News, Conflict and Environment as Social Constructions

  • Juliet Pinto
  • Paola Prado
  • J. Alejandro Tirado-Alcaraz
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Media and Environmental Communication book series (PSMEC)


Using an innovative approach that encompasses perspectives from media studies, political ecology and political ecology, Pinto, Prado and Tirado examine the body of literature that views the connections between environment and society. With a particular focus on Latin America, the chapter provides a much-needed overview of environment, news and protest as social constructions. Mediated discourse surrounding environmental debate provides an opportunity to explore how local protest is scaled up to national and global levels, or marginalized and prevented from entering public sphere debate. As well as looking at the literature informing the book’s conceptual approach, the chapter also explains the methodology employed here, which encompasses both qualitative and quantitative content analysis, as well as dozens of interviews with the journalists who reported the news.


News Article News Coverage Secondary Actor Political Ecology Environmental Conflict 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

We begin with the perspective that news is a social construction. As such, it mirrors as well as being shaped by the dynamic processes and struggles to become primary definers, frame issues, amplify or silence voices and otherwise shape the mediated arena (e.g. Bennett 1996; Carvalho 2007; Gamson et al., 1992; Gitlin 1980; Hansen 1991, 1993; Anderson 1997; Lester and Hutchins 2013; Schudson 1997; Tuchman 1978). Actors battle for control of the narrative, and the results of these battles are negotiated with newsrooms, resulting in content that can not only impact public opinion but also policy outcomes and political institutions. As Hall noted, journalists endeavor to reproduce what they have delineated as reality via the “active work of selecting and presenting, of structuring and shaping; not merely the transmitting of an already-existing meaning, but the more active labor of making things mean” (1982, p. 64). Pompper (2004, p. 102) noted that “news is characterized as a value-laden, manufactured, social construction shaped by complex subjective processes.”

Such functions of media take on special import when the heuristic bridge is extended to impacts on public opinion and policy. Decades of research into the triangulations among public, media and political agendas has supported Cohen’s (1963, p. 13) famous statement that media “may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.” Social constructionism then, examines the struggles for meaning-making and issue definition, the processes of the narrative constructions and deconstructions, and the factors impacting those processes and struggles as events unfold. The implications are not insignificant, as the news media are important informational fora for mass publics and serve to build public opinion, and impact policy outcomes and institutional change (Castells 2008; Curran 1991; Habermas 1989; Hallin and Mancini 2004). Classic Habermasian (1989) notions of the media as democratic public spheres where public opinion is shaped and civic interests are expressed allow for individuals in mass societies to use their powers of agency to formulate and affect state governance. This conceptual construct—not without criticism (e.g. Calhoun 1992; Fraser 1990)—nevertheless allows for analysis of media performance in democratic societies as public spheres react to market pressures and state encroachment. Newer iterations move the public sphere debate from national lines to global civic spaces, as networked societies scale up the dialogues (Castells 1998). The construct also serves to allow researchers to examine the degree to which publics are given critical information from diverse perspectives, how well media are holding governments accountable to their constituents, and whether civic interests are being promoted, whether civil society is being adequately served by its institutions, and the degree to which critical debate fosters strong institutions (Waisbord 2009).

These interfaces resonate in Latin America and beyond, where every nation is grappling with impacts wrought by accelerating climate change (IPCC 2014). In particular, there is urgency for developing nations, which are often the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and whose populations face ongoing environmental degradation (Magrin et al. 2007). Indeed, in recent years, rates of natural resource extraction have risen sharply, something Waisbord (2013b) attributes to neoliberal policies favoring foreign investment in extractive industries, weak environmental regulation and little transparency or public participation in policy decisions, particularly in the awarding of concessions to private industry. This latest extractivist boom, however, is only the most recent upswing in centuries-long cycles of commodity extraction and exploitation, with the latest iterations including mining, forestry, agriculture, and oil and gas drilling for global export. Harnessing economic and political power by exploiting natural resources clashes with urgent calls for increased conservation and more transparent management and accountability measures. Public opinion polls demonstrate increasing concern over global warming (Pew 2007). Yet official action demonstrates little elite political or economic will to reverse the extractivist processes that have maintained national economies for centuries, and, as we will discuss, media coverage does little to reflect or address that concern.

Normative democratic theory posits that democratic institutions and independent media systems facilitate a robust public sphere. In terms of environmental quality, research has found that democratic systems also encourage stronger environmental institutions and accountability (Neumayer 2002; Newall 2008; Payner 1995). As countries in Latin America emerged from authoritarian dictatorships towards the end of the twentieth century, more of those media systems became commercially funded, as administrations adopted neoliberal policies, opening up private sectors and welcoming foreign investment into national economies. In terms of cultivating citizenship, in various instances Latin American media have contributed positively to civic interests. They facilitated mobilizations in civil society during political elections or times of unrest in a number of cases (Hughes 2006; Hughes and Lawson 2005; Lawson 2002). Strong investigative reporting exposed countless scandals to publics throughout the region and democratic deepening moved some media outlets away from tabloidization and partisanship (Porto 2007; Waisbord 2000). Civic-oriented media championed the call for a return to democracy in Mexico, eventually resulting in the democratic presidential election of 2000 (Hughes 2006; Lawson 2002).

