Abstract

Media communications are least studied in river basin development projects. This paper aims to develop a longitudinal study on how a water resources development megaproject was reported by the world newspapers during its whole life cycle. The development of the Three Gorges Dam project in China (1982–2015) was taken as an example. Newspaper perspectives on eight evaluation themes: time, cost, quality, risk, benefit, social impact, environmental impact, and organization management were extracted from eight newspapers in the UK, the USA, Australia, and Singapore using a content analysis approach. The results show that the media coverage mainly appeared in the construction phase, with peak reporting times occurring in transition periods. Social and environmental aspects were the main concerns of the eight selected newspapers. The tone of the news coverage on the Three Gorges Dam was generally negative. These findings implied that media communications provide valuable insights into the social and environmental complexities of megaprojects in river basin development.

INTRODUCTION

Humankind's amazing development capacity has resulted in a tremendous expansion of civilization at river basins in the last 200 years. Subduing nature and marshaling water was the tenet of river basin management in the middle of the 19th century. In the 1950s and 1960s, river basin management was dominated by redressing resource deficiency through technology and infrastructure developments (McCully 1996). These developments, with little reference to ecological integrity, have incurred massive social and environmental costs. In the 21st century, river basin management has been shifted from purely addressing natural complexity to reconciling multiple human and environmental uses.

River basin management has been dominated by engineers and hydrologists, and has often focused on gains of economic efficiency by mastering nature and optimizing the multiple human benefits. The ‘iron triangle’ (on time, under budget, of quality) is widely accepted as the criterion to assess the success of river basin development projects during the past decades (Toor & Ogunlana 2010), while societal value has always been a missing variable. It is argued that current water resource development has been insensitive to societal values, and blind to changes in the social drivers for, or societal responses to, development decisions (Wei et al. 2014). As a consequence, many development projects failed in the early phases of their life cycles due to the objections of the public (Dimitriou et al. 2013). Even if some projects were successfully completed, they would severely compromise our capacity to foster long-term socio-ecological sustainability in river basins.

A large number of mega river basin development projects have been or are being built around the world in recent decades, including the Three Gorges Dam (TGD) in China (1993), the National Ganga River Basin Project in India (2011), the fourth extension of the already massive Tarbela Dam in Pakistan (2012), and the Odra-Vistula Flood Management Project in Poland (2015). These megaprojects are huge undertakings that cost $1 billion or more, requiring resources that run into millions of man hours, involving numerous stakeholders, and a project period of 5 years or more (Davies et al. 2009). The physical and economic scales of these megaprojects are so huge that the whole nation or region may be affected by their success or failure, leading to even more significant social and environmental influences. All of these aspects may cause controversy and attract great public attention to megaprojects (Jia et al. 2011).

It has been widely recognized in the literature that participatory management, stakeholder engagement, and social learning are effective approaches for building a two-way communication channel for the river basin development organizations to include the stakeholders' perspectives on the project's social and environmental impact during its development, and to inform stakeholders of the project's impacts based on the planning and design documents and to clarify any misunderstanding, if it exists (Hurtz & Durkin 2004; Patterson 2006). Media is presumably regarded as an alternative approach to help understand the social and environmental complexities of a project due to its continuous and extensive contact with the general public (Luhmann 2000). It has tremendous effects on project outcomes by influencing and reflecting public opinions (McCombs & Shaw 1972). Media reports issues of a project by indicating the salience of the issues through its agenda-setting function, deliberately framing the issues based on the social processes model; and choosing the time of reporting based on the issue-attention cycle (Entman 2010; Ford & King 2015). In addition, there may be a structural bias of media based on the news value theory (Galtung & Ruge 1965). The mega river basin project has its own life cycle of decades to centuries, from feasibility analysis, preparation, construction, operation, and restoration. Media reporting on megaprojects is least studied in river basin management, therefore it is unknown how a mega river basin development project is framed by media in its different life phases (Bagdikian 2014). Without such an understanding, our capacity to foster long-term socio-ecological sustainability in river basins through development projects is severely compromised.

