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Media reporting of conflict between wildlife and people spending time in nature: Human-Wildlife Conflict in the Media

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There is a great deal of investment in the United States by land management agencies and conservation organizations to promote visitation and experiencing of natural and wild places. Given the relationship between outdoor experiences and support for conservation and pro‐environmental behavior, such campaigns are critical. We examined 392 articles about conflict between wildlife and humans recreating in the natural world between 2010 and 2015 to address how the conflict was framed by news media and discuss implications of the frames on how people might think and feel about time spent in nature. Sampled articles were from newspapers in 7 states in the Intermountain West region of the United States. We studied how articles were framed, to whom articles most often assigned blame for the incident, and if articles included information for how to prevent or mitigate such situations. We found that a majority of articles were framed episodically; therefore, were more likely to evoke an emotional response by readers that were more likely to negatively influence attitudes and behaviors about spending time in nature. In addition, wildlife were most often blamed for the conflict, and safety tip information was typically not included. © 2018 The Wildlife Society.
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Original Article
Media Reporting of Conflict Between Wildlife
and People Spending Time in Nature
NICOLE T. STAFFORD, Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, Colorado State University, Campus Delivery 1480, Fort Collins, CO 80523,
USA
ROBERT F. WELDEN, Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, Colorado State University, Campus Delivery 1480, Fort Collins, CO 80523,
USA
BRETT L. BRUYERE,
1
Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, Colorado State University, Campus Delivery 1480, Fort Collins, CO 80523, USA
ABSTRACT There is a great deal of investment in the United States by land management agencies and
conservation organizations to promote visitation and experiencing of natural and wild places. Given the
relationship between outdoor experiences and support for conservation and pro-environmental behavior,
such campaigns are critical. We examined 392 articles about conflict between wildlife and humans recreating
in the natural world between 2010 and 2015 to address how the conflict was framed by news media and
discuss implications of the frames on how people might think and feel about time spent in nature. Sampled
articles were from newspapers in 7 states in the Intermountain West region of the United States. We studied
how articles were framed, to whom articles most often assigned blame for the incident, and if articles included
information for how to prevent or mitigate such situations. We found that a majority of articles were framed
episodically; therefore, were more likely to evoke an emotional response by readers that were more likely to
negatively influence attitudes and behaviors about spending time in nature. In addition, wildlife were most
often blamed for the conflict, and safety tip information was typically not included. Ó2018 The Wildlife
Society.
KEY WORDS framing, human–wildlife conflict, Intermountain West, media, media psychology.
Research has repeatedly shown that time spent in the natural
environment, especially at a young age, can influence future
conservation behavior (Clements 2004, Wells and Lekies
2006, Chawla and Cushing 2007, Thompson et al. 2008,
Taylor and Kuo 2009). The factor that links time spent in
nature and conservation behaviors is the positive and
affective connection to the natural environment forged by
such experiences (Chawla 1988, Bogeholz 2006, Taylor and
Kuo 2009). Without connections to the natural world,
participation in conservation behaviors that will sustain the
planet arguably become at risk. Coupled with research about
the physical and mental health benefits of spending time in
nature, understanding public perceptions of outdoor
experiences becomes important for both the future of natural
landscapes and the wellbeing of human populations.
Spurred initially in part by Louv’s (2005) book Last Child in
the Woods, which describes the decreasing likelihood of
children spending time in nature in the United States,
concern has grown about the effects of a population that is
less connected to the natural environment. Research
indicates that residents of urban areas, individuals from
racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds, and millennials
are less likely to visit wild areas such as national parks and
forests (Clayton 2007, Krymkowski et al. 2014, Ghimire
et al. 2016, Cox et al. 2017, Root 2017). A recent study of
visitation commissioned by the National Park Service
([NPS] 2011) indicated that though overall visitation
numbers are increasing, individuals from non-Caucasian
backgrounds comprised only 22% of visitors to park units
during 2008 and 2009, considerably lower than the 37% they
comprise in the general population. Further, the report noted
that the average age of visitors in some parks, 63 years, was
notably older than the average of 37.8 years of people in the
United States. The Outdoor Foundation (2017) also
reported a lack of diversity in outdoor recreation participa-
tion by diverse populations, with only 27% of participants
identifying as nonwhite. Reasons behind lower participation
rates by these populations vary, but include financial barriers,
personal safety concerns and fear, lack of awareness of places
to go, and lack of friends and family to go with (Walker and
Virden 2005, NPS 2011).
