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Fukushima effects in Germany? Changes in media coverage and public opinion on nuclear power

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Based on a literature review on factors that explain media effects and previous findings on media coverage and public opinion on nuclear power, this article examines the effects of Fukushima on media coverage and public opinion in Germany in two studies. The first study uses content analysis data to analyse changes in media coverage, and the second one is based on panel survey data to examine attitude changes on an individual level. The results of both studies show changes in media coverage and public opinion on nuclear power. Furthermore, the second study reveals that individual attitude changes cannot necessarily be explained by the same factors as the distribution of attitudes. © The Author(s) 2015.
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DOI: 10.1177/0963662515589276
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P U S
Fukushima effects in Germany?
Changes in media coverage and
public opinion on nuclear power
Dorothee Arlt
University of Bern, Switzerland
Jens Wolling
Ilmenau University of Technology, Germany
Abstract
Based on a literature review on factors that explain media effects and previous findings on media coverage
and public opinion on nuclear power, this article examines the effects of Fukushima on media coverage
and public opinion in Germany in two studies. The first study uses content analysis data to analyse changes
in media coverage, and the second one is based on panel survey data to examine attitude changes on
an individual level. The results of both studies show changes in media coverage and public opinion on
nuclear power. Furthermore, the second study reveals that individual attitude changes cannot necessarily be
explained by the same factors as the distribution of attitudes.
Keywords
attitude changes, content analysis, media effects, nuclear power, panel survey
1. Introduction
On 30 June 2011, the German parliament (Bundestag), with cross-party consensus, made the deci-
sion to enact a nuclear phase-out for Germany. As this decision represents a remarkable political
shift, it must be interpreted as a direct response to the nuclear disaster that occurred in Japan in
March 2011. The same parliament had made the opposite decision only 6 months prior, calling for
an extension of German nuclear power plant runtime. This raises the following question: Why did
such a fundamental political change occur in Germany while several other countries continued and
even extended nuclear plans? To understand this political shift in Germany, it is necessary to inves-
tigate public debate surrounding nuclear energy in the media and its effects on public opinion.
Analysing this specific case, we will discuss general questions and conditions concerning media
effects on public attitudes.
Corresponding author:
Dorothee Arlt, Institute of Communication and Media Studies, University of Bern, Fabrikstrasse 8, 3012 Bern,
Switzerland.
Email: dorothee.arlt@ikmb.unibe.ch
589276PUS0010.1177/0963662515589276Public Understanding of ScienceArlt and Wolling
research-article2015
Theoretical/research paper
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2 Public Understanding of Science
We will first review factors that can either limit or evoke strong media effects on attitudes from
a theoretical perspective and discuss whether such factors were predominant in Germany after the
Fukushima disaster occurred. The second section includes a literature review on nuclear power in
the media and in public opinion to derive our research questions. We will then present the method-
ology and findings of two studies. In the first study, two content analyses were performed, in 2010
and 2011, on nuclear power media coverage in Germany. In the second study, we examine attitude
changes caused by the Fukushima accident using a suitable panel survey on energy-related atti-
tudes. The first survey wave was carried out immediately before the German nuclear runtime
extension was enacted in September 2010, and the second was conducted 2 months after the
Fukushima accident had happened in 2011. Using the data of the participants who participated in
both waves (n = 341), we examined whether attitude changes had occurred.
2. Preconditions of persuasive media effects
In pluralistic democracies, the media system is independent and uncontrolled by the state or by
economic stakeholders. As numerous political and societal actors strive to promote their positions,
a certain variety of published opinions can be obtained. This variety hinders persuasive media
effects, as it allows individuals to avoid messages that are not in line with their existing attitudes
and that may provoke cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957). A second factor that limits or modi-
fies persuasive effects includes social embedding and social influence effects on individuals via
interpersonal communication networks or opinion leaders in their personal environment
(Boomgaarden, 2014). A third factor that moderates persuasive media effects concerns audience
characteristics, such as interests, motives, involvement and information processing (e.g. Petty et
al., 2009; Rubin, 2009).
In contrast to factors that hinder or modify persuasive media effects, several other approaches
support the notion of strong media effects and therefore serve as the theoretical basis for our study.
A key model on media effects in modern societies is Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur’s (1976) depend-
ency model of media effects. The authors argue that in modern societies, dependency on media
information is necessary for individuals’ awareness of global affairs. Research shows that this
dependency increases in times of social conflict and following the occurrence of unexpected events
such as natural disasters or accidents. Under such circumstances, ‘the potential for mass media
messages to achieve a broad range of cognitive, affective, and behavioral effects will be increased’
(Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur, 1976: 7). These authors’ description of media dependency closely
reflects conditions in Germany when the Fukushima tsunami occurred. The unexpected accident
evoked a national debate on nuclear energy usage, and the media served as the main source of
information on this issue. The media dependency model can thus explain why strong media effects
could be expected in this particular case.