Given the background, this paper aims to uncover the pattern of how a mega river basin development project has been reported by media during its life cycle by developing a longitudinal study on how the Three Gorges Dam in China was reported by eight major international newspapers from 1982 to 2015. The focus on international newspapers was designed to reflect the off-site perspective of a globally significant project.

CONTEXT OF THE CASE STUDY

TGD is the largest hydroelectric project in the world. It is situated in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River (Figure 1). It consists of a main dam, flood release structures, power stations, and navigation structures with comprehensive functions of flood control, power generation, and navigation. The total cost of this project was initially budgeted at 90 billion yuan in 1993; but the official cost was approximately 180 billion yuan when it was completed in 2009, with a further cost of 60 billion yuan for population resettlement (CTGC Annual Report 2009; Gleick 2009). The resettlement required for the project involved a population of about 1.4 million, and 153 towns and cities (CTGC Annual Report 2009). This project has generated great controversy since it was initially planned.

Figure 1

An overview of the Three Gorges Dam.

Figure 1

An overview of the Three Gorges Dam.

China Three Gorges Corporation (CTGC), founded in 1993, takes full responsibility for financing, construction, and operation of the TGD. The construction work of the TGD is a world record in scale. It is twice as big as the previous record holder, the Itaipu Dam in Brazil. The capacity for electricity generation is equivalent to 18 nuclear power plants or 10 large coal-fired power stations burning 50 million tons of coal per year. According to the CTGC Annual Report, the TGD project has been listed in the Chinese national plan since 1982. The feasibility analysis of the project was reviewed and finally approved in 1989. The preparation phase was from 1989 to 1992; and its construction process spanned 17 years from 1993 to 2009. The dam has been operational since then.

METHODS

Selection of newspapers

Newspapers were chosen in this study for media analysis. Despite the increasing popularity of electronic media such as web news and social media over the past decade (Levinsen & Wien 2011), newspapers are still the main supplier of authoritative daily news with a wide range of readership. They provide in-depth coverage of information on topics interesting to the public over a continuous period of time (Alsem et al. 2008). In addition, as print media, the historical archives of newspapers are readily available for systematic and consistent analysis from either libraries or online digitized archives (Joshi et al. 2010).

Only newspapers outside China were considered, as this study focused on the international perspective of the TGD. It is well argued that the media system of a given country conforms to national interests or resonates with the dominant ideology of that country (Xiong et al. 2015). The UK, the USA, Australia, and Singapore were chosen to represent the major voices and opinions of newspapers on the TGD around the world in consideration of their historical developments, political economies, geographic representations, and international influences. Southeast Asian countries, such as India and Thailand, were originally included in our design, as news media from these countries may have a relatively high interest in hydropower projects constructed in China due to their proximities to the Yangtze River. However, as most of the widely circulated influential newspapers published in these countries are not in English, our language capacity limitation led to their exclusion.

Two daily broadsheet newspapers were selected from each of the chosen four countries. Generally, the selection criteria of the newspapers used in this study were: (1) circulation, as higher circulation implies larger groups of potential readers; (2) reliability and credibility, as leading broadsheet newspapers were considered to have higher standards in verifying the news reported (Ford & King 2015); (3) diversity of varied geographic locations of newspapers, as the geographic locations where newspapers originated imply potential differences of cultural and political profiles (Flowerdrew et al. 2002). These criteria were designed to ensure that the selected newspapers are capable of gaining considerable attention from readers and influencing and reflecting the public's opinions on TGD as broadly as possible. As a result, eight newspapers were chosen in Table 1.

Table 1

Newspapers selected in this study

NewspaperCountryOwnerFoundedLanguageCirculation
The Times UK News Corporation 1785 English 400,120 
The Guardian UK Guardian Media Group 1821 English 204,222 
The New York Times USA The New York Times Company 1851 English 1,713,567 
The Washington Post USA The Washington Post Company 1877 English 613,458 
The Australian Australia News Limited 1964 English 220,000 
The Sydney Morning Herald Australia Fairfax Media 1831 English 274,814 
Lianhe Zaobao Singapore Singapore Press Holdings 1983 Chinese 176,000 
The Straits Times Singapore Singapore Press Holdings 1845 English 365,800 
NewspaperCountryOwnerFoundedLanguageCirculation
The Times UK News Corporation 1785 English 400,120 
The Guardian UK Guardian Media Group 1821 English 204,222 
The New York Times USA The New York Times Company 1851 English 1,713,567 
The Washington Post USA The Washington Post Company 1877 English 613,458 
The Australian Australia News Limited 1964 English 220,000 
The Sydney Morning Herald Australia Fairfax Media 1831 English 274,814 
Lianhe Zaobao Singapore Singapore Press Holdings 1983 Chinese 176,000 
The Straits Times Singapore Singapore Press Holdings 1845 English 365,800 

