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Understanding the Media Approach to Aquaculture Issues


Several social studies have shown that the mass media can affect public perception of risk. It can shape public understanding in the way articles emphasise and de-emphasise particular aspects of risk and the way that certain issues are framed and presented, writes TheFishSite editor, Chris Harris.

A report published this year in the Journal of the World Aquaculture Society by Shannon M Amberg and Troy E Hall from the Department of Conservation Social Sciences at the University of Idaho, "Communicating Risks and Benefits of Aquaculture: A Content Analysis of US Newsprint Representations of Farmed Salmon", examines how US newspaper coverage of farmed salmon fluctuated as new scientific information was published.

It looked at how the risks and benefits of farmed salmon were reported and which received most attention.

The reports authors said that they had supposed that the media coverage would have focused more on the negative aspects of the issue than the positive. They felt that any health risks would be highlighted more than the health benefits and they expected the risks to be dramatic and rare and vividly portrayed.

The researchers looked at newspaper reports published between 2000 and 2005 and the content of each story was analysed.

"In many instances, media reporting is initiated by a stimulus or a ''trigger'' publicity event, which often occurs as a scientific discovery or statement publicized in a scientific journal or a press release from a research institute," says the report.

"Such events have been found to influence the volume of reporting as well as the ways issues are framed within news stories. For instance, specific trigger events were found to be responsible for increased media attention regarding the greenhouse effect as a global issue (Carvalho 2005), disease transmission and health effects associated with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) (O'Brien 2000), and the risks and benefits of biotechnologies for foods and medicines (Bauer 2002).

"In the case of farmed salmon, two recent studies (i.e., trigger events) have compared contaminants in farmed and wild salmon. The first study, conducted by the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) and released in July 2003, cited much higher levels of toxic chemicals in farmed Atlantic salmon than in wild caught salmon and claimed that eating farmed salmon would significantly increase the risk of developing cancer or fetal birth defects (EWG 2003). The study met with skepticism from the scientific community because of the small sample of fish used and concern about the objectivity of the organization conducting the study.

"The second much larger study, published in the journal Science in January 2004, also compared the level of contaminants and toxins found in farmed and wild salmon, reporting that levels of 12 of 13 toxic substances were significantly higher in the farmed salmon (Hites et al. 2004b). Based on Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, the authors recommended highly conservative consumption advisories for farmed salmon, claiming that the toxins found in the fish could increase the risk of cancer and defects in fetal and child development. However, by Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines, there was no substantial threat to health. The study sparked an immediate, heated debate among scientists about the proper interpretation of the findings and subsequent recommendations (Hardy 2004; Rembold 2004; Senkowsky 2004; Tuomisto et al. 2004). Other scientists and the aquaculture industry subsequently responded with claims that the health benefits outweigh any potential health risks. "The situation had quickly become contentious as the issue was shrouded in scientific controversy and disagreement over the findings."

The researchers then went on to study reports about contamination and health risks linked to farmed salmon that appeared in 2005.

They said that the series of articles showed how media coverage can change through the course of a story developing.

They also found it common that media coverage would start with a peak and then the coverage would decrease as the interest and novelty of the story fell away and the incident became "old news".

"Understanding such issue cycles can provide important insights into how long a particular issue remains in the media agenda and how public opinion may shift over time as a result of intense media attention and could help the aquaculture industry anticipate shifts in market demand," the report says.

The report also looks at the role the media plays in public policy debates.

The report concludes that while media coverage can affect public awareness, it places more weight on negative information than positive information.

It says that the media likes to focus on risks and events that are "rare, novel, vivid and dramatic".

And it adds that in an attempt to grab attention it is prone to overemphasise or exaggerate potential impacts of certain risks and not emphasise others. This, the researchers say, can skew the report and public perception.

"In the case of farmed salmon, the dramatic nature of risk to human health (e.g., cancer) associated with an icon of healthy food (e.g., heart healthy, low fat) creates an ideal controversial and novel news story. Few studies of media content have focused on issues characterized by both risks and benefits, and it remains unclear how media report on stories that involve weighing known benefits against potential risks of a situation," says the report.

The report authors say that because they had discovered that media coverage tends more towards the negative than the positive, they believe that any attention to farmed salmon would concentrate on the negative information - the health risks - rather than the positive information - the health benefits.

Hence it believes that reports of cancer risks will outweigh the reports of health potential.

In conclusion the research team said that the analytical approach used in the study helped to understand the media attention to the risks and benefits associated with farmed salmon.

They said that the image portrayed was predominantly negative and there was a sustained media attention for nearly two years to the severe dreadful health risks following the Hites report about contamination and health risks in farmed salmon in January 2004.

It says that the media was narrowly focused and paid little heed to other reports, such as ones from the European Food Safety Authority in 2005, that showed there was no difference between farmed and wild salmon with respect to contaminants and human safety.

The study says that the negative image that had been portrayed of farmed salmon could also have a knock-on effect to other aquaculture products, regardless of their risks and benefits.

"If so, this could have significant impacts on the industry," the report ends.

"Therefore, understanding how media attention to one sector of an industry spills over to others is an important avenue for future research."

Further Reading

- You can view the full report by clicking here.

June 2008