Even as democratic institutions remain in force across the region, structural and institutional arrangements in Latin America political and economic systems have facilitated the unevenness of the quality of public spheres to promote civic interests and official accountability, and reflect the varying configurations of commercial, political and civic principles that media organizations hold. Many mainstream media remain, as Waisbord (1999, p. 50) wrote, “between the rock of the state and the hard place of the market.” Complex and intertwined relations among media, states and markets impact levels of press freedom, and are complicated by political and economic instability; uneven journalistic professionalization; oligarchic and increasingly concentrated ownership patterns; increasing attacks against journalists, often with impunity for the attackers; collusion among media owners, business officials and state actors; the demands of advertisers; punitive legal environments; and lack of access to public information (de Cardona Fox 2002; Hallin & Mancini 2004; Harlow 2012; Hughes 2006; Hughes and Lawson 2005; Pinto 2008; Porto 2007; Waisbord 2000). What Waisbord (2013b, p. 155) calls “media patrimonialism” reflects the particularly complex media–state relations in the region, as elsewhere:

Patronage dynamics characterize structural relations between governments and news organizations, as well as between officials and reporters.…Media patrimonialism is characterized by discretionary decision-making by politicians who use public goods to reward loyalists and punish opponents in the press.

Such patrimonialist apparatuses and relations have been widely documented by scholars across academic disciplines, including anthropologists, geographers, political scientists and others observing extractivist economies and activities, the decision-making process for granting concessions to foreign extractors, and ensuing environmental degradation. Media studies, too, has a role to play in studying news constructions of environmental conflict. Conflicts, as they are socially developed and involve emerging narratives, also have myriad dimensions that must be examined, as scholars seek to understand “the complexities of situations in which mutually independent parties struggle to cope with their incompatible interests” (Brummans et al. 2008, p. 25). We define environmental conflicts, broadly, as having to do with tensions regarding choices over using natural resources and the natural environment, and their protection. Conflicts translate into ecological winners and losers, as costs and benefits are distributed among actors unequally and it is important to deconstruct disparate values and attitudes societal groups have regarding those resources, as stakeholders’ investments in the outcome, potential harms, benefits and uncertainty relate to various facets of the issues (Bryant and Bailey 1997, pp. 28–29; Crowfoot and Wondeleck 1990; Opotow and Weiss 2000, pp. 475–477).

Borrowing from political ecology can inform our analysis and bring about a better understanding of social constructions of news coverage of environmental conflict over the use of natural systems. From this view, environmental transformations are inextricably linked with political economies and society, and environmental conditions are the product of political process (Bryant and Bailey 1997; Peet and Watts 1996; Watts 2000). News as socially produced parallels various components of the political ecology tradition, as both seek to understand concepts of differential power, hegemony, knowledge, development, governance, scale and modernization in discourse surrounding environmental issues. Latent dimensions of race, gender and class are also important to understand in the reconfiguring narratives.

Scale is particularly important, and the “politics of scale” and transforming scalar arrangements are understood to be socially constructed (Brown and Purcell 2005; Bulkley 2005; Marston 2004; Marston and Smith 2001). As Henne and Gabrielson (2012, p. 155) wrote:

Questions of scale are critical to understanding the discursive framing of environmental problems and solutions, the mobilization and counter-mobilization of constituencies and the construction and adoption of political strategies by various parties to environmental conflict.

Environmental problems are experienced at the local level, but political reactions and solutions to the issue are often located at a different scale. Discursive practices surrounding these scalar arrangements can invoke “scale frames,” serving to include or exclude, to silence and marginalize, or to reverberate and expand movements or reap political consequences (Hempel 1996; Henne and Gabrielson 2012, p. 156; Kurtz 2003). Such frames are often linked to processes of racialization (Sundberg 2012). Indeed, according to Robbins (2004, p.175):

postcolonial analysis of history has demonstrated the way that development and environmental management initiatives, no matter how well intended, tend to be based on assumptions that are classed, gendered and raced.

These differentiated processes present intense difficulties for affected populations, including differential treatment and support, access to decision-makers, planners and donors, or autonomy to plan and become resilient. As van Dijk (2009, p. 10) wrote, “the most blatantly racist discourses that remain are those about the indigenous peoples, especially where these form large minorities or majorities.” And it is precisely these groups who are often the citizens who are impacted the most, as their communities are located in areas of rich natural resources, far from the political and economic power centers.

In the twentieth century, struggles to reclassify long-standing conceptualizations of race, gender and class challenged social authority, and discourses surrounding modernization, development and nation-building became important in understanding how these social demarcations affect environmental formations. As Sundberg (2008, p. 577) asked:

What does the changing place of race in organizing citizenship in Latin American societies mean for struggles over resources? Who is deemed expendable for the sake of development and why? How are perceived differences in environmental practices used to promote or further social and environmental exclusions? Conversely, how are they used to make claims for inclusion?

One answer was that racialization processes are inherently linked to natural resource distribution, land use management, access to healthy environmental formations, exposure to hazards, and access to and voice in environmental policy processes (Sundberg 2008, p. 579). Deconstructions of development discourses regarding populations who, in response to political and economic pressures engage in activities that worsen environmental degradation, for example, can be studied in order to look at the hegemonic dimensions (Stott and Sullivan 2000).

Therefore, political ecology analyses can lend themselves well to understanding mediated discourses, as scholars seek to understand the overt and latent dimensions of discourse surrounding environmental conflict. How these constructions are formulated allows deeper understandings of the connections between socio-institutional interactions, powerful actors, privileged narratives, political decision-making processes and bureaucratic structuring that have shaped and guided change to mediated content concerning environmental conflicts over time (Forsyth 2003; Barton and Floysand 2010).