The percentage of the U.S. population living in urban areas
has steadily increased for nearly a century, with nearly 81% of
the population living in an urban area in 2010, compared
with 46% in 1910 and 64% in 1950 (United States Census
2016). Stark increases in racial and ethnic diversity are
projected to continue at a strong pace. In 2014, racial
minorities comprised 38% of the U.S. population, a number
Received: 5 July 2017; Accepted: 16 March 2018
1
E-mail: brett.bruyere@colostate.edu
Wildlife Society Bulletin; DOI: 10.1002/wsb.874
Stafford et al. Human–Wildlife Conflict in the Media 1
projected to increase to 54% by 2060 (Colby and Ortman
2015). This amplifies concerns about future visitation to
natural places and protected areas, particularly given the
importance of such experiences to personal commitments to
stewardship and support for wildlands. Concern is high
enough that many organizations and agencies have
implemented campaigns aimed specifically at increasing
participation by these audiences. In 2016, the National Park
Service launched the Find Your Park campaign aimed at
diversifying visitors to National Park units. Similarly, the
Outdoor Foundation started Outdoor Nation in 2010 to
engage young people in the outdoors.
Given these concerns about growing segments of the
population visiting nature less, if at all, this has implications
for how they might develop an understanding about what it
means to visit public lands and recreate in nature. In the
absence of direct experience, we were interested in how
media might influence these understandings, and to consider
the implications of the media coverage on their likelihood to
ever visit wild places. As a result, we investigated media
stories about conflicts between wildlife and visitors in nature
on public lands. Specifically, our study was guided by the
following question: 1) how do newspapers in the Inter-
mountain West frame human–wildlife conflict stories, and
do those frames differ by newspaper size?; 2) to whom do
newspapers attribute blame when reporting human–wildlife
conflicts?; and 3) does media coverage include information
about how to mitigate or prevent such events?
REVIEW OF LITERATURE
Without direct experience in the natural environment,
understanding what it means to spend time in nature stands
to be strongly influenced by other means, including mass
media. Given the typical use and influence of framing in the
media, some consumers of media are likely building an
understanding about time spent in nature via limited (i.e.,
framed) narratives (Druckman 2001). Exposure to a media-
framed story, a story that is not filtered through prior
personal experiences and understandings, can prevent a
complete and contextual understanding of what it means to
spend time in nature. Previous research revealed that media
framing can influence attitudes and behaviors, both negative
and positive, in several different contexts, including the
natural world (Peace 2002, Gore and Knuth 2009).
Media Framing
Media framing is the emphasis of particular aspects of a story
by selectively highlighting certain information over others
(Entman 1993, Scheufele and Tewksbury 2007). This can
then shape public understanding of issues in the news
(Entman 1993). Shen and Edwards (2005) found that frames
used in the media can go so far as to affect an individual’s
values, which are known to strongly influence human
behavior (Manfredo et al. 2003).
Previous framing studies have focused on the outcomes of
“episodic” and “thematic” frames, which are differentiated in
part by the inclusion (or not) of context. For example,
Iyengar’s (1991) work required participants to read
hypothetical news stories about poverty. Results showed
that when poverty was framed as a broader trend resulting
from a number of society-level factors (i.e., thematic) and
included information about the larger context and drivers of
poverty, participants were more likely to consider poverty as a
collective social responsibility. Conversely, when the issue of
poverty was framed about an individual in poverty and
specific facts about their circumstance and minimal
contextual information was included (i.e., episodic), partic-
ipants reacted differently; the individual was viewed as
primarily responsible for their situation. In general, episodic
frames dominate news coverage in the media across a
multitude of topics (Tiegreen and Newman 2008).