Data collection

The data used in this study were collected from the Factiva database where there are fully digitized copies of newspapers and all articles are completely accessible through the Internet. Factiva has been widely applied for content analysis as a reliable newspaper database and search engine (Rissel et al. 2010; Hinchcliff et al. 2012; Robbins et al. 2012). It covers the chosen newspapers from 1982 to 2015, which is consistent with the project period of the TGD. In this paper, ‘Three Gorges’ was considered to be the search key word, with which four synonyms or closely related expressions to TGD, ‘Three Gorges Dam’, ‘Three Gorges Project’, ‘Three Gorges Construction’, and ‘Three Gorges Corporations’ were selected to input into the search engine. They are the most common terms and concepts related to TGD that appeared in papers and reports. The articles generated by searching key words formed a raw database of 1,507 articles.

Duplicate articles with the same title or with more than 80% of identical content were first removed. Then, articles with only incidental mention of the word ‘Three Gorges’ such as travelers' journals and advertisements were removed. Only articles with direct coverage on the TGD were kept, in which TGD was regarded as the primary subject or discussion topic for dam impacts and project management issues. This reduced the total number of articles for coding to 267.

Official communication from the river basin organizations through their annual reports or websites is regarded as normal practice for the organizations to improve public recognition of the project. Thus, the annual reports published by the CTGC from 2006 to 2015 (no annual reports were issued before 2006) were also retrieved and summarized in terms of the eight selected themes in this study in order to provide comparisons against the newspaper reporting in different project periods.

Coding of the newspaper articles with the content analysis approach

Content analysis was chosen in this study to extract the opinions and perspectives on the TGD from the chosen newspapers. It uses a set of procedures to make valid inferences from texts (Kirilenko et al. 2010). Content analysis has usually been chosen to analyze unstructured text in newspaper articles in order to uncover patterns of public discourse ever since its introduction in social sciences (Kirilenko et al. 2010). Furthermore, this approach enables analysis over time (Granner et al. 2010) to facilitate a longitudinal analysis of media reporting.

Coding is a key step of the set of procedures in the content analysis approach. We designed a group of variables to code each article of the newspaper based on the media agenda-setting theory and media framing theory (McCombs & Shaw 1972; Hale 2010) (Table 2). According to the agenda-setting theory, the intensity of media coverage of an issue correlates with the perceived importance of the issue by the media (Cohen 1963; Xiong et al. 2015). Therefore, the number of articles on the TGD is considered as the main measurement of media attention.

Table 2

Description of coding variables

VariablesDescription
Article ID Identification number assigned to each article 
Publication name Name of the newspaper publication in which the article featured 
Publication date Day, month, and year of the newspaper issue 
Headline Headline of the article 
Themes Coverage content. The primary themes were chosen as follows: 
 
  • Social impact

 
 
  • Environment impact

 
 
  • Cost

 
 
  • Organization management

 
 
  • Time

 
 
  • Quality

 
 
  • Benefit

 
 
  • Risk

 
Article tone Tone for the content: 
 
  • Positive

 
 
  • Negative

 
 
  • Neutral

 
 If there was more than one theme in an article, code tone corresponding to each theme. Each theme has its own individual tone 
VariablesDescription
Article ID Identification number assigned to each article 
Publication name Name of the newspaper publication in which the article featured 
Publication date Day, month, and year of the newspaper issue 
Headline Headline of the article 
Themes Coverage content. The primary themes were chosen as follows: 
 
  • Social impact

 
 
  • Environment impact

 
 
