Media coverage helps with conservation: A flood of drought news can reduce water use

by Emily Benson, High Country News

You’re probably familiar with the recent 5-year drought in California. That’s likely due in part to the intense media attention it attracted. At the peak of the coverage, there were nearly 30 times more drought-focused newspaper stories written per month than during an earlier Golden State drought that lasted from 2007 to 2009.

During the latest drought, even before California Gov. Jerry Brown mandated a 25 percent reduction in urban water use statewide in 2015, residents of the San Francisco Bay Area were consuming less water than they had a few years earlier. “The question was, what was driving them to reduce their water use?” asked Nicole Sandkulla, the CEO and general manager of the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, a consortium of 26 cities and water districts.

New research suggests that newspapers were, in fact, part of the answer. Media attention — and the public awareness and engagement that follows — is one way to get people to use less water.

Researchers suspected that spikes in media coverage could be driving the drops in water consumption Sandkulla and others were seeing. To find out, Kimberly Quesnel and Newsha Ajami of Stanford University studied a decade’s worth of water use data, from 2005 to 2015, from 20 of the water agencies that belong to the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency. (The agency helped fund the study.)

The scientists also counted the number of articles related to drought that nine national and regional newspapers ran during the same period. There was less drought-centered coverage during the earlier drought, perhaps as a result of news coverage focused on the economic recession and the 2008 presidential election. The more recent dry spell, however, captured statewide and even national attention: The number of drought-focused articles published every month rose precipitously starting in 2014. “Drought in California was interesting, and it was the news of the day,” says Ajami, the director of urban water policy at Stanford’s Water in the West program.

To elucidate the link between news stories and turning off the tap, the researchers estimated how much water households used based on combinations of factors including climate and weather parameters, demographic elements, water price and number of drought-focused newspaper articles. Then they compared the results to average rates of actual consumption. Simulations that included the media measure more closely matched reality than those that didn’t include it, suggesting that newspaper coverage was a contributor to domestic water conservation. An increase of about 100 drought stories over two months was associated with a drop of 11 to 18 percent in typical household water use.

But were people actually reading the news stories? When the scientists conducted an analysis of Google search data over the same years, they found a connection between media reports and public interest in drought. Searches for the term “California drought” surged in the San Francisco Bay Area during the same time period that the number of newspaper stories on drought went up.

“For future droughts, there’s no question that we learned that there is a role for media to play,” Sandkulla says. During the recent drought, her agency and others bought ads, wrote press releases and met with community groups and reporters to alert the public to the dire need to conserve water — and to let them know how they could help, by doing things like turning off sprinklers and shortening showers.

And those efforts were successful: Between June 2014 and April 2017, Bay Area water agencies reduced their water use by 10 to 35 percent. The role that public awareness likely played in those reductions is encouraging, Ajami says. “People do care if you give them the right set of information — they react, they respond, they change their behavior.”