Nuclear Energy Risk Communication in the Media: A Case Study of “The Simpsons”
By Jordan Gaal
This paper examines risk communication of nuclear energy in the context of two episodes of “The Simpsons”, the longest running animated sitcom in the United States and America’s “nuclear family.” According to the World Health Organization, risk communication is the exchange of information, advice, and opinions between experts and people facing threats to their health, economic, or social well-being. The primary purpose of risk communication is to enable people at risk to make informed decisions. Previous research has explored the differences in online and traditional media coverage of nuclear energy, but no case study has been conducted analyzing the risk coverage of nuclear energy in “The Simpsons”. Through analyzing select episodes of “The Simpsons”, three nuclear energy themes emerged: incompetence, unnatural occurrences, and negative consequences. This paper suggests that these images fit into current risk communication frameworks including the psychometric approach, the heuristic-systematic information-processing model, and cultivation theory. Using these frameworks, it is clear that “The Simpsons” has the potential to influence public perception of nuclear energy negatively, which may hinder the future use and innovation of nuclear energy as a viable alternative energy source. Further studies should be conducted to determine the risk coverage impact on actual public perception.
Keywords: nuclear energy, risk communication, entertainment
Nuclear energy is an increasingly critical area of public concern. It has potential as a viable alternative energy source as the efficiency and reliability of nuclear reactors has increased over the past several years . Nuclear energy accounted for about 9 percent of the United States’ power in 2016 . However, the processes used to harness nuclear energy also hold the potential for disaster. In the case of the Fukushima disaster, the prevalence of online information allowed for more discussion around nuclear energy than what was possible for the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents years earlier . Risk communication messages have implications for nuclear energy by creating an overly negative public perception of nuclear energy. “The Simpsons” should be studied to determine if there is responsible risk coverage of nuclear energy because it has the potential to influence people’s ideas related to nuclear energy. It has brought nuclear energy information to an unprecedented amount of homes worldwide. The depiction of two nuclear reactors in the opening sequence has become iconic and symbolizes the show’s sacrifice of accurate information for humor when dealing with nuclear energy.
After nearly 30 years, “The Simpsons” continues to be one of the most popular television shows in the United States. It is a satirical look at the average middle-class American lifestyle and the longest running American sitcom . Spanning 29 seasons and 627 episodes since 1989, “The Simpsons” has been a staple of American entertainment and pop-culture. At its peak in the 1990’s, each episode was viewed by nearly 30 million people . Even with declining numbers, new episodes still debut in the homes of millions worldwide.
The popularity of “The Simpsons” has led to scholastic examination of its cultural impact. Edward J. Fink, professor and chair of the Department of Radio-TV-Film at California State University, has explored disability representation in “The Simpsons”. He concluded that “Through incorporating positions of ‘offensive humor’ in its text, ‘The Simpsons’ offers the potential for distinction and thus provokes its audience to look beyond ‘The Simpsons’, to realize that disabled people are still often rendered as visual spectacles and objects of mockery in our media culture” . Dr. Jessamyn Nehaus, a professor of history specializing in popular culture, discussed the influence of Marge Simpson’s heavily domestic gender role. “Even on one of the most innovative and certainly the most broadly satirical shows on television, a woman’s place is in the home,” said Nehaus . “The Simpsons” has also seen its fair share of criticism for nuclear energy themes. In 2011, certain episodes of “The Simpsons” were banned in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland following the nuclear disaster in Japan. The banned episodes include an episode that features scientists Marie and Pierre Curie dying of radiation poisoning and another that has jokes about a nuclear meltdown .
Some research has been conducted regarding nuclear energy portrayal in the news media, but little regarding representation in entertainment media and cartoons [22,23]. The Spanish Young Generation Network, Jóvenes Nucleares, presented the documentary film “‘The Simpsons’ and the Nuclear Energy”. It is the only current media study of nuclear energy and “The Simpsons” and looks broadly at instances of nuclear energy. This documentary focuses on general observations of the use of humor and nuclear technology in “The Simpsons” without elaborating on the possible media effects. This offers a precedent and reason to further explore the way nuclear energy is portrayed on “The Simpsons” and how it relates to the current risk communication framework.