Political ecology analyses often focus on development discourses and their reconfigurations throughout time. Gudynas (2009) sees neo-extractivism as the latest incarnation of development discourse, something historically evolved from modernization theories, and proposes that nature and natural resources are the key to development and well-being. Indeed, political ecologists see how the formation of state power arose in the “right place[s] at the right time,” as global capitalist networks developed and required an actor such as a state to provide public goods and common currencies (Bryant and Bailey 1997, p. 53). Such logics of coloniality and modernity manifested in elite opinion and discourse over the centuries (Stetson 2012), but how are those words translated by regional and national media, how do they reflect or shape power relations, and what are the implications for journalism in the region? Critical political ecology theory here provides an important route to mapping the development and means that social actors have employed to affect current outcomes and structures, in terms of environmental change (Barton and Floysand 2010). Central to this conceptual framework are issues of power and hegemony in discourse, interactions and social relations. As Islam (2007, p. 142) noted in his study of deforestation in Bangladesh, ignoring power inequalities in discourse then obfuscates the realities of environmental shifts and the domination of certain narratives over others:

Stories representing realities are generally narrated or shaped by the power of politics and capital; parties which would not then be best pleased with alternative realities being narrated and substantiated, which differ from their own.

Socially Constructed News and Environmental Conflicts

In taking a media-centric approach to understand conflict discourse, we also borrow from the rich history of research studying variables that affect news production in a comparative context (e.g. Carvalho & Burgess 2005; Hanitzsch et al. 2010; Reese 2001; Shoemaker and Reese 1996; Shoemaker and Vos 2009; Shoemaker et al. 2001; Voakes 1997; Waisbord 2000; Weaver 2007). We focus on journalistic role performance, including indexing, framing and source selection, as well as surveying organizational cultures and ideologies, political and economic systemic pressures, and individual belief systems and professional orientations. Such a multilayered approach helps in understanding the narrative over time, and provides for richer data, deeper context and, ultimately, more comprehensive understanding of newsroom decisions.

Perceptions of what constitutes “the environment” and our relations to it and with it can impact perceived salience of environmental issues. As environmental belief systems and ideologies impact attitudes and behaviors, issues relating to the natural world can lie along varying scales of importance, value, worth or necessity. Emphases applied to social understandings of nature can lie along a continuum of anthropogenic to eco- or bio-centric, with the former being the dominant utilitarian view of natural systems that must be used to be sustained, and the latter meaning a view of nature as worthy without human intervention, and humans as part of it (Corbett 2006). How audiences and news-makers perceive nature and environmental systems has implications for news production.

Individual performances and orientations scale up to structural levels, as highly commercialized and increasingly concentrated media companies focus on market forces rather than civic interests. Lester (2010) noted the vulnerability of media companies to powerful interests and profit margins, as news companies have been forced to reduce staff and therefore have less ability to cover issues such as environmental conflict in depth. However, she adds, earlier studies of coverage of environmental issues in South America found that it had not kept pace with other areas, such as coverage of crime or the economy, even though most Latin American economies are highly dependent on the exploitation of natural resources (Hansen 1993). Famously, Herman and Chomsky’s (1988, p. 1) discussion of the mass media’s propaganda function of integrating individuals into “a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest” focused on the problems of highly concentrated ownership and profit-driven decision-making for quality news production.

Organizational structures and limitations may also impact production. Given transformations in news media business models and platforms, reductions across industries globally have meant disruptions in beat reporting. However, beat reporting in Latin American newsrooms can mean particular challenges, such as poor access to public information or databases, violence against journalists who do report on environmental contamination, impunity for corporate or official wrongdoing, little time and no extra resources to devote to investigative reporting (Nauman 2003). Waisbord and Peruzzotti (2009, p. 702) wrote of Argentina that “none of the major news organizations have sections devoted to environmental news.”

Journalism as a profession lends itself to study of both the expectations of what it should be, along with the practices that result in content (Hanitzsch 2007; Schudson 1989). Hanitzsch (2007, p. 369) conceptualized journalistic professional roles as particular skills and knowledge sets that delineate them from other societal sectors and give them value and meaning. This builds on Bourdieu’s (1991) field theory, which stipulated that modern societal organizations involve spheres of specialized human activities. In journalism, professional and organizational journalistic norms, routines and standards can function to privilege the legitimacy of one narrative over another, and increase or decrease public recognition of the issue, actor, risk or hazard (Bennett et al. 2004; Boykoff & Boykoff 2004; Shoemaker and Reese 1996). The strength of the influence of professional norms on news has not always been observed to be significant, however (Weaver and Wilhoit 1996).

While there is much discussion regarding conceptualizations of journalistic professionalization in a globalized world (see Waisbord 2013a for a comprehensive overview), Mellado (2015, p. 602) provides a useful tool to connect journalistic performance with newsroom decision making and empirically measure the degree to which journalistic role performance is an outcome of professional negotiations. Here, journalistic voice, and the relations they hold with power actors as well as with audiences, can be observed to varying degrees.

In terms of the evaluative conceptualizations versus the practice, U.S. journalistic reliance on finding opposing views to find “balance”; and increased prioritization on emphasizing drama, polarization, conflict, novelty or personalization, have been cited as negatively impacting the quality of climate change news coverage in the U.S.A. (e.g. Anderson 1997; Boykoff 2011; Boykoff and Boykoff 2007; Brossard et al. 2004; Hansen 1993; Lester 2010; Sachsman et al. 2005). Reactive and event-centered journalism has also meant cycles of attention to such issues, rather than consistent coverage. Djerf-Pierre (2012, p. 505), returning to Down’s (1972) issue attention cycle theory, found that Swedish media’s attention to environmental issues over 40 years largely focused on cata strophes, scandals, alarms and controversies, and reflects an institutionalization of newsroom evaluations of environmental content. Within the realm of news values, novelty and controversy have been found to apply to environmental issues as much as others, such as impact and immediacy (Friedman et al. 1999; Hansen 1993; Lester & Hutchins 2012).


