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Media Discourse and Public Opinion on Nuclear Power: A Constructionist Approach

Author(s): William A. Gamson and Andre Modigliani


Source: American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 95, No. 1 (Jul., 1989), pp. 1-37
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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Media Discourse and Public Opinion


on Nuclear Power: A Constructionist
Approach'L
WilliamA. Gamson
Boston College
AndreModigliani
UniversityofMichigan

Media discourseand public opinionare treatedas two parallelsystems of constructing


meaning.This paper explorestheirrelationship by analyzingthe discourseon nuclearpower in fourgeneral
audiencemedia: televisionnews coverage,newsmagazineaccounts,
editorialcartoons,and syndicatedopinioncolumns.The analysis
traces the careers of differentinterpretivepackages on nuclear
powerfrom1945to thepresent.This media discourse,it is argued,
is an essentialcontextforunderstandingthe formationof public
it helpsto accountfor
opinionon nuclearpower. More specifically,
such surveyresultsas the decline in supportfor nuclear power
beforeThreeMile Island, a reboundaftera burstofmediapublicity
has died out, the gap betweengeneralsupportfornuclearpower
and supportfora plant in one's own community,
and the changed
relationshipof age to supportfornuclearpower from1950 to the
present.
Atomsforpeace. Your friend,the atom. Electricitytoo cheap to meter.
Dr. Spock is worried.The Clamshell Alliance. The China Syndrome.
Images ofcoolingtowersat ThreeMile Island. Chernobylis everywhere.
These are nuggetsfroma publicdiscourseon nuclearpowerthatmostof
us instantlyrecognize.
Nuclear power, like every policy issue, has a culture.There is an
ongoingdiscoursethat evolves and changesover time,providinginter1 The research
reported
herehas beensupported
bytheNationalScienceFoundation
grantsSES-801642and SES-8309343.We hadhelpfulcomments
onearlierdrafts
from
WilliamHoynes,Elihu Katz, SharonKurtz,CharlotteRyan, Howard Schuman,
David Stuart,and theanonymous
reviewers.Requestsforreprints
shouldbe sentto
WilliamA. Gamson,Department
ofSociology,BostonCollege,Chestnut
Hill,Massachusetts02167.

? 1989byThe University
ofChicago.All rightsreserved.

0002-9602/90/9501-0001$01
.50

AJS Volume 95 Number 1 (July1989): 1-37

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AmericanJournalof Sociology
pretationsand meaningsforrelevantevents.An archivistmightcatalog
the metaphors,catchphrases,visual images, moral appeals, and other
symbolicdevices thatcharacterizethisdiscourse.The catalog would be
organized,ofcourse,sincetheelementsare clustered;we encounterthem
not as individualitemsbut as interpretive
packages.
On mostpolicyissues, thereare competingpackages available in this
culture.Indeed, one can view policyissuesas, in part,a symboliccontest
over which interpretation
will prevail. This culturalsystemhas a logic
and dynamicof its own. Packages ebb and flowin prominenceand are
constantly
revisedand updatedto accommodatenew events.The process
by which this issue cultureis produced and changed needs to be accountedforin itsown right,regardlessofanyclaimsthatone mightmake
about its causal effecton public opinion.
Parallel to thisculturallevel is a cognitiveone of individualsmaking
sense of the same issue. Individualsbringtheirown lifehistories,social
interactions,and psychologicalpredispositionsto the process of constructingmeaning; they approach an issue with some anticipatory
schema,albeitsometimeswitha verytentativeone. Most publicopinion
studiesfocuson theaggregateoutcomesofthisprocess-that is, attitudes
forand against particularpolicies-and on how such attitudeschange
overtime.The findingssuggestwhichschemataare sharedand therelative popularityof different
competitors.
Both levels of analysisinvolvethe social construction
of meaning.By
examiningdiscourseand public opinionas parallelsystems,we deliberatelyavoid makingcertaincausal assumptions.We do not,in thispaper,
argue that changesin media discoursecause changesin public opinion.
Each systeminteractswith the other: media discourseis part of the
processby which individualsconstructmeaning,and public opinionis
partof theprocessby whichjournalistsand otherculturalentrepreneurs
develop and crystallizemeaningin public discourse.
A full explorationof this interactionbetween media discourseand
opinionformationrequiresan analysisof both systemsover several issues. In thispaper, our attemptis moremodest:to show how changing
media discourseon nuclearpowerprovidesan essentialcontextforinterpretinga varietyofsurveyresultson nuclearpower.But ourargumenton
how mediadiscourseand publicopinioninteractwillnotbe clearwithout
a fullerexplicationof our underlying
model.
The Nature of Media Discourse
Public discourseis carriedon in manydifferent
forums.Ratherthan a
singlepublicdiscourse,it is moreusefulto thinkofa setofdiscoursesthat
interactin complexways. On an issue such as nuclearpower,thereis the
2

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Nuclear Power
specialist'sdiscourseusingjournalsand otherprintmedia aimedat those
whose professionallives involve themin the issue. There is the largely
oral discourseused by officialswho are directlyinvolved in decisionmakingroles on the issue and by thosewho attemptto influencethem.
Thereis thechallengerdiscourse,providingpackagesthatare intendedto
mobilizetheiraudiencesforsome formof collectiveaction.
Generalaudience media, then,are onlysome of theforumsforpublic
discourseon an issue. If one is interestedin predictingpolicyoutcomes,
theyare not necessarilythe mostimportantforums.But if one is interestedin public opinion,thenmedia discoursedominatesthe largerissue
culture,bothreflecting
it and contributing
to itscreation.Journalists
may
draw theirideas and languagefromany or all of the otherforums,frequentlyparaphrasingor quotingtheirsources. At the same time,they
contributetheirown framesand inventtheirown clevercatchphrases,
drawingon a popular culturethattheyshare withtheiraudience.
The media, in thismodel,servea complexrole. They are, on the one
hand, partof the processby whichissue culturesare produced.Because
theirrole is believedto be so centralin framingissues forthe attentive
public,theyare also, to quote Gurevitchand Levy (1985,p. 19),"a siteon
whichvarioussocial groups,institutions,
and ideologiesstruggleoverthe
definition
and construction
of social reality."Generalaudiencemedia are
nottheonlyforumsforpublicdiscourse,but,sincetheyconstantly
make
available suggestedmeaningsand are the most accessible in a mediasaturatedsocietysuch as the UnitedStates,theircontentcan be used as
the mostimportantindicatorof the generalissue culture.
Media packages.-We suggestedearlierthat media discoursecan be
conceivedof as a set of interpretive
packages that give meaningto an
issue. A packagehas an internalstructure.
At itscoreis a centralorganizingidea, orframe,formakingsenseofrelevantevents,suggesting
whatis
at issue. "Media frames,"Gitlin(1980, p. 7) writes,"largelyunspoken
and unacknowledged,organizetheworldbothforjournalistswho report
it and, in some importantdegree,forus who relyon theirreports."This
frametypicallyimpliesa rangeof positions,ratherthanany singleone,
allowingfora degreeof controversy
amongthosewho share a common
frame.Finally,a package offersa numberof different
condensingsymbols that suggestthe core frameand positionsin shorthand,makingit
possibleto displaythe package as a whole witha deftmetaphor,catchphrase,or othersymbolicdevice.2
2 We distinguish
framing
devicesthatsuggesthow to thinkabouttheissueand reasoningdevicesthatjustifywhatshouldbe doneaboutit. The fiveframing
devicesare
(1) metaphors,
(2) exemplars(i.e., historical
examplesfromwhichlessonsare drawn),
(3) catchphrases,
(4) depictions,
and (5) visualimages(e.g.,icons).The threereasoning
devicesare(1) roots(i.e., a causal analysis),(2) consequences
(i.e., a particular
typeof

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AmericanJournalof Sociology
To illustrate,considera package about the use of nuclearpower to
one we label progress:3
generateelectricity,
light,wouldwe
beforetheelectric
If theelectric
chairhad beeninvented
totechnolamps?Therehas alwaysbeenresistance
stillbe usingkerosene
and ignore
bynervousNellieswhosee onlytheproblems
logicalprogress
development
is thelatestversion
tonuclearenergy
thebenefits.
Resistance
of modern
of thisirrational
fearof progress
and change,theexpression
is
nuclearenergy
development
pastoralists
andnuclearLuddites.Certainly
oftechnonotfreeofproblems,
butproblems
canbe solved,as thehistory
our
shows.Thefailure
todevelopnuclearpowerwillretard
logicalprogress
tothepoorandto
andmakeus renegeon ourobligation
economic
growth
future
Ifcoercive
usfrom
moving
aheadnow
utopians
prevent
generations.
aroundinthe
withnuclearenergy,
thenextgeneration
is likelytobe sitting
thisgeneration's
officials
fornotdoingsomething
darkblaming
theutilities
wouldnotletthemdo.
This package framesthe nuclearpower issue in termsof the society's
commitment
to technologicaldevelopmentand economicgrowth.Frames
shouldnotbe confusedwithpositionsforor againstsomepolicymeasure.
While this package is clearlypronuclear,thereis ample room fordisagreementwithinthe overallframe-for example,on what typeof reactors should be built. Not everydisagreementis a framedisagreement;
differences
between(say) Republicansand Democratsor "liberals"and
a sharedframe.Nor can every
"conservatives"
on manyissuesmayreflect
package be identifiedwith a clear-cutpolicy position.On almost any
issue,thereare packages thatare betterdescribedas ambivalentthanas
pro or con.
Packages, if theyare to remainviable, have the task of constructing
meaning over time, incorporatingnew events into their interpretive
frames.In effect,theycontaina storyline or, to use Bennett's(1975)
term,a scenario.The progresspackage,forexample,mustbe able to deal
withtheaccidentsat ThreeMile Island (TMI) and Chernobyl,providing
themwitha meaningthat is plausibleand consistentwiththe frame.If
effect),
and (3) appeals to principle(i.e., a set of moralclaims).A packagecan be
and the
summarized
in a signature
matrixthatstatestheframe,therangeofpositions,
eightdifferent
typesofsignature
elementsthatsuggestthiscorein a condensedmanner.For a fullerpresentation
ofthispartofthemodel,see Gamsonand Lasch (1983).
ofpresenting
packagesas indentedquotations,although
3 We followtheconvention
theyare in fact a combinationof paraphrasingand directquotes frommultiple
of a packageshouldbe its acceptanceby an
sources.The acid testof a statement
is a fairone. We attempt
tomeetthistestbyrelying
on the
advocatethatthestatement
and otherwritlanguageofadvocatesand sponsors,derivingit fromtheirpamphlets
ings.In thisinstance,we paraphraseor quotematerialsfromtheAtomicIndustrial
theCommittee
on EnergyAwareness,and the
Forum,theEdison ElectricInstitute,
(see Nisbet1979;McCracken1977,1979).
pronuclear
writings
ofneoconservatives
4

