RECENT research has revealed unscientific and biased media coverage of water issues could be negatively impacting public engagement and understanding of water management measures.
Through a content analysis of 1253 articles published in the top seven circulated newspapers in 2008, the study, Newspaper coverage of water issues in Australia, reveals only 14 per cent of articles presented factual information about water issues such as recycled water, desalinated water, drought, dam levels and water conservation. Only 10 per cent canvassed views from both sides of these issues.
Authors Dr Anna Hurlimann and Professor Sara Dolnicar, from the Universities of Melbourne and Wollongong respectively, found many articles lacked impartiality when reporting on all views from involved stakeholders, with researchers or scientists very rarely quoted.
“There was a low level of support of statements with scientific evidence and a relatively high level of hedging, meaning the author signals some uncertainly about the reported information,” says Professor Dolnicar.
Water Corporation spokesperson Clare Lugar says both engineers and non-engineers from Water Corporation are often interviewed, however, their information does not always penetrate through to publication.
“More than anything news articles need to address fact in order to educate the public so that they have the information they need to make informed decisions,” says Ms Lugar.
“Different points of view should be addressed but these views need to be substantiated.”
The newspaper with the highest percentage of water articles quoting representatives from a water authority was The West Australian (16 per cent).
Professor Dolnicar explains this figure could be attributed to WA water authorities providing a larger number of press releases or it could simply be explained by The West Australian’s journalists’ propensity to discuss issues with water authorities.
Water Corporation’s Ms Lugar says heightened media might also be explained by the organisation managing the majority of water supplies across Australia’s biggest state and that 2008 was an election year so water issues were more prominent at that time.
To give the public access to more factual information about water issues, the study recommends individuals and associations interested in increasing knowledge about water-related topics become more proactive in their communications with the media.
“Public debate and opinion about water conservation and water supply management projects are important as they can influence specific outcomes, such as water-saving behaviour or opposition to developments such as dams,” says Professor Dolnicar.
The study was funded by Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grant and published in Water Research.