Another response to the lack of empirical support for the model of strong media effects is
Noelle-Neumann’s (1973) approach. She identified three relevant factors that facilitate strong
effects, as follows: consonance, ubiquity and cumulation. Consonance refers to situations in which
mainstream media outlets present and evaluate a controversial issue in a consonant way. Although
consonance is uncommon in pluralistic media systems, certain topics may still be covered conso-
nantly in such systems. As the bandwidth of problem definitions and evaluations published by the
media is largely determined by the spectrum of political opinions represented in a political estab-
lishment (i.e. indexing, Bennett, 1990), consonance is prevalent when major political actors agree
regarding the interpretation of a political problem. As an effect of media consonance, audiences
will more likely be influenced by the dominant worldview presented by the media, as alternative
interpretations are not available. Furthermore, a limited spectrum of opinions may also affect
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Arlt and Wolling 3
peoples’ willingness to speak out (i.e. spiral of silence, Noelle-Neumann and Petersen, 2004).
Depending on whether one’s opinion lies inside or outside of the spectrum of published opinion,
one will be confronted less or more often with arguments that are consonant or dissonant to one’s
own political opinion. If published opinion is predominantly dissenting, fear of isolation increases
and the willingness to voice one’s own personal opinion in public decreases. Dominant problem
definitions can thus also shape the content of interpersonal communication, increasing the ubiquity
of a specific worldview even further (Noelle-Neumann and Petersen, 2004).
Cumulative effects are considered in numerous novel theories on media effects. A prominent
example is the agenda-setting approach, which postulates that the frequency of media coverage on
an issue influences the perceived importance of this issue to the public. Furthermore, it is assumed
that the selection of issues (first-level agenda setting) and especially the selection of attributes
(second level agenda setting) will influence public opinion (McCombs and Reynolds, 2009).
Research on agenda setting shows that effects can be observed almost exclusively for unobtrusive
issues or issues that individuals do not have first-hand experiences with (Zucker, 1978). Ball-
Rokeach and DeFleur (1976) would state that this situation reflects high media dependency.
If Noelle-Neumann (1973) is correct, we can expect strong media effects if media coverage on
nuclear energy following the Fukushima accident was consonant, intense and omnipresent in all
media channels. It is thus necessary to examine the amount and content of coverage provided
through a broad range of media sources.
3. Nuclear power in the media and in public opinion
The following section provides a literature review on media coverage and public opinion on nuclear
power. Given the focus of this article, we predominantly focus on research on Germany. First, we
will present content analysis and survey results for the period preceding the Fukushima accident.
Then, we will discuss international findings on attitude changes towards nuclear power as a result
of the Fukushima accident, which are referred to as Fukushima effects.
Media coverage on nuclear power prior to the Fukushima accident
To date, only a few long-term studies have examined developments and changes in media coverage
on nuclear power (Gamson and Modigliani, 1989; Kepplinger, 1988; Overhoff, 1984). In the 1950s
and 1960s, the media highlighted positive societal, technological and economic development fos-
tered through civilian uses of nuclear power (Gamson and Modigliani, 1989). However, with the
rise of social movements in the late 1960s, the thematic focus and evaluation changed. Since then,
a negative trend in the German press has induced a fundamental re-evaluation of nuclear power
(Kepplinger, 1988). According to Gamson and Modigliani (1989: 16), similar trends can be
observed in the United States, where the media focused more heavily on public accountability, the
promotion of environmentally friendly alternatives and the low cost-effectiveness of nuclear
power. Later, in the context of the oil crisis of the early 1970s, atomic energy was evaluated posi-
tively once again. In German and US media outlets, the oil crisis was exploited to promote national
energy independence through the use of nuclear energy (Gamson and Modigliani, 1989; Kepplinger,
1988). However, following this intermezzo, the previous negative trend continued. According to
the results of Overhoff (1984), the German press began to cover environmental risks of nuclear
power and conflicts between the anti-nuclear movement and the police more intensively. These
critical views were reinforced further in both countries following the nuclear accidents of Three
Miles Island (TMI) and Chernobyl in 1979 and 1986, respectively.
Interestingly, studies that examined immediate media responses to these nuclear accidents
revealed that the negative evaluation of nuclear energy was not reinforced. Teichert (1987), in
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4 Public Understanding of Science
examining German media coverage in the first 2 weeks following the Chernobyl accident, found
radiation exposure to be the most prominent issue discussed in media coverage on the accident.
However, it was covered with a benign rather than alarming tone. Only 4% of all news items noted
any risks due to radiation. Stephens and Edison (1982), who analysed the US media coverage
released in the first week following the TMI accident, drew similar conclusions. The authors noted
that the media did not use the accident to cast doubt on the security of US nuclear power plants in
general (Stephens and Edison, 1982: 201). Furthermore, Friedman et al.’s (1987) findings show
that even after the Chernobyl accident, no re-evaluation of radiation exposure took place. Although
US media discussed radioactive radiation more often after the accident, the tone remained fairly
subdued.
Since the 2007 release of the Stern Report on consequences of climate change, a number of
political actors have begun to reframe nuclear power as an effective instrument for tackling climate
change. Doyle (2011) analysed the British news coverage from 2005 to 2008 and found that the
media initially resisted the government’s attempt to reframe atomic energy. However, all newspa-
pers eventually adopted the political discourse and accepted the notion that pursuing nuclear energy
is less risky than provoking climate change through the use of fossil fuel resources. Similar find-
ings were obtained by McGaurr and Lester (2009), who examined debates on risks of climate
change versus those of nuclear power presented in the Australian press from 2005 to 2007. After
the Australian Prime Minister declared climate change to be a national threat in May 2006, the
media began to frame nuclear power as a technical solution to climate change in Australia (McGaurr
and Lester, 2009: 183). In the German media, this political reframing can be observed in the gov-
ernment’s attempt to legitimise the extension of German nuclear power plants in 2010 (Arlt, 2013).