“The Simpsons” is viewed by a diverse audience. Many viewers, according to consumer research data, are individuals between the ages of 18 and 24 . However, the show is still viewed consistently by people of all ages . Studying “The Simpsons” and nuclear energy from the audience’s perspective is essential because preconceived notions about nuclear energy influence support for the promotion of nuclear energy . Additionally, while prior knowledge of nuclear energy often has little influence on policy attitudes, the four psychometric indicators—severity, level of understanding, number affected, and likelihood—as predictors of risk perceptions, all require some level of knowledge about the topic [15,16]. That level of knowledge could potentially derive only from media sources such as “The Simpsons”. This makes the viewing audience more susceptible to cultivation of negative nuclear images if the only source of information and knowledge is “The Simpsons”. This paper will explore how “The Simpsons” communicates nuclear energy images and how current risk communication frameworks can explain nuclear energy coverage. Overall, the show’s coverage of nuclear energy has broader implications for nuclear energy policy. When an overly negative perception of nuclear energy is cultivated, it leads to public distrust of nuclear energy. This public distrust in nuclear energy is problematic especially when based on false images.
The heuristic-systematic information-processing model (HSM) states that people form attitudes about a topic as they gain more information about this subject . This is important to consider when analyzing messages from media that can be common sources of information for the public. Dr. Craig Trumbo, a professor of risk communication at the Colorado School of Public Health, adopted HSM for analysis of risk perception. Systematic processing is more detailed and demanding than heuristic processing, which uses shortcuts to process information . Systematic processing is the detailed processing of messages using in-depth analysis. The adapted HSM model indicates that having sufficient information will lead to heuristic information processing while motivation is a strong driver of systematic processing.
Cultivation theory states that the more people watch television, the more they will believe that television is reality. Cultivation research has thus demonstrated that television is linked to public generalization of reality [11,12]. Cumulative television viewing over a sustained period causes this effect . “The Simpsons” provides an excellent case study of cultivation because there is frequent exposure to negative images of nuclear energy. These images may cause internalization over time as well as the distortion of the realities of nuclear energy. Homer Simpson, the main character and family father figure, works at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. As a result, a considerable number of episodes center around nuclear energy as a theme. This study will explore the precedent of nuclear energy images in “The Simpsons” through a case study of two episodes. These episodes were chosen because they feature frequent nuclear energy images and themes.
Two episodes were chosen for this case analysis based on their popularity and nuclear energy related themes: “Homer’s Odyssey”, the third episode of the first season , and “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish”, the fourth episode of the second season .
As a widely viewed and culturally impactful show, “The Simpsons” should be analyzed for risk communication regarding nuclear energy, a prominent plot point, and the potential for influence on public risk perception. The episodes were viewed and coded for risk-related images and themes according to interactions between the characters and plot. Examples of risk-related images were used to discuss the potential for negative perception of nuclear energy. Three risk-related themes were determined from the coded risk related images: unnatural occurrences, incompetence, and negative consequences. Unnatural occurrences were images caused by nuclear energy that are not natural, grotesque, or abnormal. Incompetence was displayed by a general inability for the actors to perform a role related to nuclear energy risk or safety. Negative consequences were problems or potential disasters caused by nuclear energy in the episodes.
Three codes emerged from the images analyzed from the selected episodes: unnatural occurrences, negative consequences, and incompetence. Unnatural occurrences were chosen as images that would not occur in the real-world, negative consequences were images that displayed negative outcomes from interactions between characters and nuclear energy, and incompetence images were characters not dutifully completing their jobs or acting in an irresponsible manner with regards to nuclear energy. “The Simpsons” produces themes related to nuclear energy hazards that cause potentially higher risk perception according to the psychometric approach . The psychometric approach is a psychological way of measuring knowledge and attitudes about a topic. An individual’s level of understanding may be influenced by nuclear messages on “The Simpsons”. The incompetence of nuclear energy operators and staff at the Springfield nuclear power plant lead to a perceived lack of trust in responsible institution. Consistently, throughout the episodes studied, a lack of trust is displayed by the townspeople in the nuclear energy plant operators. In “Homer’s Odyssey”, Sherri and Terri berate Bart Simpson by stating that their father, who also works at the power plant, has said that Homer Simpson is an incompetent worker. The show then cuts to a scene where Homer is sitting on a cart eating a donut and drinking coffee while on the job (Table 1). In “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish”, Marge Simpson refers to Montgomery Burns, the owner of the nuclear power plant, as “the most despicable man who ever lived”, displaying a clear sense of distrust. According to Dr. Vincent T. Covello, founder and director of the Center for Risk Communication, lack of trust in responsible institutions is a qualitative factor that leads to increased concern of risk .
