Case Response Paper
Oddly, human nature often disregards a threat or danger until it directly affects them. By that point, it is highly probable that it is too late to change what has been done or stop the consequences from occurring. Love Canal, a mere 15-minute drive from my house, serves as a quintessential example of this human phenomenon. In the mid-20th century, incessant toxic dumping in a tertiary canal of the Niagara River led to unforeseen medical, fiscal, and political consequences decades down the road. At first, the complaints residences surrounding the Love Canal expressed were ignored. It was not until national media spread their story that it became a hot-button issue. Through a narrative analysis, it becomes obvious just how drastically local and national media, along with outspoken citizens of Niagara Falls, were able to transform a stagnant issue into a nationwide movement.
Hitting so close to home, it’s chilling to think that if I were just twenty years older this issue would have been inescapable in everyday life. I have driven past the site countless times and heard my dad recount his memory of it to me, since he was a young teen growing up a short drive away when this all was occurring. Regardless, the persistent fight and refusal to compromise from local citizens around Love Canal was the initial driving force behind the change. Once the stories made it out of local newspapers and into national ones, it was a mere matter of time before the lid was blown off the issue and the government was forced to take action.
In the context of this case, narrative refers to the way in which the media, government agencies, and individual citizens told their “story” about Love Canal. Ultimately, the primary source of material stemmed from the obstacles and difficulties that families directly affected by the hazardous dumping faced. These outraged citizens then spread their discontent to media outlets, which in turn became nationwide news. Once the issue had garnered national interest that later turned into outrage, the government (local, state, and federal), along with agencies like EPA and DOH, and the companies responsible for dumping had no recourse other than to confront the problem. At first, the citizens concerns were ignored and nothing was done. In 1978, the arrival of New York Times reporter Donald McNeil signaled a turning point in the Love Canal controversy. Finally making it out of just the local news, he soon reported on the horrific conditions and toxins that residences around the canal were exposed to, which sparked nationwide investment in the case (Layzer 2016).
The four primary components of a narrative analysis are centered upon 1) the interests and politics, 2) the knowledge and experience, 3) the motivation and emotion, and 4) mental models of those creating the narrative. The most crucial part of a narrative, however, is how it is framed. This refers to the method in which the storyteller strategically presents the information at hand. Often, framing is a technique used to advance a particular train of thought or agenda. In the instance of Love Canal, the media framed the narrative in such a way that national interest lay unanimously with the citizens of Niagara Falls. The narrative become so putative that even when scientific studies suggested that the link between exposure to toxins and susceptibility to certain diseases and ailments was not as strong as people believed, it was simply pushed aside because the public had already made up their mind (Layzer 2016). If the media had not chosen to focus their frame on the trauma that affected families were facing, the case not only would have failed to have such stout support nationwide, it also likely would have faltered to gain initial traction. Thus, the residences of Love Canal have the media, starting with Donald McNeil, to thank for expediting their argument into the spotlight.
In the case of Love Canal, the most effective narrative analysis will be yielded from examining the role that the media played. Essentially, the media pressed a continuation of the narrative that the residences of Love Canal and members of the Love Canal Homeowners Association were already pushing—albeit on a much larger scale. By default, this makes their interests and politics analogous to those of affected families, though the interest of the writers and reporters would inherently be not as passionate since they were distanced from the issue. The knowledge and experience of the media was no more than that of individuals, like Lois Gibbs, who became outraged at the unjust treatment from all forms of government and the companies responsible. Motivation and emotion, however, are the key factors in this narrative. The media was responsible for asserting a highly motivated and emotional narrative surrounding the devastation that affected residences faced. This raw emotion is what propelled Love Canal into national prominence, as now individuals nationwide feared that something like this could happen to them. On several instances, Layzer writes things like “anger fueled by the media coverage” and “tarnished public reputation” (Layzer 2016). This exemplifies just how vital the message that the media narrates is to influencing public opinion. With this, the mental model possessed by the media had an advantage over that of both local citizens and government agencies—they knew exactly how to maximize their readership and support by pushing a singular narrative that was relatable to many.
Love Canal is a prime example of the significant influence that the media can have on the public. By inducing fear and only pushing one narrative, the LCOH cause became a national cause. While I’m ultimately glad my fellow residences of Niagara Falls got the justice they deserved, this case shows just how leery one must remain of the narrative that the media pushes, since they have the power to frame it in any way they please.
On my honor I have neither given nor received unauthorized information regarding this work, I have followed and will continue to observe all regulations regarding it, and I am unaware of any violation of the Honor Code by others.
Layzer, Judith A. 2016. “Love Canal: Hazardous Waste and the Politics of Fear.” In The Environmental Case: Translating Values into Policy, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. essay, 63–87.