ASSOCIATED PRESS WIRE SERVICE COVERAGE OF AGRICULTURAL ISSUES

A Paper Presented to the Southern Association of Agricultural Scientists
Agricultural Communications Section
Orlando, FL
Februrary 2002

Scarlett Hagins
Assistant Editor
Kansas Livestock Association

Jacqui Lockaby
Assistant Professor

Cindy Akers
Assistant Professor

Lance Kieth
Assistant Professor
Texas Tech University

Background

Introduction

The fact that the American society is "agriculturally ignorant" has drawn a
considerable amount of attention (Terry & Lawver, 1995). Coon and
Cantrell (1985) state "today, the public's image of agriculture is a
kaleidoscope of leftover attitudes and images of what agriculture was in
the '40s, '50s and '60s" (p. 22). The first step in improving the agricultural
literacy level of a population is to determine the current literacy level (Frick,
Birkenholz & Machtmes, 1995).

The many changes occurring in agriculture during the past decade have
made the need for agricultural literacy increasingly evident. It is vital that
the general public has accurate perceptions about agriculture because of
the industry's impact on society, the economy, the environment and
personal health (Terry & Lawver, 1995). Terry, Dunsford, Lacewell, Gray
(1996) stated that the impact agriculture has on society, economics, the
environment and public policy decisions in our democratic society makes
understanding agriculture imperative to making good policy decisions.
Consumers, as well as policy makers, need to be "agriculturally literate"
in order to respond appropriately as issues arise (Frick et al., 1995).

"Despite the importance of agriculture to America's economic,
environmental and cultural growth, agricultural news is a surprisingly
neglected topic in the mass media" (Stringer & Thomson, 1999, p.1).
According to Whitaker and Dyer (1998):

Journalists have a responsibility to report news both accurately and fairly.
If they fail in their duties, responsible reporting and consumption of
agricultural news will not occur. Likewise, misinformed individuals may
make important decisions affecting the food and fiber industry (p. 445).

Journalists have opportunities to reach the general public through
newspapers, television, Internet and radio. According to Farrar (1997),
daily newspaper circulation exceeds 60 million and more than 8,000
weeklies are published in the United States, adding millions more
readers to the total. He found that television sets operate in 99 percent of
all American households and that 96 percent of all Americans report they
listen to the radio regularly.

Research has shown that agricultural literacy means different things to
different people. Leising and Zilbert (1994) describe agricultural literacy
as possessing the knowledge and understanding of our food and fiber
system. A basic knowledge of agriculture is especially important when it
is the major industry in a state and the lack of agricultural knowledge and
experience impedes economic development (Williams & White, 1991).
The importance of the agricultural industry to society increases the need
for agricultural literacy. Law (1990) stated:

Americans know very little about the social and economic relevance of
agriculture in the United States, and agriculture is too important a subject
to be taught only to a relatively small proportion of students enrolled in
vocational agriculture. As special interest groups revolving around issues
such as animal rights, pesticides usage, soil and water conservation, and
other environmental concerns gain more media and public attention, it
becomes even more important that the general public have some
background and understanding of not only what agriculture is all about,
but on how it affects each person's life on a daily basis (p. 5).

Achieving the goal of agricultural literacy produces informed citizens able
to participate in establishing the policies that supports a competitive
agricultural industry in this country and abroad (National Academy of
Sciences Committee, 1988). Frick and Elliot (1995) designed a
conceptual framework to explain the factors that contributed to knowledge
and perceptions about agriculture. Their study measured and assessed
two components that are integral to one's agricultural literacy knowledge
base and opinions. This framework includes three factors: personal,
education, and participation in agricultural activities. These factors show
the underlying forces that contribute to the formation of one's knowledge
base and opinions.

Statement of the Problem

With the need for increased agriculture production comes the need for
agricultural literacy (Blackburn, 1999). Individuals need this knowledge to
communicate basic agricultural information. Americans gain most of this
knowledge through the news media. According to Farrar (1997),
television sets operate in 99 percent of all American households and daily
newspaper circulation exceeds 60 million, with only 14 percent of all adult
Americans saying they rarely or never read a newspaper. Considering
these numbers researchers should study the coverage of agricultural
issues to evaluate the literacy of the reporters.

Purpose and Objectives

The purpose of this study was to identify articles written about agriculture
on the Associated Press wire service in the Fall of 2000, categorize the
articles into agricultural literacy concept areas and determine the level of
bias in each article. This study also sought to compare the coverage of
the agricultural industry available through the Associated Press (AP) wire
service to a previous study (Hess, 1997).

Method

Methods/Procedures

The study enlisted content analysis methodology, based on the
Hayakawa-Lowry news bias categories (Lowry, 1985) to code all of the
identified articles taken from the Associated Press wire service.

The sample for this study included agricultural stories taken from the
Associated Press wire service for the month of November 2000 (N= 177).
Stories were gathered five times per week using the Associated Press
wire service located at the KLBK-Channel 13-television station in
Lubbock, Texas. The results from this particular month should not be
inferred to other months of the year. For this study, a trained panel of
agricultural education and communications experts coded all of the
identified articles to ensure coder reliability. Each sentence of the
identified articles was coded using the Hayakawa-Lowry news bias
categories. The coding sets were compared and any discrepancies were
noted. The panel reviewed the discrepancies until consensus was
reached on the code assigned to each sentence. Each story was
categorized into an agricultural classification such as the plant industry,
farming or disease. The stories were then placed in the proper
agricultural literacy concept area using the same procedure as Terry et al.
(1996).

