Risk Framing of U.S. Intermodal Transportation Hazardous Spills in News and Social Media
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Risk Framing of U.S. Intermodal Transportation Hazardous Spills in News and Social Media

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    • Abstract:
      This study explores how freight companies publicly responded to serious hazardous spills through the systematic analysis of: the social media presence and online influence of all 2,782 carrier companies and all U.S. newspaper coverage of 5,555 serious spills between 2001 and 2012. The study examined the social media presence/influence of the 2,782 transportation companies involved in the serious spills, using Klout influence, TweetReach exposure, and HowSociable magnitude scores. U.S. newspaper coverage of the accidents was coded if stories appeared within five days of each “serious” accident between 2001 and 2012. This data were compared with descriptive secondary data for the same accidents in the US-DOT Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration database. Three coders analyzed the entire universe, which consisted of 267 stories in 87 newspapers, covering 54 accidents. This means 95.2% of the 5,555 most serious spills in a decade received no news coverage. Story variables included transportation mode, publication, geographic location, spill impacts, spill damage, accident causes, source types, source attribution, crisis responses, news coverage over time, story play (placement, length, graphics), what was spilled, health effects, risk to public and workers, public safety advice, and blame. Most freight companies had no social media presence. Few companies communicated regularly about anything, through any social media channels. Companies with fewer accidents were more likely to have social media accounts, while those with the most accidents typically had no social media presence. No companies communicated directly about any of the 5,555 spills. This pattern contradicts conventional public relations practice of “getting out in front” of a crisis. Only 22% had a Klout score over 25, 16% had a Twitter account, less than 1% had a Facebook page, only 0.1% had a LinkedIn page, and none had a Youtube account. The companies with higher social media scores had the most damaging and expensive accidents. Train companies typically had higher Klout scores, while trucking companies typically had midrange Klout scores. Companies with mass explosion hazards or high-threat cargo spills – including radioactive materials and flammable gas – had a very low or non-existent SM presence. Companies with the strongest SM presence were significantly more likely to have accidents involving fatalities, gas dispersion, evacuations, fires, hazardous waste, and closure of major roads. Some companies with dangerous track records had no social media account or did not use them to inform the public about spills. Companies with higher Klout scores were significantly more likely to have accidents involving fatalities and injuries. Companies with higher TweetReach scores were more likely to have accidents involving a fire, explosion, or hazmat fatality. U.S. newspaper coverage of serious transportation spills was almost non-existent. Spills were more likely to be covered when journalists had access to authoritative sources, when the perceived risk to citizens was higher, when someone was blamed, or when the spill involved an unusual chemical or situation. Although the spills posed serious threats including potentially fatal outcomes, invisible risks such as a gas leak, and involuntary exposure, most spills involving fatalities, injuries, toxic inhalation, gas dispersion, fires, explosions, water contamination and environmental damage received little coverage. Spills involving extremely dangerous materials including radioactive materials, poisonous gas, or mass explosion hazards were not more likely to receive coverage. Spills with a stronger visual element such as derailment or objective severity/threat were less likely to receive attention. Access to police, fire/EMS reports did not promote news coverage. High-impact events such as spills causing injuries, evacuations, toxic gas leaks and road closings were not more likely to receive attention. Social amplification of risk appeared to have little, if any, effect on the news coverage. This study raises additional questions about whether the dearth of public communication about freight spills has caused damage beyond the cost of the spills, and how transportation companies should weigh the risk of reputational harm vs. societal benefits of improved communication about spills.
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