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Nuclear Power
the eventis not one thatthe scenariopredictsor expects,thisonlychallengestheingenuityand supplenessof theskillfulculturalentrepreneur.
How does one account for the developmentof this package and its
competitorsover time and especiallyfor theirrelativeprominencein
media discourse?Our model treatsthe contentof the discourseas the
outcome of a value-added process. As an illustrationof this concept,
considerthe exampleof automobileproduction.Each stage-the mining
of ironore, smelting,tempering,shaping,assembling,painting,delivering, selling-adds its value to the final product. Furthermore,these
stagesmay be thoughtof as determinants
that,in combination,specify
thefinaloutcome.In thissense,they"explain"or accountforwhateverit
is thatis finallyproduced.4
The productionof issue culturescan be thoughtof as such a process.
The modelpostulatesthreebroadclassesofdeterminants
thatcombineto
produceparticularpackage careers:culturalresonances,sponsoractivities, and media practices.
A. Cultural resonances:Not all symbolsare equally potent.Certain
packages have a natural advantage because theirideas and language
resonatewithlargerculturalthemes.Resonancesincreasetheappeal ofa
package;theymake it appear naturaland familiar.Those who respondto
the largerculturalthemewill findit easierto respondto a package with
the same sonorities.Snow and Benford(1988) make a similarpointin
ofa frame.Some frames"resonatewith
discussingthe"narrativefidelity"
culturalnarrations,thatis, withthestories,myths,and folktalesthatare
part and parcel of one's culturalheritage."5
The progresspackage benefitsby its resonanceswitha largercultural
themeof technologicalprogress.Few would question the appeal of a
"technofix"
fora wide varietyof problemsin Americansociety.As Williamswritesin commenting
on Americanvalues, " 'Efficient'
is a wordof
highpraisein a societythathas longemphasizedadaptability,technological innovation,economicexpansion,up-to-dateness,
practicality,expediency,'gettingthingsdone' "(1960, p. 428). The inventoris a central
4 The economicmodelofvalueaddedhas beenusedmostprominently
in sociology
by

Smelser(1963)in his TheoryofCollectiveBehavior.In spiteof theinfluence


of this
work,thegenerallinearmodelso dominatesthethinking
ofmostAmericansociologiststhattheyfinditdifficult
tothinkinvalue-addedterms,immediately
attempting
to
translate
suchmodelsintothelanguageofdependent
and independent
variables.But
itis confusing
ratherthanhelpfultothinkofan automobile
as thedependent
variable,
whilemining,smelting,
painting,and delivery
are considered
independent
variables.
5 Theyalso use theterm"frame
resonance,"but to referto thelinkbetweenculture
and cognition-i.e.,to connectthecontent
ofa frameand theresponseofan audience
member.In contrast,
we use theterms"culturalresonance"
and "narrative
fidelity"
to
linkdifferent
partsoftheculturalsystem-i.e.,to connectsymbolson a specific
issue
withmoreenduringculturalthemes.

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AmericanJournalof Sociology
culturalhero-embodied in the mythsabout Benjamin Franklinand
Thomas Edison. Masteryover natureis the way to progress:good old
Americaningenuityand know-how.
It is usefulto thinkofthemesdialectically.Thereis no themewithouta
countertheme.
The themeis conventionaland normative;the counterthemeis adversarialand contentious.But both are rootedin American
culture,and bothcan be importantin assessingthe outcomeof any specificsymboliccontest.
Americanculturealso containsa countertheme
thatis skepticalof, or
even hostileto, technology.To quote Emerson,"Thingsare in thesaddle
and ridemankind."Harmonywithnatureratherthanmasteryover it is
stressed.We live on a "small planet." Our technology
mustbe appropriate and in properscale. There is an ecosystemto maintain,and themore
themorewe disruptits
we tryto controlnaturethroughour technology,
naturalorderand threatenthe qualityof our lives. Thoreau at Walden
Pond is also part of the Americanculturalheritage.
Much of popularculturefeaturesthecountertheme:
Chaplin'sModern
Times, Huxley's Brave New World,and Kubrick's2001 and countless
otherfilmsabout technologygone mad and out of control,a Frankenstein'smonsterabout to turnon its creator.If progressbenefitsby its
resonancewiththetheme,two ofitscompetitors,
runawayand softpaths
(discussedbelow), draw muchof theirsymbolismfromdifferent
partsof
the countertheme.
Since culturalthemesremainconstant,it maybe unclearhow theycan
help us to explain changes in the ebb and flow of packages in media
discourse.Resonancesare theearlieststagein thevalue-addedprocess.A
package'sresonances,we argue,facilitatetheworkofsponsorsbytuning
to packages
theears ofjournaliststo itssymbolism.They add prominence
the effectof sponsoractivitiesand media practices.
by amplifying
B. Sponsoractivities:Much of the changingcultureof an issue is the
have sponsors,interestedin
productof enterprise.Packages frequently
promotingtheircareers.Sponsorshipis morethan merelyadvocacy,involvingsuch tangibleactivitiesas speechmaking,interviewswithjournalists,advertising,articleand pamphletwriting,and thefilingof legal
briefsto promotea preferred
package.
These sponsorsare usuallyorganizations,employingprofessionalspecialistswhose dailyjobs bringthemintocontactwithjournalists.Their
jobs breed sophisticationabout the news needs of the media and the
normsand habitsof workingjournalists.Indeed, manyof theseprofessionals began as journalistsbeforemovingto public relationsjobs. As
Sigal (1973, p. 75) pointsout, professional
sponsorsadjust "theirthinking
to newsmen'sconventions.They talk the same language."
The sponsorof a package is typicallyan agentwho is promoting
some
6

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Nuclear Power
collectiveratherthan personalagenda. These agentsfrequently
draw on
theresourcesof an organizationto preparematerialsin a formthatlends
itselfto readyuse. Condensingsymbolsis thejournalist'sstock-in-trade.
Smartsourcesare well aware of thejournalist'sfancyforthe apt catchphraseand providesuitableones to suggestthe frametheywant.
For nuclearpower,as on mostissues,publicofficialsare oftenimportant sponsors.The AtomicEnergyCommissionand its successoragencies,theNuclearRegulatoryCommissionand theDepartmentofEnergy,
have been importantsponsorsoftheprogresspackage. Theirefforts
have
been supplementedby industrygroups such as the AtomicIndustrial
Forum, the Edison Electric Institute,and the Committeeon Energy
Awareness.A neoconservative
advocacynetworkhas helpedto articulate
and spread thispackage throughitsjournals.
Social movementorganizationsare also importantsponsorsin this
framingprocess.Snow and Benford(1988, p. 198) pointout theirroleas
"signifying
agents"thatare activelyengagedin the productionof meaning: "They frame . . . relevant events and conditions in ways that are

intendedto mobilizepotentialadherentsand constituents,


to garnerbystandersupport,and to demobilizeantagonists."
Major sponsorsof antinuclearpackages includeenvironmental
groups
suchas FriendsoftheEarth,consumerprotection
groupssuchas Critical
Mass, professional
groupssuchas theUnionofConcernedScientists,and
direct-action
groupssuch as the ClamshellAlliance. Gamson (1988) argues that the antinuclearmovement-througha combinationof direct
action and more conventionalpoliticalaction-so changed media discoursethatthe accidentsat TMI and Chernobylweregivensignificantly
different
framesthan theywould have receivedin an earlierdiscourse
context.
C. Media practices:That sponsorsare activedoes notimplythatjournalistsare passive. Journalists'
workingnormsand practicesadd considerable value to the process. A numberof studentsof Americannews
organizationshave argued that journalistsunconsciouslygive official
packagesthebenefitofthedoubt. In somecases, officialassumptionsare
taken for granted,but even when theyare challengedby sponsorsof
alternativepackages,itis thesecompetitors
thatbear theburdenofproof.
A weakerformofthisargumentis thatjournalistsmakeofficialpackages
the startingpointfordiscussingan issue.
Various observershave notedhow subtlyand unconsciously
thisprocess operates.Halberstam(1979, p. 414) describeshow WalterCronkite's
concernwithavoidingcontroversy
led to his acceptanceof the assumptions underlyingofficialpackages: "To him, editorializingwas going
againstthe government.He had littleawareness,nor did his employers
want him to, of the editorializing
whichhe did automaticallyby uncon7

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AmericanJournalof Sociology
sciouslygoingalong withthe government's
position."In additionto this
tendencyto fall into officialdefinitions
of an issue, journalistsare especially likelyto have routinerelationshipswith officialsponsors.Most
Americanreportingis the productof ongoingnews routines.6
Other media normsand practicesin the United States-particularly
the balance norm-favor certainrivals to the officialpackage. In news
is generallyprovidedthroughquotations,and
accounts,interpretation
balance is providedby quotingspokespersonswithcompetingviews. In
the commentaryprovided by syndicatedcolumnistsand cartoonists,
normsof balance generallyprevailat the aggregatelevel. Whilean individual columnistis not expectedto providemore than one package, a
rangeof "liberal"and "conservative"commentators
are used to observe
thisnorm.
The balance normis, of course,a vague one, and the practicesthatit
givesriseto favorcertainpackages over others.Organizedoppositionto
officialviews is a necessaryconditionfor activatingthe norm,which,
once invoked, encouragesthe tendencyto reduce controversy
to two
competingpositions-an officialone and (ifthereis one) the alternative
sponsoredby the mostvestedmemberof the polity.In manycases, the
criticsmay share the same unstated,commonframeas officials.
The balance norm,however,is rarelyinterpreted
to includechallenger
packages, even when no otheralternativeis available. Tuchman (1974,
p. 112) argues that balance in televisionnews "means in practicethat
RepublicansmayrebutDemocratsand vice versa,"but that"supposedly
illegitimatechallengers"are rarelyofferedthe opportunityto criticize
governmentstatements.Instead, she suggests,reporterssearch for an
"establishment
critic"or fora " 'responsiblespokesman'whomtheyhave
themselvescreatedor promotedto a positionof prominence."
But challengerscan have an importantindirecteffecton media discourse.Theirown preferred
packagesmaybe ignored,buttheycreatethe
conditionsfor more establishedcriticsto gain media prominence.On
nuclearpower,as Gamson (1988, p. 235) puts it, "When demonstrators
are arrestedat Seabrook,phonesringat the Union of ConcernedScientists."
6 Sigal(1973)examinedover1,000storiesfromtheNew YorkTimesand theWashing-

reachedthereporter.
tonPost and classifiedthechannelsby whichtheinformation
and
pressreleases,pressconferences,
Routinechannelsincludedofficial
proceedings,
leaks,
scheduledofficialevents.Informalchannelsincludedbackgroundbriefings,
Finally,
nongovernmental
proceedings,
and reportsfromothernews organizations.
conductedat thereporter's
initiative,
sponenterprise
channelsincludedinterviews
independent
research,and the
taneouseventsthat a reporterobservedfirsthand,
of the
reporter's
own conclusionsor analysis.He foundthatonlyaboutone-quarter
storiescame fromenterprise
channels,whileroutinechannelsaccountedforalmost
60%.
8

