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RISJ Report on media coverage of major infrastructure projects in France and Britain

David A L Levy & Kheira Belkacem 

This project investigated the way major infrastructure projects are covered by the media in Britain & France. It contributed to a larger project undertaken by Isimm Recerche in Rome (who funded this project) looking at the issue within Italy.

The main UK case study was of media coverage of the planned third runway at Heathrow (now cancelled) and in France the planned construction of a new regional airport at Notre Dames des Landes (near Nantes) first proposed about 30 years ago and which is going ahead.

Clearly the scale of the two main case studies was very different. The third runway at Heathrow was a major infrastructure project which generated nationwide controversy, whereas the new airport at Nantes was much smaller in scale and attracted far less debate at national level. There were also much smaller case studies of media coverage of plans for high speed rail projects in Britain and France.

The research used the two main case studies to examine how the emphasis in media coverage varied between the perceived economic benefits and environmental and local impact, and how coverage in each country is affected, both by their specific journalism cultures and attitudes to such developments and to environmental journalism itself.

Although the press reports we examined were not coded in terms of positive or negative attitudes it is generally fair to assume that reports concentrating on the economic dimensions of a project were generally inclined to be positive, whereas concentration on the environmental impact or the consequences for local residents tended to be negative.

The content analysis of a small sample of news items in France and Britain (newspapers, weekly magazines for the French case, TV news report and online stories for the British case) has allowed us to reach the following conclusions:

  1. The economy is the main dimension that frames the issue in both French press and TV news reports. This suggests a generally positive framing – at least in terms of its impact on the regional economy – in the reporting of the French case.
  2. The environment was the major media theme in the way that both British newspapers and TV covered the expansion of Heathrow in the period surveyed. This predominant focus on the environmental impact – and damage – of the Heathrow expansion plan meant that the project was often presented in a relatively negative way.
  3. We had expected that TV coverage would focus more on the local dimension of each project because of the need for more graphic images, but our findings invalidated this initial hypothesis. BBC news reports focused heavily on the environment when covering the expansion of Heathrow whereas France 3 Regional news reports focused strongly on economic matters.
  4. In the UK there was a balance in covering the three dimensions – economic, environmental and local impact - in the BBC stories whereas the British press gave much more space to the environmental and economic dimensions. Right leaning newspapers tended to give priority to the economic dimensions of the Heathrow project, and hence a rather positive view of the expansion plan, whereas left aligned newspapers were much more focussed on the environmental – and hence negative – aspects.

Overall our analysis of the two airport developments reveals a considerable difference in the ways they were reported:

  • The coverage of the third runway at Heathrow focused most on its environmental dimensions. In that sense it often tended to be more negative about the project.
  • In contrast most of the coverage of the Aeroport du Grande Ouest focused on the economic dimensions – and hence its predicted positive impact for the regional economy.  That focus was greater in the local and regional press than in the national reports, where reports written by environmental correspondents concentrated most on the environmental impact.

Download a pdf of the report.