The Framing of An Agricultural Controversy:
Constructing News About Food Irradiation
Ph. D. Candidate
School of Journalism and Mass Communication
The University of Iowa
W615 Seashore Hall
Iowa City, Iowa 52242
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Paper submitted to the Science Communication Interest Group of AEJMC
July 30-Aug. 2, 2003, Kansas City, MO
The Framing of An Agricultural Controversy:
Constructing News About Food Irradiation
This study aimed to look at how journalists construct a version of
scientific reality in their media coverage of a scientific controversy. The
content analysis focused on the sources cited, the appeals used by these
sources to convince the public of their positions regarding the issue, the
factors that influenced the nature of this coverage, and the framing
strategies that have been applied to inform the public about this
The Framing of An Agricultural Controversy:
Constructing News About Food Irradiation
In the summer of 1997, infested hamburger meat processed by the Hudson
Foods Inc. plant in Columbus, Nebraska, made 17 people ill and resulted in
the biggest recall of ground beef (25 million pounds) in U.S. history. This
catapulted food safety issues once more to the national limelight and led a
renewed interest in different ways of safeguarding food, including food
irradiation. This may have triggered the FDA approval of irradiation for
red meat the following fall, and another landmark case that became the
subject of the media attention intensifying heated debate about food
irradiation among food scientists, federal agencies, food irradiation
groups and health related-consumer groups.
People are increasingly seeking out science and health news, and also view
science stories as equal in importance to other types of news (Arkin, 1990;
Harris, 1993). Therefore, most newspapers maintain weekly science pages,
medical sections, or similar content to serve these needs. In this climate,
emergent and controversial science stories offer journalists the chance to
play a great role in constructing the popular version of scientific reality
(Dunwoody, 1999). The problem here is that many journalists have poor
backgrounds in science, and their understanding of risk and risk analysis
is certainly deficient. Because of their ignorance in science, journalists
expend great effort to find information and expert sources of various level
of credibility. Journalists evaluate their sources in terms of credibility
and journalists are concerned about their own credibility with their peers,
superiors, and audience members.
The purpose of this study is to examine how a controversial science issue
constructs its "scientific reality" and is diffused into the public range
by analyzing the journalists' management of the food irradiation issue.
Toward this end, this study examines the role of newspaper science
reporting in shaping this controversy and is expected to inform the
development of strategies to effectively diffuse scientifically based
information regarding food irradiation.
This study analyzes how a regional newspaper, the Des Moines Register,
and a national daily, the New York Times, covered the controversial food
irradiation issue from February 1992 to March 2000. The content analysis
focused on the "sources" cited, the factors that influenced the
construction of news reality, and the "framing strategies" that have been
applied to inform the public about this scientific innovation.
Background of The Food Irradiation Issue
Foodborne diseases pose a widespread threat to human health and are an
important cause of reduced economic productivity. Economic losses
associated with foodborne diseases are estimated between $5 billion and $17
billion by the US Food and Drug Administration (1991). In recent years,
outbreaks of virulent food poisoning caused by Escherichia coli O157: H7, a
mutant form of the E. coli found in the gut of all mammals, have placed
food safety on the national agenda. More people are giving their attention
to enhance food safety and quality. Irradiation has been identified as one
innovative solution that enhances food safety through the reduction of
potential pathogens and has been recommended as part of a comprehensive
program to enhance food safety.
Radiation being used in food preservation is "ionizing radiation," also
known as irradiation. These shorter wavelengths are capable of damaging
microorganisms, such as those that contaminate food or cause food spoilage
and deterioration (Diehl, 1995). The availability of irradiated food is
limited to just a few stores and products even though irradiation
processing for many commodities has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration (FDA). This lack of sales in the US is due partly to the
activities of opposition groups that have provided a focal point for
hundreds of articles and editorials in magazines, newspapers, and
scientific journals concerning the advisability of using irradiation to
treat food (Sapp, 1995).