Prior research indicates that episodic frames often elicit an
emotional reaction by readers as compared with thematic
frames, and these emotions influence attitudes. In Gross
(2008), participants read 1 of 3 hypothetical stories about a
woman who received a harsh sentence under a mandatory
minimum sentencing policy, with each story using a different
frame approach. Articles with an episodic frame with specific
details about the individual were more likely to create an
emotional reaction, including pity and empathy for the
woman. This also resulted in stronger opposition to
mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Readers of themati-
cally oriented articles about trends in crime and incarceration
reacted differently, with less emotion and stronger support
for the harsh laws.
Aarøe’s (2011) study about immigration policy in Denmark
corroborated this finding. Participants reviewed stories about
immigration, with each story presenting either an episodic or
thematic frame. The 2 episodic articles garnered more
intense emotional reactions, including anger and disgust in
one article, to pity and compassion in another. These
emotions had a strong influence on opinions toward
immigration policy, with readers who felt anger favoring
more stringent immigration policies, and those who felt
empathy favoring more compassionate policies. Small et al.’s
(2007) study on charitable giving supports findings by Gross
(2008) and Aarøe (2011) about the influence of episodic
framing on emotions and attitudes.
Media Framing in the Natural World
Previous research addresses framing studies about the natural
world. Peace (2002) showed that media coverage about
dingoes (Canis lupus dingo) shifted following a dingo attack
of a young boy that resulted in the boy’s death. Preincident
coverage about the species’ general wildness and biology was
written in a positive thematic frame, while coverage about
dingoes after the attack became more negative, episodic, and
frequent. As a result of the episodic frames, the postincident
coverage evoked fear. The public perception of dingoes
became so negative that local land managers were pressured
to cull an already threatened species, and the resort where the
death occurred closed down.
Conversely, Gore et al. (2005) studied public perception of
risks associated with bears (Ursus spp.) following an incident
in which an infant was fatally injured by a black bear
(U. americanus) in New York, USA. A content analysis of
2 Wildlife Society Bulletin 9999()
media coverage about the incident revealed a common use of
thematic frames that noted the rarity of deaths caused by
black bears in general. Surveys of area residents about black
bear risks were conducted after the incident and compared
with a survey that happened to be completed before the
incident. The authors found no shift in the perception of risk
of black bears following the incident, and attributed this
stability to thematic framing that highlighted the low risk of
such an occurrence. Studies that compare thematic and
episodic framing and its effect on public response have drawn
similar conclusions regarding sharks, wolves (Canis lupus),
and wildlife in general (Gore and Knuth 2009, Houston et al.
2010, Muter et al. 2012).
Media Effect on Risk Perception
Media can influence risk perceptions, and associated risk
attitudes and behaviors. The Social Amplification of Risk
Framework (SARF) asserts that individuals’ risk perceptions
are the result of an interaction of psychological, social, and
cultural factors, and can be shaped in part by interpersonal
and mass communication (i.e., media) in the absence of
direct personal experience (Kasperson et al. 1988). The
implications of SARF were evident in Frewer et al. (2002) on
the effects of media coverage on perceptions of risk
associated with genetically modified food in the United
Kingdom. In their study, attitudes toward genetically
modified foods were measured before and after a rise in
media attention about the topic from late 1998 to early 1999.
Findings indicated that media coverage focused on negative
stories of genetically modified food, including human health
risks and negative public response to these potential risks
(e.g., schools removing genetically modified foods from
menus). Overall, these authors found that perceptions of risk
associated with genetically modified foods increased as media
coverage about the subject increased, and then later
decreased as negative media coverage also decreased.
Frewer et al. (2002) also discussed the impacts of SARF on
behavior. Following a March 1996 government health
institute report about a potential link between a neurological
disorder in cattle and a degenerative disease in humans,
media coverage about the topic increased dramatically in the
United Kingdom. Concurrently, public perceptions about
the risks of eating beef increased and beef consumption
decreased by 17%. Following the decline in media stories
about the subject, beef consumption patterns returned to
prereport levels.