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Nuclear Power
In sum,packagessucceedin media discoursethrougha combinationof
culturalresonances,sponsoractivities,and a successfulfitwith media
normsand practices. Public opinion influencesthis process indirectly
throughjournalists'beliefs,sometimesinaccurate,about what the audience is thinking.Many journalistsstraddlethe boundarybetweenproducersand consumersof meaning.These journalists-editorialwriters,
cartoonists,opinioncolumnists,and the like-are not engaged in constructingaccounts of raw happenings.They observe and react to the
same mediaaccounts,alreadypartlyframedand presentedin a contextof
meaning,thatare available to otherreadersand viewers.In theircommentaryon an issue, theyfrequently
attemptto articulateand crystallize
a set of responsesthattheyhope or assume will be sharedby theirinvisible audience.
The Nature of Public Opinion
"Is thereanyoneout therenot thinkingabout thisnightmareof the nuclearage, talkingabout it, learningfromit?"beganNBC's Tom Brokaw
in one of his daily updates on the Chernobylnuclearaccident.How do
ordinarycitizenscome to understanda complexissue such as nuclear
power?On manyissues, people encounterrelevantphenomenadirectly
ratherthanthroughmass-mediaaccounts.Theytryto understandevents
in lightof what touchestheirlives. But fewof us have experienceswith
nuclearpower.
Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur's "dependencytheory"(1976, 1982) suggeststhattheroleofthemediain theprocessofconstructing
meaningwill
varyfromissue to issue. On some issues, the audience has littleexperience by whichto judge media-generated
imagesand meanings;concerningotherissues,theyhave a greatdeal. The media-dependency
hypothesis suggeststhatthe relativeimportanceof media discoursedependson
how readily available meaning-generating
experiencesare in people's
everydaylives.
Even in theapparentlylimitingcase of nuclearpower,however,there
are morerelevantexperiencesthan one mightthink.Take the issue of
evacuation plans in the event of nuclear accidents.In Boston, forexample,virtuallyeveryoneis aware ofhow a singleautomobileaccidenton
the centralarterycan paralyzetrafficin and out of the cityforhours.
They can bringthistypeof practicalknowledgeto bear in evaluatingthe
realismof nuclear evacuation plans.7 Even concerningnuclear power,
then,media dependencyis farfromcomplete.
7 Thisexampleis drawnfromresearchin progress
in whichwe construct
peergroups
to discussnuclearpowerand otherissues.
9

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AmericanJournalof Sociology
However dependentthe audience may be on media discourse,they
activelyuse itto constructmeaningand are notsimplya passiveobjecton
whichthe media work theirmagic. Swidler(1986, p. 273) invitesus to
thinkof culture"as a 'tool kit' of symbols,stories,rituals,and worldto solve different
views, whichpeople may use in varyingconfigurations
kindsof problems."The problemin thiscase is to make sense of public
affairs.Media discourse,we argue,providesmanyof theessentialtools.
Note thatthismodelof therelationshipofmedia discourseand public
opinion does not argue that media discoursecauses public opinionto
change. But if packages and theirelementsare essentialtools, thenit
makesa considerabledifference
thatsomeare morereadilyavailable than
and thosetoolsthat
others.Making senseof theworldrequiresan effort,
are developed, spotlighted,and made readilyaccessiblehave a higher
probabilityof beingused.
THE NUCLEAR POWER DISCOURSE
Our analysisfocuseson nationalmedia discourseand, morespecifically,
on televisionnetworknews,majornewsmagazineaccounts,editorialcartoons,and syndicatedcolumns.We take all relevantmaterialon nuclear
powerduringthelimitedtimeperiodsthatwe sample. This includesthe
networkeveningnewsbroadcastson ABC, CBS, and NBC; Time,Newsweek, and U.S. News and WorldReport;and a "saturation"sample of
thatincludesvirtually
editorialcartoonsand syndicatedopinioncolumnns
all thosepublishedduringthe sample periods.
The cartoonsand opinioncolumnsare drawnfroma sampleof the 10
daily newspapersin each offiveregions.We calculate
largest-circulation
how close we are to saturationby examiningeach wave of fivenewspapers and calculatingthe percentageof new entriesthat theyyield. We
defineour setas completewhentheindexofnew entriesis below 20% for
two successivewaves. For example,the last 10 newspaperswe sampled
in 1953yielded29 columnsbut onlytwo thatwerenotalreadyincluded.
We use our media sample as an indicatorof the issue culturethat
people draw on to constructmeaning.We do not,of course,assumethat
people have watchedall threetelevisionnetworksor read the50 newspapersfromwhichwe draw our cartoonsand opinioncolumns.But we do
assume that the nationalissue culturethatour media sample reflectsis
accessibleto thosewho tryto makesenseofnuclearpower,eitherdirectly
throughnationalmedia or throughlocal media and personalconversationsabout the issue.
Ideally, we would want a continuousrecordof media discourse,with
no time gaps. But we also want a recordthat transcendsthe idiosyn10

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Nuclear Power
crasiesof a given medium.Together,theserequirements
presentoverwhelmingpracticalobstacles,and some compromisesare necessary.
Our timesamplingfocuseson what Chilton(1987) calls "criticaldiscoursemoments,"whichmakethecultureofan issuevisible.Theystimulate commentary
in themedia by sponsorsand journalists.Withcontinuing issues such as nuclear power, journalistslook for"pegs"-that is,
topical eventsthat providean opportunity
forbroader,morelong-term
coverageand commentary.
These pegsprovideus witha way ofidentifying thosetimeperiodsin whichissue packages are especiallylikelyto be
displayed.
The eventswe sampletypicallycreatesomeperturbation.
Sponsorsfeel
called upon to reasserttheirpreferred
thelatest
packagesand to interpret
of our search
developmentin lightof them.This increasestheefficiency
by focusingour efforts
is especiallydense.
on periodswhen commentary
But by samplingin thisfashion,we end up witha small seriesof snapshotsof media discourseat irregularintervalsinsteadof a movie,which
we would prefer.The analysisbelow necessarilyreflectsthislimitation.
Part of our presentation
is based on a systematiccontentanalysisthat
uses standardcodingand reliability
techniques.For this,we used a threedigit code that breaks packages down into specificidea elements.For
example,withintheprogresspackage, thecode providessuch categories
as "Underdevelopednationscan especiallybenefitfrompeacefuluses of
nuclearenergy,""Nuclear power is necessaryformaintainingeconomic
growthand our way of life,"and "Nuclear power opponentsare afraid
of change." The coder looks fora specificidea such as one of the above
ratherthanmakinga globaljudgmenton whichpackageitrepresents.
Of
course,sincethefirstdigitgroupssubcodesbytheoverallpackage,coders
findthe package distinctionsusefulin knowingwhere to search. Two
independentcoderswere used on a sample of material,and distinctions
among code categorieswere not maintainedwheneverthe reliability
failedto reach 80%.8
Some of our analysis,especiallyof visual imagery,is morequalitative
and interpretive.
Here we attemptto presentenoughrichtextualmaterial
so thatreaderscan formtheirown independent
judgmentson thevalidity
of our argument.Wheneverpossible, we draw on otheranalystswho
have examinedsome aspect of nucleardiscourse.Since the storyis frequentlyin thedetails,thisnecessarilyimpliesa largenumberofconcrete
illustrations
and a somewhatlengthypresentation.
8

Fora copyofthecompletecodeused,writetothefirst
author.Further
detailson the
sampling,
compiling,
and codingprocessand thereliabilities
involvedarepresented
in
Gamsonand Modigliani(1987,pp. 171-74).

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AmericanJournalof Sociology
1. The Age of Dualism: From Hiroshimathroughthe 1960s
The cultureof nuclearpower has been indeliblymarkedby Hiroshima
and Nagasaki. Public awarenessbeginswiththeimagesofsudden,enormous destruction,symbolizedin the risingmushroomcloud of a nuclear
bombblast. Even whendiscoursefocuseson theuse ofnuclearreactorsto
produce electricity,the afterimageof the bomb is never far fromthe
surface.
Boyer'srichanalysisof Americannucleardiscoursefrom1945 to 1950
becamecentral.
showshow rapidlytheseimagesofunlimiteddestruction
on the
H. V. Kaltenborn,in his NBC eveningnews broadcastreporting
firstatomicbomb,toldhisradioaudiencethat"For all we know,we have
createda Frankenstein!We mustassumethatwiththepassage of onlya
littletime,an improvedformof the new weapon we use todaycan be
turnedagainstus" (Boyer 1985,p. 5). Lifemagazine,withover5 million
circulation,devotedmuchofitsAugust20, 1945,issueto thebomb,with
full-pagephotographsof the toweringmushroomclouds over Hiroshima
images
and Nagasaki. The languagethataccompaniedthesefrightening
was equally ferocious.Today, fearsof extinction,as Boyerpointsout,
"seem so familiaras to be almosttrite,but it is importantto recognize
how quicklyAmericansbegan to articulatethem"(1985, p. 15).
The progresspackage on nuclearenergy,describedabove, was just as
quick offthe mark. A dualism about nuclearenergyis part of its core.
structureof so manypost-HiroshimaproBoyer pointsto the either/or
nouncements:"Either civilizationwould vanish in a cataclysmicholobright"(1985,p. 125).
caust,or theatomicfuturewould be unimaginably
"We face the prospecteitherof destructionon a scale which dwarfs
anythingthus far reported,"said the New YorkTimesin an editoriala
day afterHiroshima,"or of a goldenera of social change whichwould
satisfythe mostromanticutopian."A PhilipWyliearticlein the September 1945Collier'swas titled"Deliveranceor Doom." By September1945,
Dwight Macdonald was already calling such a view an "officialplatitude": "The officialplatitudeabout AtomicFission is that it can be a
Force for Good (production)or a Force for Evil (war), and that the
problemis simplyhow to use its Good ratherthanits Bad potentialities"
(Macdonald 1945, p. 58).
Boyerarguesthatthe faithexpressedin theatom'speacetimepromise
was "part of the process by which the nation muted its awarenessof
futureprospects"
Hiroshimaand Nagasaki and of even morefrightening
(1985, p. 127). Not onlywas it an "anodyneto terror,"but it also helped
to assuage any lingeringdiscomfortover the destructionthat America
had alreadywroughtwith the fearsomeatom. A peace-lovingAmerica
shouldembracethechallengeof makingtheatom"a benevolentservant"
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Nuclear Power
to produceforhumankind"morecomforts,moreleisure,betterhealth,
moreofreal freedom[and] a muchhappierlife"(Waymack1947,p. 214).
AtomicEnergyCommission(AEC) chairmanLewis Strausscontributed
a phrasethatbecame a permanentpartof theissue culturewhenhe told
the National Associationof Science Writersin 1954 that "It is not too
much to expect that our childrenwill enjoy in theirhomes electrical
energytoo cheap to meter."
Not all thediscoursethatBoyerreviewswas equallyoptimistic.There
were certainlycautiousskepticschallengingthe utopianclaims. But this
is a debate withina frame,a disagreement
overhow fastand how easily
the promiseof nuclear energywill be realized. As long as the issue is
framedas a choicebetweenatomsforwar and atomsforpeace, it is hard
to see who could be againstnuclearpowerdevelopment.
Nuclear dualismremainedessentiallyunchallengedforthe nextquartercentury.On December 8, 1953, PresidentEisenhoweraddressedthe
United Nations on nuclearpower, presentingwhat media discourselabeled his "atomsforpeace" speech.In it, he proposedto make American
nuclear technologyavailable to an internationalagencythat would attemptto develop peacefuluses of nuclearenergy.
We sampledmedia materialforthetwo weeksaftertheUN speechand
fora similarperiodin February1956,followingtheissuanceofa citizens
committeereporton the futureof nuclear energy.9The Eisenhower
speech came at the heightof the Cold War and in the midst of the
McCarthyera. Much of the discoursethatfollowedfocusedless on nuclear power and more on how Eisenhower'scleverone-upmanshiphad
embarrassedan obstructionist
and militaristic
Soviet Union. Nevertheless, we were able to identify21 columns, 16 cartoons,and 4 newsmagazineaccountsthatdid addressthe issue of nuclearpowerper se.10
The progresspackage remainsunchallengedthroughout
thissampleof
materials.The either/or
structureof nucleardualism is stronglyrepresented.The dominantmetaphoris a road thatbranchesintotwo alternative paths-one leading to the developmentof weapons of destruction,
theotherto the eradicationof humanmisery.Again, thereare optimists
and cautiousskepticswho warn thatthe technologicalproblemsin tap9 The reportwas issuedbya specialpanelofnineprominent
citizensappointedbythe
Congressional
JointCommittee
on AtomicEnergy.It depicteda futurein "whichthe
nationwouldadd immeasurably
to itsmaterialresources,
extenditsatomicbountyto
thebackwardand improvethephysicalwell-being
ofpeopleseverywhere."
Unfortunately,thereportstimulated
verylittlemediacommentary;
our 1950ssampleis overwhelmingly
composedofitemsfromthe 1953discourse.
10 No television
was availablefortheseearlyperiods.The Vanderbilt
TelevisionArchivebeganrecording
theeveningnews broadcastsof thethreemajornetworks
on
August5, 1968.
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AmericanJournalof Sociology
ping this energysource for human betterment
are formidableand far
fromsolved. But no oppositionto nuclear power developmentis presented,and no alternativepackage is ever offered.
In thelate 1950sand early1960s,a movementagainsttheatmospheric
testingof nuclearweapons called publicattentionto thelong-rangedangersof radiation.Milk, "nature'smostnearlyperfectfood,"as thedairy
industryput it, was foundto containstrontium
90. A famousSANE ad
warnedthe public that"Dr. Spock is worried."
Some of thisincreasedawarenessabout radiationdangersspilledover
intoconcernabout nuclearreactors.Local controversies
developedover
the licensingof some of them,includingthe Enrico Fermi reactornear
Detroit.But thesecontroversies
remainedlocal and largelydisappeared
afterthe LimitedTest Ban Treatyof 1963 ended atmospherictestingof
weapons and radiationconcernsreceded.By themid-1960s,the nuclear
energyindustry
was enjoyinga wave ofnew ordersand no publicopposition.
One measureofthedominanceoftheprogresspackageat thistimewas
the lack of attentionpaid to a serious nuclear accident at the Fermi
reactoroutside Detroitin the fall of 1966. On October 5, the cooling
systemfailed and the fuel core underwenta partial meltdown."1The
automaticshutdown,or "scram,"systemfailedto operate,and, alerted
by alarmssignalingthe leak of radiationintothe containment
building,
operatorsshuttheplantdown manually.As faras we know,therewas no
radiationleak intotheatmosphere,but theshutdowndid notremovethe
major dangerof a disastroussecondaryaccidentduringthefollowingsix
months,when people triedto figureout what had happenedand to remove the damaged fuel. Fuller (1975) likens the process to "look[ing]
insidea gasolinetank witha lightedmatch."Duringthedangerperiod,
plans forthe evacuationof a millionor morepeople were discussedby
officialsbut deemed impracticaland unnecessary.By almostany reckserious.
oning,the Fermi accidentwas extremely
thatsomethingwas wrong,
Local journalistsand officialswerenotified
but therethe storysat, unreported.More thanfiveweeks afterthe accident,theNew YorkTimescarrieda storyon whatitlabeleda "mishap"at
theFermireactor.12 There was nothingin theleastalarmingin theTimes
account. WalkerCisler,the presidentof DetroitEdison and theleading
oftheFermireactor,was quotedas saying,
forcebehindtheconstruction
"If all goes well, we could startagain shortlyafterthefirstoftheyear."13
11 We relyhereon thedetailedaccountoftheFermiaccidentby Fuller(1975).