Indeed, anti-irradiation advocates build on the fear of the unknown and the
public's limited understanding of nuclear science (Bruhn et al., 1986).
Recognizing that "irradiation" sounds similar to "radiation," opposition
groups compare treating food by radiation to exposing the human body to
radiation, and in fund-raising literature and media conferences they allude
to dangers from nuclear bombs, raise fears of leaks from nuclear power
facilities, and explicitly state that eating irradiated foods causes
cancer. Gauging the impact of such negative statements on public
perception, Sapp and Harrod (1990) noted that such remarks made during
group discussions influenced opinions more than did favorable comments.
This implies that normative factors may be important determinants of
consumer acceptance of food irradiation. In fact, they report that
normative factors were more important than technical information in
structuring attitudes toward the irradiation process.
Outside of insufficient scientific information, the public's reluctance to
try out irradiated food may also be attributed to the amount of media
attention devoted to the food irradiation controversy.
Risk communication is defined in this study as an interactive process of
exchange of information and opinion among individuals, groups, and
institutions. It involves multiple messages about the nature of risk and
other messages, not strictly about risk, that express concerns, opinions,
or reactions to risk messages or to legal and institutional arrangements
for risk management. A multi-dimensional concept, it frequently involves
scientists and other technical experts, but it can also include a much
broader source involving the media and citizen groups, for example. This
study focuses on just one of these potential sources of scientific
information, the newspapers as a mass medium, to explain how its differing
characteristics affect the dissemination of scientific information.
Scientific Controversy and The News Organization
A common source of frustration in many risk communication campaigns
involves the participation of the news media. Understanding how the news
media react to risk information and how they can be utilized as a powerful
ally is vital information for any risk communicator. Journalists seek to
gain access to information.
In spite of their lack of knowledge in science subjects, journalists feel
comfortable covering controversial science issues, first, because the
audience has already acknowledged that a disparity exists in media coverage
and second, because covering controversial news can benefit a media
organization by increasing readership (Berkowitz & Beach, 1993). Facing a
subject that he or she cannot personally evaluate, the journalist will
attempt to achieve objectivity through balance by simply finding two
opposing viewpoints to play against one another. By doing that, journalists
leave their own analytical skills at conflicts. Tuchman (1971/72) argues
that journalists present conflicting possibilities related to truth-claims
as one of several "strategic rituals" of objectivity, therefore they
protect themselves from critics and lay professional claim to objectivity.
Opposing the traditional definition of objectivity, Hackett (1984) insisted
that a diversity of systematic orientations and relationships construct
news reality, and influence journalists' interpretation of events and their
presentation of that interpretation as a news story. In a study analyzing
news sources and news context, Berkowitz and Beach (1993) found that
conflict-based news contains a greater diversity of sources than
nonconflict news and that reporters seek the ideals of objectivity through
fairly presenting the "objective facts" offered by the experts of each side.
However, merely presenting two sides can distort true reality. Hackett
(1984) asserts that the "distortion" criterion may be considered when there
do not exist contending viewpoints of equal legitimacy, thus rendering the
criterion of balance inapplicable. Ettema et al. (1987) argues that the
threats to truth are raised by organizational process and institutional
arrangement rather than by the human limitations of individual journalists.
They stress the importance of acknowledging that journalists live and work
within encompassing social and cultural context that powerfully and
implicitly informs their attempts to make sense of the world.
It is safe to assume that the lack of technical knowledge and scientific
exposure of reporters assigned to science beats results in biased news
stories. Those unfamiliar with the science terrain, for example, will be
easily persuaded by implausible arguments as long as they are nicely
packaged. However, certain characteristics of the media organization --
such as a newspaper's ownership structure, how frequently it is published,
the size of its editorial staff, and whether it has a science or
environmental reporter -- have a compelling effect on the nature of science
reporting, especially of topics that have achieved controversial status
(Griffin & Dunwoody, 1997).
