Posted: November 10, 2001
This page is categorized as:    link to Outrage Management index
Hover here for
Article SummaryThe authors did a qualitative content analysis of Australian media coverage of controversies over mobile telephone towers, searching for my various “outrage factors.” They found plenty of good examples to support their conclusion that the media pay more attention to outrage than to hazard.

Not in Our Back Yard

Media coverage of community opposition to
mobile phone towers:  An application of
Sandman’s outrage model of risk perception

Australian & New Zealand Journal of Public Health 21:614–20 (1997)


Australia has the world’s second highest per capita use of mobile phones. Transmission towers are being hastily erected to meet the rapid expansion in use, backed by federal government exemptions from normal local government planning procedures. A case study is provided of media reportage of a successful resident protest about the placement of transmitters adjacent to a kindergarten. Uncertain health risks were the ostensible concerns voiced by the protesters. Sandman’s model of community risk perception, centring on outrage, is applied to the media discourse. Eleven out of the 12 primary components and six out of eight secondary components of the model were consistent with both the protesters’ expressed concerns about the transmission towers and the way in which the issues involved were framed by the media.

“There’s no way that even if there’s even one hundred millionth of the Australian standard that I’m going to let my little girl or any of my kids go to that place and be exposed to that sort of risk. No way!”

Angry father, responding to company assurances about very low radiation readings

In August 1995, a major story was covered for over two weeks by all news media in Sydney, Australia, and in several outlets elsewhere in Australia. The story concerned a protest by a group of residents supported by local politicians over the installation of a mobile telephone transmitter base station adjacent to a suburban kindergarten in the middleclass Sydney beachside suburb of Harbord. A few weeks before (July 10), Australia’s leading investigative journalism TV program, Four Corners, had run a program examining the question of whether radiofrequency radiation (RFR) from mobile phones posed health risks to users.

Australia, with over two million current users in a population of 18 million people,1  has the world’s second highest per capita use of mobile phones after Norway. The market is currently worth $A3.5 billion and rapidly expanding, with predictions of eight million users by the year 2000.2   This phenomenal explosion in mobile phone use, together with the cautionary note sounded by the Four Corners program, fomented a time-honoured news frame that would have immediately marked the story as newsworthy via the sub-text of “danger in the familiar” and a news judgement that many, owning mobile phones, would find the story personally relevant.3   Previous media questioning along the same theme of potential cancer risks from ordinary household electrical equipment (microwave ovens, computer screens, electric blankets) would have reinforced a general community wariness about health risks arising from new electrical technology. Discourse analysts refer to this process as intertextual referencing.4

As will be seen, the protest was covered almost entirely sympathetically by the news media, by callers to talkback radio and by those who wrote letters to the press. With momentary exceptions, all media coverage inhabited the same definition of the issue assumed by the protesters: that the residents were quite understandably concerned about their children’s health, were engaged in a classic David vs Goliath struggle, and were pursuing justice. Accordingly, when Telstra, the telecommunications provider involved, capitulated and dismantled the facility, their action was described repeatedly by newsreaders and journalists as a “victory” to “people power.”

“Residents of Harbord on the northern beaches have scored a people power victory over Telstra forcing the communications giant to switch off a mobile phone base near a kindergarten. They campaigned against Telstra when it couldn’t guarantee there was no danger to their children from radiation emissions.”

(Newsreader 9 News, 18 August)

People power wins against Telstra.”

(Newsreader 7 News, 18 August)

People power scored a significant victory … switching off the six antennae has saved the kindy.”

(Manly Daily, 19th August)

“And all because ordinary people sounded a message, which has at last been received by a communications giant …”

(Manly Daily, 19th August)

“… coming out winners in a David & Goliath battle.

(reporter, 9 News, 18 August)

“This is a sign that people can beat big business. This a sign that battlers, the little people, mums and dads, can win.”

(Local federal politician Tony Abbott, 9 News, 18 August)

As a big news story, the dynamics of this story are prima facie sociologically interesting as a case study in newsworthiness. But as will be argued, the actual risk posed by the transmitters was by most authoritative accounts, infinitesimally small. This made the story interesting from a second perspective: what were the characteristics of this issue that enabled a situation which posed health risks that were almost certainly infinitesimal, to be regarded by residents as worthy of impassioned action and the attention of the media?