The New YorkTimes,November13, 1966.


The breederreactorat Fermiwas eventually
abandoned,althougha conventional
lightwaterreactor(Fermi2) was laterbuiltnextto it.
12

13

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Nuclear Power
A GeneralElectricofficialclassifiedwhat happenedas "a minorperturbation,"and a reassuringreportfromtheAtomicIndustrialForumwas
duly noted.
No criticof nuclearpowerwas quoted in the belatedTimesreporton
theFermiaccident.Indeed, it would have takengreatenterprise
to have
found such a criticin 1966. In effect,therewas no significantantinuclear-powerdiscourseduringthis era.14 Nuclear power was, in general, a nonissue.Progressremainedthe dominantpackage, so takenfor
grantedin the littlepublic discoursethatexistedthatit requiredno explicitdefense.
2. The Rise of an AntinuclearDiscourse:The 1970sto TMI
By thetimeoftheThreeMile Island accidentin 1979,mediadiscourseon
nuclear power reflectedan issue culturein flux.Progresswas stillthe
mostprominentpackage, but its earlierhegemonyhad been destroyed.
The much-touted"energycrisis"of the 1970s stimulatedthe articulation of a second major pronuclearpackage, energyindependence.This
package drew a pronuclearmeaningfromtheArab oil embargoof 1973:
The lessonis howdependence
onforeign
sourcesforvitallyneededenergy
can maketheUnitedStatesvulnerable
topolitical
blackmail.
Nuclearenin thecontext
of thislargerproblem
ofenergy
ergymustbe understood
independence.
To achieveindependence,
we mustdevelopand useevery
practicalalternative
energy
sourceto imported
oil, including
nuclearenergy.Nuclearenergy,
plusdomestic
oil,naturalgas,andcoal,remainthe
on
to a dangerous
and humiliating
onlypracticalalternatives
dependence
foreign
and, particularly,
MiddleEasternsources.Theseforeign
sources
are unstableand unreliable
and arelikelyto makeunacceptable
political
demands.Do we wantto be dependent
on thewhimsof Arabsheiks?
is thecornerstone
ofourfreedom.
Ultimately,
independence
This additionto the pronucleararsenalwas morethanoffsetby other
developmentsthatstimulatedthe riseof an antinucleardiscourse.First,
nucleardualismhad been seriouslyerodedeven amongmanykeepersof
the faith.Withthe advent of the Carteradministration,
proliferation
of
nuclearweapons became a presidentialpriorityissue. To deal withthe
international
conproliferation
problem,Cartertriedto promotestronger
trolover the spread of nucleartechnology,
includingreactortechnology.
Althougha strongsupporterof nuclear power generally,he turned
againstthe breederreactorlestthe plutoniumit producedbe divertedto
weapons use. Atomsforpeace and atomsforwar no longerappearedto
FromAugust5, 1968,through
theendof 1969,therewas onlyone 15-second
item
onnuclearpoweron thetelevision
eveningnewsprograms
ofthethreemajornetworks
(see Media Institute1979).
14

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AmericanJournalof Sociology
be suchseparatepaths. Subliminalmushroomcloudshad begunto gather
over even officialdiscourseon the issue.
More important,the dualism was being underminedbecause of the
safetyissue. If a seriousaccidentthatreleaseslargeamountsofradiation
intothe atmosphereis possibleat a nuclearreactor,thenthedestructive
potentialof thisawesome energyis not confinedto bombs.
A broad coalitionof anti-nuclear-power
groupsraisedthe safetyissue
but as partof a numberof different
packages. The environmental
wing,
epitomizedby Friendsof the Earth, offereda softpathspackage:
us witha fundamental
Splitwood,notatoms.Nuclearenergypresents
choiceaboutwhatkindofsociety
we wishtobe. Do we wishtocontinue
a
of energy,
relieson highlycentralized
techway of lifethatis wasteful
nologies,
and is insensitive
to ecologicalconsequences?
Or do we wantto
becomea society
withitsnaturalenvironment?
morein harmony
Nuclearenergy
relieson thewrongkindoftechnology-centralized
and
inthelongruntotheearth'secology.
dangerous
Weneedtopursuealternaas
tive,softpaths.We shouldchangeourwayoflifeto conserve
energy
muchas possibleandtodevelopsourcesofenergy
thatareecologically
safe
andrenewable,
andthatlendthemselves
todecentralized
production-for
example,sun,wind,and water.Smallis beautiful.'5
Other groups,epitomizedby the Ralph Nader organizationCritical
Mass, offereda morepopulist,anticorporatepackage, publicaccountability:
If Exxonownedthesun,wouldwe have solarenergy?
The rootof the
problem
is theorganization
ofnuclearproduction
byprofit-making
corporations,
whichminimizes
accountability
andcontrol
bythepublic.Spokesmenforthenuclearindustry
to protect
theirowneconomic
aremotivated
interests,
notthepublicinterest.
One cannotrelyon whattheysay.Comand arrogant.
are frequently
Whokilled
panyofficials
dishonest,
greedy,
KarenSilkwood?
Thenuclearindustry
andeconomic
hasuseditspolitical
powertounderwhoare
Publicofficials,
minetheseriousexploration
ofenergy
alternatives.
areall toooften
oftheindustry,
supposedtomonitor
theactivities
captives
thepublic.
ofit.Theyfunction
theindustry
thantoprotect
moretoprotect
Finally,the antinuclearmovement,throughorganizationssuch as the
Union of ConcernedScientists,offereda more pragmatic,cost-benefit
A liturgyofunsolvedproblemsand delaysare
package,notcosteffective.
to
the
conclusion
that:
cited,leading
ofnuclearenergy
withthealterthecostsandbenefits
Whenonecompares
itmakesa poorshowing.
faultin
natives,
Nuclearpower,through
nobody's
to keeppouring
has turnedoutto be a lemon,anditis foolish
particular,
15See Lovins(1977)fora particularly
influential
articulation
ofthispackage.