For instance, the larger the size of the local news staff, the more
specialized the staff can be and, in general, the more resources they can
devote to gathering information (Donohue et al., 1985). Papers with an
environmental or science reporter have a stronger organizational commitment
to devoting time and special expertise to those news areas which could
affect story framing and coverage of science risk (Griffin & Dunwoody, 1997).
Dunwoody (1992) observes that there are two consistent patterns in research
into media coverage of risk. First, media researchers find that journalists
do not properly define reality (as seen by the media researchers). Second,
news stories on risk have little risk information as science would define
it. These suggest that other social agents rather than journalists
intervene in constructing news reality on media's coverage of science stories.
Ideology and Scientific Rationality
Every issue has a "relevant public discourse," that is, "a particular set
of ideas and symbols that are used in the process of constructing meaning"
(Gamson, 1988). In the media coverage, sources holding positions of
authority are essential to construction of news reality in that they are
empowered to shape and frame discourse; moreover, a preponderance of one
type of source can result in news coverage focused along narrow ideological
lines (Berkowitz & Beach, 1993). In the science and risk coverage, these
sources tend to be scientists and government representatives (Lievrouw, 1990).
These sources set the tone and frame of discourse in the media, and allow
to set the parameters for debate by establishing the focal point of news
and by setting boundaries for discourse (Coleman, 1999). Exploring the news
coverage of science, technology, and risk, Plough and Krimsky (1987)
distinguish between two ideological perspectives in public discourse, one
called scientific rationality, the other, cultural rationality. They
describe scientific rationality as an ideological perspective in which
scientific information is regarded as factual, free of bias and bereft of
emotion. Scientific rationality adopts a reductionist, rational and
technological approach to social issue, while, at the same time, rejecting
individual, qualitative, experiential and ethical approaches to solutions
The ideological perspective of scientific rationality is operationalized
in the media discourse of food irradiation, where proponent groups to food
irradiation agree that the scientific technology of irradiation improves
food safety, increases economic productivity and benefits, etc, while
irradiation opponent groups show the other perspective, applying normative
factors and emotional arousal to structure attitudes toward the irradiation
Bord (1991) noted that articles on food irradiation in the popular press
gave more space to opposition statements, described food irradiation in
language that clearly was not neutral (e.g., "bombarded bananas," "nuked
lunch," "atomic edibles"), and tended to sensationalize weak arguments made
by opponents. Relatively, Lichter et al (1986) found a gap between nuclear
energy experts' more positive views of nuclear energy and news coverage's
more negative emphasis. This shows that "sensational" aspects of stories
about science topics are featured more than the journalistic ideal of
"objectivity" over science news coverage (Glynn & Tims, 1982).
Recognizing the irradiation sounds similar to radiation, the opponents
compare treating food by radiation to exposing the human body to radiation,
and in media conferences they allude to dangers from nuclear bombs, raise
fears of leaks from nuclear power facilities, and explicitly state eating
irradiated foods causes cancer. Scientists argue that the opponents hold an
advantage in persuading public opinion because their statements do not
undergo the strict review process of scientific measure.
Fear arousal by depicting potential dangers to which the audience might be
exposed is frequently used to influence attitudes and behavior in
communication (Janis & Feshback, 1954). In the debate of irradiation, the
proponents and the opponents frame risk around probabilistic impacts by
using fear arousal. While pro-irradiation advocates reassure the public
that food irradiation processing would enhance food safety and save
consumers from foodborne diseases, anti-irradiation advocates question the
impact of food irradiation and allude to the word "irradiation" with
dangerous events, such as atomic bomb explosion and nuclear reactor accidents.
The media coverage of food irradiation demonstrates journalists' tendency
to characterize the issue as war between opposing sides; rationality versus
emotion, the pro- versus the anti-irradiation group.