One such routine that has received broad scholarly attention is the well-documented journalistic reliance on official sources and channels which populates content with elite definitions and terms (e.g. Bennett 1990; Bennett et al. 2004; Brown et al. 1989; Curran 1991; Entman 2004; Gans 1979; Hallin 1986, 1994; Hallin et al. 1993; Sigal 1973; Zoch and Turk 1998). Bennett’s indexing hypothesis posits that journalists confine their news coverage and restrict source access according to the actual degree of elite consensus or debate among established interests (Bennett 1990). Related to gatekeeping, indexing involves allowing access to news according to cues from elite actors, particularly in the case of foreign policy, national security and defense (Hallin et al. 1993; Dickson 1992; Kim 2000). As Bennett (2003, p. 4) explains, the practice generally involves:

closing the news gates to citizen activists (and more generally, a broad range of views) depending on levels of conflict or political difference among public officials and established interests with the capacity to influence decisions about the issue in question.

Exceptions may include cases of breaking news, crisis, dramatic scandals involving elites or when civil society voices gain access via public relations strategies (Bennett 2003, p. 4). The hypothesis is a useful concept for understanding newsroom production in comparative context, as we are undertaking here, as well as providing linkages to political structuring, news sourcing patterns and influences in the national media ecosystem. In their study of German and U.S. news coverage after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Park et al. (2015) found while the news in both the U.S.A. and Germany indexed itself to political debate, the news in those two countries differed significantly in coverage of sustainability, consumption and energy sources, as diverse political parties debated those issues in Germany, but not in the U.S.A. In another study, Shehata and Hopman (2012) observed that international actors had more of an influence on climate change news frames than did national actors.


Indeed, as debate around environmental issues becomes increasingly politicized and fractious, how such issues are packaged and presented to audiences has special import. Framing theory, straddling various disciplines, deals with all aspects of communication, from how journalists organize news articles around central axes to create coherent contexts, to how audiences unpack those frames to comprehend and reproduce the issues (Nisbet 2009; Pompper 2004). As Tuchman wrote, frames “are public documents that lay a world before us” (Tuchman 1978, p. 97). Frames present information in such a way that audiences readily may infer meanings and “what the story is about” from language choice (Entman 1993; Gamson and Modigliani 1989; Gitlin 1980; Graber 1989; Tuchman 1978). Dunwoody and Griffin (1993, p. 24) note that frames employed by journalists in a variety of U.S. media employ “similar mental maps, and thus, produce stories that reconstitute the world in similar ways.”

Journalists and other narrative constructors consciously and unconsciously report certain perspectives while ignoring others, with the end result of promoting a particular perceived reality and making it more salient to the public (Entman 1993, p. 52). There is tremendous pressure to gain access to mediated arenas, as those whose voices are heard in the news are more likely to succeed in the struggle to dominate the narrative, define the issue parameters and prevail in establishing the legitimacy of their point of view. Therefore, sources and other “frame sponsors” work to be selected as voices that represent legitimate and authoritative perspectives in constructing issue frames (Pan and Kosicki 1993). Such sponsorship may happen on the part of the journalist as she develops her own construction of an event, or through the journalist as she utilizes the constructions uttered by others to report on an event (Van Gorp 2007, p. 68). The latter scenario may be linked to news production routines. Manheim (1998, p. 96) suggested that journalists frequently rely on frame sponsors who:

strive systematically to ensure, insofar as possible, that the work product of journalism reflects events and an environment, and creates a reality, which they, and not the journalists, define.

Entman (2004, p. 9–22) describes this process of frame translation and activation in his model of cascading activation. Here, high-level political actors release information organized strategically to privilege their narrative. This can be contested or maintained by journalists, or repackaged into their own strategic frames. Such activation was seen in the Eide and Ytterstad (2011) study of Norwegian media coverage of the Bali Climate Summit, as news coverage was activated by political actors’ frame packages.

Framing provides clarity on shifting narratives in environmental conflicts, often protracted and dynamic processes that pit communities, neighbors, businesses or government entities against others in long-lasting battles. Lewicki et al. (2003, p. 5) termed these types of conflicts “intractable” and discussed the importance of frames in this context:

For intractable conflicts in particular, even though actors change, contexts transform, and the arenas in which dispute episodes are staged shift, the conflict persists. Our data also suggest that framing has much more to do with this intransigence and that shifts in frames can make a conflict more or less intractable.

Culture and Ideology

Culture and ideology conceptual constructs provide fascinating avenues of exploration into the social construction of news, and are deeply intertwined not only in the production of environmental discourses but also audience reception of them. As Boykoff (2009, p. 167) wrote, “[t]he cultural politics of climate change are situated—power-laden, media-led and recursive—in an ongoing battlefield of knowledge and interpretation.” These sets of attitudes and beliefs, and their connections to value systems that dictate normative views are central to socially constructed news. Carvalho (2007, p. 223) noted that media evaluations of scientific claims are “strongly entangled” with ideological viewpoints, as “facts” and “experts” were assessed in value-laden, normative or political terms. Guzmán (2006, p. 282) agreed that news was “an ideological construction of reality.”

Ideological constructions have deep roots that extend back centuries, even millennia, as humans struggled to define their relationship with the natural world. All environmental messaging is influenced by individual experiences, geographies, histories and cultures (Corbett 2006, p. 6). Ideological understandings of “nature” in the U.S.A. after European colonization were reconfigured and transformed, as natural resource systems were given an entirely functional utility and largely viewed as a “storehouse of commodities, there for the taking” (Corbett 2006, p. 22). Indeed, Miller (2007) contrasts Native American and European conquistadors’ views of natural systems and commodities in terms of utility, property, exploitation, consumption and sustainability as vastly different in some respects; for Europeans, “[a]bove all else, humans want to know nature’s utility” (2007, p. 67). Others have studied communication regarding the environment in relation to ideological constructions of the utility of the environment under capitalism and neoliberalism (Cottle 2006; Couldry 2010). Such ideological expression was evident in Ecuadorian media when a constitutional referendum to give rights to natural systems moved forward, eventually passing. News and opinion painted this switch from nature as property to nature as an entity with legal standing in sharply dualistic terms, such as reason/emotion and civilized/primitive (Pinto 2012). In capitalistic societies, Moore (2016, p. 5) argues, we have not just entered the Anthropocene, but rather the “Capitalocene,” as dualist framings of nature and society entail the violence, oppression and exclusion of modern capitalistic societies.