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Nuclear Power
thecontinued
ofnuclear
development
goodmoneyafterbad bysupporting
energy.
Media coverageofnuclearpoweracceleratedrapidlyin themid-1970s.
The Media Institutestudy(1979) of networktelevisionnews reveals a
burstofcoverageat thetimeofEarthDay in 1970,followedby verylittle
through1974. Coverage thentripledin 1975 and doubled again thefollowingyear. Except fora temporarydecrease in 1978, it continuedto
increaseup to thetimeof TMI. In thefirstthreemonthsof 1979, before
TMI, the networksran 26 storiesrelatedto nuclearpower.
We sampled two two-weekperiodsin the 1970s. The first,in 1973,
followeda major energyspeech by Nixon. Occurringin the midstof
Watergate,it drew littlecommentaryand yielded only threeopinion
columns.The secondperiod,in 1977,coincidedwithtwoevents:Carter's
the spread of nuefforts
supportforcontrolling
at gaininginternational
cleartechnology
and thearrestand detentionfortwo weeksofmorethan
who occupied the site wherethe Sea1,400 antinucleardemonstrators
brook, New Hampshire,nuclear reactorwas being constructed.This
sample produced fifteentelevisionsegments,two newsmagazineaccounts,six cartoons,and an additionalfiveopinioncolumns.
Our media samplesrepresenttwo different
formsof discourse.Television and newsmagazinespresentaccountsratherthan explicitcommentary. The accounts, of course, tell a storyand framethe information
presented,particularlyin the headings,leads, and closings.Numerous
interpretive
commentsare sprinkledthroughtheaccountsin theformof
quotationsfromsourcesor, in thecase of television,excerptsfrominterand are
views. Cartoonsand opinioncolumnsare billedas commentary
freerof such constraints.They are especiallyusefulsincetheirpackages
are moreexplicitand easier to extract.
Television.-All thetelevisioncoveragecenterson thecollectiveaction
by the ClamshellAlliance at Seabrook and its aftermath.New HampshireGovernorMeldrimThomsonblessedthe"Clam" witha majorsocial
controlerror.The 1,414 demonstrators
who were arrestedwere not, as
expected,releasedon theirown recognizance.Instead,theywerecharged
withcriminaltrespassand asked to post bail rangingfrom$100 to $500,
whichtheyrefused.They werethenheld in fivenationalguardarmories
for 12 days, creatinga continuingnationaltelevisionstory.Each of the
days,althoughsometimesmerely
networksran segmentson fivedifferent
a shortupdate.
The televisionstoryis about a dyadic conflictbetween Governor
Thomsonand his allies and the ClamshellAllianceover whetheror not
theSeabrookreactorwill be completed.The centralquestionin thisstory
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AmericanJournalof Sociology
is of who will win, and, hence, thereis verylittledirectcommentary
aboutnuclearpower.But thecoveragedoes addressone centralissuethat
dividespackages: What kind of people are againstnuclearpower?
For a deaf televisionviewer,theanswerwould seemto be peoplewho
wear backpacksand play frisbee.All threenetworksfeaturetheseimages
in morethanone segment.One sees beardsand longhair,bandanas,"no
nuke" buttons,and people playingguitarsand doing needlepoint.Outside the courthouse,afterthe demonstrators
have been released,we see
happyfamilyreunions,withmanychildren.
These visual images do not have a fixedmeaning.People approach
themwith some anticipatoryschema. A progresssympathizermay see
frivolousflowerchildrenand environmental
extremistswho look as if
they will not be happy until they turn the White House into a bird
sanctuary.A softpathsviewermaysee loving,caring,earthypeoplewho
are sociallyintegratedand concernedabout oursharedenvironment.
But
of
thesetwo are the onlypackages thatreallysuggestan interpretation
theseimages,and thosewho use neitherare likelyto be especiallysusceptibleto the meaningssuggestedby the accompanyingwords.
Here there are networkdifferences.The CBS and NBC coverage
leaves theworkto theviewer,but ABC offersitsown interpretation
and
itsuggestsa progresspackage. We are toldthattheseare thesame kindof
in
"demonstrators
people who were involvedin antiwardemonstrations,
search of a cause." The networkallows two membersof the Clam to
to win whileignoring
speak forthemselves,quotingtheirdetermination
theirreasons("We have to stopit at any cost"). Such quotationsfitnicely
withthe dyadic conflictframe,but no package on nuclearpoweris diswere used by NBC.
played. No interviewsor quotes fromthe protesters
frame.In
Only CBS made any attemptto presentthe demonstrators'
introducingits May 2 segment,it reportedthatthe ClamshellAlliance
opposed the plant because "theysay it is dangerousand a threatto the
coastal marinelife."In a latersegment,we hear Harvey Wasserman,a
spokesmanforthegroup,claimtheantinuclearmovementas an antiwar
movement:"We are fightingthe war that is being waged against the
environment
and our health."Later, in the same segment,the threatto
marinelife is mentionedalong with safetyconcernsas reasonsforthe
protest.Beyondthesethreeutterances,threegeneralexpressionsofdeterare quoted,butno otherantinuclearpackages
minationbydemonstrators
are suggested.16
16 We shouldnote,outoffairness
to thenetworks,
thattheMedia Institute
examined
"outsidesources"quotedin 10yearsofcoveragebeforeTMI. Theyfoundthatantinuones.The Unionof
moreairtimethanpronuclear
clearsourcesreceivedconsiderably
firstbya widemargin(with6:18). RalphNader(3:34)
finished
ConcernedScientists

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Nuclear Power
Newsmagazines.-Time and Newsweekran storieson Seabrook,again
witha dyadicconflictframeand littlecommentary
about nuclearpower
per se. The demonstrators
are presentedrelativelysympathetically.
Both
magazines mentiontheircommitmentto nonviolence,and Newsweek
adds theirexclusionof drugs,weapons, and fighting.
The photographs
reinforcethe televisionimages of backpackers;Newsweekcalls them
scruffyand mentions frisbee playing, guitar playing, and reading
Thoreau. Environmentalconcernsand thethreatto marinelifeare mentionedbutnotelaborated.Timealso quotesthepublisheroftheManchester UnionLeader, WilliamLoeb, who likenedthe Clam to "Nazi storm
troopersunderHitler,"but characterizeshimin a discrediting
way as an
"abrasive conservative."
A numberof antinuclearmovementspokespersonsare quoted,includingHarvey Wasserman,Ralph Nader, and representatives
fromFriends
oftheEarth,theSierraClub, and theNational ResourcesDefenseCouncil. But none of the selectedquotes suggesta frameon nuclearpower;
instead, they focus exclusivelyon the strategyof direct action and
whetherthedemonstrators
will succeed.The Newsweekstory,in particular,leaves theimpressionofinternaldivisionamongmovementorganizations.
There is a largelyimplicitprogressframe,reflectedin the fullseparationof the controversy
fromconcernsabout nuclearweapons (a dualism
in both
thatwas largelyacceptedby theClam as well) and by statements
magazinessuggestingthe necessityand inevitability
of nuclearpoweras
an energysource. No antinuclearpackage is displayedbeyondthe faint
hintof softpaths impliedby the mentionof safetyand environmental
concerns.
Cartoons.-None ofthesevencartoonscommenton Seabrookas such.
Three focuson Carter'sefforts
to controlthe spread of nucleartechnology,two on the failureof some nuclearplantsto accountforall of their
plutoniumand enricheduranium,17 one on the administration's
energy
plans in general,and one on the safetyissue. There is no progressin this
set,but theydo notall suggestan antinuclearpackage. Four oftheseven

edgedouttheAtomicIndustrialForum(3:26) forsecondplace.Thisfinding
shouldbe
temperedby two observations:
(1) officialsources,such as the NuclearRegulatory
Commission,
who are notincludedin thisanalysis,oftenpresenta pronuclear
package, and (2) criticsmay be quotedwithouttheirpackageson nuclearpowerbeing
displayed,as theSeabrookcoveragedemonstrates.
17 Publicity
overthemysterious
1974deathof KarenSilkwoodhad broughtto light
thattheKerr-McGee
fuelprocessing
plantin Oklahomawheresheworkedwas unable
to accountfor40 poundsof plutonium.

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AmericanJournalof Sociology
suggesta new package, runaway,whose positionon nuclear power is
fatalisticor resignedmorethan opposed:
We didnotunderstand
whatwe weregetting
intowithnuclearpower.We
thought
wecouldharness
ittomaintain
ourstandard
ofliving.Nowweare
to it and willsooneror laterhaveto paya priceofunknown
committed
dimension.
We haveunleashed
itbutwe nolongercancontrol
it.Nuclear
poweris a powerful
geniethatwe havesummoned
andarenowunableto
forcebackintoitsbottle;a Frankenstein's
monster
thatmightturnon its
creator.
Nuclearpoweris a timebomb,waiting
toexplode.Nuclearenergy
is notsimplyoneamongseveralalternative
energy
sourcesbutsomething
moreelemental.
It defiesa cost-benefit
analysis.Radiationis invisible
and
onemaybe exposedwithout
knowing
it;itsharmful
effects
maynotshow
up rightawaybutmaystrikesuddenly
and lethally
at somelaterpoint.
Radiationcan creategrotesque
mutants.
In a religious
version,humans
havedaredtoplayGodintampering
withthefundamental
forces
ofnature
and theuniverse.
He whosowsthewind,reapsthewhirlwind.
Runaway has an antinuclearflavor,to be sure,but thegallowshumor
bywhichitis frequently
expressedsuggestsresignation
and fatalismmore
thanopposition."Grinand bear it" is morethemessagethan"No nukes."
runaOnce the genieis out of the bottle,it is too late. Not surprisingly,
way,unlikeall theearlierpackages,has no organizedsponsorattempting
tofurther
itscareer.But itis strongly
impliedinfourofthesevencartoons.
Two of the seven cartoonsexpressan anticorporate
themesuggesting
thepublic accountabilitypackage. The strikingthingabout thiscartoon
set,comparedwithtelevisionand newsmagazineaccounts,is theimplicit
rejectionof nucleardualism in six of the seven. They are about nuclear
powerand not weapons, but nuclearpowerplantsare themselvesa time
bomb.
Opinion columns.-The eightcolumnsoffera sharp contrastto the
cartoons.Here thereis a strongdualism, sometimesquite explicit,althoughthe separationbetweenatomsforpeace and atomsforwar is no
longeras simple as in the 1950s. There is a dilemma,James Reston
suggests,over "how to develop nuclearpowerforpeacefulpurposesand
at the same timerestrainits developmentas an instrument
of war." The
to control
columnsaddress generalenergyproblemsand Carter'sefforts
nuclear proliferation
in a contextthat fullyaccepts the necessityand
inevitability
of nuclearpower development.The issue is not whetherto
go ahead withnuclearpowerbut how fastand in whatways. Four ofthe
eightcolumnsalso emphasizeenergyindependenceas a strongsecondary
theme.
Only one column focuseson the Seabrook action, linkingthe Clam
with the 1960s images of antiwar protestors-scruffy
beards, longish
hair,and bralesswomen.Some ofthem"reallydon'tknowwhattheyare
protesting"writesJeremiahMurphy, "and-far worse-don't care."
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Nuclear Power
There is only one faintsuggestionin the entireset of columnsof any
antinuclearpackage or even of the fatalisticrunaway.18
This reviewof media discoursebeforeTMI providesa mixedpicture.
Withthe exceptionof cartoons,thereis virtuallyno displayof any antinuclearpackage, but the confident
dualismof an earlierera has become
in theacceptanceofnuclearpower
uneasyat best.Progressis represented
developmentas necessaryand inevitable.But thediscourseclearlyrecognizes it as controversial,
even if one can gain onlya vague awarenessof
how nuclearopponentsthinkabout the issue.
The editorialcartoonistspresenta verydifferent
picture-one in which
thethemesofrunawayand public accountabilityare dominant.Perhaps
theirgreaterdistancefromactivesponsorsand thedebunkinginherentin
theirmediummakes themmoreresistantto the officialpackage. In any
event,theypresagethepackages thatwill come intogeneralprominence
onlyafterTMI.
The apogee ofantinucleardiscoursein theeffecton popularconsciousness came with the release, a few scant weeks beforeTMI, of a major
Hollywood film,The China Syndrome.The filmnumberedamong its
starsJane Fonda, an actressso closelyidentifiedwith the antinuclear
movementthatpronucleargroupsused heras a symbolofit. The themes
emphasizedby the filmsuggestthe public accountabilityand runaway
packages,but itsmostimportantachievementwas to providea concrete,
vivid image of how a disastrousnuclear accident could happen. Of
course,it was just a movie.
3. Life ImitatesArt: From TMI to Chernobyl
As eventsunfold,each packagemustofferan interpretation
thatis consistentwithitsstoryline. Althoughit is alwayspossibleto do this,theresult
is sometimeslabored,particularlyifthe eventis, fromthestandpointof
the package, unexpected.Consider how the progresspackage handles
TMI and Chernobyl:
TMI showedthatthesafety
systems
workedeveninthefaceofa string
of
improbable
errors.
A totalcoremeltdown
was prevented,
andmostofthe
radiation
releasedneverbreached
thecontainment
building.
Furthermore,
we learnedfromthe experience
and have improved
safetyevenmore.
Chernobyl
hasequallysanguine
lessons.It showsthewisdomoftheAmericannuclearindustry
in building
largefortified
containment
structures
as a
safetyprecaution.
Nuclearreactorsin the UnitedStateshave multiple
18 RichardStrout,
indiscussing
othercountries'
distrust
ofCarter'smotivesintrying
to
curtailbreederreactors,has themwondering
whethertheUnitedStatesis "trying
to
createa capitalistic
monopoly
ofnuclearfuelforitself."Ourcodersincludedthisunder
thepublicaccountability
category
on corporategreed.