Background: are mobile phone
transmitters unhealthy?

link up to indexMobile phones emit low levels of RFR, but at levels well below limits recommended in US and Australian standards.5   Digital mobile phones have been found to interfere with the functioning of sensitive medical electrical equipment6   and many people visiting hospitals would have been exposed to signs requesting that phones be switched off. As with most studies that have examined the health consequences of exposure to electromagnetic radiation (EMR), studies about exposure to RFR have mostly been confined to groups such as radio operators who are occupationally exposed to RFR at close range often over long periods. Such studies, including two from Australia,7,  8   have produced conflicting conclusions9,  10,  11  about the risks of such close-range exposure.

A 1991 review of evidence on the potential health hazards of the radiofrequency portion of the EMR spectrum (between 0.5 MHz and 100 GHz) stated that: “there are no unequivocal pathophysiologic changes in humans exposed to levels up to 4 W kg-1.”12   A 1995 review stated:

“Far less information is available in the medical literature on this kind of radiation than on ionizing radiation, which has been recognized as a health hazard long ago … The literature consists mainly of epidemiological studies out of which grew the assumption that this kind of radiation may be carcinogenic. However, only limited data are available on electromagnetic radiation as a potential cancer inducer. A review of the literature does not demonstrate a direct and clear linkage between electromagnetic radiation and the occurrence of malignant tumors, but much more research and clarification are necessary before reaching any conclusions.”13

Our emphases (italicised above) indicate that this remains a field of medical research where the equivocal language of scientific uncertainty is de rigeur. As will be shown, this uncertainty factor was of critical importance to an understanding of the protest against the towers.

Following a request by the residents, measurements carried out by the government’s Australian Radiation Laboratory showed that the maximum exposure level at ground level in the Harbord kindergarten was 239 times below that recommended by the relevant Australian standard, AS2772.1 and “almost 12,000 times below the threshold where RFR effects become discernible.”14   The report concluded that the radio frequency exposure levels encountered at the kindergarten “did not present a hazard to people of any age” — an emphasis carried in Telstra’s press releases. (Telstra media release, 18th August 1995).

So if there was any health risk (i.e.: actual hazard) associated with exposure to the REF emitting from the Telstra towers, it would have been an exceedingly small risk — and certainly one incomparably smaller than many risks voluntarily undertaken everyday by many urban residents15   such as driving cars, crossing roads, and smoking.

Risk = Hazard + Outrage

link up to indexThe traditional approach to assessing environmental risks has been to characterise the hazard, quantify the frequency, duration and magnitude of exposure, and to evaluate the risks in a rigorous model with estimation expressed as a finite probability of an adverse health consequence.16   This is the classic scientific approach to assessing environmental risks, but it differs radically from the approach taken by ordinary people when reacting to or ignoring risky situations. The public does not generally assess risky situations using scientific methods, but reacts to specific perceptual components of hazards that are often poorly correlated with their consequences for health.

Sandman17,   18   argues that the idea of risk needs to be reconceptualised to take account of the relationship between the risky situation or agent (which he names the “hazard”) and the strength of people’s responses to these situations. These responses are mediated by the extent to which these agents or situations “outrage” communities. Risk is thus a product of the actual hazard plus a community’s outrage at their perception of that hazard. He argues:

“Experts focus on hazard and ignore outrage. They therefore systematically overestimate the risk when the hazard is high, and underestimate it when the hazard is low. The public focuses on outrage and ignores hazard, and thus overestimates the risk when the outrage is high, and underestimates it when the outrage is low. Hazard and outrage are quite independent concepts, poorly correlated, which share a name: risk.”19

Sandman, building on the work of Covello, von Winterfeldt and Slovic20   has delineated twelve principle outrage components (see Table 1) that influence whether or not a situation is perceived as safe or risky.

