Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


Health Promotion, Education and Behavior

First Advisor

Daniela B. Friedman


Background: The 2014 Elk River Chemical Spill raised policy questions concerning chemical safety and revealed an immediate need for improved emergency communication. This two-phase study explored how media presented causes of and longterm solutions to the spill through an examination of media frames. The study also explored how health risks were communicated through traditional and social media. The specific aims of Phase I were to examine media coverage in the days following the spill and compare coverage across media channels. The specific aims of Phase II were to understand how public health stakeholders perceived coverage of the spill and how those perceptions compared to actual coverage. Methods: This innovative research approach consisted of a content analysis of 1,492 print, television, and online media stories and tweets (Phase I) and 11 in-depth interviews with stakeholders who were involved in responding to the crisis. Results: Content analysis and interview findings were largely complementary, demonstrating that stakeholders’ perceptions of coverage were consistent with actual coverage. Attribution of responsibility was the most dominant frame in overall coverage but the dominance of particular frames changed according to time period. Differences in frames were also found across media channels. Media coverage placed blame largely on the private company that owned the faulty storage tank for causing the spill while coverage of solutions typically focused on the government’s role in preventing future spills. Although traditional media stories were significantly more likely than tweets to include health information, traditional media still underutilized public health sources and provided limited information about health risks. Even though Twitter was not a common or reliable source of health information, findings demonstrate that it was important in the spread of other types of information. Conclusions: The study suggests that media played a role in influencing policy-related outcomes of the spill. It also suggests that while news media play an important role in the spread of crisis information during a crisis, there is a need for more deliberate coverage of health information through the use of public health sources. Finally, the study demonstrates how social media serve multiple important functions during crises.


© 2015, Tracey Thomas