The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)


A Time Series Analysis of Informational Equity
in Mass Media Coverage of Agrobiotechnology

Leonie A. Marks ,
Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes,
University of Missouri-Columbia,

A vast amount of research has investigated the role of the media in amplifying risks beyond what is implied by "actual or objective" scientific risk. It is often argued that the media is selective in its coverage, more interested in politics than science, simplicity rather than complexity, and danger rather than safety (Hoban, 1995). Scientists, industry, and governments often level these criticisms, arguing that the media give too much weight to activist groups, particularly at the height of a technological controversy, when these groups are trying to raise public awareness. In a recent survey of 250 businesses in the United Kingdom (UK), more than half of those questioned felt that pressure group activity significantly affected the way they did business and that such groups were more likely to gain media coverage and sympathy (PR Week, 1997).

In the case of biotechnology, the more established environmental groups (such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth), along with the newer activist groups (e.g., FabRage, Genetix Snowball) have actively sought publicity in order to influence government policy, raise public and consumer awareness, and to garner additional funding for their campaigns. These groups have engaged in various publicity efforts, such as ripping up transgenic corn from farmers’ fields or dumping grain on the front steps of 10 Downing Street in London. A few studies (Abbot & Lucht, 2000; Preist Hornig, 1994), conducted at discrete points in time, have confirmed that the extent to which these events are reported by the media, and the extent to which these groups are quoted or "sourced" – is less than commonly perceived.

Some media studies have also shown that experts (and the institutions to which they belong) are more likely to be quoted than non-experts (NGOs, farmers, environmental and consumer groups, activists) in the making of the news. Such a reliance on experts is problematic if one views risk communication as a two-way process between divergent societal groups. Far from being sensationalistic, media accounts that address the politics, ethics and social implications, as well as the science of risk, can be seen as important stimulants to public debate and, ultimately, long-term acceptance of the technology (Preist Hornig, 1994).

In this paper, we use both content and time series analysis to analyze the use of sources by US and UK newspaper reporters from 1990 to 2000. United States papers include the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. United Kingdom papers include the Daily Telegraph and the London Times. Our period of coverage is more comprehensive and up-to-date that other studies, allowing for a cross-country comparison between two countries that have had quite different outcomes in terms of acceptance of agrobiotechnology.

Positive (benefit) or negative (risk) messages are correlated with the type of source (government, industry, scientists, environmental and consumer groups, farmers, activists, and so on) in order to determine the degree of source and message heterogeneity (or informational equity) in such media reporting. Specifically, the following research questions are addressed,

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