Table 1: Primary components predicting community outrage

Increases Outrage If… Reduces Outrage If…
exposure coercedapplies in this case studyexposure voluntary
agent industrialapplies in this case studyagent natural
agent exoticapplies in this case studyagent familiar
agent memorableapplies in this case studyagent forgettable
consequences dreadedapplies in this case studyconsequences not dreaded
consequences catastrophicconsequences chronicapplies in this case study
true hazard unknowableapplies in this case studytrue hazard knowable
hazard controlled by othersapplies in this case studyhazard individually controlled
exposure unfairapplies in this case studyexposure fair
assurances, control efforts
  morally relevant

applies in this case study
assurances, control efforts
  morally irrelevant

sources untrustworthyapplies in this case studysources trustworthy
process unresponsiveapplies in this case studyprocess responsive
    (applies in this case study = applies in this case study)

In addition to these twelve principal components Sandman identifies a further eight considerations which he suggests influence people’s perception of risk over safety (see Table 2). Without specifying why he considers these to be “additional” factors, the impression is gained that these are not as fundamental to the prediction of community outrage. Again, a situation will tend to be perceived as more risky if:

Table 2: Additional components predicting community outrage

Increases Outrage If…Reduces Outrage If…
affects vulnerable populationapplies in this case studyaffects general population
effects delayedapplies in this case studyeffects immediate
substantial risk to future populationsnot applicable in this case studyno threat to future populationsnot applicable in this case study
victims identifiableapplies in this case studyvictims statistical
not preventablenot applicable in this case studypreventablenot applicable in this case study
few benefitsapplies in this case studyplenty benefits
substantial media attentionapplies in this case studylittle media attention
opportunity for collective actionapplies in this case studyno opportunity for collective action
    (applies in this case study = applies in this case study; not applicable in this case study = not applicable in this case study)

Our intention in this paper is, through discourse analysis,21   to apply these principal components of Sandman’s model of risk perception to the record of media coverage of this episode. On request, Telstra supplied us with all press reports (n=14), radio transcripts (n=11) and TV video recordings of news items (n=7) concerned with the issue. Both authors independently reviewed these materials and attempted to categorise all examples of news discourse against the oppositions in Tables 1 and 2. Our respective efforts were then brought together, disagreements in categorisation reviewed and residual aspects of the news coverage that did not appear consonant with Sandman’s categories set aside. This latter group are considered in our discussion section at the end of this paper.

In the discussion that follows, we consider each of Sandman’s components of outrage against the media coverage of the issue. We provide examples of media discourse that illustrate each component. We have italicised passages for emphasis.

Primary Components

1. Coercive

link up to indexA major theme in the Harbord protest was that Telstra was said to have ridden roughshod over community interests and imposed the towers on the community. Close to 100% of media reports framed the situation as a protest against an imposition.

“They’ve [parents] taken their children away and looks like we’ll be forced to close down because of this”

(Kindergarten spokesperson, 2BL Radio News, 3rd August)

“Telstra, against the wishes of the local community, local MPs and Warringah Council, installed 20 mobile phone base aerials in late May”

(Manly Daily, 4th August)

“There was no consultation in the planning of the base”

(2GB Radio News, 3rd August)

“There was a lot of community opposition … we thought we’d won … but unfortunately, nine weeks ago they installed it”

(Kindergarten spokesperson, 2BL radio, 3rd August)

“they just can’t allow people’s neighbourhoods to be invaded by these installations.”

(Local MP Tony Abbott, 9 News, 7 August)

2. Industrial

Mobile phone transmission antennae appear anything but natural. As new technology, resplendent with acronymic risk language (EMR, RFR), these artifices combined with the commercial and business nature of the mega-industrial Telstra company would appear to readily satisfy Sandman’s industrial criterion.

“ … several mothers … want Telstra to remove a mobile phone base from the area, saying the aerials pose a serious health risk to a nearby kindergarten and baby health centre by emitting dangerous electromagnetic radiation

(MIX Radio News, 3rd August)

3. Exotic

Being relatively new to Australian communities, the towers attracted concern while other industrial long established sources of EMR emissions in the same community went unchallenged. For example, an electricity substation located at ground level opposite the kindergarten and passed by hundreds of pedestrians each day was ignored by the protesters. The substation was familiar while mobile phone towers, being new and more "exotic", were inherently suspicious.

“Look, I was just listening to the news in horror about Telecom. If there is any doubt at all about a … a telephone tower or any sort of electronic gadgetry near a kindergarten, then they shouldn’t proceed with it.”