To understand media effects on attitudes, it is necessary to not only know which thematic
aspects were emphasised in the media and how they were evaluated but also which actors advo-
cated for nuclear energy and which held a critical stance. The effects of a message depend not only
on its content but also on its author. The results of various studies on German media coverage show
consistently that the positions of political actors were cited in the German media. Overhoff (1984)
found that politicians were mentioned in more than half of all articles, anti-nuclear activists and
citizens’ initiatives were mentioned as relevant actors in only one-third of all articles and industrial
actors followed in third place. Trade unions and scientists were hardly ever mentioned in the media.
Kepplinger (1988) notes that public opinion in Germany was shaped decisively by politicians and
statements made by journalists. In addition, Teichert (1987: 198) found that after the Chernobyl
accident, national politicians took centre stage in the media. Through their engagement, they
attempted to counteract the German population’s growing mistrust of nuclear power. Taken
together, these studies clearly indicate that political actors play an important role in coverage on
nuclear energy. However, no findings concerning the actors’ party affiliations are available.
In summary, it can be concluded that the majority of content analyses on nuclear power were
conducted in the context of events such as the TMI and Chernobyl accidents and therefore only
analysed short periods. With the exception of these case studies, few studies examined media cov-
erage over longer periods or studied nuclear power in a broader context of climate and energy poli-
tics, as a number of more recent studies do (Arlt, 2013). Several studies showed that both thematic
aspects (attributes) and tendencies vary according to political and historical contexts. Findings on
actors who expressed opinions on nuclear power showed that representatives of political adminis-
trative systems played an especially dominant role. Given the inherent political aspects of the
issue, it can be assumed that media debates on nuclear power following the Fukushima accident
will remain more political than economic or scientific.
Based on these assumptions and the above-listed content analysis, we developed categories that
measure thematic aspects, tendencies and actors, and pose the following three research questions:
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Arlt and Wolling 5
RQ1. How frequently and consonantly did the media cover the issue of nuclear energy?
RQ2. Has media coverage on thematic aspects of nuclear power changed since the Fukushima
accident?
RQ3. Have actors covered by the media changed their positions and arguments surrounding
nuclear power since the Fukushima accident?
Public opinion on nuclear power in Germany prior to the Fukushima accident
Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research and Eurobarometer data offer insight into German
attitudes on nuclear power prior to the Fukushima accident. In 2005, approximately 64% of
Germans were convinced that German nuclear power plants were safer than those of other coun-
tries, and less than half of the population (46%) feared a nuclear accident. Approximately half of
Germans believed that nuclear energy is cheap and economical (51%) and helps to preserve fossil
energy resources (52%). However, the German population also recognised several problems.
Approximately 80% realised that nuclear energy usage creates nuclear waste, and another 72%
were aware of the unsolved nuclear waste disposal issue in Germany (Schulz, 2006). Findings
from a secondary analysis of the German sample (n = 1537) of the 2009 Eurobarometer survey data
show that attitudes on nuclear energy were strongly influenced by assessments of risks and cost-
effectiveness. Respondents with positive evaluations of security and cost-effectiveness cited more
arguments that supported extended nuclear energy usage (Arlt, 2013). Findings from an Allensbach
survey that was carried out in March 2010 showed that even shortly before the parliament enacted
the runtime extension, the population remained divided on the issue. Specifically, 37% of the
German population opposed and 44% advocated nuclear power. However, only a minority (31%)
believed that the runtime extension was a good proposal, while 43% did not (Petersen, 2010). In
sum, these results indicate that German public opinion on nuclear power remained divided even
while overall representations of nuclear power were predominantly positive.
Fukushima effects
A number of studies examined the effects of the Fukushima accident on attitudes towards nuclear
power. For example, a few days after the Fukushima accident, Worldwide Independent Network
(WIN)–Gallup International (2011) carried out a global snap poll of 47 countries to analyse the
event’s impact on public opinion. Respondents were asked to report their views of nuclear energy
before the accident occurred and how their views have changed. The findings reveal a global shift
in public opinion. Before the accident, 57% were in favour of using nuclear power, and after the
event, this value was reduced to 49%. Vogel (2014) examined the influence of the Fukushima acci-
dent on peoples’ attitudes towards risks and the environment using data from the International
Social Survey Programme (ISSP) 2010 – Environment III. As the survey was conducted in certain
countries before the Fukushima accident and in others after the event, he observed Fukushima
effects through a comparison of these two groups. The results show that risk perceptions and envi-
ronmental awareness levels were clearly higher following the Fukushima accident. Using inde-
pendent survey data from before and after the Fukushima accident, Huang et al. (2013) examined
changes in the public’s risk perception and acceptance of nuclear power plants in China. The
authors found that perceived risk levels increased while public acceptance levels decreased signifi-
cantly. Two panel data studies from Italy and Switzerland reveal significant attitude changes at the
individual level. Prati and Zani’s (2013) study shows a decline in nuclear trust and pro-nuclear
attitudes. However, the sample included just 32 participants and, thus, was very small and unrep-
resentative. Siegrist and Visschers (2013) examined effects of the Fukushima accident on
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6 Public Understanding of Science
acceptance of nuclear power and on evaluations of different nuclear phase-out scenarios using
panel data of n = 463 individuals. Although the results revealed a negative Fukushima effect on
nuclear power acceptance, in general, the level of acceptance remained relatively stable and high.