  • Cost

 
 
  • Organization management

 
 
  • Time

 
 
  • Quality

 
 
  • Benefit

 
 
  • Risk

 
Article tone Tone for the content: 
 
  • Positive

 
 
  • Negative

 
 
  • Neutral

 
 If there was more than one theme in an article, code tone corresponding to each theme. Each theme has its own individual tone 

The first category of variables is related to describing the basic information of each article, including article ID, publication name, publication date, and headline. According to the media framing theory (Goffman & Berger 1986), the media both influence and indicate public opinions on certain issues by deliberately framing perspectives (the varied viewpoints on a public issue). The second category of variables provides what each article reported about the TGD (Bechmann & Stehr 2011). As discussed above, the ‘iron triangle’ (on time, under budget, of quality) was first selected as the key theme. Risks or construction safety is becoming more and more important for megaproject management and was also included in this study. Benefits of the project including flood control, electricity generation, and navigation reflect project outcomes. They are considered as significant indicators of influence on the public. Megaprojects have huge social and environmental impacts, such as resettlement and landslide, and these were defined as two distinctive themes of project influence. Finally, organization management was added as a strategic theme, as it is one of the key components that decide whether the project succeeds. Altogether, eight themes were chosen.

The third category of variables is the thematic information from each article. It is about the article's tone on the key performance of TGD. Table 3 summarizes a list of example words and phrases used in the newspapers that would be considered belonging to the three different tones. However, the coding process did not only involve identifying these words, but also understanding the context in which these words were used.

Table 3

List of example words and phrases in the selected newspapers that were used to distinguish positive, negative, and neutral tones

Regarded as positiveRegarded as negativeRegarded as neutral
… dam has largely contained Yangtze flooding … … rivers wiped off from maps … … merits remain in disputes … 
… reducing the water flow to disaster site … … ill-conceived development … … a contentious topic … 
… double the hydropower capacity … … without public consultation … … need to improve … 
… beautiful and impressive sight … … pay is much less than gain … … need to find a solution … 
… reliable power supply … … illegally claimed land … … (environmental protection) must not be neglected … 
… on schedule … … corruption … … remain watchful … 
… essential for economy … … massive financial overruns … … learn a lesson … 
… full of hope … … devastated by the damming of the river … … need to accelerate efforts to rescue … 
… its importance has increased … … species face extinction … … arguably … 
… extraordinary growth … … direct human costs of damming … live in poverty … … subject to careful consideration … 
Regarded as positiveRegarded as negativeRegarded as neutral
… dam has largely contained Yangtze flooding … … rivers wiped off from maps … … merits remain in disputes … 
… reducing the water flow to disaster site … … ill-conceived development … … a contentious topic … 
… double the hydropower capacity … … without public consultation … … need to improve … 
… beautiful and impressive sight … … pay is much less than gain … … need to find a solution … 
… reliable power supply … … illegally claimed land … … (environmental protection) must not be neglected … 
… on schedule … … corruption … … remain watchful … 
… essential for economy … … massive financial overruns … … learn a lesson … 
… full of hope … … devastated by the damming of the river … … need to accelerate efforts to rescue … 
… its importance has increased … … species face extinction … … arguably … 
… extraordinary growth … … direct human costs of damming … live in poverty … … subject to careful consideration … 

Coding was conducted manually, as it is perceived that humans are more effective in understanding the meaning of text than computers (Krippendorff 2004). Each article was read and coded by two independent coders who were qualified for both English and Chinese language proficiency and who had the appropriate background knowledge. Another essential factor for coding was that the qualified coders were capable of understanding the set rules and could apply them consistently throughout the analysis. Therefore, before the start of the coding, coder-trainer tests were done to assess whether coders with different language backgrounds had sufficient understanding of the English codebook (Krippendorff 2004).

RESULTS

Overall reporting trend

Among the total article number of 267, Lianhe Zaobao contributed the most articles (60) and The Sydney Morning Herald the least (15) (Table 4). The contribution of two newspapers from Singapore is 36.3% of the total article number, and only 12.7% for two newspapers from Australia.