(talkback caller, 2GB radio, 3 August, 1995)

“Parents are very, very worried about the health concerns with the microwaves admitting (sic) from the tower

(reporter, 2BL radio news, 3rd August)

“Then they might cross the road and measure the magnetic radiation from the electricity sub-station, which has been there for donkey’s years … the strange thing is, why has this simple fact been overlooked all these years”

(Manly Daily, Letter to the Editor, 18th August)

4. Agent memorable

Rapidly sprouting like some post nuclear holocaust cacti or "hydra-headed monsters"22   throughout urban environments, the imposing structures of mobile phone towers together with their rapid proliferation throughout suburban communities would appear to satisfy this criterion in Sandman’s model. However, we found no references in the media discourse on this dispute to any aspect of the appearance of the towers.

5. Dreaded health consequence

Close to 100% of the transcripts and videotapes reiterated concerns of fear and horror. Whether current or potential, the residents were adamant that there was something they were entitled to be afraid of. “Radiation” is a word as loaded with dread as any in the language, connoting the horrors of nuclear power station accidents and nuclear bomb testing.

“I was just listening to the news in horror about Telecom”

(2GB radio talkback, 3rd August)

“Well I think more and more people are coming out, sort of saying things like these things could cause cataracts, miscarriage, birth defects, cancer and I think that the studies, you know, there’s more and more evidence coming out that these things are in fact, a fact.”

(interviewed protester, 2BL radio, 3 August)

“Angry parents have confronted Telstra staff over claims radiation is leaking into a Sydney Kindergarten

(2GB radio news, 3rd August)

“ … that they fear will contaminate their children with radiation emissions

(Sydney Morning Herald, 7th August)

5. Catastrophic consequence

Research indicates that people fear low probability, high magnitude risk (eg: airline crashes) more than high probability, low magnitude risk (eg:routine car travel). We found nothing in the media discourse on this episode to suggest that the community believed that there would be some huge and sudden epidemic of radiation-induced illness throughout their community. While the protesters were outraged, concern about a catastrophe was not evident among a general concern for health consequences. Consequently we believe this component of Sandman’s model was not applicable to the nature of outrage evinced in this episode.

6. Unknowable risk

One of the most consistent themes emerging from the news reports highlighted the lack of knowledge and availability of evidence concerning the “true” facts associated with the situation. Despite Telstra’s recourse to expert consensus opinion (it cited a WHO report on EMR11) and to the independent readings it obtained from the Australian Radiation Laboratories, it was unable to give an absolute assurance that there was no risk — a concept that is scientifically nonsensical. Because mobile phones and their transmission towers are so recent, epidemiological knowledge about any long-term health consequences of chronic low level RFR exposure from mobile phone towers has not been gathered, consequently resulting in an “unknowable” prognosis for the those presently exposed.

Ulrich Beck has argued that with increasing modernisation, external, tangible dangers once readily identifiable in face-to-face communities have become supplanted in human preoccupations by a host of covert risks characterised by uncertainty — chronic, slow-acting risks that lurk in familiar objects and environments we live in.23   The pervasiveness of concern about risks in modern society, Beck argues, is a metaphor for the growing feeling of lack of control in people’s lives.

“I think the major issue is that people don’t know and no one can give you assurances that they are safe … as a parent you can’t take the risk”

(interviewed protester, 2BL, 3rd August)

“It’s emitting electromagnetic radiation and the health risks of that are just not known. No one can give us any guarantees that this is safe

(MIX radio news, 3rd August)

Parents say research into the effect of low level electromagnetic radiation is inconclusive and they’re not prepared to risk the future of their children”

(10 TV news, 15th August)

7. Controlled by others

Throughout the majority of transcripts a theme emerged of honest, plain-speaking residents banging their discontents on the unyielding doors of a huge corporation intent on going in its self-interested direction. It was beyond the ability of any of the protesters to move the facility themselves — this would have to occur through the actions of Telstra. Their protestations about health risk were rebuffed by the science and testing being wielded by Telstra. Rather than being given access to personal radio frequency power metres so they might control the measurement of RFR from the towers, the residents were given the substitute of readings provided by an agent appointed by Telstra.

8. Unfair

Repeatedly, news reports commented on the unjustness of the situation. Innocent victims, young children and decent residents trying to maintain a safe suburban community were being taken advantage of by an industrial communications giant.