Regarding the evaluation of various nuclear phase-out scenarios, the results underline the impor-
tance of participants’ pre-Fukushima attitudes towards nuclear power.
Overall, previous studies on attitude changes caused by the Fukushima accident revealed that
the event may have changed public opinion on nuclear power. Nevertheless, the existing research
on Fukushima effects is limited. While Siegrist and Visschers’ (2013) study based on a panel sur-
vey best reflects our approach, the authors do not discuss or analyse the role of the media coverage
and use. Most studies relied on cross-sectional data; thus, they are unable to identify attitude
changes at the individual level, which leads us to our fourth research question:
RQ4. Have people’s attitudes towards nuclear power changed since the Fukushima accident?
If such attitude changes can be observed, questions arise regarding how to explain individual
differences in the level of change. According to the risk communication perspective, especially in
times of crisis, the media plays an important role as an information source (Pidgeon et al., 2003).
In the case of the Fukushima accident, the media served as nearly the sole source of information on
this issue among German residents. Hence, the amount of news media exposure may have influ-
enced attitude changes. Furthermore, it is known that attitudes towards nuclear power are influ-
enced by sociodemographic characteristics and basic political and energy-related attitudes (Arlt,
2013). However, it is unclear whether these factors also affect attitude changes. This leads us to our
final research question:
RQ5. Which factors can explain changes in attitudes towards nuclear power?
To answer our research questions regarding changes in media coverage, data from two content
analyses were used (study 1). In addition, data from two panel surveys were used to study changes
in attitudes towards nuclear power (study 2). The following section presents the content analysis
and survey methodologies and findings.
4. Study 1: Changes in media coverage on nuclear power
Methods and data
To answer the first three research questions, two quantitative content analyses were conducted. The
media sample included seven information sources, as follows: the three most popular German even-
ing newscasts (ARD Tagesschau, ZDF heute and RTL Aktuell), the two highest circulation and most
influential national newspapers (Süddeutsche Zeitung and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) and,
given the regional focus of the project, the two most widely read local newspapers (Thüringer
Allgemeine and Freies Wort). The first analysis covered the 8-week period preceding the German
parliament nuclear power plant runtime extension (10 July 2010 to 04 September 2010). For this
time period, all news items that mentioned either the runtime extension or the cancellation of the
nuclear phase-out decision of 2000 were selected. A total of 259 news items were coded. The second
analysis covered the first 2 months immediately following the Fukushima disaster (12 March 2011
to 16 May 2011). As media coverage in 2011 was more frequent, we analysed a sample of this cov-
erage by randomly selecting 3 days per week. To allow for a meaningful comparison between 2010
and 2011 coverage, articles on the Fukushima incident were only included in the sample if uses of
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Arlt and Wolling 7
nuclear energy in Germany were discussed. The sample includes 243 news items. The two periods
were chosen because both were characterised by frequent media coverage on nuclear energy in
Germany.
The coding instrument was created in two steps. In the first step, categories of thematic aspects
and evaluative statements were developed based on the existing literature. In the second step, the
codebook was inductively supplemented. We coded seven categories to examine which thematic
aspects of nuclear power were emphasised (Table 1). Furthermore, we coded actors’ ‘evaluative
statements on nuclear energy’. Every statement was coded based on the following three categories:
actor, position (positive or negative) and reasons for the given position. In 2011, we used a nearly
identical coding instrument; only a few adaptations were necessary. For example, in 2010, ‘evalu-
ative statements’ referred to statements for or against a runtime extension. In 2011, we coded state-
ments for or against future uses of nuclear power. Consequently, the two items are not completely
identical but are comparable in light of political discussions at the time. The reliability test revealed
satisfactory results.1
Results on changes in media coverage on nuclear power
Regarding the accentuation of thematic aspects, we found some significant changes from 2010 to
2011 (Table 1). The analysed media outlets emphasised issues of risk versus security significantly
more often in 2011 than in 2010. Coverage on protests and demonstrations against nuclear power
also increased. By contrast, economic issues were discussed significantly less often after the
Fukushima accident. We also found a significant but less pronounced decline in coverage on energy
supply and environmental compatibility. There were no changes in coverage on renewable energies
and climate protection.
Regarding actors’ evaluative statements concerning nuclear power, some shifts, but no funda-
mental changes, in the distribution of actors were observed. In both periods, government state-
ments dominated: 54% of all statements made in 2010 and 45% of all statements made in 2011.
However, their proportion declined somewhat in the interest of opposition politicians (2010: 17%;
2011: 23%) and anti-nuclear activists (2010: 5%; 2011: 9%). No changes were observed regarding
the number of statements cited from the nuclear industry and the general population.
Table 1. Changes in the accentuation of thematic aspects in media coverage.
