“Are Dams Set in Stone?”: How Things Come to Matter Through Media
Tyler Quiring, Bridie McGreavy, Caroline Gottschalk Druschke, Emma Lundberg, & Sara Randall

Paper presented at the National Communication Association Conference, Dallas, TX in November 2017

What it’s about: Collaboratively analyzing news media to understand environmental issues

Abstract: Our work explores how dams come to matter in entangled, complex ways. As a material apparatus, a dam always already articulates the human values shaping its construction and the risky living that attends life downstream. In light of the socio-ecological pressures under which dam decisions are made—failure, economic uncertainty, environmental justice, threats to biodiversity and water quality—communication research is poised to adaptively chart the flows of power among dam decision makers, journalists, and sustainability scientists. We address these in a collaborative project to study and shape decision making about dams in New England by considering the entangled materiality of how stakeholders and scientists come to know dams and advocate for decisions about them. Building from a media discourse analysis (MDA) of news articles about US, New England, and tribal dams that allows us to look beyond texts and into contexts for decision making (Carvalho, 2008), we use this methodology to dynamically and collaboratively bring words as things into a multidisciplinary research assemblage that features rhetoric, but also engineering, hydrology, landscape architecture, ecology, and economics. We seek to create new meanings about what dams are, why they matter, and to whom through what Haraway terms a tentacular approach. We stitch MDA into a wider collaboration to explore new ways of making the world: attending to “what thoughts think thoughts” and “what stories tell stories” (Haraway, 2016, p. 35). Here the materiality of news media matters, as do the technologies we use to assemble, archive, and share discourse about dams.