Table 4

Number of articles for coding in each newspaper from 1982 to 2015

NewspaperArticle numberCountryArticle number
The Times 27 UK 65 (24.3%) 
The Guardian 38 
The New York Times 47 USA 71 (26.5%) 
The Washington Post 24 
The Australian 19 Australia 34 (12.7%) 
The Sydney Morning Herald 15 
Lianhe Zaobao 60 Singapore 97 (36.3%) 
The Straits Times 37 
 267  267 
NewspaperArticle numberCountryArticle number
The Times 27 UK 65 (24.3%) 
The Guardian 38 
The New York Times 47 USA 71 (26.5%) 
The Washington Post 24 
The Australian 19 Australia 34 (12.7%) 
The Sydney Morning Herald 15 
Lianhe Zaobao 60 Singapore 97 (36.3%) 
The Straits Times 37 
 267  267 

During the 34 years' study period across the five project stages, the line for direct coverage has similar trends as the line for the total article numbers after duplicated articles were removed, with two peaks highlighting heated media attention in 2003 and 2006, respectively (Figure 2). The year of 2003 marked the successful completion of Phase II construction of the TGD, when its reservoir started to store water and generate electricity. In 2006, the main dam wall was completed and started to serve its major function of flood control. In addition, there has been a recent increase in media coverage of the TGD since 2012, when the project was mentioned generally as a comparison or side reference to new hydropower projects around the world.

Figure 2

Total number of articles retrieved and articles with direct coverage from 1985 to 2015.

Figure 2

Total number of articles retrieved and articles with direct coverage from 1985 to 2015.

Eight newspapers’ coverage on eight themes

The variation of the eight themes' coverage varies over time (Figure 3). The issues with the most significant focus were social impacts and environmental impacts, followed by concerns about project management issues such as time, cost, and quality. It should be noted that a newspaper article could discuss more than one theme (and therefore have different tones on different themes discussed) within its content. ‘The number of referrals’ outlined in Figures 38 in the later sections thus do not necessarily coincide with the number of articles with direct coverage on the TGD.

Figure 3

News coverage on the eight themes reported from 1982 to 2015.

Figure 3

News coverage on the eight themes reported from 1982 to 2015.

Figure 4

News coverage by eight newspapers from 1982 to 2015.

Figure 4

News coverage by eight newspapers from 1982 to 2015.

Figure 5

Reported themes' composition in different newspapers.

Figure 5

Reported themes' composition in different newspapers.

Figure 6

The eight newspapers' perspectives on the TGD from 1982 to 2015.

Figure 6

The eight newspapers' perspectives on the TGD from 1982 to 2015.

Figure 7

Perspectives of eight newspapers on the TGD based on the number of mentions giving the corresponding tones.

Figure 7

Perspectives of eight newspapers on the TGD based on the number of mentions giving the corresponding tones.

Figure 8

Media impressions on eight themes based on the number of mentions giving the corresponding tones. Note: Positive tone is rarely visible, clustering in the center of diagram.

Figure 8

Media impressions on eight themes based on the number of mentions giving the corresponding tones. Note: Positive tone is rarely visible, clustering in the center of diagram.

The theme ‘social impact’ was reported most frequently in the feasibility and preparation phase (1982–1992) (Figure 3). During the construction phase (1993–2009), social impacts, cost, and time increasingly became the top three themes in newspapers. After the reservoir and ship lock of the TGD were put into service in 2003, environmental impacts became the highlight. In 2006, when the main dam body was completed and started to serve its major function in flood control, the theme ‘benefit’ gained the most attention from the media. Since 2009, when the operational period commenced, social and environmental impacts have continued to be the two key issues reported in the newspapers. It is thus observed that most of the reporting peaks coincide with the project transition periods, or during significant construction activities.

Among the eight selected newspapers, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Straits Times, and Lianhe Zaobao were those that most frequently reported on the TGD, indicating a long-term interest from these publishers in the project (Figure 4). The diverse geological locations of these publishers imply that the TGD has always been a common interest across the globe.

Even though there were different reporting peak times of the eight newspapers, the high intensity reporting period was from 1999 to 2011, especially the years of 2003 and 2006. These were the later construction phase and a short time after construction was completed, during which time the project was of high interest to the public.