21

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AmericanJournalof Sociology
protective
barriers,
called"defense
in depth."American
nuclearreactors
cannotbe comparedwiththeirSovietcounterparts
anymorethantheir
arecomparable.
political
systems
Furthermore,
eveninthismostseriousof
itturnsoutthatinitialclaimsofthousands
accidents,
killedreflected
mere
hysteria,
eggedon byantinuclear
activists.
Events, as theFermiaccidentillustrates,do notspeak forthemselves.
By 1979,a progressinterpretation
was forcedto competewithothersthat
were sayingthat a seriousnuclear accidentcould and probablywould
happen. No complicatedinterpretation
is necessaryfora prophecyfulfilled.
19
We sampledthemediafortwoweeksafterbothTMI and Chernobyl.
Our TMI sample yielded 53 televisionsegments,6 newsmagazineaccounts,71 cartoons,and 56 opinioncolumns.The accounts,as we noted
above, are less explicitin theirframingof nuclearpoweras such. Their
storieson TMI centeron two centralquestions:(1) What is it like to be
livingnextto TMI? Since thereare manyotherreactors,thereis a more
generalquestionimpliedhere:What is it like to be livingnear a nuclear
reactorthathas had an accident?(2) Is the situationat TMI undercontrol?Again, thereis a more generalstory,especiallyas the immediate
TMI crisissubsides:Is thistechnologyundercontrol?
Television.-The situationat TMI was a continuingstorythatdominatedthecoverageof all threenetworksduringthesampleperiod.Visually, we were treatedto repeatedaerial shotsof thereactorsite,making
the special shape of a nuclearcoolingtowera familiarvisual symbolfor
thefirsttime.The use ofthisicon by cartoonistsbeganwithTMI, where
it frequently
took on an ominoustone.
Nimmo and Combs (1985) suggestthat ABC in particularused the
fora runawaypackage thatpercoolingtowersas visual reinforcement
meated its coverage and providedits centralstoryline: "In the gothic
romance,thethreatto peace, tranquility,
and happinessis embodiedin a
of simplefolk. . . . Dr.
structureoverlookingthe community
forbidding
Frankenstein'scastle in Transylvania,in a bucolic countrysideabove a
quaintvillage,is theclassicsetting."They arguethatABC's footageand
camera angles played on such imagery,"especiallyon days when ABC
did stand-upreportswiththeplant'smassivecoolingtowcorrespondents
ers,envelopedin mist,loomingin thebackground.... Aerialshots,too,
captureda technologicalintruderin a ruralsetting"(pp. 69-70).
There is rare use of the mushroomcloud symbol.The Media Institute
study(1979) foundonlyfourinstancesofitsuse in themorethan 10-year
periodit covered-including theTMI periodin our sample. We foundit
19The Chernobylsamplesincludeonlytelevisionand newsmagazine
accounts.The
assemblyof cartoonsand opinioncolumnsinvolvesa muchmorecomplicated
datagathering
process-beyondourresourcesat thatstageoftheresearch.
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Nuclear Power
onlytwicein our sample,but, in addition,two of thethreenetworksran
an AtomicEnergyCommissionfilmof bomb testsin the late 1950s in
Nevada.20 The filmshowshousesbeingobliteratedin an awesomeblast,
followedbythefamiliarrisingmushroomcloud. Directimagesofnuclear
destruction
are rare,but highfrequencymay be unnecessaryforeffectif
the associationis alreadypresentin the schemataof manyviewersand
the imagesare sufficiently
vivid and evocative.
Sevenyearslater,withtheaccidentat Chernobyl,nuclearpoweragain
dominatedthe televisioneveningnews. All threenetworksran nightly
storiesfortheentireperiodofour two-weeksample.Visually,therewere
manyrepeatsof imageryfromTMI coveragebut withseveralnew additions.The moststriking
new imageinvolvedfrequentfootageofradiation
detectorsbeing used to check people and food. There were 15 different
instancesof such visual remindersof the invisibledanger theme,well
distributedamong the threenetworks.In addition, all threeshowed
Americanor European antinuclearprotestors,
witha totalof eightsuch
instances.The protestors'signs remindedviewersthat "Chernobylcan
happen here" or "Chernobylis everywhere."Radiation, in television
graphics,is almostinvariablyred-often in the formof a pulsatingred
dotto show an untamedreactoror a spreadingredstreakto represent
the
flowof fallout.Of the 12 occasions on which such graphicswere employed,onlyonce was anothercolorused (in thiscase, white).
For both events, thereis much visual fillerof littleinterestfor the
framingof nuclearpower. There are manytalkingheads, didacticsummariesofpointsbeingmade by announcersand interviewees,
and graphics to illustratea technicaldiscourseon nuclearreactors.
On theaudio, two themesin particulardominatethe accounts:official
confusionand thescary,invisibleeffects
ofnuclearradiation.As theyare
developed,thesethemesgive a powerfulboostto therunawayand public
accountability
packages. Therewere,in thiscoverage,99 utterancesthat
expressedidea elementscentralto a package on nuclearpower. Figure 1
shows the distribution
amongthe set of six.
The once dominantprogresshas shrunkto a mere18% and frequently
has a grudgingand defensivetone. For example,NBC quotes Secretary
of EnergyJames SchlesingerconcedingthatTMI was an "unfortunate
occurrenceand the reactionto it will not be beneficial,save thatit may
permitus to betterunderstandsome of theplantoperationsand thatthe
NRC will be able to institutemeasuresthatwill reducerisks."'21
Thisfilmwas peggedtocoverageofcongressional
on chargesthattheU.S.
hearings
government
had lied to local residentsin Nevada aboutthe dangersof radioactive
falloutfromitsatomictests.
21 NBC News, March30, 1979.
20

23

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60
50
40
PERCENTAGE 3 0
20

Progress

TMI PERIOD

Energy
Independence

Devil's
Bargain

Runaway

Public
Accountability

NotCost
Effective

Soft Paths

PACKAGE

N= TJ

CHERNOBYL PERIOD N=74

FIG. 1. -Nuclear power packages in televisionutterances

Nimmoand Combs (1985) suggestthatprogressmaystillbe prominent


at a moreaggregatelevel, but onlyin CBS's coverage. Its formula,repeated in each nightlyupdate,is a warningofdangerand an explanation
thatshows the natureof the problemand of officialsmanagingit. "Experts,""scientists,""officials,"or "technicians"are shownto be dealing
withthedangerand its consequencesas besttheycan in a difficult
situation. The generalstoryline of CBS, Nimmo and Combs suggest,is "an
adventure tale in the tradition of 'disaster averted' movies.

. .

. In such

dramas,responsiblepeople take concertedactionto bringan unfortunate


situationundercontrol"(p. 68).
The two most prominentpackages are clearlyrunawayand public
The formeris displayed
accountability,with38% and 35%, respectively.
primarilythroughtwo centralideas, whichtogetheraccountforalmost
three-fourths
of its total:(a) theoverconfidence
theme:officialsin charge
ofnuclearenergymaythinktheyhave it undercontrolbut theyreallydo
not, and (b) the hiddendangertheme:radiationeffectsare invisibleand
delayed,so thatone may notknow thetrueharmdone untilmanyyears
later.
The interpretation
of officialconfusionis less benign in the public
and
accountabilitypackage. The emphasishereis less on self-deception
moreon deliberatemisleadingof the public by the nuclearindustry.We
distinguishhere a weak and a strongformof the package. The strong
version,which includesabout 30% of its total, suggeststhatprofitsare
emphasizedat theexpenseofpublicsafety,thatgovernment
regulationis
ineffective
because public officialsfunctionas promotersof theindustry,
or thatindustry
interests
workagainstprovidingfullprotection
and informationto thepublic. The weak versionsuggestsmerelysomeculpability
by company managers,with negative consequencesfor the public or
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Nuclear Power
consumers.No analysisof reasons forsuch culpabilityis suggestedbeyondgeneralincompetence,stupidity,laxness,or overconcern
withpublic image.

The almost total absence of energyindependence,not cost effective,


in
and softpaths is quite striking.All thesepackages,althoughdiffering
theirconclusions,framenuclearpowerin termsofa broaderenergyissue,
comparingit withalternativesources.Implicitly,televisioncoverageemphasizestheuniquenessof thissourceand thosefeaturesthatmake comor impossible.
parisondifficult
The coverage of TMI saw the emergenceof a new frameforunderit as a Faustian devil's bargain:
standingnuclearpower,characterizing
So nuclearpowerturnsoutto be a bargainwiththedevil.Thereareclear
benefits
suchas inexhaustible
electricity
andan energy
supplythatdoesnot
dependonthewhimsofOPEC. Butsoonerorlater,therewillbe a terrible
priceto pay. We aredamnedifwe do and damnedifwe don't.Andthe
deeperwe getin,theharderitis to getout.
Devil's bargainis a package that conflatespronuclearpackages with
runaway.It is a thoroughly
ambivalentpackage-both forand against
nuclearpower. Figure 1, which uses utterancesas a unit,does not do
justice to the prominenceof this package because it is morefrequently
expressedby combinationsof utterancesin thesame rhetoricalsequence.
When pronuclearclaims and runawayelementsoccur sequentially,for
example,one mightargue that it has been implicitlyinvoked.This sequence in factoccurredin fiveof the 18 televisionsegmentswiththree
or morecodable utterances,and the framewas made explicitin a sixth
segment.
The Chernobylcoverageproducedan additional74 utterancesimplying a core frameon nuclear power. As figure1 indicates,thereis an
apparentcomeback forprogress,which reboundsto 38%. Almosttwothirdsof theseprogressutterances,though,are represented
by the claim
thatAmericanreactorshave safetyfeatures-such as reinforced
containmentstructures-thatwere lackingin the Chernobylreactor,makinga
similaraccidentunlikelyor impossible.Another14% of themconsistof
claims,mostlyemanatingfromSoviet sources,thattheAmericanmedia
wereexaggerating
theseriousnessoftheChernobylaccident.Onlyonceis
progressexpressedin a clearlypositiveway throughan assertionof the
benefitsof nuclearpower.
Runawayremainstheleadingpackage,withmanyimagesofwhatDan
Rathercalled the"nuclearnightmareof a reactorgonewild." It is representedin claimsthat,in spiteofsomedifferences
in reactortechnology,
a
Chernobylcouldoccurhere,and in imagesofa spreading"silentkiller"an invisiblecloud of radioactivefallout.Public accountabilityis dis25

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50

40
30
PERCENTAGE

20

Progress

Energy
Independence

Devil's
Bargain

Runaway

Public
Accountability

NotCost
Effective

Soft Paths

PACKAGE
*

TMI PERIOD N= 10ii


CHERNOBYL PERIOD N=51

utterances
FIG. 2.-Nuclear powerpackagesin newsmagazine
playedmainlybyinvokingcomparisonwithearlierofficialdissemblingin
the United States at the timeof Three Mile Island. The devil's bargain
frameis never made explicit,but the sequence of a claimed benefitfor
nuclear power juxtaposed with runawayimageryoccurs in two of the
nine segmentswiththreeor morecodable utterances.
Newsmagazines.-The patternhereis quitesimilar.Figure2 showsthe
distribution
of 103 utterancesdisplayingcentralideas in one or moreof
our six packages.Progressdoes somewhatbetterin quantity,but,as with
television,it is a beleagueredfaiththatis expressed.Time,forexample,
him as a nuclearadvocate and proquotes Alvin Weinberg,introducing
nuclearauthorwho believes that the alternativesto this sourceare "so
crummythatwe probablyshouldin a cautiousway continuethisnuclear
"22 This is stillprogress,
butit has evolvedquitea bitfrom"too
enterprise.
cheap to meter."
Runaway is by far the most prominentpackage, but some cautionis
this.More thantwo-thirds
oftheutterancesthat
necessaryin interpreting
evoke it focuson theoverconfidence
themethatthedevelopersofnuclear
powerhave overestimatedtheircontroland do notknow as muchabout
what theyare doing as theyhave led us to believe.
Public accountabilitydrops offin quantityfromits televisionprominence, but when it is displayed,the strongformof it is presentedmore
fully,accountingfor almost half the coded utterances(comparedwith
one-thirdof televisiondisplaysof thispackage). Newsweek,forexample,
quotesJane Fonda: "We can neverbe safe in the hands of utilityexecutives whose financialinterestsrequirethemto hide the truthfromthe
public."
22

Time, April 9, 1979, p. 20.