Research about media coverage and risk perceptions related
to human–wildlife conflict is limited. Several studies have
examined media coverage and perceived risks associated with
wildlife-related diseases (e.g., Roche and Muskavitch 2003,
Dudo et al. 2007, Heberlein and Stedman 2009). These
studies argued that media coverage that includes messages of
efficacy (i.e., information about what individuals can do to
prevent or control a risk) can decrease heightened
perceptions of risk, whereas sensationalized coverage can
increase risk perceptions. These same studies found that the
mass media generally failed to include information about
risk-reducing behaviors in stories. For example, Roche and
Muskavitch (2003) found that only one-third of articles
about West Nile virus published in major newspapers in
North America during 2000 contained information on how
individuals could reduce their risk of contracting the disease
through simple methods such as use of repellant and long
sleeves shirts.
METHODS
We analyzed 392 articles drawn from 6 years (2010 to 2015)
of news reports about human–wildlife conflict in a context of
visitors spending time in nature. We selected this time period
because it coincided with a number of public relations efforts
and programs by public agencies and conservation organiza-
tions to explore nature and visit protected areas, such as the
National Park Service’s Outdoor Recreation Legacy Part-
nership and the multiagency National Get Outdoors Day.
We were interested in the Intermountain West region of the
United States (i.e., MT, ID, WY, CO, UT, AZ, and NM,
USA) because of common variables in terms of terrain (e.g.,
landlocked, mountainous, or rugged) and populations within
each state that are concentrated in a few large urban areas. In
addition, public land within each of these states is abundant:
249 state parks, 63 National Park Service sites, 58 U.S.
Department of Agriculture National Forests, and hundreds
of publicly accessible Bureau of Land Management
administrative units (e.g., National Conservation Lands,
designated Wilderness).
Newspaper Selection
We followed the Designated Market Area (DMA) sampling
method used by Slater et al. (2008) because of its
effectiveness with research that addresses media coverage
over large geographical areas. The DMA is defined as a
group of counties that form a geographic area that are served
by the same media. A DMA has geographic boundaries, and
all media within those boundaries are part of the DMA. The
7 states in this study included 22 DMAs (Fig. 1; Table 1).
Following sampling methods by Long et al. (2005), we
automatically included the newspaper serving the largest city
within each DMA. We determined additional newspapers
through several steps. First, we rank-ordered all remaining
newspapers in the DMA (not including the largest
newspaper, already selected) based on size of community
served, assigned a number to each media, and identified the
median. We randomly chose one newspaper each from above
and below the median using a random number generator.
This resulted in 3 newspapers selected from each DMA: the
largest newspaper, one newspaper above the median, and one
newspaper below the median.
Article Selection
Two researchers conducted exploratory searches of news-
papers for articles about human–wildlife conflict using
keywords in search engines, to reveal wildlife species and
verbs commonly included in stories. The researchers
compared lists, and then identified key terms, resulting in
7 wildlife species (bear, mountain lion or cougar [Puma
concolor], snake, elk [Cervus canadensis], coyote [Canis
latrans], bison [Bison bison], moose [Alces alces]), and 7 verbs
Stafford et al. Human–Wildlife Conflict in the Media 3
(maul, gore, trample, stalk, bite, strike, and attack). The
researchers then searched all 56 possible wildlife–verb
combinations in the sample of newspapers selected for the
study, using each of the newspapers’ internal search engines
(e.g., “bear maul,” “bear attack,” “cougar maul,” “cougar
attack,” and so on). This resulted in 792 articles. Researchers
reviewed articles for 3 inclusion criteria. To be included in
the study, articles needed to report incidents in which the
story included information that a) described a human–
wildlife conflict; b) occurred in a context of recreation; and c)
located in a natural setting, such as a protected area.