News production structurations also privilege ideology, as Cottle (2006) discusses, and parallel the indexing hypothesis findings that elite actors are over-relied upon and given privileged access to mediated spheres. Pressure from multiple daily deadlines, and journalists’ reliance on the professional norms of balance, impartiality and objectivity, gives elite actors within institutions and organizations a structure that delivers “privileged and routine entry into the news itself and to the manner of its production” (quoted in Cottle, p. 124). This has resulted in over-reliance on quotes from political and economic heavyweights, and increasingly from powerful and large NGOs that are linked to environmental causes.

Comparative research of an issue so global in scope and nature also provides an opportunity to examine cultural nuances relating to collective orientations of human relations to natural systems as well as journalistic practices in different media systems (Brossard et al. 2004). Media systems in South America historically developed from two press traditions: that of the European partisan media linked directly to distinct political actors and the so-called neutral, objective style of U.S. independent, commercial media (Waisbord 1999, 2000). These models have fluctuated, with one presenting more distinctly than the other at times. During much of the first half of the twentieth century, South American media featured prominent partisan ties, but in the latter half, shifts to neoliberal policies moved media toward more commercial orientations that Waisbord (2010) has called “market-powerful.” However, in some cases economic and political instability and fluctuations provided an occasion to observe the power of the state to influence media performance.

Although some have argued that coverage of environmental, science and technology in the region is on the rise (Massarani et al. 2005; Massarani and Buys 2007; Mellado et al. 2012) others have noted a paucity in the time and space devoted to environmental and scientific affairs. Particularly in terms of climate change, this has been found to be supported across Latin America, as well as within U.S. Spanish-language media (Gordon et al. 2010; Kitzberger and Pérez 2008; Pinto and Vigon 2014; Takahashi and Meisner 2013; Takahashi et al. 2015; Villar and Pinto 2013; Zamith et al. 2013). When the topic is covered, studies have critiqued news as being superficial, focused on the short-term crisis at hand, reliant on official sources rather than scientists, largely taken from wire services, and lacking in statement of agency for audiences (e.g. Boykoff and Roberts 2007; Carabaza González 2007; González et al. 2007; Encalada 2001; Reis 1999; Takahashi and Meisner 2013).

However, within that coverage, nuances do exist and are worth exploring. One observed trend is that Latin American media, along with other non-U.S. media systems, tend to frame climate change in terms of international relations. Mexican media focus on international treaties as the solution to climate change (Gordon et al. 2010, p. 165). In her study of Argentine coverage, Mercado (2012) found that climate change was viewed in terms of international conflict between developed and developing nations. Similarly, Waisbord and Peruzzoti (2009) studied environmental conflict in Argentine news and found it to be increasingly covered along nationalistic lines. Peruvian press coverage of a major climate change conference framed it as political strategy (Takahashi 2011); Chilean coverage of climate change varied according to organizational ideology but favored government themes and sources (Dotson et al. 2012). Brazilian newspapers covered climate change more than their counterparts in the region and framed it in economic and political terms (Zamith et al. 2013). In Ecuador, coverage of an oil spill in the Galápagos Islands was largely framed as a political conflict, as local governments battled with the national government over clean-up costs (Encalada 2001).

Another trend is an observed disconnect between the salience of climate change and environmental news for the news professionals, and their actual coverage of it. For example, in interviews with reporters and editors in Mexico and with U.S.-based Hispanic media professionals, many said that the environment as a beat was important and should be covered more but wasn’t because of lack of interest on the part of audiences and gatekeeping within organizations (Takahashi et al. 2015). The same was true for Mexican reporters, who considered global warming important, but not “the most important” topic (Gordon et al. 2010, p. 165).


Our approach to understand the variables influencing news production regarding these contestations over management and control of natural resources in a region that is a major source of global commodities involves case studies where we analyze how actors and institutions seek to shape the message, win public opinion and shape policy or legal outcomes. For this volume, we selected three case studies which allow important comparisons: all three garnered intense media coverage regionally, nationally and internationally; all have to do with conflict surrounding natural resource management in remote locations far from urban centers in social systems of high inequality; and all involve complex layers of regional and national politics, indigenous politics, national rhetoric and international power players. However, these cases allow for contrast, as well, as each study involves particular contextual political, economic and social fabrics.

This project grew from an earlier study of news coverage of the Chevron oil contamination case in Ecuador. What we found as a result of that research—discussed in  Chapter 3—provided the foundation for this book and led us to look at other contested situations of environmental degradation elsewhere in South America to provide opportunity for comparison and contrast. South America is a fascinating continent, where cultural nuances do not end at national boundaries, and where historical evolution of media, national identity, and development strategies and economic and political realities have some similarities, but also diverge in important ways. For that reason, we set out to analyze cases of claims-making surrounding news coverage of controversial environmental mega-projects in major South American media markets that display similar patterns of oligopolistic media ownership.