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Nuclear Power
70
60
50
40PERCENTAGE
30
20
10
0
Progress

FIG.

Devil's
Energy
Independence Bargain

NotCost
Runaway Public
Accountability Effective
PACKAGE

SoftPaths

TMI period(N = 67)


3.-Nuclear powerpackagesin cartoons,

The prominenceofdevil'sbargainis, again, underratedby usingutterances as a unit.Both Time and Newsweekmake it explicittwice,and all
three display it implicitlyby juxtaposingclaimed benefitsof nuclear
power with runawaythemes.The remainingpackages have verylow
prominencein newsmagazinediscourse.
Figure 2 also shows the package scores for coverage of Chernobyl.
Runaway leads with almosthalf of the codable utterances,and, again,
progressis displayeddefensively,mainlyby comparisonsof the safety
of Soviet and Americannuclear power plants that malignthe former.
Devil's bargainis again expressedboth implicitlyand explicitlyin two
of the threemagazineaccounts.
Cartoons.-While runawayfareswell in accounts,it receivesitsfullest
expressionin cartoons,where it dominatesthe discourse.As figure3
of the cartoonsexpressit in one way or
indicates,morethan two-thirds
another.There are two ideas in particularthataccountforalmosthalfof
the runawaycartoons.
The firstis well illustratedbytheDon Wrightcartoon(fig.4). The joke
is on thosewho thinktheyhave thistechnology
undercontrol.The audience can see thattheydo not, but the "nucleocrats"are themselvesunaware and foolishlyoverconfident.
The second idea is expressedthrough
gallows humorabout nasty nuclear surprises,as in the Larry Wright
cartoon(fig.5). We suggestthatsuchhumorexpressesthefatalismthatis
at thecoreofthispackage-the acceptanceofnuclearpoweras an inevitable, uncontrollablefact of life combinedwith anxietyabout the unknowabledisastersthat may springfromit. Gallows humor,as Hodge
and Mansfieldsuggest(1985, p. 210), is a way of"distancingtheunthinkable so that it can be turnedon its head, and subjectedto a sense of
"23
control.
23

A caveatabouttheseresultsis in order.We madetwoimportant


codingdecisions
27

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AmericanJournalof Sociology

FIG.

(BostonHerald American,April6, 1979)


4.-Cartoon byDon Wright

>~~~~~~~~~D
IR0_
10 WMl4Y
lABOOFTS

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~I

FIG.

CF1g
R rleWAC

(DetroitNews, April8, 1979)


5.-Cartoon byLarryWright

Progress appears onlyfourtimes(6%) and always in the same formthroughmockingthe overreactionof antinuclearhysterics.Figure6 expressestheidea mostclearly,suggestingthatpeople who oppose nuclear
energyare likethosewho would have opposedtheinventionoftheox cart
in prehistoric
times.
Opinioncolumns.-Figure 7 showsthepercentageofcolumnsin which
thatmayhave led to underestimating
thepublicaccountability
package.Therewere
sixcartoonsplayingon thecoincidence
ofTheChinaSyndrome
andTMI. Wherethere
was no explicitemphasison corporate
culpability,
we have treatedtheseas runaway.
Therewerealso fivecartoonsdepictingoverconfident
nuclearofficials
but withthe
deliberateness
oftheirdeceptionleftambiguous.Again,we endedup including
these
as partofrunawayratherthanpublicaccountability.
28

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Nuclear Power

fapL '~~~~~~~~~~~~U

FIG. 6.-Cartoon byJeff


MacNelly(ChicagoTribune,April10, 1979).(ReoftheTribuneCompanySyndicates,
Inc.)
bypermission
printed

each package was displayed.24 A fullerrangeof packagesis displayedin


thisdiscoursethan in the othermedia samples-every package registers
at least 10%. Furthermore,
packages are morerichlyelaboratedin this
sample, not merelysuggestedby a passingcommentor briefquote.
Progressdoes slightlybetterhere than in the othersamples but also
encountersa good deal of mockeryas its rivalsare presented.ArtBuchwald, for example, bemoans the selfishnessof many Americansliving
near nuclearplants,who are unwillingto make sacrificesso thatother
people, hundredsof milesaway, can be assuredthat"theirtoastersand
electriccoffeemakerswill work. . .. Unfortunately,
theycan'tappreciate
thatwithanyformof electricity
thereis a tradeoff,
and it's impossibleto
have cheap nuclear power withouta few noxiousgases, an occasional
hydrogenbubble, a meltdownand possiblyan explosionwhich could
make one or two statesuninhabitablefor50 or a hundredyears."Buchwald assures us thathis own views on nuclearpower depend on which
way thewindis blowing.Whenit is away fromWashington,D.C., he is
pronuke,but on morningswhen the wind is blowingfromTMI, he tells
his wife,"I thinkJane Fonda is right."125
24 Columnists
displaymorethanone packageto balanceor evaluateargufrequently
in fig.4 add up to morethan100%.
mentsproand con. Hence,thepercentages
25 Buchwald'scolumn,"As theWindBlows,"appearedin newspapers
on April10,
1979.

29

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40

20
PERCENTAGE
10

Progress

Energy
Devil's Bargain Runaway
Public
NotCost
Independence
Accountability Effective
PACKAGE

SoftPaths

FIG. 7.-Nuclear power packages in opinioncolumns,TMI period(N = 56).


Percentagestotalmorethan 100% because some columnsdisplaymorethanone
package.

The softpaths package is morefrequently


and fullydisplayedin this
of
samplethananywhereelse, appearingin a positiveway in one-seventh
the columns. It generallytakes the formof advocatinga major effort
at conservationand the developmentof soft-pathenergyalternatives,
sometimescombinedwith belittlingcommentson Americanaddiction
to energy-consuming
gadgetry.
Overall.-The picturethat emergesis a newly dominantrunaway
package. The pronuclearprogressis stilla prominent
contender,but it is
beleagueredand defensive,a farcryfromthe 1950sversion.Most important forunderstandingpublic opinion,the dominantpackage in media
discourseis fatalistic.When its impressivetotalsare combinedwiththe
thoroughly
ambivalentdevil'sbargain,it is clearthatanyoverallcharacterizationof media discourseas pro- or anti-nuclear-power
necessarily
obscuresthiscentralfact.
SURVEY DATA ON NUCLEAR POWER

Questionshave been asked about nuclearpower on sample surveysfor


manyyears,and thereare a numberof usefulreviewsofthismaterial.26
We selectherecertainresultsthat,we argue,can be fullyunderstoodonly
in the contextof media discourseon the issue.
1. Questionshave been asked concerningnuclearpowerin generalas
well as about a plant'sbeingbuiltnearby.As one would expect,thereare
consistently
higherlevelsof oppositionto buildinga nuclearpowerplant
near one's own communitythan to nuclearpower developmentin general. This discrepancysuggeststhe nimbypositionon nuclear power:
"OK, but not in my backyard." Substantialchange in the percentage
See esp. Mazur (1988); Nealey,Melber,and Rankin(1983);Mitchell(1980);and
and Baxter(1983).
Freudenberg
26

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sayingtheysupportor oppose local plantsresultsfromslightchangesin
to estimatethe exact size of this
questionwording,makingit difficult
group,but it appears to be at least 15% and is probablymuchhigher.
2. On the questionof oppositionto a local plant, a substantialshift
occurredeven beforethe accidentat TMI. In 1971, only25% were opposed to thebuildingof a nuclearplantin theircommunities.27
By 1978,
beforeTMI, oppositionto local nuclearfacilitieshad jumped to 45% and
actually exceeded supportfor the firsttime. By 1980, oppositionhad
grownto 63% while supportfora local plant had droppedto only25%
(comparedwith57% in 1971). Finally,a 1986 Gallup poll conductedfor
Newsweekin the aftermathof Chernobylshows oppositionto a local
plantreaching70%.28 The trendtowardincreasingoppositionbeforethe
TMI accident is less clear when people were asked about supporting
nuclearpower developmentin general.
3. At firstblush,one mightthinkthatTMI was a watershedeventthat
destroyedpublic confidencein nuclearpower. From February1979,just
beforeThree Mile Island, to April 1979, just afterTMI, oppositionto
nuclearpower rose by 14% while supportfell by 11%. Mazur's (1981)
analysis,however,shows a rapid recoveryto previouslevelsof support.
Yes, therewas a sharptemporary
increasein oppositionto nuclearpower
withthefloodof publicityabout the TMI accident,but whenthe media
spotlightwas turnedoff,publicopinionreboundedalmostimmediately
to
pre-TMI levels. Even moreimpressive,thesame reboundingeffectwas
replicatedat the release of the KemenyCommissionreporton the accidentsix monthslater.Again, therewas a sharpincreasein media coverage, accompaniedby a sharp drop in supportfornuclearpower. And,
again, therewas the same reboundto previouslevels once the media
spotlightwas turnedoff.
The rebound,however,is neverquite complete.When publicopinion
is viewed over a 15-yearperiodbeginningin theearly1970s,TMI looks
like littlemore than a small blip, which slightlyaccelerateda secular
trendagainstnuclearpower.
4. There is a strikingreversalin the relationshipof age to supportfor
nuclearpower.Back in 1950,Fisheretal. (1951, p. 76) foundthat"youn27 Twenty
yearsearlier,Fisher,Metzner,and Darsky(1951)askedpeopleabout"the
establishment
of an atomicplantneartheirresidence"
and gottheidenticalresultof
25% opposed.The authorsof thisearlystudyshowunusualprescience,
notingthat
favorableattitudes
towardnuclearpowerreston a thinfaith:"Iftherewereanysortof
evidencethatnoteventheexpertsquiteunderstand
or couldcontrolthistremendous

source of energy, .

. attitudes might sharply incline to the negative.

. .