Coding
We coded each article for episodic or thematic frame, blame
attribution, and inclusion of safety tips. Coders made
episodic or thematic determinations based on whether an
article included contextual information such as statistics
about recent trends or likelihood of conflict occurring
(thematic), or whether it focused primarily, if not exclusively,
on the details of one particular incident (episodic). Coders
assigned blame attribution as 1 of 4 total possibilities: no
blame, human-blamed, wildlife-blamed, or shared blame.
Coders determined these by words or descriptions that
implied a judgement, such as lack of preparedness or
competency by the recreator. For example, an article
describing an individual as approaching “dangerously close”
to a bison would be coded as “human-blamed.” Words and
descriptions such as “the offending bear” or “the culprit
animal” were coded as “wildlife-blamed.” Overall, research-
ers coded blame ascription on a case by case with each article
based on the assessment of the 2 coders.
Researchers coded presence of safety tips as a simple
“present” or “absent” option. This was a straightforward
coding scheme based on whether the article explicitly
provided information about how similar incidents could be
avoided through behavioral choices of the individual, such as
staying a minimum distance away from a species, hanging
food appropriately when in the backcountry, and similar
information.
Following the protocol by Thomas et al. (2015), 2
researchers completed initial coding of 20 articles and
then discussed any discrepancies in their coding to establish a
shared understanding of the coding scheme. Both researchers
then coded all articles (392 in total), and reviewed their
coding together on each of the variables. Discrepancies were
resolved through discussion and clarification. Coder agree-
ment was calculated using Kripendorff’s alpha, and an
agreement value of 0.67 was considered acceptable
(Krippendorff 2011). Agreement levels varied between
0.71 and 0.89 for the 3 coded variables (episodic or thematic,
blame attribution, safety tips).
Data Analysis
Researchers analyzed data using the Statistical Packaging for
the Social Sciences version 24 (IBM Corporation, Armonk,
NY, USA). Researchers calculated descriptive statistics (i.e.,
percentages), and tested hypotheses using chi-square tests to
compare different newspaper sizes by episodic or thematic
framing, blame ascription, and safety tips. In addition,
researchers used crosstabs to determine the relationship
between episodic or thematic reporting and blame ascription,
regardless of newspaper size. Researchers used a¼0.05 for
statistical significance and the interaction effect (Cramer’s V)
to evaluate the practical findings of results (Vaske 2008).
Figure 1. Map of 22 Designated Market Areas across 7 states of the
Intermountain West, USA, studied for news media coverage about wildlife–
human interactions published between 2010 and 2015.
Table 1. List of 22 Designated Market Areas
a
(DMA) across 7 states of the
Intermountain West, USA, studied for news media coverage about wildlife–
human interactions published between 2010 and 2015.
DMA name State served by the DMA
Albuquerque–Santa Fe NM & CO
Amarillo (TX) NM
Billings MT & WY
Boise ID
Butte–Bozeman MT
Casper–Riverton WY
Cheyenne (WY)–Scottsbluff (NE) WY
Colorado Springs–Pueblo CO
Denver CO
Grand Junction CO
Great Falls MT
Helena MT
Idaho Falls–Pocatello ID & WY
Las Cruces (NM)–El Paso (TX) NM
Missoula MT
Phoenix AZ
Rapid City (SD) WY
Salt Lake City UT & WY
Spokane (WA) ID
Tucson AZ
Twin Falls ID
Yuma (AZ)–El Centro (CA) AZ
a
DMA: group of counties that form a geographic area that are served by
the same media.
4 Wildlife Society Bulletin 9999()
RESULTS
We created 5 categories of newspapers based on the size of
the primary community served by each newspaper, using
aggregated census data between 2010 and 2015 (Table 2).