The distribution of reporting themes among the eight newspapers is shown in Figure 5. Social impacts, environmental impacts, and project cost were the main focuses for each individual newspaper; the former comprised 17–25% of their whole coverage, and the latter two 12–20% and 13–20%, respectively.

Among the eight papers, The Straits Times and The New York Times had the greatest interest in social impacts (24–25%); while The New York Times and The Guardian considered environmental impacts as their priority (19–20%). The Sydney Morning Herald put the most effort into discussing the cost of the TGD (21% of its overall themes reported), which was closely followed by The Straits Times, The Australian, and The Washington Post (19%). On the other hand, the theme ‘risk’ was generally neglected by the eight publishers in terms of dam failure and safety management.

Newspapers’ perspectives on eight themes

Negative and neutral tones overwhelmingly dominated the impressions of the eight selected newspapers on the TGD from planning to operation over the study period of 34 years (Figure 6). Only very limited positive tones appeared in 1999 when the amount of concrete poured in a single year broke the world record, in 2006 when the main dam wall was completed, in 2010 when the TGD passed its biggest test by sustaining a water flow of 70,000 m3/s, and in 2014 when the dam successfully retained significant flooding along the Yangtze River.

Three peak negative tone periods appeared in 1999 (Phase II of construction at full swing), 2003 (the third and fourth groups of resettlement started), and 2007 (total resettled population up to 1.2 million, 106% of the planned estimate). These were the periods when significant changes of the TGD construction phases occurred, yet the project was more likely to receive negative criticism.

The number of articles with a negative tone was between 20 and 50 per year in all eight selected newspapers. Only Lianhe Zaobao had a very small number of articles with a positive tone in its coverage. Figure 7 shows the inclinations or opinion tones of the eight newspapers on the TGD. In contrast to western countries like the USA and UK, Austral-Asian publishers tend to hold a more neutral position regarding the TGD. This is especially apparent in Singaporean newspapers, which are then followed by Australian newspapers with relatively fewer negative comments than their western colleagues.

With regard to the coverage themes in these newspapers, Figure 8 shows that social and environmental impacts received peak negative tones. By contrast, quality, cost, time, and benefit tended to receive more neutral and even positive comments, as the newspapers were agreeing about the time and budget saving on the TGD construction.

Key information from CTGC annual reports

The key information in CTGC annual reports in terms of the eight selected themes is summarized in Table 5 to relate international newspapers' perspectives with official propaganda of the project. Unsurprisingly, there is a clear misalignment of information between the issues focused upon by CTGC and the eight selected international newspapers. The two bodies clearly showed different interests in reporting the same themes, with the international media mainly focusing on raising specific concerns relating to these themes and the CTGC reporting on what the corporation had done to mitigate the negative impacts. For example, the CTGC annual reports emphasized corporate restructuring for more effective management practice under the organization management theme, while the international newspapers revealed corruptions and embezzlement scandals concerning the project. Similarly, the CTGC reports emphasize that with the issue of the Regulations for TGD Migrant Relocation in 1993, 40,000 million yuan had been spent on displaced communities by 2002, including building new houses (20–25 m2 per person and some farmland if applicable) and financial compensation for farmers, whereas the international newspapers highlighted not only the reduction in livelihood of these migrants but also the associated psychological problems.