Thematic aspects of nuclear power 2010, before runtime
decision
2011, after Fukushima
accident
p
% %
Economy 73 52 <.001
Energy supply 62 51 <.05
Renewable energies 46 42 ns
Risk vs security 36 59 <.001
Environmental compatibility 15 7 <.01
Climate protection 17 13 ns
Protests/demonstrations 16 28 <.01
Sum of news items (n) 259 243
ns: non-significant.
Reading instruction: In 2010, the media mentioned nuclear power economic issues in 73% of the 259 news items. In
2011, these references accounted for 52% of the 243 news items.
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8 Public Understanding of Science
Table 2. Changes in the thematic argumentation of key actor groups.
Year Government Opposition Nuclear industry Anti-nuclear movement
Arguments (n)
2010 2011 2010 2011 2010 2011 2010 2011
165 53 23 9 31 15 15 7
% % % % % % % %
Cost-effectiveness 66 19 17 11 58 67 53 0
Supply security 26 43 44 22 36 27 33 29
Risk vs security 8 38 39 67 6 7 13 71
Reading instruction: In 2010, government actors used cost-effectiveness arguments to justify their positions on nuclear
power in 66% of their 165 statements.
On the contrary we found significant changes in the actors’ positions on nuclear energy. While
in 2010, less than one-third (31%) presented strong views against further use of nuclear energy,
after the Fukushima accident, almost three-quarters (73%) argued for a nuclear phase-out. This
change is especially evident in statements made by governmental actors. While in 2010, only 4%
were opposed to further use of nuclear energy, after the Fukushima accident, 75% supported a
nuclear phase-out. Similar but less dramatic changes were observed for actors of the economic
sector that did not belong to the nuclear industry. The only exception with respect to positioning
trends was found for actors of the nuclear sector, who expressed overwhelming support for long-
term uses of nuclear energy both before and after the Fukushima accident. Unsurprisingly, the
groups that already expressed a clear position against nuclear power in 2010, particularly the oppo-
sition and anti-nuclear activists, remained critical in 2011.
In addition to shifts in evaluative positioning, we found changes in actors’ justifications of their
positions for or against nuclear power. Two findings are of note. First, the proportion of statements
that were supported with substantiated arguments declined significantly from 50% in 2010 to less
than one-third (32%) in 2011. Clearly, numerous actors considered it less necessary to justify their
positions in the context of the nuclear disaster. Second, the thematic focus of justifications changed
as well. In the context of runtime extension in 2010, most of the 348 statements citing arguments
focused on issues of cost-effectiveness (44%) and supply security (25%). After the Fukushima
accident occurred, cost-effectiveness was relegated to third place. Arguments concerned with
issues of supply security remained prominent (28%), and the percentage of statements focusing on
risk versus security arguments increased considerably (27%).
The repositioning of dominant key stakeholder groups also became apparent with respect to the
thematic focus of their argumentation (Table 2). In 2010, the government based its positions mainly
on economic arguments. However, in 2011, issues of security and risk were used as justifications.
Opposition groups based their arguments on energy supply and risk issues in both years, whereas in
2011, their focus shifted dramatically to arguments that emphasised the risks of nuclear power. The
nuclear industry continued to focus its argumentation on economic arguments, stressing this factor
even more in 2011. Anti-nuclear movement actors’ arguments shifted from questioning issues of
cost-effectiveness to highlighting security risks. These tendencies were observed in all of the ana-
lysed media. While absolute and relative changes varied, the general findings are in agreement.
The detected changes in media coverage provide optimal conditions for strong media effects on
peoples’ attitudes towards nuclear power. Due to the continuous and intensive media coverage and
growing consonance in the actors’ negative positioning concerning the future use of nuclear energy,
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Arlt and Wolling 9
it was difficult for recipients to escape the media’s influence via selective media exposure.
Therefore, we expect that peoples’ attitudes towards nuclear energy became more negative in 2011.
In the following section (study 2), this assumption is tested.
5. Study 2: Changes in public opinion on nuclear power
Methods and data
To examine and explain possible attitude changes, panel survey data from 2010 and 2011 were
used. The first wave of telephone surveys was carried out before the runtime extension was enacted
by the German parliament (16 August 2010 to 06 September 2010), and the second wave was con-
ducted 2 months after the Fukushima disaster had occurred (15 May 2011 to 04 June 2011). A total
of 341 individuals of private households participated in both panel waves. Survey participants
(49% women, 51% men) were between 19 and 88 years of age (mean age: 52 years). The sample,
which is representative of Thuringia, was selected using a two-stage random method (random-
last-digit and next-birthday) with the support of the German Leibniz Institute for the Social
Sciences (GESIS). To compensate for sample distortions, we calculated weighting factors based on
the sex and age distributions of the basic population.
To analyse changes in attitudes towards nuclear power, the standardised questionnaire included
eight items that were used in both waves of the panel survey (Table 3). Given the state of research
and political debate in Germany at the time, attitudes towards nuclear energy were examined on
three dimensions: (a) the environmental compatibility of nuclear power, (b) nuclear power security
versus risk and (c) the ‘replaceability’ of nuclear power with renewable energy sources. While envi-
ronmental compatibility was measured using two items that focus on different aspects of the dimen-
sion, the security versus risk and replaceability with renewable energy sources dimensions were
each operationalised by three items. Using the six items of dimensions (b) and (c), we conducted a
factor analysis for both waves. As expected based on theory, two dimensions were identified.