“But the siting of a base station so close to a kindergarten, Girl Guide hall, playgroup, youth club and baby health centre is wrong and a flagrant disregard of the rights of residents

(Manly Daily, 4th August)

“New [kindergarten] enrollments also dried up, threatening the viability of the facility, which had provided an essential community service for more than 40 years

(Engineers Australia, September)

“ … the point … was that people don’t know and they’re worried about it. And they’re likely to remove their kiddies from the preschool which would put the preschool out of business which is run by the community.”

(2BL, 3rd August)

9. Morally relevant

When considering high outrage-inducing situations, communities are not satisfied with partial solutions, reassurances or targets. For example, it is inconceivable that a police chief would promise a community to reduce child molestation by half — only a commitment to total eradication would be considered morally acceptable, despite being utopian. “Radiation” is a word that is charged with a high moral valency. Anyone attempting to argue for even an acceptable amount of radiation next to a school would face certain hostility from parents. The protesters were demanding that the unobtainable no risk must be the only acceptable standard. Neither Telstra, nor anyone, could oblige.

“He wanted to see the kindergarten operating risk free by the time his nine month old daughter was ready to enroll”

(Manly Daily, 4th August)

Reporter: “There’s little scientific evidence to back up their fears but these mothers aren’t convinced their children will be safe.”
Mother: “We just want them to prove to us that it’s definitely 100% safe.

(9 TV news, 29th August)

“Telstra has failed to give an iron-clad guarantee that the base did not pose a health risk. Quite simply, given the present level of knowledge about electro-magnetic radiation, no one can ”

(Manly Daily, 19th August)

10. Untrustworthy sources

Telstra appeared to realise early in the dispute that its own assurances on safety were to the protesters, bereft of credibility. They arranged for the Australian Radiation Laboratory to test the emissions. The technician was shown on television bulletins summarising his findings of negligible risk described earlier. Sandman comments that when people mistrust a company or agency, they pay little respect or attention to the data or standards offered by the company or agency. In this instance, the protesters responded by “shifting the goalposts” of what they would consider acceptable risk.

“Telstra assure us that this installation meets the Australian Standard. But we would like to say that we don’t really think the Australian Standard is satisfactory

(protest leader, interviewed on 2BL, 3rd August)

11. Unresponsive process

Many reports suggested a perception that Telstra was arrogant and unresponsive to community concerns and by extension, hiding something. If they were unforthcoming and unresponsive, the implication for the community was that the risk must be unacceptable.

“I don’t know whether there is a risk or not, but I have had no response to personal requests to Telstra for information on this issue, so I am not taking any chances”

(Manly Daily, 4th August)

“Doctor Macdonald’s office says he chained himself to the fence because he’s had no response from Telstra about the possible dangers from electro magnetic radiation despite repeated inquires

(2GB Radio News, 3rd August)

“… and if Telecom can’t get the … the head person to ring them up and … and assure them that there is noth … no danger”

(2GB Talkback, 3rd August)

“The possible long term health risks associated from the exposure to electromagnetic radiation may be debatable, but the decision to proceed with the installation and have no further consultation with the local community, which was so strongly opposed, shows a complete arrogance by Telstra and it is on this issue that we must fight”

(Manly Daily, Letter to the editor, 18th August)

Secondary Components

1. Affects vulnerable populations

If there was any exposure to the RFR emitting from the transmitters, anyone within the immediate vicinity would have been exposed. However all news coverage concentrated solely on the children in the kindergarten said to be at risk. Later when the transmitters were moved adjacent to a club frequented by elderly patrons, the outrage re-emerged in further media stories. Towers throughout Australia sited in factory grounds, in the back of firebrigade stations or beside highways have attracted little community outrage.

“Last week parents began a protest over what they said was an unacceptable risk to one hundred and thirty two children who attend the kindy

(10 TV News, 15th August)

“There’s this kindergarten, two daycare centres, a children’s play group, a baby health centre, a youth centre and a girl guides’ hall, all within close proximity of this tower and everybody’s frightened, they’re absolutely frightened of it”

(Adelaide radio 5DN, 3rd August)

2. Effects delayed

There was no suggestion in any of the reportage that the children were currently experiencing health problems from being exposed to the towers. The parents concerns were about future consequences. Conceptually, this component appears close to the primary component “true hazard unknowable.”

