The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)

Non technical abstract 

A Content Analysis of Informational Equity

in Mass Media Coverage of Agrobiotechnology


 Leoni A.Marks,

Nicholas Kalaitzanonakes,

Lucy Zakharova


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.  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.   

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.  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.   

Some 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.   

This 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.  

We 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.    

We 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.



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