Results

Results

Results revealed a 22% increase in the number of agricultural articles
posted on the wire service (145 articles in 1997 and 177 articles in 2000).
The daily average of articles during the month of November 2000 was
8.85 and the daily average of sentences was 64.7.

Generally, there were more than eight articles posted per day. On
average, the Associated Press agricultural articles read were relatively
short (M= 7.31). The number of sentences written per day in 1997 was
1,182 (daily average = 59.1) and in 2000 it was 1,294 (daily average =
64.7). This indicates a 9.5% increase in the three-year period between
1997 and 2000.

Table 1 indicates that reporters have more than tripled their coverage of
agricultural policy issues as the primary theme. This category had a
250% increase between 1997 and 2000. As far as secondary themes
(Table 2), reporters have tripled their coverage of animal science
(228.57% increase), the plant industry (230% increase) and natural
resources (200% increase).

Table 1: Comparison of Concept Areas (primary) between 1997 and 2000



Table 2: Comparison of Concept Areas (secondary) between 1997 and
2000


Reporters are writing more factual sentences compared to 1997 (Table
3). The number of report sentences in 1997 was 503 (42.6%) and in
2000 it was 597(46.13%). This indicates an 18.69% increase in the
number of report sentences found in the Associated Press wire articles.

Table 3: Comparison of sentence categories between 1997 and 2000


Even though reporters are writing more report sentences, the majority of
the sentences are unattributed. Between 1997 and 2000, report
unattributed sentences increased 20%, whereas, report attributed only
increased 14.84%. Reporters are also writing significantly more
inference sentences. In 1997 there were 214 (18.1%) and in 2000 there
were 323 (24.96). These sentences had the largest percent increase
between 1997 and 2000 with 50.93%. The majority of these sentences
contain no "tip-off" words to let the reader know the information is
subjective to some extent. The occurrence of inference unlabeled
sentences doubled with an increase of 117.43% and the occurrence of
inference labeled sentences decreased by 55.67%.

Reporters are writing slightly less judgment sentences than in 1997. The
number of judgment sentences declined from 303 (25.6%) to 299
(23.11%) within three years resulting in a 1.32% decrease. Although
reporters are writing less judgment sentences, the majority of the ones
that are written are unattributed. Judgment unattributed, favorable
sentences more than tripled to 218.18% and judgment unattributed,
unfavorable sentences more than doubled with a 160% increase.
However, the study does show that Associated Press reporters are writing
more favorable sentences with judgment attributed, favorable sentences
increasing 40% between 1997 and 2000 (Table 4).

Reporters are using fewer lead, introduction and concluding statements,
so there were a relatively low number of ^”other^‘ sentences in this study.
Experts coded 5.80% of the total sentences as "other." Between 1997
and 2000 there was a 53.70% decrease. After accounting for "other"
statements, approximately half of all sentences coded were inference or
judgment sentences indicating that Associated Press reporters are not
writing enough factual statements.

Table 4: Comparison of number of sentences occurring in each sentence
category between 1997 and 2000

Conclusions

Conclusions/Recommendations

The results of this study emphasize the importance of continued
educational efforts by agricultural communicators to increase the
agricultural literacy of reporters. Making reporters aware of their bias
statements may encourage them to include more factual and verifiable
statements. Greater frequency of fact-based articles and decreased use
of inference statements will result in an increasingly accurate picture of
agriculture.

Agricultural literacy efforts also need to be continued for the general
public. It is important that they be aware of the possibility of bias in
articles. This study concurs with the recommendations of Peper-Sitton
(2000) in that citizens should use newspapers as a source of information,
but they should not consider every sentence to be factual information
stated in a purely objective manner.

It is also recommended that those within the agricultural industry be
educated continuously on the new issues that arise. Commodity groups
and the Cooperative Extension Service should develop media training
programs to teach those within the industry how to talk to the media.
Greater access to and use of knowledgeable and reliable sources in the
agricultural industry will help reporters write more factual and verifiable
statements.

Researchers should investigate whether other industries, such as the
health industry, experience reporter bias. A review of the articles covering
the various industries will determine where the weaknesses lie. The
findings of this study provide a benchmark for comparison to results of
future studies inside and outside of the agricultural industry.

Future researchers should look at the articles posted on the Associated
Press wire service during a different month. The results are likely to
change according to the different seasons of the year as well as with the
different seasons of the agricultural industry.

It is also recommended that future researchers conduct a study using
agricultural publications. It is important that those within the agricultural
industry are agriculturally literate and are not writing an excess of bias,
favorable statements. Researchers should also look at the coverage of
agriculture in other countries. The findings of this study would show how
agriculture is reported in foreign countries and help to determine
agricultural literacy of those reporters. This type of study could encourage
the expansion of agricultural literacy efforts internationally.

A longitudinal study should also be conducted in the future to make sure
the number of agricultural stories posted on the Associated Press wire
service and the number of factual statements in these articles continue to
increase.


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