3. Victims identifiable

Being adjacent to a kindergarten, the alleged potential victims of the Telstra RFR were not seen by the protesters nor the media as random, hypothetical, faceless or “statistical” victims. Rather the principal victims were seen to be a finite group of identifiable children. Television news reports repeatedly showed groups of children playing and featured sound bites from their parents who spoke up defending people seen to be attacking their children.

“There’s no way that even if there’s even one hundred millionth of the Australian standard that I’m going to let my little girl or any of my kids go to that place and be exposed to that sort of risk. No way!”

(Angry father, responding to company assurances about very low RFR readings Ten TV News, 18 August)

4. Few Benefits

With the high prevalence of mobile phone ownership in Australia, it is possible if not likely that some of the protesters, especially the politicians, were themselves mobile phone users. However, this probability — with its potential for a powerful newsworthy sub-text of hypocrisy -- was never raised in any media reports nor by news commentators. One reason for this may have been that the protests were directed at the towers, and not at the phones themselves. Any perceived RFR risks in the phones would, by Sandman’s model, have been ameliorated by phone ownership reflecting personal choice and control and bringing obvious direct benefit to users. The towers, however, while being essential to the phones’ operation, could be emotionally dissociated from any act of personal phone use and thereby not perceived as having any immediate personal benefit to the protesters.

5. Substantial media attention

Mobile phone towers have proliferated in Australia in recent years. Prior to this incident, we are unaware of any protests by residents about such towers. The Harbord protest commenced within two weeks after the major Four Corners television investigation of health risks from mobile phones. That program may well have stimulated the residents’ concerns.

“There was a Four Corners program a couple of weeks ago. Yeah, well, of course, those of us in the broader community would see that those studies are pretty damning. I don’t have the details of those studies, but I do recall reading them and I can understand people’s concern. You know, it’s ... it is of ... of great concern ... everybody’s frightened, they’re absolutely frightened of it.”

(Adelaide radio 5DN announcer Bob Byrne, 3 August 1995)

6. Opportunity for collective action

While there were other transmission towers in the area, the protest was organised around only one. The protesters had as their goal the removal of the facility from the vicinity of the kindergarten -- it could not be in their children’s “backyard”, but presumably, somewhere else would have been considered a satisfactory solution. Those claiming to be in danger were a small group with

“ ... they were never going to take no for an answer.”

(reporter describing public meeting about the protest, 7 News, 18 August)

Telstra’s response to outrage

link up to indexWithin two weeks of the initial protest, Telstra agreed to relocate the base station. In its press release, the company “… concluded that the community had rejected the scientific evidence provided by Government instrumentalities” but acquiesced to the depth of community feeling against the facility.

Citing national interest, the Australian Government has given Telstra and the two other mobile phone service carriers extraordinary legal exemption from needing to seek planning approval from local governments for the siting of their antennae. This exemption allows the companies virtually free reign to locate their towers on the property of any landowner who will accept them. With lucrative annual rental fees payable to local businesses, churches and community groups willing to accept a tower on their land, there has no been shortage of sites to install towers.23

Telstra thus operated entirely within a specially promulgated Federal law in siting its towers without engaging in the usual legal process of exposing its building plans for comment to local residents. By being privileged to stand “outside” the law, Telstra enjoyed carte blanche to install towers, but thereby became an exemplary coercive agency in the eyes of those who would have ordinarily have been protected by legal process.

Once the protest erupted, Telstra’s main tactic appeared to be one of seeking to emphasise the extremely low levels of RFR that were detectable from the towers, and to compare these emissions to EMR emissions from ordinary, familiar household objects.

“Telstra argued that the emission from the base station would be less than what a student sitting at a desk using a twenty watt fluorescent tube light would be exposed to”

(2GB Radio News, 3rd August 1995)

“Parents protesting about a mobile phone tower next to a Sydney Kindergarten will continue their fight even though tests show that radiation levels at the kindy are quite low”

(10 TV News, 15th August)

The critical point here, is that Sandman’s model predicts that familiar objects tend not to generate outrage, while exotic objects like the transmission towers do. When Telstra -- which had become through its coercive actions an untrustworthy source -- sought to compare its Brave New World towers with trusted, tried-and-true household objects, for many their analogies would have seemed redolent with a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing degree of mistrust. Here we emphasise the interaction of the “coercion,” “exotic,” and “untrustworthy sources” components of Sandman’s model.