This study looks at which ideological perspective is largely successfully
in setting the news frame of the food irradiation issue. The following
section explores how ideological perspectives are framed in news media's
Constructing Reality through Media Frames
According to Gitlin (1980), there exists in news texts a largely unspoken
and unacknowledged concept called "media frames" that organize the world
both for journalists who report it and, in some important degree, for
consumers who rely on their reports. Gamson and Modigliani (1987) defined a
media frame as "a central organizing idea or story line that provides
meaning to an unfolding strip of events suggesting what the controversy is
about, the essence of the issue." The role of such frames is varied,
according to Tuchman (1978), who considers their ability to organize
everyday reality as their most important task. The news frame, she
suggests, is part and parcel of everyday reality because the public
character of news is an essential feature of news.
Scheufele (1999) distinguishes between media and audience frames. At the
media level, according to him, journalists' framing of an issue might be
influenced by several social-structural or organizational variables earlier
identified by Tuchman (1978). At the audience level, frames as the
dependent variable are examined mostly as direct outcomes of the way mass
media frame an issue (e.g., Price et al., 1995, 1996).
Previous research has proposed that at least five factors may potentially
influence how journalists frame a given issue: social norms and values,
organizational pressures and constraints, pressures of interest groups,
journalistic routines, and ideological or political orientations of
journalists (e.g., Shoemaker & Reese, 1996; Tuchman, 1978). The way news is
framed in the mass media is a result of social and professional routines of
journalists (Van Dijk, 1985). Edelman (1993), who concluded that the choice
of frames often is "driven by ideology and prejudice," echoes this finding.
Nelson et al. (1997) assert that journalists' common reliance on elite
sources for quotes, insight, analysis, and information means that the media
often serve as conduits for individuals eager to promote a certain
perspective to a broader public reliance. They regard those elites as the
source of many frames and framing devices, and assert that this makes news
organizations readily construct media frames on their own in order to
summarize concisely the kernel of a story (Nelson et al., 1997).
Among framing processes conceptualized by Scheufele (1999), this study
will focus on how media build frames. Media frame building has found
empirical evidence from Gans' (1979) model of news selection processes and
Shoemaker and Reese's (1996) work on influences on media content. These
studies suggest at least three potential sources of framing influences --
journalist-centered influences such as their ideology, attitudes, and
professional norms; "organizational routines" (Gans, 1979); and external
sources of influence such as political actors, authorities, and interest
This study does not deal with journalistic norms and newsgathering routines
but focuses instead on characterizing the frames most evident in the print
media's coverage of irradiation. By examining patterns of attribution, it
attempts to describe the general framework of coverage.
Hypotheses and Research Questions
Accordingly, this study proposes a hypothesis and three research questions
about news reality on food irradiation issue.
Considering the foregoing literature on science reporting and their
assertions that the more vivid and passionate opposition groups often
receive too much or too favorable attention by the media, it is
H1: More anti-irradiation advocates than pro-irradiation advocates will be
cited in the Des Moines Register's and the New York Times' coverage of food
Sources holding authority are essential to construct news reality in the
media coverage (Berkowitz & Beach, 1993). As such, it is asked:
RQ1: What sources were used in the Des Moines Register's and the New York
Times' coverage of the food irradiation issue? Did they operationalize an
ideological perspective of scientific or cultural rationality in the media
discourse of food irradiation?
Following the formulations of framing theorists, the study also analyzed
how the Des Moines Register and the New York Times framed the food
irradiation issue and what internal and external sources affected their
framing. The following question is thus posed:
RQ2: What frames were most commonly used in the Des Moines Register's and
the New York Times' coverage of the food irradiation issue?
Building on the previous hypotheses and research questions, the final
question asks if there is difference between these two newspapers on how
they reported the food irradiation issue to their different constituencies.
As such, it is asked:
RQ3: Is there a difference between a regional newspaper's (Des Moines
Register) coverage and a national newspaper's (New York Times) coverage of
food irradiation? If so, what are these differences?
This study aims to identify and explore (1) the most commonly cited
sources of information regarding food irradiation in the Des Moines
Register and the New York Times; (2) the framing strategies that have been
applied to inform the public about this issue; (3) the differences between
regional and national newspapers in their coverage of the irradiation
issue. To achieve these objectives, a content analysis of the Des Moines
Register's and the New York Times' coverage of the food irradiation issue
from February 1992 to March 2000 was undertaken.
