Influences on risk coverage: A case study of the Walkerton, Ontario Escherichia coli contamination

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Mass Communications


Carol M. Liebler


Risk coverage, Walkerton, Ontario, Contamination, Escherichia coli, Environmental communication

Subject Categories

Communication | Health Communication | Mass Communication | Social and Behavioral Sciences


This study explored influences on the coverage of environmental, public health, and politically created risks in the context of a case--the contamination of the public water supply in Walkerton, Ontario, Canada with a lethal strain of E. coli bacteria from agricultural run-off--through analyses of newspaper content and observations and in-depth interviews with Ontario journalists from a variety of print and broadcast media outlets in rural, suburban and urban areas.

Pre-crisis newspaper coverage offered very little "risk-alerting" information that might have directed the attention of relevant publics to the systemic interaction of factors that represented long-term threats to the safety of drinking water, as compared with the thousands of post-crisis articles. The pre-crisis risk information was couched in ways more likely to calm fears than raise awareness to potential risks.

Findings from the observations and interviews suggested the continued viability of media sociological theories as a way for understanding the strength of various influences on risk content, but strongly contest assumptions that individual journalists can have little impact in improving the quantity or quality of pre-crisis risk-alerting information, especially in rural areas, and point to the benefits of cooperative rather than competitive journalistic efforts.


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