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Report: Australian News Coverage Affects Public Acceptance of Policy and Science

Insufficient media coverage of the science behind water management undermines public engagement and understanding, according to a recent study.

Recycled Water plant Beijing China
Photo © Circle of Blue
Recycled Water Plant — but not in Australia — in Singapore

“Study finds that recycled water might be safe to drink.”
“Study finds that recycled water is completely safe to drink.”

The difference between these two hypothetical headlines may be difficult to notice, but can make or break the public perceptions of recycled water for consumption. Murky news coverage of issues can be misleading, but a team of researchers from Australian universities have found evidence proving that unscientific media is counter-productive to water-management solutions and, in the example of the town of Toowoomba, prevented the construction of a water recycling plant.

Sara Dolnicar of the University of Wollongong and Anna Hurlimann of the University of Melbourne examined more than 1,200 water-related newspaper articles that were published in Australia during 2008, when the country was suffering from a decade-long drought. Of the news samples analyzed, only 14 percent included scientific evidence to substantiate claims. The research findings conclude that, of the seven most widely circulated newspapers in Australia, coverage of water issues failed to include the full spectrum of opinions; presented little or no scientific evidence in the report; presented biased information; and understated scientific certainty.

The study, titled “Newspaper coverage of water issues in Australia,” is the most recent article from Dolnicar and Hurlimann, who have published numerous research articles together that examine the factors that affect the Australian public’s acceptance of water-management alternatives and water-conservation behaviors.

Where is the Science?
Drought Australia Dry Lands
Photo © Circle of Blue

A Media Monitors study from 2007 concluded that scientific evidence in water-related news reporting was limited. Read:The Water Debate in Australia: Vol. 1

Given that unbiased and scientifically informed evidence is the backbone of decision-making for both political leadership and the public – which is particularly true of environmental issues like water and climate change – when the news media fails to communicate the scientific support for issues, the ramifications can be game-changing.

“From the journalists’ point of view, they definitely have not lied; they have put [the scientific evidence] very, very softly.” Dolnicar told Circle of Blue. “But for the reader, for the public effect of a story like that, it makes a huge difference.”

“Aura of Uncertainty”

Meanwhile, media articles that overstate uncertainty – also known as “hedging,” – have been linked to unfavorable public perceptions about water-management alternatives in Australia.

“There is this constant aura of uncertainty,” Dolnicar said, “Where people might then think, ‘Well, nobody is ever willing to say that recycled water is safe, so does that mean it’s not safe?’”

For example, in 2006, the community of Toowoomba, outside Brisbane, Australia, was facing low levels in dam reservoirs, which were operating at as little as 20 percent capacity as a result of a severe and ongoing drought. Despite this, the public voted against a proposed potable water recycling plant which would have been the first large-scale project of its kind in Australia.

In the case of Toowoomba, Dolnicar blames the public rejection of the proposed recycling plant on the perception of uncertainty fostered by media hedging.

“Neither the media nor the politicians were proactive in communicating to people [the facts about recycled water plants],” said Dolnicar. “As a consequence… people went into a panic mode and started a revolution against recycled water.”

Dolincar also mentioned that a broader consequence of the public opposition in Toowoomba made it more politically challenging for other Australian states to take on water recycling projects.

“More than anything, news articles needed to address fact,” Clare Lugar told Science Network Western Australia “In order to educate the public, so that they have the information they need to make informed decisions.” Lugar is spokesperson of the Australian Water Corporation company, the principal water supplier of western Australia.

Author: Allison Voglesong   is an editorial intern for Circle of Blue based out of Traverse City, Michigan. She holds a BA in International Relations from Michigan State University's James Madison College. Her interests include water pricing, environmental economics and policy, and conflict mediation.

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