These publications were chosen to represent regionally-specific subject
matters of interest. It was assumed that the Register is a paper serving an
agricultural state, Iowa, while the Times is a representative national
paper. The research questions posed call for a comparative analysis of
regional vs. national newspaper coverage of food irradiation. To arrive at
the sample, a Lexis-Nexis search was conducted for all articles mentioning
the phrases "irradiation" and "irradiated food" as keywords in
irradiation-related stories in the newspapers.
The unit of analysis was the whole article that was examined for arguments
for or against food irradiation. An argument was an assertion about food
irradiation made either by the author of the article or the sources cited.
The articles were also examined for "loaded" words used to describe the
technology that may heighten public fear or assure them of the safety of
this procedure. In addition, a qualitative analysis was conducted to
determine what frames were commonly used.
In this study, anti-irradiation advocates are defined as those who are
critical of the food irradiation process, arguing for example, that
irradiation destroys food nutrients and creates hazardous chemicals in
food. The pro-irradiation advocates, on the other hand, are those who extol
the potential virtues of the process as the key to eliminating
pathogen-borne diseases, and as another safety valve that protects the
public from food poisoning outbreaks.
A discernible argument is one that is cited directly from the author, a
pro-irradiation advocate or an anti-irradiation advocate to convince
newspaper readers of a particular aspect of food irradiation. In short, it
is a clear and direct statement for or against food irradiation. The
presence of conclusive ideas was the most important key that the coder in
this study uses to distinguish discernible arguments in the articles.
Food irradiation is a multi-dimensional and multi-faceted issue that
covers health, political, scientific, economical and social aspects. As
such, stories were analyzed in terms of the overarching framework or frames
used to define and explain the issue to the public.
In this study, the number of arguments by anti- and pro-irradiation
advocates were counted in each article. In addition, the fear-arousing
words were listed, and the words were categorized as irradiation opponents
or irradiation advocates.
The frequency by which irradiation opponents and irradiation advocates were
cited in the stories analyzed was compared to test H1. Research Questions
1, 2 and 3 were answered by doing a qualitative analysis of both latent and
Results and Discussion
A total of 77 stories (35 from the Des Moines Register & 42 from the New
York Times) published in the two newspapers for a span of eight years were
analyzed in this study.
Discernable arguments that appeared in the Register's and the Times'
eight-year coverage of food irradiation were counted to test the first
hypothesis. As shown on Table 1, generally, there were more arguments for
rather than against food irradiation, therefore the first hypothesis was
Table 1 around here
To determine if there are significant differences between and among the
number of arguments for and against food irradiation in the two newspapers,
a chi-square test was conducted. The result of the chi-square test for the
newspapers was significant (p< .01), and proved that two newspapers
demonstrated explicitly different ways of reporting the issue. The
Register, the regional newspaper, projected food irradiation in an
overwhelmingly good light, generating more arguments concerning the
benefits of this new technology. The Times, however, contained more
anti-irradiation voices, four times more than the Register featured. In
terms of absolute number of pro-irradiation arguments, however, the two
papers are just about the same.
To find out exactly who were the sources of these arguments, this study
also categorized the reporters' sources of information into five broad
groups: (1) scientists from land grant universities, (2) industry and
commercial groups, (3) agriculture officials and scientists from federal
and other government agencies, (4) consumer advocacy groups, and (5) others.
Scientists from land grant universities as well as federal agriculture
officials and scientists have joined forces in support of food irradiation
in both newspapers. These two groups argued that the process had been
subjected to the rigors of first-rate research over 50 years and that those
studies have proved irradiation's potential to reduce the incidence of
illness and the loss of lives due to food-borne pathogens.