For the second case study we chose the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam complex in Brazil that proponents say will provide much-needed energy to a fast-growing nation, and that opponents charge will destroy important and vast ecosystems, displace thousands of residents and impact the cultural heritage and livelihood of indigenous populations in ancestral lands they have occupied for centuries. Expected to be the fourth-largest mega-dam in the world, Belo Monte will power a growing number of transnational extractivist industries that have their sights set on Amazonia’s mineral wealth, and open the floodgates for the construction of additional hydroelectric projects in the increasingly less remote Brazilian rainforest. The third case study in this volume examines news coverage of yet another transnational multi-billion dollar investment: the Pascua Lama mine on the border between Argentina and Chile. Representatives of Canadian conglomerate Barrick Gold and Chilean government officials have argued that the project will deliver substantial economic spillovers, such as more jobs and better infrastructure for nearby communities and dismissed predictions of severe environmental impact from the removal of three glaciers and the contamination of the Atacama desert watershed. Caught in the middle, the indigenous Diaguita people who reside in the Huasco Valley argued that the presumptive economic benefits will not compensate for their losses in agriculture. All three cases involve mediated discourses of urban–rural geographies, voices of indigenous and non-indigenous contestants, sets of media–state relations that allow for comparison and contrast, and national development policies that rely largely on natural resource exploitation for international market demand.

Content Analysis

For all cases, we first analyze regional and national daily news published by major news organizations with differing perspectives and strong print and online presences within each nation. We examine digital mainstream news coverage at regional and national levels of the conflicts in the three countries and discuss the results in terms of political, cultural and social contexts. Sources, frames, themes, actors and discursive constructions are examined to gauge the presentation of each environmental conflict to local, national and international audiences according to each medium surveyed. We ask how discourses surrounding modernity, progress, culture, citizenship, risk and identity are intertwined with messaging regarding the controversy at hand, its impacts and policy implications, how the legacy media constructed them over time, and how they reflect translations of scale at local, national and international levels. In particular, we were interested in looking at the relationships between specific attributes: the frame of the news article and the scope of the newspaper, the principal actor of the news and the emerging themes, the principal and secondary actors of the news, and the principal actors and their opinions about resource extraction.

The content analyses compared online newspaper articles from mass circulated newspapers in the capital and business centers in each of the countries under study. Online news was selected, as the debate reflected an international scope and we wished to examine the news local, national and global audiences were reading. Furthermore, online content from newspapers has been long deemed to be a strong equivalent for print (Quandt 2008). All articles were reviewed to ensure they were news articles rather than opinion pieces, and were relevant to the topic. This summative content analysis borrows from Hsieh and Shannon’s (2005) approach of counting and comparing pre-identified keywords (derived from the literature) and textual content, then interpreting the contextual meaning contained in the narrative. In this manner, the interpretation of the content amplifies the initial quantitative method and count of frequencies with an analysis of how words are used in relation to the subject matter. While this method adds depth to the researchers’ understanding of the broader context within which the social construction of meaning occurs, its limitation can reside in the consistency of analysis. For that reason, intercoder reliability was tested to ascertain the credibility and validity of the data analysis. Four coders proficient in Spanish and two proficient in Portuguese established and verified 21 coding categories. A test of one-tenth of the sample delivered simple intercoder agreement, a measure of reliability that was further tested and verified by an independent coder. Intercoder agreement achieved 90 percent for the Brazil sample, 89 percent for the Ecuador sample and 88 percent for the Chile sample.

The Ecuador case was our initial exploratory case study and therefore presents some differences from the other two. Here, we employed a quantitative and qualitative content analysis to ensure a robust understanding of the news content. For the quantitative analysis, we used a modified version of frame, script and source typologies applied to other “science related policy debate” (Nisbet 2009). Nisbet (2009) conceptualizes framing as an interpretive narrative that sets up the logic for ascribing responsibility, problematizing an issue or identifying possible solutions to problems. Framing is thus understood as a lens that lends emphasis to particular aspects of a problem. This typology for discussion of climate change, which Nisbet evolved from studies conducted in the natural sciences, contributes rigor to the analysis and adds nuance to the researchers’ understanding of the varied frames, scripts and sources that permeate news media representations. It allowed us to examine the contestation in the story in the context of a mediated battleground involving resource control, national policy and moral themes via the application of frames and applied sourcing pattern. It also allowed us to link to theoretical notions of risk, as delineated in Beck’s notion of developing nations shifting from a view of resource extraction in terms of progress to wanting to reduce their risks to contamination and other hazards.

We examined two Ecuadorian dailies with high circulations and online presence, El Universo and El Comercio, as newspapers of prestige with national reach for Ecuadorian audiences. El Universo (located in the business capital Guayaquil) is the number two newspaper in terms of circulation, and El Comercio, in the capital Quito, is the third; both “are influential in the political and economic public opinion of the country” (Jordan-Tobar and Panchana-Macay 2009, p. 119). We used a Google search of the terms “Chevron” and “Texaco” to identify and locate news articles in online archives published from January 2002 to February 2010, resulting in a final sample of 370 items.

For the qualitative analysis of the Ecuador articles, we used NVivo software to search for risk themes and explore the use of them, as well as to examine who was allowed into the mediated arena to voice them. We searched the news articles for risk words (Sandman et al. 1987, pp. 7–8, 111). These words included “risk,” “danger,” “health,” “probability,” “contamination,” “damage” and “security,” and their variations. We examined these texts to determine if the use of the word was relevant to our study (i.e. “security” was not used in the sense of military action or national security, with no reference to the case explored here).

