Power perceptions: How the media affects public perception

April 16th, 2019, Published in Articles: Energize

Electrical power generation and distribution have become emotive topics in South Africa due to periodic disruptions to supply over the last decade. Public opinions are often shaped by news coverage [1]  and in particular quality newspapers [2]. The Mail and Guardian newspaper was studied to determine how issues surrounding power generation have been covered. This was done to aid professionals tasked with advising and making decisions about current and future power generation projects.

Dr. Charles MacRobert

A group of hand-coders read through ten years (2007 to 2017) of Mail and Guardian newspaper and identified articles on power generation. Each article was catalogued according to whether health and wellbeing impacts, way of life impacts, economic impacts, environmental impacts, legal-polity issues and public outrage were reported. This article presents an assessment of this data.


Fig. 1 shows the number of cumulative articles identified over the 10-year period. It is clear that a spike in articles occurred in 2015. This can be attributed to the load shedding that occurred at the end of 2014 and ran into the beginning of 2015. In total 147 articles were sampled. Highlighted on this graph are articles related nuclear power, coal power and renewable power.


Economic impacts were the primary issue discussed in 56% of articles, legal-polity issues (tender irregularity, bribery, investigations etc.) were primarily associated with 16% of articles and environmental impacts with 14% of articles. Public outrage, health and wellbeing and way of life impacts were together primarily associated with 15% of articles.

Fig. 1: Trend in newspaper articles over the study period.

Coal-fired power stations

Articles on coal power were fairly evenly spread throughout the study period. A large number of articles related to the ongoing building of coal power stations. The two construction projects Kusile and Medupi are shown to be significantly over budget and behind schedule. Articles reflected this with headlines characterised by phrases such as, “mission impossible”, “catastrophe”, “incomplete” and “delay” (see Table 1). Economic impacts were primarily associated with 64% of articles as a consequence. A number of articles highlighted the negative environmental and health and wellbeing impacts associated with coal power. These two impacts were judged the primary impact of 21% and 7% of articles reviewed. These impacts largely surrounded air pollution from coal power.

Table 1: Headlines associated with ongoing coal-fired power station build.
Date of publication Headline
02-Jul-09 The water is mine
19-Nov-09 Fixing a broken Eskom
28-Jan-10 Electricity and water don’t mix
12-Mar-10 Kusile’s future hangs in balance
07-May-10 ‘Dead-end’ energy plan goes ahead
28-May-10 Kusile in the crossfire
15-Jul-10 Praying for Plan A to succeed
07-Oct-10 A breath of good news
14-Oct-10 Blackout alert
20-Oct-11 The power(less) connection
27-Oct-11 Local has not been lekker in Lephalale
24-May-12 Gigaba sheds light on Medupi delay
17-Jan-13 Mining puts river in deep trouble
16-May-13 Gigaba urges Eskom linchpin to keep powering on
12-Jul-13 Medupi mission impossible
12-Dec-13 Eskom tries to dodge air controls
27-Sep-13 Coal 3 will be another Eskom catastrophe
25-Oct-13 Disappointing dip in energy
23-Jan-14 The battle of Majuba goes underground
12-Dec-13 Eskom CEO quits for ‘personal reasons’
19-Dec-13 Dames quits incomplete Medupi
20-Mar-14 Eskom spurns air quality controls
08-May-14 Eskom is not coughing up for the pollution it causes
26-Jun-14 Power stations are deadly, internal report reveals
27-Mar-14 Eskom pays for coal it can’t use
07-Nov-14 Eskom faces its battle of Majuba
15-Jan-15 Politics of power ignores reality
22-Jan-15 Never mind votes: Lights off
12-Feb-15 Sinking into Eskom’s black hole
09-Apr-15 They use our lungs ‘to turn a profit’
28-May-15 Pension-fund bailout for Eskom?
02-Jul-15 Private cash to fix SA power fiasco
22-Sep-16 Air pollution kills 20 000 a year in SA

Nuclear power stations

Articles on nuclear power were scant prior to 2014 after which a sudden surge in articles occurred. Headlines associated with these articles are given in Table 2. A review of these headlines shows that sentiment around nuclear power was not positive. Headlines include phrases such as, “no solution”, “cost the country dearly”, “sparks meltdown” and “deal is a minefield”. Some however, were positive, characterised by phrases such as, “can pay its own way” and “buy into nuclear dream.”

Table 2: Headlines associated with proposed nuclear build.
Date of publication Headline
26-Jun-08 Breakfast with Big Nuclear
03-Jul-08 Nuclear is no solution
25-Sep-08 Nuclear or bust?
06-Aug-09 Why go nuclear when better and cheaper options exist
23-Apr-10 Money rows over PBMR
20-Oct-11 Nuclear power will cost the country dearly
23-Feb-12 Nuclear power: An open letter to the treasury
01-Mar-12 SA called for France-China nuclear bid
10-May-12 Atomic ambitions race the clock
02-May-13 Nuclear warning sparks meltdown
11-Sep-14 Nuclear talk just puff
03-Oct-14 Alarm bells ringing at SA’s ‘done’ nuclear deal with Russia
10-Oct-14 Was R4bn nuke tender hijacked?
17-Oct-14 Putin’s quest for nuclear monopoly
31-Oct-14 Russia muscle all others aside
07-Nov-14 Twist to Koeberg tender
21-Nov-14 Nuclear fixation shafts renewables
19-Feb-15 Atomic Tina’s Russian pact
19-Feb-15 What the nukes agreement says and means
26-Feb-15 The nuclear deal is far from done
26-Feb-15 ‘Top secret’ nuclear plan ducks scrutiny
12-Mar-15 Reporting on nuclear pact passes muster
19-Mar-15 Nuke collusion in the bud
25-Jun-15 Putin’s lobola may seal nuke deal
23-Jul-15 Nuke plan: 50 shades of arms deal
14-Aug-15 Nuclear can pay its own way
17-Dec-15 The nuclear deal is a minefield
22-Dec-15 Nuclear price tag set Nene against JZ
22-Sep-16 Zuma pals clinch nuke deal
23-Sep-16 SA evades nuclear waste question
03-Nov-16 Nuclear build tied to outdated IRP
01-Dec-16 Energy plan puts nuclear on backburner
26-Jan-17 Chernobyl: From nuclear ground zero to solar farm
12-Apr-17 Nuclear turn-off tumbles giant
20-Apr-17 Junk status may scupper nuke plan
26-Oct-17 Zuma set to blast a nuclear path
16-Nov-17 Africa buys into nuclear dream