To explain individual differences in attitude change, the questionnaire also measured the follow-
ing independent variables: age; sex; education; income; political interest; political left–right orienta-
tion; and energy policy–related preferences for environmental compatibility, cost-effectiveness or
supply security.2 From a communication science perspective, it is especially interesting to examine
whether attitude changes can be traced to differences in individual media use. We do not expect dif-
ferential media effects due to consonant media coverage on nuclear power. However, it is plausible
that individual (topic-related) media exposure and interpersonal communication and quality evalu-
ations of media coverage on energy issues may affect the strength and direction of attitude changes.
Given the presence of striking visual representations of the tsunami and exploding reactors in Japan,
it can be assumed that individuals who use more visual-based media show stronger changes in the
risk dimension which involves especially emotional aspects. By contrast, individuals with a stronger
preference for newspapers show stronger attitude changes related to cognitive aspects (replaceabil-
ity). To prove these assumptions, we considered five variables on media usage and evaluation.3
Results on changes in attitudes towards nuclear power
The results regarding attitude changes, presented in Table 3, indicate that in 2010, the missing solu-
tions for the issue of nuclear waste disposal were recognised as serious arguments against nuclear
energy. Furthermore, the argument that nuclear energy usage may serve as an appropriate strategy
to address climate change was not highly persuasive for the majority of individuals. After the
Fukushima disaster, these sceptical views of nuclear energy became even more negative. Security
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10 Public Understanding of Science
Table 3. Nuclear power attitude changes on three dimensions.
Operationalisation n2010 2011 p
MaMa
Evaluation of environmental compatibility
As long as nuclear waste disposal issues have not been resolved, a
runtime extension (2010)/longer usage (2011) is irresponsible
329 3.4 3.5 .01
Using nuclear energy is an appropriate strategy for tackling climate
change
164b2.3 2.0 .01
Evaluation of risks (index) 341 2.7 3.0 .001
I am concerned about the safety of nuclear power plants 337 3.1 3.3 .001
I feel threatened by the use of nuclear power 333 2.2 2.5 .001
The risk of longer use of nuclear power is too big 326 2.9 3.2 .001
Evaluation of replaceability with renewable energy sources (index) 337 2.7 2.9 .001
Without energy from nuclear power plants, energy needs in Germany
will not be covered in the long term (denial)
290 2.5 2.9 .001
In the long term, renewables will be cheaper than nuclear energy 258 3.0 3.1 .11
In the next 20–40 years, we will establish enough renewable energy
sources to disclaim nuclear energy
328 2.6 2.9 .001
Reading example (first line): Average agreement with the first statement increased significantly (p .01) from 3.4 in 2010
to 3.5 in 2011.
aAverage agreement with a four-step agreement scale of 1 (‘do not agree at all’) to 4 (‘agree completely’).
b
Due to a split in the questionnaire, only a random 50% of the respondents were questioned on this item. Therefore,
the two items measuring the environmental compatibility were not included in the factor analysis.
risk evaluation results show that in 2010, most respondents assessed nuclear power as being risky.
In line with these findings, the replaceability of nuclear power with renewable energy sources was
predominantly assessed as optimistic. After the Fukushima accident occurred, these critical atti-
tudes grew significantly more negative on both dimensions and on nearly all items.
Individual attitude changes and possible influencing factors
While these general attitude changes were observed for the entire population, not every individual
in the sample changed his or her mind to the same degree. In some cases, even opposing changes
were identified. An analysis of the panel data revealed that 11% of the respondents showed a decline
in nuclear risk perceptions, while another 15% had growing doubts regarding its replaceability with
renewable energy sources. For approximately half of the respondents, no significant attitude changes
were observed. Hence, growing risk perceptions and confidence in substitution observed in the
aggregate can only be attributed to one-third of the respondents (i.e. those who showed significant
attitude changes in this direction). Several respondents had not changed their mind because they
already held extremely negative views of nuclear energy prior to the Fukushima accident, rendering
it impossible to increase their scepticism further. Correlations between 2010 attitudes and attitude
changes indicate that the more positively respondents evaluated atomic energy prior to the Fukushima
accident, the higher their observed negative attitude change after the accident. These findings under-
pin the notion that in the case of the Fukushima accident, German media coverage was consonant so
that selective exposure was not feasible, and thus, attitude polarisation did not occur.
To explain differences in individual attitude changes, we conducted four regression analyses, in
which we tested the influence of nine non-media variables and five media factors. The results show
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Arlt and Wolling 11
that neither basic political attitudes nor energy policy–related preferences affected the strength and
direction of attitude changes (Table 4). Occasionally, some sociodemographic variables such as
age and sex had an effect. Furthermore, few and rather small media effects were identified.
Consequently, the changes in attitudes can barely be explained by sociodemographic variables and
are not attributable to general attitudes. While intensive communication on energy issues resulted
in stronger attitude changes in the expected direction, these shifts were weakened by negative
evaluations of the quality of media coverage on energy issues. Overall, the explanatory power of
the models was rather low, reaching a maximum of 5%.