link up to indexAs shown, this episode attracted considerable media attention. It became a lead story in both local, state and interstate news. Besides the newsworthy components of outrage discussed above, the story appeared to be carried by a powerful David vs Goliath sub-text. Combined with the “danger in the familiar” and the quasi-Frankensteinian metaphor of technological creations striking back at those who are lured by their attractions, these subtexts would have made the story newsworthy independently of its particular content (mobile phones). In these respects it represented the re-telling of an age-old story framed in classic mythological terms.24  25 

Our case study is replete with examples which illustrate near total consistency between Sandman’s theory of risk perception and the Harbord kindergarten incident. The review of media transcripts would appear to confirm Sandman’s model that community risk assessment is characterised by components of outrage. There were several components of the model that, while potentially relevant to this case study, were not evident from any of the media transcripts. These were that:

  • the health consequences were described by neither the protesters nor the media as being catastrophic
  • there was no suggestion of mutagenic effects or of any future generations being affected
  • there was no suggestion that the situation was in some way preventable (for example, the view that health risks from mobile phones were too high a price to pay for their convenience was never broached)

While the great majority of the components of Sandman’s model were satisfied by this case study, the model appears to lack utility in addressing questions of whether there is any hierarchy in the significance of the components. As illustrated by the previous discussion of the interaction of components, any ambition to separate out the components from one another risks a retreat into a sterile reductionism26  that would not accord with the reality of this interaction. However, it is reasonable to ask whether there are any dominant components to the model, which if addressed, might render the other components far less predictive of outrage.

For example, had Telstra eliminated the “coercion” component by engaging in a thorough process of community consultation, would this have neutralised the overall outrage and thereby rendered the other components of the model insignificant? And equally, had Telstra done so, would the protesters have been able to maintain decisive media interest in their case on the basis of recourse to emphasis of the remaining components?


link up to indexIn February 1996, this controversy remained very much alive in several areas of Sydney. For example, one local council passed regulations which set different minimum distances within which mobile phone towers could not be located (if on an “industrial” site >300 metres from residences; >450 metres from any childcare facility, a school, a hospital aged care centre or recreational facility) (correspondence received by SC).

These regulations reflect a decidedly curious model of radiation susceptibility, to say the least: any health consequences from RFR cannot somehow discriminate between someone in a house and in an office or factory, and it is simply nonsensical to codify in regulations that children can be exposed from distances of more than 450m while at school, but from 300m while at home, given that children spend more time at home that in school. Equally, why are children and the aged considered comparable groups in terms of their vulnerability to RFR in these resolutions? Most of the claims that are made about the health consequences of RFR exposure concern long term health consequences such as cancer. Given that people in aged care centres have, compared to the general population and particularly to children, have few years to live, what health consequences are being proposed as a possible consequence of RFR exposure to those in aged care facilities?

These peculiar resolutions would seem to reflect the council’s attempt at assuaging community concerns in that it incorporated distinctions between domestic and industrial exposures, and between population groups generally considered “vulnerable” and the (residential) population at large. Many people, on hearing that towers can be located nearer factories and homes than (for example) child care centres would assume this to be a sensible policy.

It is one thing to acknowledge that community perceptions are at the core of community concerns, but quite another to base siting policy base on differential zoning on those perceptions as if they somehow reflected a rational assessment of potential risk. Sandman’s model provides many insights into when community outrage might be predicted. His writings and video presentations also provide suggested pathways by which each of the elements of community outrage might be ameliorated in situations where the outrage is out of all proportion to actual hazard 17,  18,  19. Sandman might himself be outraged at the thought that elements of his model have apparently been so crudely appropriated by local governments seeking compromises between resident concerns and facilitating the amenity afforded by mobile phone access.


link up to index(Arrows to the left of each reference returns you to the reference location in the document.)

back to text 1.  Byrne A. Mobile phones redesigned after cancer fears. Sydney Morning Herald, 1995; July 12:8.

back to text 2.  Potter B. Australia most upwardly mobile:Optus. The Age 1996; Feb 20:A–5.

back to text 3.  Chapman S, Lupton D. The fight for public health. Principles and practice of media advocacy. London:British Medical Journal Books, 1994.

