ofPublication

    147 298a


    164 428a


    157 231c


    Edmonton Sun 1978 -- 46 295b 96 680c

    Calgary Herald 1883 98 113a 131 385a 134 553a

    Calgary Sun 1980 -- 44 679b 71 166c

    Calgary Albertan 1902 34 549a -- --aMonday to SaturdaybMonday to Friday, and SundaycDaily

    Figure 2. Population and newspaper circulation in Edmonton and Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Source: GaleDirectory (1971, 1981, 1991) and Statistics Canada (1971, 1981, 1991).

    in the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton in the province. During the study periodJournal. Supplementary data are derived (19751992), several daily and weekly news-from interviews with key participants and papers were published in Calgary and Ed-observers, and from numerous studies and monton. In Calgary, during this period, thereports prepared by the various stakeholders. Herald was the daily newspaper with the

    longest publication record and the largestcirculation (Figure 2). In Edmonton, theJournal was published for the longest time,Newspaper coverage of theand had the largest circulation during theOldman River Damstudy period. Both the Herald and theJournal are part of the Southam chain. TheLike most of the rest of Canada, Albertasnext largest papers in each citythe Calgarypopulation became increasingly urban fol-Albertan, the Calgary Sun and the Edmontonlowing the end of the Second World War. BySundid not publish for the entire studythe late 1960s, more than 70% of Albertansperiod, and had smaller circulation numbers.resided in communities with 1000 or moreTherefore, coverage of the Oldman River Daminhabitants (Smith, 1984). Two centres dom-in the Edmonton Journal and the Calgaryinate the urban system: Calgary, in southernHerald was used as the data set for thisAlberta, and Edmonton, in central Albertastudy.(Figure 2). The combined population of these

    A comprehensive clipping service has beentwo cities has been slightly more than halfprovided to Members of the Legislative As-of the provincial population since the earlysembly (MLAs) in Alberta by staff at the1970s (Figure 2).Legislature Library since 1972. Items in thisNewspapers which serve these com-collection are circulated to the Premier, Cab-munities are an important source of in-

    formation about environmental management inet ministers and MLAs; all items are also

  • Dam the news 223



    0Number of items

    N = 374


    20 40 60 80

















    InitialannouncementPhase I reportreleased

    Phase II reportreleasedECA reportreleasedDecision tobuild

    Decision tobuild at ThreeRivers site

    ConstructionbeginsFirst majorcourt decision


    EIAcompleted;dam oper-ational

    Calgary Herald

    1000Number of items

    N = 315

    20 40 60 80

    Edmonton Journal




    Figure 3. Coverage of the Oldman River Dam project in the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal,19751992.

    microfiched to form a permanent record. The five basic types (i.e. News article, Editorial,Column, Special Feature or Letter to theprimary data set assembled for this analysis

    includes all items relating to the Oldman Editor). A definition of these items, and theirdistribution during the study period, is shownRiver Dam project topic in the Librarys clip-

    ping file, from January 1975 to October 1992. in Table 1. Second, items were classed intoone of three main categories based on theThis comprises 374 items in the Herald and

    315 items in the Journal. (Coverage of the tone of the information which they presentedabout the dam projects: positive, negative andcase continued after October, 1992, but by

    then the dam was declared operational, and other (Table 2). Resources did not permitthe use of an additional classifier, other thanthe final court battles aimed at preventing

    its use were lost.) Figure 3 shows the di...


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