Hannah Johnson grew up in Longview, an East Texas town no stranger to coal mining. There she saw firsthand mining’s double-edged sword — the economy benefited, but human health suffered. Johnson brought that interest in how energy policy affects people with her to the 40 Acres. In spring 2014 she was taking Rhonda Case’s “Human Rights & World Politics” course when Case encouraged her to pursue the department’s J.J. “Jake” Pickle Undergraduate Research Fellows Program.
Johnson became a Pickle Fellow in fall 2014 and began working on her project, “The war on coal: A case study in agenda setting,” which made the university’s list of “30 Seriously Impressive Undergrad Research Projects.” Sparked by Bryan Jones’ research in Agendas and Instability in American Politics, Hannah began investigating how coal issues get on the congressional agenda, and particularly the role of “tone” when the issue is presented. Conventional wisdom hypothesizes a “negativity bias” — when coal is presented in a negative light, it is more likely to appear on the congressional agenda. Johnson found that there is a slight negativity bias, but that when negative attention rises, so too does positive attention. She found a strong coal advocacy group, stable through time, consistently able to get coal discussed in a positive light.
Through her analysis of congressional hearings and New York Times articles since 1980, Johnson also found that the media and congress focus on different aspects of the issue. The media tends to discuss labor unrest and labor-management issues, as well as the business aspects of coal, whereas congress focuses more on environmental issues, such as regulating emissions and technological innovations.