A more detailed analysis of the hypothesised and observed effects is neither necessary nor illus-
trative. The central conclusion of these findings is that changes in attitudes were hardly modified
by the variables considered. At first glance, this finding appears unremarkable. However, the rel-
evance of this finding increases considerably when we account for the fact that in a cross-sectional
analysis with the data from 2010, the same variables can explain differences in individual attitudes
towards nuclear power (Table 5).
The results show that individual differences in attitudes are especially influenced by basic polit-
ical attitudes, energy policy preferences and sociodemographic variables. It is remarkable that the
same factors were irrelevant to attitude changes. Consequently, the significant effects of the cross-
sectional study show that non-existent effects revealed through the longitudinal analysis are not
trivial. Rather, they illustrate that media coverage on nuclear energy after the Fukushima accident
evoked attitude changes that are independent of personal predispositions. This serves as an impor-
tant precondition for strong media effects.
6. Summary and conclusion
The aim of this article was to examine changes in media coverage and in public opinion on nuclear
power in Germany as a result of the Fukushima disaster. Findings on changes in the accentuation
of thematic aspects in the media revealed two trends (RQ2). In 2010, the media reported most
heavily on economic issues and less often on security issues of nuclear energy. In 2011, however,
Table 4. Regression models of attitude changes from 2010 to 2011.
Evaluation of
risks
Replaceability
with renewables
Nuclear waste
problems
Strategy to tackle
climate change
Number of cases (n) 336 324 328 163
Adjusted R2.05 .04 .05 .03
Beta-coefficients
Sex (female) .13
Age (high) .19 .17
Energy-related
communication (intensive)
.11 .11
Newspaper vs TV
preference (newspaper)
.16
Quality evaluation:
informative (negative)
−.15
Quality evaluation:
neutrality (negative)
−.12
All model coefficients are statistically significant at p < .05.
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12 Public Understanding of Science
the media placed considerably more emphasis on risk versus security issues and less emphasis on
economic topics. Furthermore, changes in the positioning and argumentation of key actors in the
media were found (RQ3). The results show that the government and economic sector actors funda-
mentally changed their positions from predominantly nuclear friendly to predominantly sceptical
of nuclear energy. Consequently, political polarisation between opposition groups and the govern-
ment in Germany, which was clearly evident in 2010, largely disappeared following the Fukushima
accident. Along with this finding, we identified additional shifts in argumentation trends. In 2011,
risk versus security debates grew more important among all actors. Only the nuclear industry main-
tained an economically driven pro-nuclear position.
The panel data analysis further showed that these largely consonant changes (RQ1) in media
coverage affected the population. We found attitude changes on three attitude dimensions: environ-
mental compatibility, risk versus security and replaceability of nuclear energy with renewable
energy sources (RQ4). More precisely, the results show that evaluations of environmental compat-
ibility, which were quite negative in 2010, became even more negative after the Fukushima accident
occurred. Furthermore, we observed that the assessments of the security of nuclear power grew
more negative and that replaceability with renewable energy was evaluated more favourably.
Our interpretation that these changes are indeed effects of media coverage is based on two find-
ings. First, individual attitude changes were not substantially influenced by sociodemographic
characteristics, political attitudes or media exposure (RQ5). Second, the same individual predispo-
sitions that had no effect on attitude changes had an effect on the distribution of attitudes according
to a cross-sectional perspective. Taken together, these two results lead to a plausible conclusion
that the observed aggregate-level attitude changes are a result of ubiquitous and consistent changes
in media coverage on nuclear power.
Table 5. Regression models for attitude differences in attitudes in 2010.
Evaluation of
risks
Replaceability with
renewables
Nuclear waste
problems
Strategy to tackle
climate change
Number of cases (n) 336 338 301 165
Adjusted R2.23 .04 .12 .16
Beta-coefficients
Sex (female) .19 .21
Age (high) .27
Political interest (high) .12 .17
Political orientation (left) .12
Energy political preference:
environmental compatibility
(high)
.24 .15 .23 .23
Energy-related
communication (intensive)
−.13
Newspaper vs TV
preference (newspaper)
.18 .13
Quality evaluation:
informative (negative)
.16 .19
All model coefficients are statistically significant at p < .05.
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Arlt and Wolling 13
Theoretical conclusions and consequences
A conclusive investigation of media effects on attitudes is quite a demanding undertaking. When
media effects are analysed in experimental laboratory studies, significant doubts typically arise
regarding the external validity of findings. Examining media effects in non-experimental field
studies, however, is methodologically ambitious and not possible without the use of a combination
of various types of data (primarily survey and content analysis data). In using cross-sectional data,
it is assumed that issue coverage differences (e.g. nuclear power) among media sources lead to
attitude differences among recipients of these different media. Longitudinal studies, however,
largely ignore differences between media sources and tend to focus on the aggregate level. This
approach presumes that long-term cross-media changes more heavily influence media effects and
thus that differences between media sources can be ignored.
This study combines the two approaches. With the data used here, we examined individual atti-
tude changes and changes in the media coverage of different media sources. The results showed
that media coverage was largely consonant with regard to nuclear energy and, above all, that
changes in the media coverage were rather uniform. Consequently, we expected uniform attitude
effects that do not vary among recipients of different media sources. Indeed, we found significant
attitude changes on all attitude dimensions, supporting the assumption that changes can be attrib-
uted to media coverage.
