36728 News Blackout and Social Media Invisibility after Toxic Transportation Spills

Kristen Swain, PhD, Meek School of Journalism and New Media, University of Mississippi, University, MS

Theoretical Background and research questions/hypothesis: Hazardous materials transported on highways, railways, air and water can pose significant health risks to nearby civilians. Spills can instantly explode into a toxic cloud or fireball, require mass evacuations, or seep into the water supply. Every decade, spill cleanup and mitigation expenses exceed $700 billion. Situational Crisis Communication Theory asserts that companies that hide after an accident can suffer greater losses, litigation, physical risks, and social amplification of risk. Two research questions explored public communication about serious spills: RQ1: Do transportation companies that use social media communicate more directly about spills? RQ2: How do news media frame risks, impacts and responses to spills?

Methods:  The 5,555 "serious" accidents (3% of all spills) over 10 years were pulled from the U.S.-DOT Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration database. To analyze the social media presence and influence of the 2,782 shipping companies involved in these spills, three brand strength tools were used: (1) Klout score representing a company’s presence on Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, LinkedIn, and YouTube; (2) TweetReach exposure score reflects number of company tweets, follower counts, and retweets; and (2) How Sociable magnitude score measures a company’s level of social media activity. All spills were vetted in Lexis-Nexis using multiple search strategies, to identify all U.S. newspaper stories appearing within 6 days of each spill. All 297 stories covering 99 of the spills (2% of all accidents) were systematically analyzed by three trained coders, and an additional 20% were double-coded to calculate inter-coder reliability. Coding variables included spill causes, impacts and damages, risk framing, sourcing, crisis responses, story play, geographic location, transportation mode and commodity, safety advice, and blaming. A systematic analysis of non-covered accidents also was performed to identify the presence of newsworthy factors including deaths, injuries, explosions, evacuations, and extensive damage. 

Results:  Among the few companies that had a social media presence, none communicated directly about spills. Companies with the most accidents were less likely to have a social media presence. Only 22% of all companies had a Klout score, 16% had a Twitter account, less than 1% had a Facebook page, 0.1% had a LinkedIn page, and none had a Youtube account. Companies with mass explosion hazards or high-threat cargo spills – including radioactive materials and flammable gas -- had a very low or non-existent social media presence. Those with higher HowSocial scores had the most damaging accidents. Of the 5,555 serious accidents, 98% received no news coverage. A third of the accidents that did get coverage involved gasoline spills. Across all spills was an average of only 0.16% story per accident.

Conclusions:  Transportation companies do not use social media to communicate about spills. Since news coverage of serious transportation spills was virtually non-existent, transportation companies face very little risk of receiving negative press about spills.

Implications for research and/or practice:  A proposed outrage-mitigation model was designed to improve spill messages. Even when companies have no risk of reputational harm, improved public communications about toxic spills could save billions through improved preparedness and response.