This is different from prior studies, which used circulation
size (Long et al. 2005). Given the decline in paid
subscriptions to newspapers and free availability of many
newspapers to nonsubscribers, we considered circulation size
to be an unreliable variable by which to group media. In fact,
newspapers in some DMAs are free, so subscription numbers
are not available. Using U.S. Census categories and equitable
distribution among groupings as a guide, the 5 groupings
were: Group A (<20,000, 41 articles, 10.4% of sample),
Group B (20,000–40,000, 56 articles, 14.2%), Group C
(40,001–100,000, 191 articles, 48.7%), Group D (100,001–
500,000, 62 articles, 15.8%), and Group E (>500,000, 42
articles, 10.7%).
We had nearly equal representation of articles across the 5
groups (between 10% and 15%), with the exception of Group
C, which represented newspapers whose primary community
was between 40,001 and 100,000, which comprised 48.7% of
the sample (Table 2). This outcome was due to the greater
number of newspapers overall within our 22 DMAs that
serve communities in this population range.
Episodic and Thematic Framing
Overall, 76.8% of articles were reported with an episodic
frame, ranging from 71.4% for Group E to 87.5% for Group
B (Table 2). This indicates an overall high propensity for
newspapers to report the conflict stories without contextual
information, reporting only details of a specific incident.
This result was true regardless of the size of the primary
community served by the newspaper (Table 2).
Blame Attribution
Wildlife were blamed most frequently across all 5 newspaper
groupings, accounting for 48% of all articles, and ranging
from a low of 31.7% in Group A to 61.9% in Group E.
Conversely, humans were blamed in 14.7% of all articles,
with a high of 22.0% in Group A and a low of 8.9% in Group
B. Across all group sizes, 30.9% of articles did not ascribe
blame to either humans or wildlife, and 6.4% of all articles
ascribed blame to both wildlife and humans (Table 2).
Although the differences in this comparison were statistically
significant, all newspaper groupings most frequently blamed
wildlife species for the conflict.
Framing and Blame Ascription
Episodic framing was most often used across all 4 blame
categories. The greatest episodic usage occurred in articles in
which no blame was ascribed (92.1%), followed by articles
that blamed wildlife (79.1% episodic), humans (73.9%), and
both (73.3%; Table 3).
Safety Tip Information
There were no differences among newspaper groups relative
to the presence of safety tips for readers. Overall, 66.5% of
articles did not include any safety tip information, which
varied between 59.5% of articles in Group E, and 75.8% of
articles in Group D (Table 2).
DISCUSSION
Newspapers serving communities of all sizes tended to report
human–wildlife conflict in similar ways. Episodic reporting
was most common across all 5 groups, and notably so; nearly
3 of 4 articles were framed episodically in each category.
Blaming wildlife was the most common blame ascription in
every newspaper group. Safety tip information was typically
not included in articles.
The high frequency of episodic framing is consistent with
studies about several journalism topics ranging from health
issues (Kunkel et al. 2002), war (Dimitrova 2006),
immigration (Jacobs et al. 2016), and crime (Gross 2006).
Episodic-style information is also often what is provided to
newspapers by sources such as an organization’s or agency’s
news release. In this case, the source would usually be a
government land-management agency with jurisdiction
where an incident occurred. In our anecdotal review of a
small number of available news releases, information was
often limited to the facts of the incident (when, where, who),
but often missed contextual information that can help
reporters (and therefore, readers) provide an informed and
contextualized account of the incident. The website for
Yellowstone National Park provides thematic information
about bear attacks, noting there have only been 38 reported
bear injuries in the past 36 years when 104 million people
visited the park, and only 8 known fatalities in the park’s 145-
year history. However, this information was not included in a
press release about a bear attack fatality in the park in 2015.
Table 2. Comparisons of newspaper groups within 22 Designated Market Areas
a
(DMA) across 7 states of the Intermountain West, USA, of variables
affecting wildlife–human interactions between 2010 and 2015.
