The drought led to unprecedented low water storage levels in many areas of the country, prompting measures such as waste water recycling and desalination – which were planned and implemented in several locations. This was widely covered in Australian newspapers.
As it is generally known and accepted that the media influences public debate and opinion, researchers Professor Sara Dolnicar (University of Wollongong) and Dr Anna Hurlimann (University of Melbourne) believed it was important to look into how media reported on water-related topics.
Their research analysed the content of 1,253 articles published in seven leading Australian newspapers in 2008, finding that only 14 percent of articles presented factual information about water issues such as recycled water, desalinated water, drought, dam levels and water conservation.
Director at the Institute for Innovation in Business and Social Research (IIBSoR), Professor Dolnicar said that they discovered that researchers or scientists were very rarely quoted in the articles.
“We found that statements were hardly ever supported with scientific evidence and hedging was often present in the articles, meaning that the writer shows some uncertainty about the reported information.”
She said that unscientific coverage of water issues could be negatively affecting public engagement and understanding of water management measures.
As an example, the study shows how media can have an impact on water policy using the case of Toowoomba as an example. It illustrated how communication — both informal and formal through mass media — affects major water projects. Despite Toowoomba’s critically low water supply levels and a significant amount of media coverage on water issues, the public chose to vote against the building of a water recycling plant.
“The public did not feel well informed about alternative water sources and it has been determined that being informed on water issues is associated with beneficial water behaviours — including water conservation”, Professor Dolnicar said.
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.
“We recommend that individuals and associations interested in increasing knowledge about water-related topics become more proactive in their communications with the media,” Professor Dolnicar said.
“They are the ones who can give the public access to more factual information, which they can then base their opinions on.”
The study was funded by Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grant and published in Water Research.
For further information contact Professor Sara Dolnicar on (02) 4221 4210 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org