Table 5

Themes and issues mentioned in annual reports and newspapers

ThemeFocus in CTGC annual reportsFocus in newspapers
Social impact Tax was paid back to society; donation and charity work to public interest programs Cultural relics were submerged, archaeological sites were drowned, and heritage was lost 
 Financial support was given to the reservoir area to ensure the sustainability of migrants Resettlement, livelihoods, city development, psychological health of residents, socio-economic impacts, conflicts over land shortage, financial aid 
 TGD was opened to tourists for free  
Environment impact Monitoring, management, and conservation of water quality, sedimentation, soil erosion, noise, air quality, and geological hazard Water pollution, climate change, drought, erosion, landslide, loss of scenery, sewage, and toxic waste 
 Reproduction of four major common fish species and conservation of the Chinese sturgeon, biodiversity and rare plants Aquatic life, ecology, and biodiversity conservation, algae bloom downstream 
 Reduction in greenhouse gas emission and production of clean energy Geological instability, earthquakes and sedimentation 
Organization management Modern maintenance and management system: organization restructuring, public listing and optimizing organizational framework (2008–2009) Organization establishment and safety control measures 
 Corporate culture building and harmonious employee relationships Corruption widespread, embezzlement, bribery, and unqualified contractors 
 Publications on media to build better corporate image (2015)  
Time Construction ahead of the schedule Construction phase, history, and open floodgates 
Cost Financial input in innovative research on science and engineering technologies, environmental protection and social affairs Overrun of costs, loan, floatation, uneconomical, budget, and fund raising 
Quality New technological developments on concrete and ship lock were applied on construction of dam to ensure high quality Concrete cracks, grand scale, shoddy workmanship, largest dam, widest turbines, longest ship lock, and highest ship lift 
 Establishment of research platforms to strengthen in-house technical innovation  
Benefit Flood control and clean energy generation Flood control, electricity generation, navigation, reduce greenhouse gas 
 Improved navigation due to high ship lock efficiency and booming shipping industry  
 Drought relief and ecological water replenishment to improve water supply in lower and middle reaches of the Yangtze River  
Risk Target for zero major engineering failure Concrete cracks, clogging of turbines, monitoring measures, seismic risk, and silt problem 
 Earthquake monitoring since impoundment  
 Comprehensive safety inspection to strengthen the emergency duty work  
ThemeFocus in CTGC annual reportsFocus in newspapers
Social impact Tax was paid back to society; donation and charity work to public interest programs Cultural relics were submerged, archaeological sites were drowned, and heritage was lost 
 Financial support was given to the reservoir area to ensure the sustainability of migrants Resettlement, livelihoods, city development, psychological health of residents, socio-economic impacts, conflicts over land shortage, financial aid 
 TGD was opened to tourists for free  
Environment impact Monitoring, management, and conservation of water quality, sedimentation, soil erosion, noise, air quality, and geological hazard Water pollution, climate change, drought, erosion, landslide, loss of scenery, sewage, and toxic waste 
 Reproduction of four major common fish species and conservation of the Chinese sturgeon, biodiversity and rare plants Aquatic life, ecology, and biodiversity conservation, algae bloom downstream 
 Reduction in greenhouse gas emission and production of clean energy Geological instability, earthquakes and sedimentation 
Organization management Modern maintenance and management system: organization restructuring, public listing and optimizing organizational framework (2008–2009) Organization establishment and safety control measures 
 Corporate culture building and harmonious employee relationships Corruption widespread, embezzlement, bribery, and unqualified contractors 
 Publications on media to build better corporate image (2015)  
Time Construction ahead of the schedule Construction phase, history, and open floodgates 
Cost Financial input in innovative research on science and engineering technologies, environmental protection and social affairs Overrun of costs, loan, floatation, uneconomical, budget, and fund raising 
Quality New technological developments on concrete and ship lock were applied on construction of dam to ensure high quality Concrete cracks, grand scale, shoddy workmanship, largest dam, widest turbines, longest ship lock, and highest ship lift 
 Establishment of research platforms to strengthen in-house technical innovation  
Benefit Flood control and clean energy generation Flood control, electricity generation, navigation, reduce greenhouse gas 
 Improved navigation due to high ship lock efficiency and booming shipping industry  
 Drought relief and ecological water replenishment to improve water supply in lower and middle reaches of the Yangtze River  
Risk Target for zero major engineering failure Concrete cracks, clogging of turbines, monitoring measures, seismic risk, and silt problem 
 Earthquake monitoring since impoundment  
 Comprehensive safety inspection to strengthen the emergency duty work  

DISCUSSION

The main research findings and their theoretical and practical implications for water resources development projects from this research are discussed below.