The images also code as negative consequences, particularly when Bart Simpson catches a fish with three eyes near a nuclear waste site, creating dreaded effects of nuclear energy. Dread leads to even greater concern and risk perception . In a study by Stoutenborough, perceptions of the risk of a meltdown and the storage of nuclear waste influenced policy support . “The Simpsons” included an image of a nuclear meltdown at the beginning of an informational video about nuclear energy (Table 1). Characters in these episodes consistently displayed emotions of disgust and dread when referring to the nuclear power plant or occurrences related to nuclear energy. Marge Simpson refers to the three-eyed fish caused by nuclear waste as a “horrible creature” in “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish”. She clearly dreads the fish and considers it disgusting.
As stated, trust is lacking in institutional members of the nuclear energy community in Springfield. As cited in Tables 1 and 2, incompetence is commonplace when it comes to nuclear energy on “The Simpsons”. For example, when Homer is seen scratching his rear-end and eating a donut while working at the nuclear power plant (Table 2), trust is lost in nuclear energy and the people operating it. For individuals who only receive nuclear energy information from “The Simpsons”, which has been established as a significant number of people, this can lead to actual loss in trust of nuclear energy and nuclear operators as they share the opinion with others in their network.  Trust in general, is a major predictor of risk perception . Lower trust will lead to a greater risk perception of nuclear energy.
Images of nuclear energy in “The Simpsons” are undesirable (Table 1, Table 2), leading to a negativity bias and greater risk perception. Negative information is weighed more heavily than positive information, especially when it involves nuclear radiation . When negative aspects and unnatural radiation occurrences are pictured, such as a drop of glowing green radioactive liquid falling onto a clipboard and eroding a hole through it, it has been shown to influence a heavily weighted audience bias towards that negative information. This is especially the case in “The Simpsons”, because no images were coded as positive information about nuclear energy in the two episodes studied.
Nuclear messages in “The Simpsons” can fit within the HSM and potentially increase an individual’s use of heuristic processing about nuclear energy information . In this case, the audience is less likely to be motivated to seek out additional sources of information about nuclear energy. The audience described earlier is often younger and not watching other sources of television that mention nuclear energy. When “The Simpsons” is the only source of nuclear energy information for audiences, heuristic processing may prevail because there is low motivation to seek additional information and process nuclear energy information systematically . When heuristic processing is the primary form of information processing about nuclear energy, it can lead to errors in risk judgement about nuclear energy . Given how “The Simpsons” and nuclear energy images fit in to the HSM framework, the show would have the greatest impact on perception of those who know little to nothing about nuclear energy and do not seek out additional information sources.
“The Simpsons” cultivates an adverse image of nuclear energy. Images such as Mr. Burns, the plant owner, and government inspectors, standing in ankle-deep glowing green radioactive liquid and a glowing green rat running across the hallway of the nuclear plant (Table 2) create generalized false perceptions of nuclear energy. People who have grown up watching “The Simpsons” and those who have viewed episodes on syndicated television may only have cultivated images of glowing green nuclear toxic waste. Specifically, the near-30-year longevity and continued popularity of the episodes studied fit well into cultivation theory. No television show featuring nuclear energy has been viewed as widely or as frequently as “The Simpsons”. Therefore, it is at risk of cultivating incorrect perceptions of nuclear energy.
In a world of rampant mistrust in science, it is important to meet the public at sources of information. Studies of popular and iconic American media can help social scientists understand public risk perceptions and representation of science in the popular media. In this case study, many nuclear images were found in two episodes of “The Simpsons” centering on three themes: unnatural occurrences, negative consequences, and incompetence. All three were found to relate to current research in risk communication and have possibly negative impacts for public risk perception of nuclear energy. These images have the potential to cultivate a negative image of nuclear energy and increased public perception and opinions of high risk involved with nuclear energy. Possible development of these opinions could have implications for nuclear energy policy and the increased widespread usage of nuclear energy.
Regarding future studies, it is important that actual public perception of nuclear energy, including those who frequently watch “The Simpsons”, is studied. Understanding how and by what magnitude “The Simpsons” is influencing public perception of nuclear energy will help the understanding of whether or not the negative images of nuclear energy found in the show have a significant effect. Based on these findings, if a negative perception of nuclear energy was found when studying viewers of “The Simpsons”, it would evince a correlation between the viewing of the show and the public perception of nuclear energy. Clearly, the images fit within current framework and theories of risk perception and risk communication. However, it is not clear whether the effect is indeed translated to public perception. A future study should analyze several more episodes in addition to a survey of those who have viewed “The Simpsons”.
Special thanks to Dominique Bossard and Laura Witzling in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication for feedback and critiques.
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