The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)
Content Analysis of Informational Equity
Mass Media Coverage of Agrobiotechnology
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. Scientists and industry often level these criticisms, arguing
that the media give too much weight to activist groups, particularly at the
height of a technological controversy. 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.
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. A few studies, conducted at discrete points
in time, have concluded, however, that the extent to which these groups are
quoted or sourced by the media is less than commonly perceived.
media studies have also shown that experts (and the institutions to which they
belong) are more likely to be quoted than non-experts (non-governmental
organizations (NGOs), farmers, environmental and consumer groups, activists) in
the making of the news. Within this context, 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 biotechnology.
research examines the degree to which different societal groups have been
sourced by UK and United States (US) newspapers in the agricultural
biotechnology debate; the degree to which experts and non-experts have discussed
the relative benefits versus the risks of agricultural biotechnology; and the
extent to which reporting of biotechnology is more balanced in the US than in
the UK. Our sample of newspapers includes the Washington Post, Wall Street
Journal, USA Today, Daily Telegraph, and London Times.
find similar media coverage in the US and UK, that is, experts are more often
quoted in the press than non-experts (for example, environmental groups).
And we find support for the argument that the public debate broadened and became
more contentious during 1998 and 1999. However, even when UK coverage
exploded in 1999, expert sources still dominated the debate, although their
messages became more mixed. One surprising result is the decline in the
use of consumer advocacy groups over time in the USA Today, and the much lower
level of such groups in the UK media during the debate. Given that
consumers presumably place a high level of trust in such groups their apparent
silence (at least in mainstream newspapers) should be of some concern to those
trying to build consensus around the technology.
find that the debate was more broadly based early on (in the 1990s) in both
countries, albeit starting at a later point in time in the UK, when the safety
of bovine somatotropin (BST) was heavily discussed. Later on, however, and
following the promising commercialization of biotechnology crops in 1996 the
debate become more narrowly focused on industry and scientific arguments and
news. By late 1998/1999, at the height of the scientific controversy, the
debate broadened again. Hence, press coverage has been cyclical in nature
depending on specific events, suggesting some degree of informational equity was
achieved during the 1990s.