Frame (%) Ascription of blame (%) Safety tip information (%)
Newspaper group Circulation Episodic Thematic No blame Animal Human Shared Included Not included
Group A <20,000 75.6 24.4 30.9 31.7 22.0 7.3 39.0 61.0
Group B 20,000–40,000 87.5 12.5 37.5 44.6 8.9 8.9 33.9 66.1
Group C 40,0001–100,000 73.3 26.7 28.3 51.3 17.3 3.1 33.7 66.3
Group D 100,001–500,000 82.3 17.7 35.5 41.9 11.3 11.3 24.2 75.8
Group E >500,000 71.4 28.6 19.0 61.9 9.5 9.5 40.5 59.5
Mean 76.8 23.2 30.9 48.0 14.7 6.4 33.5 66.5
x
24
¼6.66, P¼0.16 x
24
¼20.88, P¼0.05 x
24
¼4.97, P¼0.76
a
DMA: group of counties that form a geographic area that are served by the same media.
Stafford et al. Human–Wildlife Conflict in the Media 5
As researchers have previously noted (Gross 2008, Aarøe
2011), episodic frames are more likely to evoke an emotional
response by readers; those emotions are more likely to affect
attitudes and behaviors. We conclude that it is reasonable to
assume that if a reader with minimal experience in nature
reacts with emotion to these episodic stories, those emotions
are likely to be of the sort that has a negative effect on
attitudes about spending time in nature, such as fear. It is
hard to envision an emotional reaction to a conflict story that
would have an encouraging or inspirational effect on
spending time in nature.
We were most interested in considering how media
coverage might influence attitudes and behaviors about
spending time in nature by people in urban settings. Such
areas tend to have lower levels of participation in nature-
based recreation, but are increasing in terms of their
proportion of the U.S. population. In our study, >7in10
articles in newspapers serving the largest urban areas (i.e.,
Group E) in our study region reported stories with an
episodic frame. These are frames that encourage an
emotional reaction, reactions that probably include fear,
given the nature of the stories. Episodic framing hurts the
cause of encouraging more people from urban areas with
diverse populations to visit natural and wild places.
This concern about the salience of episodic framing is
amplified by our findings about blame ascription. In the
largest newspapers serving the big urban centers of the
Intermountain West, stories most often blamed wildlife for
the incident. “The responsible bear is still at large,” noted one
article. This can lead a less-experienced outdoor visitor with
visions of a bear on the prowl in the woods for its next victim.
In >6 out of 10 articles in the largest newspapers, wildlife
were blamed for the incident. When we combine this finding
with the likelihood that the article was written with an
episodic frame that prompts an emotional reaction, the effect
on someone living in an urban area with minimal experience
in nature is potentially troubling. When wildlife were
blamed, the articles were framed episodically 79.1% of the
time, a combination of factors that is likely to deter someone
from exploring nature for the first time.
Finally, these issues were further amplified by the relative
absence of information in articles about how these conflict
situations can be avoided or, at least, the severity of the
consequences of such situations might be lessened. Similar to
Roche and Muskavitch (2003), Dudo et al. (2007),
Heberlein and Stedman (2009), we found that a majority
(67%) of articles failed to mention preventative measures that
the affected human(s) could have taken, or suggestions to the
reader for how to prevent similar scenarios. Inclusion of this
type of information could help mitigate the emotional
response to episodically reported stories, and positively
influence reader’s notions for how to safely spend time in
nature.
Study Limitations
Our analysis compared articles reporting multiple different
human–wildlife conflicts, each of which varied from the
other in many ways (e.g., time of year, injuries vs. fatalities,
wildlife species). The nuances of each situation were not
controlled for in this study. Additionally, although we
reported that newspapers serving the largest urban areas in
the study region were more likely to ascribe blame to wildlife,
it could be that the situations about which they reported
really did involve wildlife that were more culpable in those
particular instances. Finally, readership of daily newspapers
has fluctuated tremendously in the past 20 years with the
emergence of a multitude of other, and mostly online, news-
generating outlets. The distribution and readership that
articles in traditional newspapers have in their communities
is difficult to estimate, given the dynamic landscape of news
and media. However, all of the media sources in this study
could be considered local news organizations (when
compared with publications such as USA Today or the
New York Times); and for those who do consult local media
for information, it continues to be the most trusted of all
possible news sources (Pew Research Center 2016).