. In all

likelihood,it wouldtake but one highlydramaticand well publicizedevent. . . to


upsetthefaith"(p. 102).
28
Newsweek,May 12, 1986,p. 30.
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gerrespondentsare definitely
morepositivein theiracceptanceofatomic
energyand thispositivereactiondecreaseswithage." By the 1970s,this
resulthad been largelyreversed.In surveystaken between 1975 and
1980,generaloppositionto nuclearpoweraveraged40% in the 18-25 age
group,droppingto 37% forthe 26-35 groupand to about 30% forthose
over 36.29
5. One finalresultworthnotingis thatthosewho have reviewedmultiple surveyshave notedthesensitivity
of responsesto smalldifferences
in
question wording and the contextof the question in the interview
(Freudenbergand Baxter 1983; Nealey et al. 1983; Mitchell1980). It is
notclearwhetherthisvolatilityis reallyhigherthanon otherissues,butit
struckthese observersas significant
when theyattemptedto distillthe
resultsof manydifferent
surveys.
Interpretation
How does our analysisofmedia discourseprovidea necessarycontextfor
thesesurveyresults?Imaginea memberofthepublic,old
understanding
to
enoughto rememberHiroshimaand theage ofnucleardualism,trying
thatthe
make senseoftheissue ofnuclearpower.Let us assume,further,
citizenexcept
issuehas onlymoderateto low salienceforourhypothetical
in the media.
on thoseoccasionswhen it is givenhighpriority
Back in the 1950s, she would almost certainlyhave used a progress
schema30to understandnuclear power; no otherframewas available.
Untilthemid-1970s,she would have had littlereasonto thinkabout the
media
issueat all. We can reasonablyassumethat,whenshe encountered
discourse,her anticipatoryschema remainedprogress.
At thispoint,herpersonalexposureto theissue culturethrougheither
and her inthe media or otherdiscourses,her enduringpredispositions,
would all have playeda rolein the modification
terpersonalinteractions
ofherworkingschemaon nuclearpower.Many pathswerepossible,but
the natureof the media discoursesuggeststhat certainones were especiallylikely.
In the mid-1970s,the discourseoverwhelmingly
acceptedthe inevitato nuclearpowerdevelopment,but there
bilityand societalcommitment
erosionofnucleardualismcombined
was, at thesame time,a significant
gendergap, with
Surveysgoingback to the 1950sshow a largeand consistent
womenmuchmoreopposedto nuclearpower.The explanationforthisalmostcertreatinsightful
tainlylies outsidemediadiscourse.Nelkin(1981)has a particularly
mentoftheissues.
30 Schemaand packageare parallelconcepts.
to the
We use "schema"whenreferring
to theculturalor discourse
and packagewhenreferring
levelof individualcognition
level.
29

32

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withpublic controversy
about the safetyof nuclearreactors.In cartoon
discourse,in particular,progresswas supplantedby runawayand public
accountability,a harbingerof theirgeneralprominenceafterTMI.
We would hypothesize
thatmanyolderpeopleduringthisperiodbegan
to conflatetheirpronuclearprogressschema with runawaythemesto
producesome versionof the ambivalentdevil's bargain.3'Clear antinuclear packages are rarelyencounteredin thenationalmedia we sampled
duringthisperiod. Withoutsome independentexposureto otherforums
ofdiscourse,it is difficult
to see how someonewould arriveat one of our
antinuclearschemata.
The media discoursestimulatedbyTMI, we hypothesize,
accelerateda
shiftfromprogressto runawayand devil's bargainas the mostpopular
schemataamongtheattentivepublic.Displaysoftheold faith,whenthey
occurred,emphasizedthe necessityand inevitability
of nuclearpoweridea elementsthat can be incorporatedinto these alternatives.At the
same time,the themeof a technologyout of control,defyingits alleged
masters,was repeatedagain and again. Images of false confidenceand
apparentdeceptionby the nuclearmanagersabounded. Gallows humor
about mutants,hidden radiation,and nuclear catastrophesdominated
thecartoonsample, and the same themescame up moresoberlyin opinion columnsas well.
Membersof thepublicwho paid attentiononlyafterTMI shouldhave
encounteredthisstreamof media discoursein a different
way. Not having participatedin the issue culture when progressdominated,they
should have been more likely to adopt an unambivalentantinuclear
schema. Hence, we would expectless outrightoppositionand moreambivalence among people who became politicallyconscious beforethe
1970s.
AfterTMI, we suspectthatthe majorityof thosewho appear to supportnuclearpowerwere, in fact,ambivalent.The behavioralpsychologist'sapproach-avoidanceconflictis the prototype.When foodis associated witha severeelectricshock,theratis bothattractedand repelledby
thesame object. In thecase ofnuclearpower,it is notmerelya matterof
recognizingargumentson both sides but of experiencingsimultaneous
tendenciesto approach and avoid it.
Some proportionof thosewho were alreadyambivalentat thetimeof
TMI would have shiftedto an antinuclearschema,particularly
not cost
effectiveor public accountability.Soft paths was rarelydisplayed in
31 We

are talkinghereabout thosemembersof thepublicwho had someminimal


awarenessof theissue. For manypeople(perhapsa majority)beforeTMI, nuclear
powerhad insufficient
salienceforthemto makeanyeffort
to makesenseofit. And
evensinceChernobyl,
whenthesizeofthisinattentive
grouphas undoubtedly
become
smaller,oneshouldnotassumethateveryone
has a working
schemaon nuclearpower.
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AmericanJournalof Sociology
media discourseexceptin theattentuatedformof generalenvironmental
and conservationconcernsand interestin thesolar energyalternative.A
person would have had to move beyond national media discourseto
encounterthispackage in a fullydevelopedform.
Media discourseafterChernobylreinforced
bothtendencies:frompronuclearprogressto the fatalismofrunawayor theambivalenceof devil's
bargain,and fromambivalenceto outrightopposition.Today, we suspect, a pure progressschema is rare among the public; the significant
divisionthatremainsis betweenthosewho continueto acceptthenecessityor inevitability
of nuclearpower,inherentin thedevil'sbargainand
runawaypackages, and those who unambivalentlyoppose it, weaving
fragmentsof the available discourse into some overall antinuclear
schema.
These speculationsabout public thinkingon nuclearpower are very
difficult
to testdirectlywithexistingsurveydata. Considerthedilemma
thata typicalsurveyquestionon nuclearpowerpresentsto respondents
with a devil's bargainschema: "In general,do you favoror oppose the
buildingof more nuclear plants in the United States?" How does one
respondif one believesthatnuclearpoweris a necessaryfactof lifebut
that sooneror later therewill be an enormousprice to pay? Does one
answerfavor,oppose, or notsure?Anyofthesealternativesis consistent
witha devil's bargainschema.
Nevertheless,the surveyresultscitedabove provideindirectevidence
forthe argument.For someonewith a devil's bargainschema,general
supportcombinedwith local oppositionprovidesa neat solutionto the
dilemmaof what to do about nuclearpower: the nimbyposition.If the
nuclearplant is not too close, the avoidance valence is less pronounced
and nuclearpower becomesa moreattractiveobject.
We do not argue thatpeople will come to the nimbypositionthrough
seeingit advocatedin media discourseand adoptingit. On thecontrary,
one would be hard put to findit, since it is not openlyespousedby any
or antinuclearmovespokespersonforthegovernment,
nuclearindustry,
ment. But media discourseincreasinglysupportsthe conflateddevil's
bargainpackage,bothdirectlyand byoffering
runawayon topofdecades
of uncontestedprogress.
declinein
Widespreadambivalencecan also accountforthetemporary
apparent support for nuclear power during momentsof peak media
coverage,followedby a partialreboundto formerlevelswhenthemedia
attentionsubsides.Whenthemedia discoursegivesthedangersa temporaryimminence,theforceoftheavoidancevectorincreasesand ambivalence is temporarily
resolvedas opposition.When media attentionturns
elsewhere,the balance of forcesis restoredforthosewho retainan ambivalentschema.
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Nuclear Power
The evidenceforchange in how age influencesoppositionto nuclear
power adds furthersupportto our argument.In an earlierera, young
people wereleast opposed to nuclearpowerbecause theywereespecially
susceptibleto theappeal oftheprogresspackage. Today, havingbecome
middle-aged,theyretainthelong-term
influenceofthisdiscourseand are
morelikelyto be ambivalentthan opposed. Young people today,never
havingexperiencedthe era in whichprogressreignedunchallenged,are
morelikelyto be opposed ratherthan ambivalent.
Our model also suggestsan interpretation
of why thereshould be so
muchvolatilityofresponsewithslightchangesin questionwordings.The
ifnotimpossible,foran ambivalentrespondentto
questionsare difficult,
answer. Of course,such volatilitymay simplymean the absence of any
stable schema ratherthan a stable and conflicting
one. But it is, at a
minimum,consistentwithambivalence.
Finally,thereis somemoredirectevidenceon widespreadambivalence
in two surveysreviewedby Nealey et al. (1983). In one, conductedin
October 1979, respondentswere asked independently
about both"benefits"and "harmfulconsequences"frombuildingmore nuclear power
plants.If we countthe37% who could thinkofno benefitsas antinuclear
and the22% who could thinkof no harmfulconsequencesas pronuclear,
thisgives us an estimateof 41%.32
Anothersurveyin July 1979 yielded a similarestimate.All respondents, regardlessof attitude,were asked what theysaw as the major
advantages and disadvantagesof nuclear power. This formyieldeda
slightlyhigherantinuclearpercentage,with 42% unable to name any
advantageand only14% unableto nameanydisadvantage.This leaves a
balance of 44% who were ambivalent.
CONCLUSION
We have argued here that public opinionabout nuclearpower can be
understoodonly by rootingit in an issue culturethat is reflectedand
shapedby generalaudiencemedia. The conventionalmethodofassessing
public opinionthroughresponsesto surveyquestionswithfixedcategories has two major drawbacksforour constructionist
model, makingit
difficult
to testour argumentdirectly.First,it obscuresambivalenceand
disguisesthepresenceof schematathatproduceno clear-cutpositionfor
or against. Second, it blurs the distinctionbetweenpeople withnonatThis questionwas asked onlyof the 91% who had "ever heardor read about
controversies
over nuclearpowerplants."Ambivalence,as we indicatedabove, is
morethansimplyknowingarguments
on bothsides. Hence,suchfigures
shouldbe
regardedas crudeestimates
ofupperlimitson thenumberofthosewhoare ambivalent.
32

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AmericanJournalof Sociology
titudes-that is, with no workingschema on an issue-and thosewith
in a pro or anti category.
schematathatdo not fitcomfortably
One of the major lessonsof the 1964 Conversearticle"The Natureof
Belief Systemsin Mass Publics" was to warn against the tendencyto
imposeelitedichotomiessuch as "liberal"and "conservative"on a mass
publicwhose beliefsare notorganizedby suchdimensions.Similarly,the
ofthepublicinto"hawks"and "doves" concerning
classification
Vietnam
war attitudesmade it difficult
to identify
thosewhoseschemaled themto
a "win or get out" position.This lesson is ignoredso easily,we submit,
because of a methodologicaltraditionthat assumes the task is to array
relevantpublicson a pro-condimension.
By framingissues forpeople throughthe questionasked and the prethemethodassumesa sharedframeon
coded responsecategoriesoffered,
nuclearpower.But a constructionist
modelbeginsbycallingthisassumption intoquestionand examiningit. A properconstructionist
methodology forassessingpublic opinionmustdo more to make the underlying
schematavisiblein some fashion,preferably
by allowingus a glimpseof
the thinkingprocessinvolved.33Only by methodsthatelicitmoreof the
interpretive
processwill we be able to see the extentto whichdifferent
media packages have becomepartofthepublic'stoolkitin makingsense
of the worldof public affairs.
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