Among the five categories of sources, consumer advocacy groups have
consistently played the role as irradiation's most powerful -- and vocal --
opponents. They argue that irradiation destroys food nutrients, makes food
radioactive and that the process is expensive, risky (because it raises
worker safety and environmental issues), and ignores problems with
contamination originating directly from farms and ranches. This group is
quick to stress the word "cancer" as the most dangerous side-effect of the
Table 2 lists the fear-arousing terms used by irradiation opponents and
advocates. It indicates that both sides of the debate applied fear-arousing
terms, labels, and definitions to convince consumers that irradiation is
either a boon or a bane.
Table 2 around here
Irradiation advocates often mentioned the seemingly scary and unfamiliar
names of microbes like E. coli O157:H7 and salmonella, referring to mass
health threats to humans because they can trigger deadly outbreaks of food
poisoning. Irradiation opponents, on the other hand, used negative
persuasion to counter the positive and upbeat potentials of food
irradiation coming mostly from renowned scientists. Labels such as "nuclear
explosion," "horrors of the atomic bomb" and "radioactive wastes directly
related to nuclear accidents" were always mentioned to warn citizens of the
risk of cancer and other life-threatening aspects of food irradiation.
These results suggested that both newspapers used a variety of sources to
operationalize ideological perspectives of scientific and cultural
rationality in their media coverage of food irradiation discourse, and it
intensified the controversy of food irradiation.
Regarding media frame, this research sought to address how the irradiation
controversy was framed and what the common perspectives were used in both
newspapers. A close look at manifest and latent content produced four main
themes the newspapers used to explain and report the issue to the general
public. Table 3 shows distribution of frames appeared in the articles of
Table 3 around here
The most dominant frame used in the newspapers portrays government and
federal agencies as having a crucial role to play in regulating the process
and in guaranteeing the safety of the public exposed to the process. Food
irradiation research to eliminate pathogenic bacteria has been in progress
in federally-funded laboratories since the 1950s. These studies have
demonstrated that pasteurization of meat and poultry by irradiation is
effective, economical and safe. The results have been reviewed and the
process consequently approved by FDA, the Public Health Service, the
Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Army.
Anti-irradiation advocates criticize the government and the proponent
scientists as playing loose with the research and approval process by not
reviewing scientific evidence against irradiation's safety and value.
Critics worry that the government and its scientists are looking at
irradiation as a "techno-fix" to prevent food-related disease outbreaks
when they should be looking at restructuring the entire food production
system. Foremost of these critics is Ken Taylor, executive director of the
Minnesota Food Association, a St. Paul-based consumer advocacy group.
The frame concerning "governmental and federal regulation" deals mostly
with how government agencies have regulated the process and have approved
its use for various purposes, and how irradiation opponents have tried to
block the same.
The "health aspects" are the cores of the continuing controversy over food
irradiation. Over the years, researchers have focused their attention on
two main concerns – whether irradiation can strip food of vitamins or
create dangerous by-products that could cause cancer or other health
problems in people who eat irradiated food.
Pro-irradiation advocates say that irradiation does not make food
radioactive, nor does it noticeably change taste, texture or appearance.
They regard food irradiation as the best solution to the problem of food
poisoning, insisting that the technology could have prevented illnesses
caused recently by contaminated hamburgers from Hudson Foods and the
several deaths linked to Jack in the Box restaurants in the Pacific
Northwest in 1993.
Anti-irradiation advocates, on the other hand, say that no one knows what
effect this kind of diet would have on people. They argue that the process
diminishes the nutritive value of food, changes the food's properties, and
forms dangerous substances. In addition, they warn that the process can
create chemicals in food that could cause other diseases. Many articles
mentioned "cancer" as the most unacceptable risk posed by food irradiation.
The different "economic aspects" of both the anti- and the pro-irradiation
food heat the food irradiation debate. The two sides bicker about the
medical and food costs engendered by the irradiation technology.
