Coverage Of National Priority List Sites By The Print Media During The Implementation Of Superfund: The Role Of Race And Income

Reporting about the five NPL sites most frequently cited in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Boston Globe may have created a perception that Superfund victims were predominantly white and working class. Three of the sites were in largely white areas. Stringfellow, although in a racially diverse community, was discussed primarily through the lens of a political scandal. In the case of Love Canal, Blum (Reference Blum2008) documents that African American residents were ignored by the press. Even if articles made no mention of race or median income, in the early 1980s, readers would likely associate Indiana, Boston's South Shore, or upstate New York with white working-class residents.

Theoretical models in economics have considered an editor's decision over news content. These models generally assume that a newspaper's owners want to maximize profits, which are proxied by the number of readers (e.g., Mullainathan and Shleifer Reference Mullainathan and Shleifer2005; Gentzkow and Shapiro Reference Gentzkow and Shapiro2010; Gentzkow, Shapiro, and Sinkinson Reference Gentzkow, Shapiro and Sinkinson2014; García-Uribe Reference García-Uribe2018). Editors make decisions about the types of articles they publish based on the preferences of readers. We adapt this conceptualization to treat the choice over whether to cover an NPL site as a two-stage process. First, the editor considers whether a site is potentially newsworthy. A potentially newsworthy site is either located within the newspaper's local coverage area or has site characteristics that are of broader, national significance.Footnote 9 In the empirical specification, we proxy for geographic relevance with indicator variables for sites located, respectively, in Washington, D.C., Virginia or Maryland; in New York, Connecticut or New Jersey; or in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, or Maine. We use the hazard score to proxy for national significance.

If a site is potentially newsworthy, an editor must decide how intensively to cover that site and choose the types of information to include in published articles. We assume that these choices are based, in part, on the preferences of readers. If readers desire confirmation of their prior beliefs, as suggested by Mullainathan and Shleifer (Reference Mullainathan and Shleifer2005), a newspaper may choose to emphasize sites located in areas that are like the Love Canal neighborhood, the site that was the impetus for CERCLA. In other words, a newspaper would publish more frequent or more detailed stories about NPL sites in white, working-class neighborhoods that call to mind the prior descriptions, if not the full reality, of the area around Love Canal. Alternatively, if subscribers are relatively affluent and wish to read about issues affecting people of similar income, then a newspaper may publish more frequently about sites that affect affluent communities or be more likely to include descriptions of those neighborhoods or residents.

The conceptual framework suggests that the number of articles that mention each NPL site, i, can be described by the function:

(1)$${\rm mention}{\rm s}_i = f( {{\rm nonwhit}{\rm e}_i{\rm , \;\;Hispani}{\rm c}_i{\rm , \;incom}{\rm e}_i{\rm , \;}X_i{\rm , \;\;N}{\rm Y}_i{\rm , \;M}{\rm A}_i{\rm , \;D}{\rm C}_i{\rm , \;\;HR}{\rm S}_i} ) $$

where nonwhitei and Hispanici measure the racial and ethnic makeup of the census tract surrounding the site; incomei measures the median household income; X i controls for other site characteristics, including the year that a site is proposed for NPL designation; NYi, MAi, and DCi indicate whether the site is located in or near one of these states; and HRSi measures the hazard score for the site. Given a prior literature that links newspaper coverage to race in other contexts and our qualitative analysis of the five most frequently mentioned NPL sites, we identify several hypotheses related to equation 1.

Consistent with the conceptual model, we expect that sites with high hazard scores and sites located in a state close to the location of the newspaper will be mentioned more frequently. Based on the literature linking the likelihood of newspaper coverage to the race of victims in multiple contexts, we expect a negative relationship between the frequency of coverage and measures of racial diversity. Given that newspapers may have incentives to publish articles about either affluent or working-class neighborhoods, the relationship between the number of articles published about a site and incomei may be either positive or negative. Since prior research identifies the importance of how articles are framed, we expect that the relationship between the characteristics of a census tract, in particular race, and articles published will be stronger when mentionsi is defined more narrowly to include only articles that describe geographic or socioeconomic characteristics, specific chemical pollutants, or the health or environmental risks.

In addition to the relationship described in equation 1, media attention may also affect the duration of site cleanup. Since prior work links community involvement to the duration and form of NPL site remediation, we hypothesize that the number of articles written about a site is correlated to the duration of cleanup. This relationship may be either positive or negative. Media attention may pressure regulators to prioritize a site and remediate more quickly. Alternatively, media attention may cause regulators to remediate more thoroughly but slowly.

To examine these hypotheses, we identify all sites that were added to the NPL during the initial years of Superfund (1982–1986)Footnote 10 and match these sites to socioeconomic variables using 1980 census data. Of the 851 sites in our sample, 152 were mentioned at least once in the three newspapers that we reviewed. When limiting the sample to sites within 1980 census tracts, we observe 730 sites in 670 tracts, 138 of which were mentioned in a newspaper article. Restricting the sample further to articles that both identify sites and include some level of detail about neighborhood characteristics, environmental or health risks, and specific chemicals, or quote a resident or community advocate, produces 111 sites.

Table 3 describes the characteristics of the NPL sites in our sample and stratifies sites by media attention. Data for the percent nonwhite, percent Hispanic, and median household income are unweighted averages gathered from the census tracts containing the NPL sites. The 1980 census questionnaire asks respondents to first identify a race and in a follow-up question to identify if they are of “Spanish/Hispanic origin or descent” (U.S. Census Bureau 1982, p. 315). We use the first question to determine the percentage of individuals who are nonwhite and use the follow-up question on Hispanic origin to determine the percentage of the population identifying as Hispanic.Footnote 11 The sample mean is 10.9 percent nonwhite and 4.8 percent Hispanic, meaning that the tracts containing Love Canal and Stringfellow Acid Pits were relatively diverse.

Table 3. Socioeconomic characteristics of Superfund sites

Note: Unweighted averages. “Media attention” means at least one mention with details in the Washington Post, New York Times, or Boston Globe during the 1982–1984 period. The data for Seymour Recycling are at the county level since that the site is not located within any 1980 census tract.

Source :

Coverage of National Priority List sites by the print media during the implementation of Superfund: the role of race and income

Source:Cambridge University Press

Coverage of National Priority List sites by the print media during the implementation of Superfund: the role of race and income


Source:The Brad Blog


Tools for Implementing an Evidence-Based Approach in Public Health Practice


Tools for Implementing an Evidence-Based Approach in Public Health Practice