For a theoretical classification of these findings in the context of media effects theory, it must
be noted that in the present case, preconditions for media effects were almost fully realised:
The accident triggered extensive media coverage with a clear negative scope before the
second survey was carried out in 2011.
The media reported ubiquitously and intensively on the issue.
Obvious and consonant changes in media coverage across different media sources were
observed.
Whereas the media presented differences in the positioning of various actors in 2010, these
differences largely disappeared in 2011.
Alternative information sources, especially direct experiences and interpersonal communi-
cation, played no role.
Despite these ideal conditions, we found only small attitude effects (approximately 0.3 scale
points on a 4-point scale). Thus, even under nearly perfect conditions for strong media effects, the
observed impact was only moderate. Furthermore, it must be noted that only a minority of respond-
ents changed their minds. Most respondents maintained their original attitudes, and some even
switched their attitudes in the opposite direction. Taking these findings into account, it is not rea-
sonable to assume that strong media effects on public opinion are commonplace, and they are
clearly less likely when coverage is more diverse, as in this particular case.
However, public debate on nuclear power in Germany has a long history, and many of the
respondents already had relatively stable attitudes on the issue prior to the surveys. As established
attitudes render attitude shifts unlikely, the observed moderate effects are quite remarkable.
The political decision to quickly withdraw the runtime extension and the usage of nuclear power
was supported with broad consensus in politics and in the media. In prior public discourse, and
especially among the citizens examined here, nuclear power was a controversial issue. Changes in
media coverage following the Fukushima accident reinforced this tenor, albeit slightly. The fact
that only small effects were observed despite consonant reporting on the accident raises questions
of whether these changes are enduring or whether people may simply change their views again.
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14 Public Understanding of Science
Many political decisions associated with the nuclear phase-out and energy policy change, for
example, the construction of wind turbines and additional power lines, are also highly controver-
sial and accompanied by public protest. In addition, there are technical barriers to guaranteeing a
secure energy supply that increasingly relies on fluctuating renewable energy sources. Furthermore,
renewable energy usage is blamed for rising energy prices. For all of these reasons, political actors
who call for a re-evaluation of nuclear power may find support from the population and the media.
Even after the Fukushima incident, it is hasty to expect nuclear energy to fully disappear from the
German energy portfolio. This was reflected in the respondents’ opinions in 2011, as nearly 60%
agreed that the decision to phase out nuclear energy will end in failure.
Funding
This research was funded by the Thuringian Ministry of Education, Science and Culture.
Notes
1. To ensure intercoder reliability, we calculated reliability coefficients using the Holsti (1969) formula.
A reliability coefficient of .74 denotes agreement in 74% of the codes. The following coefficients were
calculated for the different categories: economy (.74), energy supply (.76), renewable energy (.91), risk
versus security (.84), environmental compatibility (.88), climate protection (.92), protests/demonstra-
tions (.89), actors (.71), positions (.72) and justifications (.68).
2. The following variables served as non-media factors: age, sex, education, income, political interest,
political left–right orientation and energy policy–related preferences. The latter are based on the follow-
ing operationalisation:
Germany has various energy policy objectives that are all very important: a) cost-effectiveness, referring
to cheap and competitive energy, b) security supply, denoting a sufficient energy supply at all times, and
c) environmental compatibility, meaning that energy supplies should preferably cause little environment
damage. Which of the three objectives is most important and which comes in second place?
Based on these items, measures of cost-effectiveness, security supply and environmental compatibility
were calculated.
3. The following variables served as media factors: overall media exposure and media preference. First,
the frequency of newspaper, television news, TV magazine, print magazine and online media use was
assessed. Then, these indicators were combined into an overall index of media exposure and into an
index that operationalises preferences for print or TV media. Energy-related communication behaviours
formed an index constructed from the following three items: How often have you noticed news items
on issues of energy, climate or the environment over the past year? How often have you purposefully
informed yourself on issues of energy, energy consumption or energy saving over the past month? How
often have you discussed issues of energy, climate or the environment with friends, relatives or col-
leagues over the past year? Responses were measured on a 5-point frequency scale ranging from ‘never’
to ‘very often’. Evaluations of media quality were measured based on three items on a 4-point agreement
scale, in which two dimensions were differentiated. The degree to which the media were considered
informative was assessed based on two items (‘The media report too infrequently on different energy
sources’ and ‘The media report too infrequently on new ways of saving energy’), and neutrality was
assessed based on one item (‘The media report too dramatically on issues of energy supply’).
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Author biographies
Dorothee Arlt is Senior Assistant at the Institute of Communication and Media Studies at the University of
Bern (Switzerland). She studied and received her PhD at the Institute of Media and Communication Studies
at Ilmenau University of Technology (Germany). Her primary research interests are energy and environmen-
tal communication, political communication, and media exposure and media effects.
Jens Wolling is Professor for Media Research and Political Communication at the Institute of Media and
Communication Science at Ilmenau University of Technology (Germany). He studied at the Free University
of Berlin and received his PhD at Dresden University of Technology. His primary research interests are politi-
cal communication, media exposure and media effects, and energy and environmental communication.
at Bibliothek Sozialwissenschaft on June 9, 2015pus.sagepub.comDownloaded from
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