For the study of Brazilian and Chilean news media content, we employed a largely quantitative content analysis. Based on Wozniak et al. (2015), we looked at frequencies and crosstabs. Our analysis included 601 news articles from two of the main newspapers with national circulation in each country, O Globo and Folha de São Paulo in Brazil and El Mercurio and La Tercera in Chile. The period of analysis varies according to the peak of each controversy, but is long enough to assess not only the evolution of each case, but also to put in perspective the dominant narrative presented by major news media gatekeepers. For the Brazil case study we used a Google search of the terms “Belo Monte” and “Norte Energia” to identify and locate news articles in online archives published from January 2013 to February 2015, resulting in a final sample of 375 items. For Chile, we used a Google search of the terms “Pascua Lama” and “Minera Nevada” to identify and locate news articles in online archives published from November 2008 to March 2015, resulting in a final sample of 226 items. Table 2.1 provides a brief summary of each environmental conflict, the newspapers analyzed, the total number of articles for each newspaper, and the period of analysis for each case.
Table 2.1

Environmental conflict by country


Environmental conflict


News articles



Dam in Belo Monte

Folha de São Paulo


January 2013–February 2015

O Globo





Pascua Lama mine

El Mercurio


November 2008–March 2015

La Tercera





Land contamination with toxic residuals by Texaco-Chevron

El Comercio


January 2002–February 2010

El Universo




The variables we used for the analysis were scope, frame, tone, emerging themes, principal actor, secondary actor, and principal actor’s opinion. Each variable contains different categories. The scope of the news was determined by the location based on the dateline, and contains five categories: (a) capital; (b) provincial; (c) national; (d) international; and (e) other. The predominant frame also included five categories: (a) business as usual, which is also considered a low mimetic narrative; (b) romantic, which refers to news that was presented as a “triumph over adversity” or a situation in which “an obstacle is overcome”; (c) tragic, which refers to news that was presented as “all efforts are futile”; (d) apocalyptic, which includes news that was presented as “the end is near” or as “a struggle to save the planet”; and (e) melodramatic, referring mostly to situations involving social or political conflicts.1

The dominant tone of the news has five categories: (a) fatalistic; (b) optimistic; (c) neutral/not excited; (d) passionate; and (e) pessimistic. The emerging themes with regard to energy/resource extraction were coded into six categories: (a) development or progress; (b) national prerogative; (c) necessary evil; (d) corporate-driven; (e) inevitably destructive; and (f) other. The principal and secondary actors of the news were classified into 11 categories: (a) local government; (b) national government; (c) military; (d) private sector/corporate; (e) civil society (NGOs, citizen associations); (f) indigenous communities; (g) documents; (h) courts or lawyers; (i) journalist/media; (j) other; (k) foreign government. Both the principal and secondary actors are proxies for the sources of news. By finding out more about the principal and secondary sources of the news articles we can infer whether news content is in line with definitions and terms established by elite groups. This in turn serves as evidence to either accept or reject Bennett’s indexing hypothesis. Finally, we created four different categories to represent the principal actor’s opinion toward energy/resource extraction: (a) no opinion; (b) in favor; (c) balanced opinion, including pros and cons; and (d) opposed. We looked at the individual frequencies of each of these variables as well as crosstabs between them as a preliminary step for meaningful relationships.

Coincidence Analysis

For all three case studies, we employed coincidence analysis techniques in addition to frequencies and crosstabs, to uncover the structure of the relationships among the different categories that resulted from the content analysis of the news articles in each country. Coincidence analysis consists of a set of techniques that allows for the study of coincidences of events, actors, attributes, opinions, or any other combination of these. It is suitable for content analysis of news articles and has many applications in the study of social networks, or in the analysis of categorical data coming from questionnaires (Escobar 2015).

In particular, we were interested in looking at the relationships between specific categories. For instance, we were interested in understanding whether the frame of the news article was somehow related with the scope of the newspaper; whether the principal actor of the news was a determinant of the emerging themes. Also, whether the principal and secondary actors of the news were related, and if so, how. Finally, we looked for patterns in the relationship between the principal actors and their opinions about resource extraction.

Coincidence analysis sought out events that occurred at the same time within different delimited spaces, each of which represents a scenario. For the purpose of this analysis, each scenario is a news article and we use the term “event” in a broad sense—an event could be a specific attribute or a person. So the frame of the news, the scope of the newspaper, the emerging themes of the news, the actors of the news (principal and secondary), or actors’ opinions are all treated as polytomous variables containing possible specific events.

For each event, we created a dichotomous variable taking the values of one (1) when the event occurred or zero (0) otherwise. For example, in the case of the scope of the newspaper (a polytomous variable), there are five different possibilities of events. It could be capital, national, provincial, international or other. However, each news article can only contain one option. Therefore, there are five dichotomous variables, one for each event. So, if the scope of the news was capital, the variable was coded as 1, whereas the others took the value of 0.

In a similar fashion, the frame of the news included five different possibilities: business, romantic, tragic, apocalyptic and melodramatic. Each of those represents an event that can take the value of 1 if a particular frame is found in a news article. Or it could be 0 if the event does not occur. For instance, if the frame of the news article was found to be romantic then the dichotomous variable for this frame was coded as 1, and each of the variables for the other frames were coded with 0.

Table 2.2 offers a visual example of this procedure. The first row contains the scenario and the name of each variable. Polytomous variables are in upper caps to distinguish them from the dichotomous ones (small caps). The first column refers to each of the news articles in the sample. Each subscript represents a number given to the article. The subscript n refers to the last news article in our sample.2 The second and third columns refer to the scope and frame of the news respectively. Each of the last five columns represents one specific frame and they were coded as dichotomous variables. So we can observe that in the first news article, News article1, the frame is romantic, which is coded as 1, whereas the rest of the variables took values of 0. In the case of News article2, since the frame is business, the dichotomous variable for this one is coded as 1, but the others are 0.3 A similar procedure was followed for scope and the other categories.
Table 2.2

Polytomous and dichotomous variables in each news article

News article



Business as usual





News article1








News article2








News article3









News articlen








Once all the binary variables are created for each category of the polytomous variables, the next step is to create an incidence matrix. This matrix contains frequencies of coincidences based on the categories of our interest. For instance, if we are interested in the relationship between the scope and frame of the news, we look for all of the cases where each of the categories for scope occurs at the same time as each of the categories for frame. Therefore, we can determine how many news articles coincide with a capital scope and which coincide with a romantic frame. Or, how many articles have an international scope and were framed as business as usual.