back to text 4.  Fairclough N. Discourse and text: linguistic and intertextual analysis within discourse analysis. Discourse and Society, 1992; 3:193–217.

back to text 5.  Anderson V, Joyner KH. Specific absorption rate levels measured in a phantom head exposed to radio frequency transmissions from analog hand-held mobile phones. Bioelectromagnetics, 1995;16:60–9.

back to text 6.   Clifford KJ, Joyner KH, Stroud DB, Wood M, Ward B, Fernandez CH. Mobile telephones interfere with medical electrical equipment. Aust Phys Engin Sci Med, 1994;17:23–7.

back to text 7.  Fleming AH, Joyner KH. Estimates of absorption of radiofrequency radiation by the embryo and fetus during pregnancy. Health Phys, 1992;63:149–59.

back to text 8.  Garson OM, McRobert TL, Campbell LJ, Hocking BA, Gordon IA. Chromosomal study of workers with long-term exposure to radio-frequency radiation. Med J Aust, 1991; 155:289–92.

back to text 9.  Bernhardt JH. Non-ionizing radiation safety: radiofrequency radiation, electric and magnetic fields. Phys Med Biol, 1992;37:807–44.

back to text 10.  Goldoni J, Durek M, Koren Z. Health status of personnel occupationally exposed to radiowaves. Arh Hig Rada Toksikol, 1993;44:223–8.

back to text 11.  World Health Organisation. Electromagnetic fields (300 Hz to 300 GHz). Environmental Health Criteria 137. Geneva:WHO, 1993.

back to text 12.  Michaelson SM. Biological effects of radiofrequency radiation: concepts and criteria. Health Phys, 1991;61:3–14.

back to text 13.  Horn Y. The potential carcinogenic hazards of electromagnetic radiation: a review. Cancer Detect Prev, 1995;19:244–9.

back to text 14.  Bangay M. Radiated emission levels from Telstra mobile base station, Harbord, NSW. Australian Radiation Laboratory, 15 August 1995.

back to text 15.  Covello VT. Informing people about risks from chemicals, radiation, and other toxic substances: a review of obstacles to public understanding and effective risk communication. in:Leiss, W. (ed.) Prospects and problems in risk communication. Waterloo: University of Waterloo Press, 1989:1–49.

back to text 16.  Guidotti TL. Comparing environmental risks: A consultative approach to setting priorities at the community level. Public Health Rev, 1994; 22:321–37.

back to text 17.  Sandman PM. Responding to Community Outrage: Strategies for Effective Risk Communication link is to a PDF file. Fairfax, Va.:American Industrial Hygiene Association, 1995.

back to text 18.  Sandman PM. Hazard versus outrage in the public perception of risk. in: Covello, V.T., McCallum, D.B., Pavlova, M.T. (eds.) Effective risk communication. New York:Plenum Press, 1989:45–9.

back to text 19.  Sandman PM. "Risk = Hazard + Outrage. A formula for effective risk communication" (video). Fairfax, Va.:American Industrial Hygiene Association 1989.

back to text 20.  Covello VT, Von Winterfeldt D, Slovic P. Communicating scientific information about health and environmental risks: problems and opportunities from a social and behavioural perspective. In: Covello, V., Lave, L., Maghissi, A., Uppuluri, V.R.R. (eds.) Uncertainties in risk assessment and management. New York:Plenum, 1986.

back to text 21.  van Dijk TA. (ed.) Discourse and Communication - New Approaches to the Analysis of Mass Media Discourse and Communication. Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 1985.

back to text 22.  Corner S. Building a new national code. Australian Communications, 1995–96, December/January:15–6.

back to text 23.  Beck U. Risk society. Towards a new modernity. London:Sage, 1994.

back to text 24.  Douglas M. The meaning of myth. In: Leach,E. (ed.) The structural study of myth and totemism. London:Tavistock, 1968.

back to text 25.  Levi-Strauss C. The raw and the cooked. New York:Harper and Row, 1969.

back to text 26. Chapman S. Unravelling gossamer with boxing gloves: problems in explaining the decline in smoking. BMJ 1993;307:429–32.

Copyright © 1997 by Australian & New Zealand Journal of Public Health

For more on outrage management:    link to Outrage Management index
      Comment or Ask      Read the comments
Contact information page:    Peter M. Sandman

Website design and management provided by SnowTao Editing Services.