Irradiation advocates have stressed economically possible benefits from
food irradiation, asserting that the process can decrease medical care
costs associated with inadequate food inspection and handling. In contrast,
irradiation opponents are apparently doing their best to slow the
implementation of this scientific innovation. They are concerned that the
installation of irradiation processing equipment will be a burden to
individual companies. The high installation cost may compel companies to
seriously consider consolidating into food industry giants that will
monopolize and control the market. Such a phenomenon will effectively
diminish the number of food companies and the potential sources of food for
the general public.
Both newspapers allocated considerable space to define and explain the
"scientific and technical aspects" of the process, citing scientists' and
experts' research or opinion in most of their reports. Coverage of this
frame may perform an important service for scientists as well as audiences
with a stake in the issue. Accounts making use of this frame inform the
public of the latest developments in an ongoing dispute. They also inform
scientists embroiled in the issue concerning any public feedback. Most food
scientists interviewed in these reports referred to their research as an
innovative and safe process to abate people's concerns. About four articles
played up the opinions of anti-irradiation scientists who pointed out the
possible medical problems and technical defects attendant to the process.
In general, however, the articles gave more voice to food scientists and
experts supporting food irradiation.
As demonstrated before, the Register cited more arguments in support of
food irradiation than the Times. Because of its proximity to Iowa State
University, a major research center that studies the irradiation process,
the Register has taken advantage of the experts available from this land
grant institution. Animal and food scientists such as Dennis Olson (former
Professor of Iowa State university), Dennis Marple, and James Dickenson
have been the most cited sources, and they all played as important
organizational spokespersons that influenced how the issue was framed in
the regional newspaper -- highly supportive of the innovation. The Times,
on the other hand, had a more varied and broad source palette. In most
arguments, scientists have shown their favorable disposition toward and
asserted the need for the process.
Although the Des Moines Register did not cover the issue regularly and
frequently, it dealt with some regional issues related to food irradiation,
including the procedure's environmental and commercial effects in Iowa.
Griffin and Dunwoody (1997) said that stories written by local news staff
members would have more local detail than stories generated by wire
services, and framing decisions would be affected by local rather than
distant forces. Such reports usually consist of consumer interviews and
results of in-depth scientific research. The Des Moines Register depended
on a host of news sources, including wire services such as the Associated
Press as well as syndicated reports from Newsday and the Washington Post.
There were also a number of freelance writers who covered the topic for the
Register. The New York Times, however, relied mainly on its own staff
writers to cover the issue, notably Marion Burros whose insights provided
considerable depth to his stories.
This study focused on how journalists reported on the food irradiation
issue and the surrounding controversy. As Hackett (1984) insists, it seems
that the various types of systematic orientations and relationships
influence the newspapers' coverage of food irradiation. Both newspapers
reported on the food irradiation debate using multiple sources and
displaying a variety of perspectives. Berkowitz and Beach (1993) stress the
important force of the interaction between journalists and news sources in
shaping the news, and they argues that sources shape the news more strongly
than do journalists. Over their coverage of food irradiation, journalists
quoted a variety of sources instead of offering their own opinions.
Dunwoody (1999) suggests balance as a strategy when journalists cannot
distinguish the true statements from untrue ones by presenting an array of
viewpoints. Even though this study found that the newspapers quoted more
arguments from the irradiation advocates than arguments from the opponents,
they presented both sides of the debate on food irradiation. Tuchman (1979)
argues that journalists claims "objectivity" by presenting conflicting
possibilities. She asserts that journalists use this objectivity as
"strategic ritual" to protect themselves from critical onslaught.
Demonstrating a profound respect for scientific interpretations,
journalists have often incorporated direct quotes from the sources in their
In the issue of food irradiation, officials and scientists from government
agencies and were quoted more than any other sources, and the frame with
governmental regulations and procedures occupied the most news hole and was
the most powerful theme. This is perhaps because, according to Griffin and
Dunwoody (1997), reporting on public actions and statements stemming from
the governmental and political subsystem would require little or no special
scientific expertise on the part of the reporter, and it would be
defensible to the publisher and the community. Also, they found in their
study that the news media tend to use governmental frames much more
commonly than science ones (Griffin & Dunwoody, 1997).