It was found that the issue attention cycle of these eight newspapers on the TGD was consistent with the project phases of TGD. Exposure of the TGD in the newspapers increased over time during 1982–2006 (Figure 2). The peak reporting times appeared in the transition periods from one project stage to another. Since 2012, the TGD has regained attention as a side reference to new mega hydropower projects. Therefore, media management should be taken into account from the project proposal phase throughout the whole life cycle, as some environmental and social problems tend to surface during construction and after project runs. Such problems, if not dealt with carefully and early, can destabilize the environment, communities, and megaprojects themselves.

It was found that newspapers showed a high inclination in selecting salient issues among these eight themes and strong perspectives when they deliberately framed these issues. Among the eight themes, the social aspect was the greatest focus for all newspapers, comprising 17–25% of relevant reporting articles from each selected newspaper (Figure 5). Whether the project was achieved under-budget, on-time, and with minimal environmental impacts were the other three major concerns of all the newspapers (Figure 5). The coverage of tones on social and environmental impacts of TGD were mostly negative, which also comprise the majority of the overall negative tones. According to the news value theory, agenda-setting function and framing theory (Cohen 1963), these results implied that the social and environmental impacts of TGD were the focus of interests of ‘off-site’ stakeholders on TGD. The majority of negative tones on these two themes reflected the international concerns regarding these themes. These interests of ‘off-site’ stakeholders should be addressed for mega water resources development projects of global or regional significance, particularly for trans-boundary rivers.

It was found that there were differences in the coverage of TGD and perspectives on these themes among these eight newspapers. Among the eight selected newspapers, Lianhe Zaobao and The New York Times were the two newspapers that reported on the TGD with the greatest frequency (Table 4). The newspapers had different interests during the project period. They also showed different tones on the eight themes (Figure 7). Two Singaporean newspapers, Lianhe Zaobao and The Strait Times, had significantly more neutral tone on the social and environmental impacts of the TGD. Several factors could explain this finding, as follows. (1) Political power. Politicians may try to influence the media agenda or the way controversial issues are framed, leading to attempts to gain political support and affect government decisions (Gamson & Modigliani 1987; Entman 2010). (2) Journalistic structural bias. There might be a structural bias of journalistic routines. This can be explained largely by the ‘news value theory’ according to which, important values such as the impact on the nation and the relevance and importance to society raise the interest (Galtung & Ruge 1965; Lawrence 2000). (3) Media corporate benefit. It is argued that corporate ownership and profit orientation led to the conservatism of some media (Bagdikian 2014). Therefore, the media is biased in its reporting (Gerber et al. 2009; Chiang & Knight 2011), and operates selectively to generate its own reality (Jia et al. 2011).

It was found that there were some significant inconsistencies between the official propaganda of the TGD and the newspaper coverage. The media put much more emphasis on social and environmental impacts of the TGD, which they regarded negatively, than on its functional benefits, time scheduling and high quality (Table 5). By contrast, CTGC in its annual reports, placed more emphasis on corporate achievements rather than addressing specific public concerns. Therefore, addressing bias from both media and project organizations is very important for fostering long-term socio-ecological sustainability in river basins through development projects.

There is a need in future to study the interactions between other river basin megaprojects and media coverage of them to develop a generic mechanism on how the mega development projects are framed by different media in the different phases of their long life cycles. There is also a need to study the mechanism of social media reporting on river basin megaprojects. Finally, a limitation of this research is that only eight newspapers were studied, which is partly due to the language limitation of the research team and partly due to the constraint of human reading and processing of newspaper articles. In this regard, larger scale newspaper analysis could be implemented with the aid of computer data-mining techniques in future. It should be noted that investigation of how the TGD has been reported by Chinese media is a future study to complement this one.

CONCLUSIONS

This paper developed a longitudinal study on how the TGD was reported by world newspapers during its whole life cycle from planning, construction, commissioning, and operation (1982–2015). It took a fresh perspective to understand media opinion on water resources development megaprojects from a long timeframe for sustainable river basin management. The results show that the media coverage mainly appeared in the construction phase, with peak reporting times occurring in transition periods. Social and environmental aspects were the main concerns of the eight selected newspapers. The tone of the news coverage on the TGD was generally negative. These findings implied that media communications provide valuable insights into the social and environmental impacts of megaprojects in river basin development.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

This work was funded by the Australian Research Council [project number FT130100274].

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