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Why the Decline of Newspapers Is Bad for the Environment

New research suggests that corporations pollute more when there aren't local papers to hold them accountable.
Old man reading newspaper in Cape Cod

Local newspapers in the United States are declining at an alarming rate. A lack of local news sources can be bad for democracy, leaving politicians free to act without scrutiny. A new study suggests that it could also be bad for the environment.

Besides reporting on local government, community newspapers cover nearby corporations—and on the toxic emissions released by those corporations' facilities. In doing so, journalists wield a powerful tool when it comes to forcing companies to clean up their act, according to a recent paper by Pamela Campa, assistant professor of economics at the Stockholm School of Economics.

Specifically, Campa looked at the top 20 polluters in each state in the U.S., deriving her data from the Toxics Release Inventory, a data set collected by the Environmental Protection Agency based on information gathered by companies themselves. Then, she searched for examples of news stories about these plants. Using a newspaper archive called NewsLibrary, she searched for any articles in local newspapers that covered the annual release of this data set.

Unfortunately, coverage was rare: Only 4 percent of the top 20 polluters in each state received any coverage at all, perhaps owing to a lack of environmental specialists at local papers, Campa speculates. But among those that were subjected to negative press attention, the effect of coverage on emissions was often stark.

"Before these plants are featured in the news, their emissions evolve over time in a trend that is comparable to plants that are not covered in the newspapers," Campa says. "Then, after I observe some newspaper coverage, the plant that is in the news drops its toxic emissions."

In 2000, for instance, the NRG Energy-owned Somerset Power Plant, a coal- and oil-fired power plant in Massachusetts, was responsible for almost a million pounds of toxic emissions, the bulk of which came from hydrochloric acid (the data set doesn't include carbon dioxide, which is included in a separate inventory). In 2002, the Herald News reported that the Somerset plant was the third-biggest emitter in the state. The data submitted by the plant later that year showed that emissions had suddenly dropped to just 400,000 pounds—a reduction of around 60 percent.

While Campa can't draw a direct line between newspaper coverage and emissions reductions for any particular plant, she argues that the regularity of such occurrences suggests that the power of newspapers to shame plants into better environmental regulations is systematic, contributing to the reduction of hazardous toxic substances across the U.S.

While coverage was generally lacking, Campa found that plants located in neighborhoods with more newspapers were more likely to receive negative coverage in the press. More significantly, she discovered that plants located in an areas with more newspapers had lower emissions: Taking a plant located eight kilometers away from one newspaper and moving it to an area that's eight kilometers away from four newspapers had the effect of reducing emissions by 9 percent. This pattern only applied to factories producing consumer goods (including oil and gas), suggesting that such companies are more beholden to public opinion, Campa says.

Of course, newspapers don't exist in a vacuum. Campa had to consider the possibility that newspapers were simply a side effect of other factors—including population density, civic engagement, average income, and the share of minorities—each exacting its own influence on the willingness of factories to clean up their acts.

Campa did her best to control for these variables, repeating her experiment but replacing newspapers with universities to see whether it affected the outcome. Research has shown that, like newspapers, universities are concentrated in areas where people are more informed and more likely to vote. If these social factors were causing factories to cut their toxic emissions, then universities would have had much the same impact as newspapers—but they didn't.

"If civic capital is what is driving the relationship that I'm finding, then you'd expect to see this relationship also when you observe the impact of university density on toxic emissions," Campa says. "But if I compare plants that are located near more universities [with those near fewer universities], these two plants do not report different levels of toxic emissions."

This is not the first paper to highlight the vital role that the media plays in compelling better environmental behavior from corporations. A 2012 study about oil companies, authored by economists at the business schools of Harvard University and Colombia University, for instance, highlighted that firms seeking to build a bank of public goodwill by undertaking corporate social responsibility programs were more likely to be called out by the media if they failed to live up to their own hype, in this case, by causing oil spills.

"What we're showing is basically that the media is playing such an important role, in that, if you are a firm who's doing greenwashing and setting yourself up in terms of reputation, you'd better deliver," says Jiao Luo, co-author of the 2012 paper, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. "If you don't, the discrepancy will be picked up by the media."

While it's encouraging to see the real-world impacts of local journalism, this latest research also pinpoints the dangers inherent in the decline of community news. Without the presence of these "night-watchers," Luo says, corporations are free to pollute without scrutiny.

Meanwhile, a trend of increasing concentration in the ownership of local papers and the rise of global audiences could mean that communities are left seriously uninformed about what's going on in their own backyard, even if that activity is damaging their own health.

About 1,800 community newspapers have gone out of business or merged since 2004—around 20 percent of America's total—according to statistics released last month by the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. This collapse has deprived up to 1,400 communities of any news coverage whatsoever.

"It's not clear what the incentives are for the Internet news media, which has a very diffuse global readership, to cover one particular local company," Campa says. "Absent these incentives, there might be a scenario in which we know everything that's happening at Apple or Google, but we don't know what is happening at the company in our neighborhood."

New Landscapes is a regular series investigating how environmental policies are affecting communities across America.