Articles overwhelmingly dealt with the proposed nuclear build in South Africa. A number of these articles related to Russian bids to construct these future facilities. Economic impacts were the primary issue of 59% of articles. Legal-polity issues were the primary issue of 24% of articles and public outrage was primary in 14% of articles. Environmental issues while covered in many of the articles were not considered the primary issue of any of the articles.

Renewable energy power stations

Articles on renewable energy reflect shifting views by stakeholders in South Africa. Initially articles were characterised by positive headlines such as “big plans”, “rush” and “flicks green switch”. Many articles initially indicated a general acceptance of renewable energy by government, the public and Eskom. This positive outlook towards renewables generally continued throughout the study period.

Table 3: Headlines associated with ongoing and proposed renewable energy builds.
Date of publication Headline
12-Nov-09 Big plans for green power
25-Feb-10 Answer is blowing in the wind
28-Apr-11 An ill wind blows in Paternoster
06-Oct-11 Eskom flicks green power switch
25-Apr-12 Rush for renewables
30-May-13 River could light up the continent
06-Jun-13 SA set to profit from wind power
13-Jun-13 Google to deliver loads of solar power
25-Oct-13 Mzanzi turns over a renewable leaf
13-Jun-13 Eskom wind farm blows up a storm
20-Mar-14 Augrabies on hydropower hit list
20-Mar-14 Orange scheme turns locals purple
22-Jan-15 Sun power set to reach its zenith
12-Mar-15 Pofadder is SA’s new seat of power
16-Apr-15 China and Africa harvest the wind
16-Apr-15 Renewable energy revolution is upon us
02-Jul-15 Ill wind blows in former homelands
27-Aug-15 Solar puzzle: We’ll follow the sun, but tomorrow may rain
05-Nov-15 Eskom gridlocks renewable energy
02-Jun-16 Nimbies take dim view on renewables
10-Jun-16 Renewable energy ticks all the right boxes for SA’s energy needs
01-Dec-16 Africa walks its own green path
25-Aug-16 Eskom must flip green switch

However, articles on how projects were not being welcomed by some local people were also published. Here headlines were characterised by phrases like “Ill winds” and “Nimbies take dim view”. Towards the end of the period Eskom’s reluctance towards renewables is evidenced by headlines like “Eskom gridlocks renewables”. This reluctance, however is not necessarily a reluctance towards renewables, but a reluctance to buy power from independent power producers (IPPs).
Two-thirds (65%) of articles on renewables were primarily associated with economic impacts. Environmental impacts were the primary subject of 17% of articles, typically espousing the benefits of renewables to the environment. Public outrage was the primary issues associated with 9% of articles and impacts on communities’ way of life were the primary impact of 9% of articles. Here reflecting opposition of some locals to these projects.


A 10-year review of power generation coverage was undertaken in the Mail and Guardian newspaper to gauge public opinion. This revealed what issues are associated with different sources of energy in a bid to aid decision makers assessing South Africa’s power mix.

News coverage suggests that it will be increasingly difficult to build coal-powered stations, due in particular to an increasing awareness of air pollution. Economic impacts of the drawn-out construction of new coal power stations have also been extensively covered. The public is likely to be wary of any new coal builds, unless guarantees can be made that such delays and cost overruns will not be repeated.

Negative news coverage of nuclear energy has potentially soured public appetite for this source of energy. Coverage of nuclear energy has focused more on potential economic impacts associated with procurement rather than environmental impacts. It would seem that if these economic concerns are addressed the public may be more accepting of this power source.

Renewable energy appears to be most acceptable to the public with a number of articles espousing the potential benefits. Objections to developments by local communities need to be taken seriously as these could scupper projects. However, for these projects to benefit South Africa, policy makers need to address the relationship between Eskom and IPPs.

This review of news coverage may suggest that key to developing new power plants is to address economic impacts as they were, by far, the most discussed issue in news coverage. Decision makers may be tempted to focus on addressing economic issues at the expense of environmental, way of life and health and wellbeing impacts. However, these other impacts, particularly impacts on way of life, resulted in the most public outrage. A holistic view to any development must therefore be taken.


[1] BI Page and RY Shapiro: “The rational public: Fifty years of trends in Americans’ policy preferences”, University of Chicago Press, 2010.
[2] J Kleinnijenhuis: “Het publiek volgt media die de politiek volgen:”, Den Haag, SDU Uitgevers, 2003.

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