Powerful sources are the most easily and quickly available as well as most
reliable and productive (Gans, 1978). However, Bennett (1983) points that
corporate-capitalist ownership of news media predisposes news to routinely
uncritical treatment of corporate and governmental power sources. Critical
scholars argue that the mass media reinforce the dominant ideology by
relying on elite sources (Bennett, 1982). Facing scarcity of resources
caused by organizational and individual limitation, journalists seems that
they easily and uncritically accessed to governmental sources to cover food
The irradiation advocates mainly affiliated in governmental agencies
operationalized the ideological perspective of scientific rationality and
underpin that the irradiation process improves food safety and increases
economic benefits. Scientists who are the subjects of stories using the
science and technology frame often employed highly technical terms to
present their opinions, and gave risk-related information with
fear-arousing terms to rationalize the need for the process. In the other
hand, consumer advocacy groups who oppose to the process showed the other
perspective. Through the coverage of the irradiation debate, they endeavor
to apply emotional arousal to structure attitudes toward the irradiation
process, alluding to dangers from nuclear accidents rather than to show
in-depth and scientific evidence. The absence of factual evidence on the
part of irradiation opponents, however, made fear persuasion a more potent
and powerful tool for the irradiation advocates.
This study also found that the Register dealt with food irradiation more
favorably than the Times. It has also understandably preferred Iowa
regional sources in its reporting, while the Times used more sources from
across the nation. The results also indicate that the Times has reported
the food irradiation issue in a balanced manner compared to the Register's
covering of the issue. The Register's readers include, in larger measure,
producers of agricultural products while the Times' readers include, in
larger measures, consumers of agricultural products. So it seemed that the
Register was more supportive of irradiation because irradiation makes
agricultural products more marketable and producers in general are more
supportive of irradiation. On the other hand, it can be assumed that the
New York Times with more science-trained reporters and journalists has
chosen and reported information concerning food irradiation in a more
selective and balanced manner from various sources than the Register.
In sum, this study looked at how the food irradiation issue was framed by
the US media and what factors influenced its construction of "scientific
reality." In the news coverage of irradiation, journalists unconsciously
have relied on powerful sources and they have been pressured by
organizational constraints, therefore these powerful sources and
constraints strongly come into play in constructing new reality in the food
irradiation discourse. Even though this research focused on food
irradiation, the results from this study sheds light on how the media carry
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Table 1. Comparison of newspapers' use of arguments for and against food
The NY Times
For Food Irradiation
Against Food Irradiation
= 11.6 df = 1 p_ .01
Table 2. Fear-arousing terms used to define and explain food irradiation
From Irradiation advocates
From Anti-Irradiation advocates
Deadly outbreaks of food poisoning, food-borne diseases, Bacteria-tainted
hamburger, Tainted food, Tainted with potentially lethal E. coli
Nuking your food
Environment- al concerns
Irradiation wastes, Increasing problems of Nuclear-waste disposal, Nuclear
fuels, Environmental contamination, Radioactive waste at irradiation facilities
Unquantifiable risk, radiolytic by-products, explosion, Fear of
radioactivity, Nuclear idolatry, Horrors of the atomic bomb, Dangerously
radioactive, Risk of nuclear accidents
Dangerous microbes such as E. coli and Salmonella, Run of E. coli
contamination, Miscarriages and still births, Health threat, The growth of
dangerous pathogens, Disease-causing bacteria, The most notorious E. coli
food poisoning, Deadly epidemics, Rash of serious food poisoning
Produces carcinogens, Antibiotic resistance in bacteria, Endanger workers
and risk, The risk of cancer, great threat to health
Table 3. Comparison of framing theme between the Des Moines Register and
the New York Times (% of articles with each theme)
(N of articles=35)
The NY Times
(N of articles=42)
Governmental & federal–regulation
Science & technology behind food irradiation
% presents the occupation of frame with each theme appeared in the Register
and the Times.