The incidence matrix serves as the foundation for a multidimensional scaling graph, which is a graphical representation of the frequencies contained in the incidence matrix with a sociogram, better known as a network graph (see Figs. in  Chapters 3 5). The number of dimensions is determined by the number of polytomous variables analyzed each time. Usually, coincidence analysis is performed with two-dimensional network graphs. But complex analysis requires more than two.4 Each node represents an event and its size is determined by its frequency of occurrence within the sample of news articles. Thus the greater the frequency of the event, the larger the node. In addition, each node may be connected to one or more nodes, or it may not be connected to any other node. Each line in the network graph represents a connection. The number of connections (lines) is determined by the number of coincidences with other events. An isolated node is an event that is not coincident with the other events in the network.


Content analyses were complemented with semi-structured interviews, encapsulating 35 hours of interviews with 26 journalists, editors and stakeholders in the three countries, conducted over the course of three years over telephone, Skype, email, or in person. The total number of interviews (N = 26) meets the median for studies of this nature (Jensen et al. 2013). Initial respondents were identified based on bylines in the news articles included in the overall sample. Each interviewee was then asked to identify other individuals who might be knowledgeable about the topic and might agree to participate in this research. Whereas this snowball sampling method is valuable in identifying participants willing to discuss topics that could be considered politically sensitive, it does increase the likelihood that respondents may share common characteristics, or similar social and educational backgrounds. Since the questions examined in this study revolve around professional practices and norms adopted by journalists in South America, it is to be expected that respondents will share somewhat similar social and educational backgrounds. In Brazil, interviews with reporters, editors and other stakeholders complemented a quantitative analysis of 375 news articles published in two leading family-owned daily newspapers of national reach, O Globo and Folha de São Paulo, during the two-year period starting in January 2013, following violent protests against the dam. Interviews with journalists based in Chile and its neighbor countries complemented a quantitative analysis of 226 news articles published in two leading national daily newspapers, El Mercurio and its main competitor La Tercera, between November 2008 and March 2015. Interviews with journalists based in Ecuador complemented the content analysis and quantitative analysis of 370 news articles published in the major dailies El Comercio and rival El Universo between January 2002 and February 2010. The interviews, which lasted anywhere from 30 to 120 minutes, were conducted until such time as the interviewer determined that no new themes emerged (Flick 2002).

In each case, we asked about the processes involved in reporting the news surrounding each conflict. In particular, we asked about source selection, story placement, editorial decisions, advertising pressures, political orientation, audience feedback, omissions, reporting constraints (data access, funding) and organizational imperatives. The responses were qualitatively analyzed for shared themes, deeper meanings or exclusions.

Each of the next three chapters encompasses a description of the case study, the controversy and its context, along with the results of the content analysis and the analysis of the interviews. In each, we ask, how was the issue defined over time? Who was cited and how did their legitimacy and prominence change over time? How was the issue framed, and how did those frames link to ideological discourses regarding development, national identity, sustainability and citizenship? We begin with the case study that initiated the idea for this book: the decades-long legal battle regarding widespread oil contamination in the Ecuadorian rainforest that has allegedly had a severe impact on the health of residents living there. It revolves around key themes of mediated constructions of risk, identity, injury, responsibility and national development.


  1. 1.

    The variable frame in the Ecuador case was coded using a different instrument. It includes 16 categories: (a) social progress; that is, if the news is presented as an issue of improving the quality of life or as living in harmony with nature; (b) solidarity; that is, whether the issue was presented in terms of empathy with other populations; (c) social/environmental justice; that is, if the issue was presented in terms of distribution of resources, democratic participation, equity, conflict, race or class; (d) economic development/competitiveness; that is, if the narrative was focused in terms of market benefits or risks; (e) morality and ethics; that is, if the angle taken is about what is right or what is wrong; (f) scientific/technical uncertainty; that is, when it was left to experts to decide; (g) risk/Pandora’s box; that is, if the news was about precautions in the face of dangerous consequences; (h) fatalism; that is, if there was no way to avoid the consequences; (i) public accountability and governance; that is, if it was presented as an issue of transparency, participation and responsiveness; (j) middle way/alternative path; that is, when there was third way between polarizing views; (k) conflict and strategy, referring to loss or gain frames; that is, who is winning or losing, or a battle between personalities or groups; (l) identity frame; that is, when there was a person’s orientation or individual interest in the conflict, the community had a role on it, or if it was related to local institutions; (m) characterization of others; that is, if there were attributions of blame, or different perceptions between groups; (n) legal narrative; (o) other; and (p) multiple frames.

  2. 2.

    In our database we created a specific ID number for each news article.

  3. 3.

    In the instrument used in Brazil and Chile, frames are mutually exclusive, which means that there only can be one frame in a news article. However, in the case of Ecuador, we allowed for the possibility of multiple frames.

  4. 4.

    Since we are interested in looking at relations between two variables, that is, frame and scope, we used two-dimensional network graphs.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Juliet Pinto
    • 1
  • Paola Prado
    • 2
  • J. Alejandro Tirado-Alcaraz
    • 3
  1. 1.Journalism and Mass CommunicationFlorida International UniversityNorth MiamiUSA
  2. 2.Communication DeptRoger Williams UniversityBristolUSA
  3. 3.Dept. Politics & International RelationsRoger Williams UniversityBristolUSA

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