Future Research
We did not compare media stories to news releases, social
media posts, or similar written accounts that are typical of
land management agencies for disseminating information. It
would be worthwhile to see how media coverage compares
with the actual information provided by the management
agencies. For example, are agencies providing thematic-type
content but media are choosing to frame incidents more
episodically?
Also, given the importance of the opening paragraph in a
news story, a similar study could be replicated that only
looked at the lead paragraph, or coded the lead paragraph
separately from the remainder of the story to assess if framing
differs between how a story starts, and the rest of the article.
Furthermore, looking at the section of the newspaper in
which the story was placed would provide new insights on
the possible effects of the stories on readers.
Finally, our study evaluated how incidents were framed and
where blame was ascribed, with conjecture about impacts on
attitudes and behaviors using prior research as a basis for
assumptions. Further research could measure these actual
constructs by readers to determine the effect of framing and
blame ascription on their feelings toward wildlife and
spending time in nature.
Management Implications
Are wildlife managers, public information officers, and other
land management staff in a position to influence a change in
how these stories are reported? They do not have ultimate
Table 3. Percentage of episodic or thematic stories within 4 blame
categories within 22 Designated Market Areas
a
(DMA) across 7 states of the
Intermountain West, USA, of variables regarding blame ascription and
framing orientation in articles studied for news media coverage about
wildlife–human interactions published between 2010 and 2015.
Story type No blame Animal Human Shared
Episodic 92.1 79.1 73.9 73.3
Thematic 7.9 20.9 26.1 26.7
(x
23
¼12.50, P¼0.01)
a
DMA: group of counties that form a geographic area that are served by
the same media.
6 Wildlife Society Bulletin 9999()
control, of course, because media stories are the purview of
reporters and editors. Reporters can choose to report the
news based on numerous factors: what will deliver
prominence or strong readership, social norms, continuation
of a narrative established by previous articles, organizational
culture, and their own worldviews and ideological orienta-
tions (Communication Studies 2017). That said, land
managers have some potential to influence factors that
affect the framing decisions of a reporter. While respecting
that reporters ultimately choose their frames, land manage-
ment personnel would be wise to always include thematic-
type of information to at least provide the reporter with the
option to take a thematic approach. Reporters are not likely
to seek out contextual data on their own, whereas land
managers presumably have access to historical data about
similar conflicts that allows for more thematic presentation.
This would include information about the likelihood of such
an occurrence, (e.g., “only the nth time in x-years”).
In addition, as others have done (see Frewer et al. 2002,
Decker et al. 2012), we recommend that land managers always
include risk-reduction messages (i.e., safety tips) in news
releases and communication to reporters about human–
wildlife conflict. Such messages should include behaviors that
individuals can adopt to avoid negative interactions with
wildlife or lessen the severity of the consequences when
interactions do occur. Including this information has been
shown to increase efficacy, or one’s belief that they have the
knowledge and skills to reduce a particular risk (Bandura 2000,
Floyd et al. 2000), and can help lessen the emotional reaction
and improve the accuracy of a reader’s risk assessment of
spending time in nature. These recommendations are
particularly important because some human–wildlife conflict
stories can be sensationalized to reach a national audience. For
example, multiple stories about visitor encounters with bison
and bears in Yellowstone were covered by major national news
outlets in 2015 and 2016. Further, in the age of social media,
anyone with a smartphone is a potential de facto journalist.
Video footage of human–wildlife conflict in major national
parks, for example, can easily be found on YouTube, and some
of these videos have millions of views. These incidents are
episodic by default, and therefore, evoke emotional reactions
that can lead to unfavorable opinions about the risks associated
with spending timein nature and visiting nationalparks. While
the distribution and reach of such videos can be massive, it
further highlights the importance of public land managers to
respond with contextual, thematically oriented content to help
counteract the intense emotions these videos can generate.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Thank you to the reviewers and editors of the Wildlife
Society Bulletin for their guidance and advice.
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Associate Editor: Anderson.
8 Wildlife Society Bulletin 9999()
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