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As biotech discussions intensify, the ag community is gaining insight about media coverage and public opinion. Researchers at the Economics and Management of Agrobiotechnology Center (EMAC), located at the University of Missouri-Columbia, recently completed a study of media coverage on biotechnology.

The study examined positive and negative coverage about biotechnology during a 10-year period in four major newspapers: Daily Telegraph (UK), Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and USA Today. The study uncovers events and issues that affect biotech media coverage, and how much those issues affect coverage.

Hovering Around Neutral

According to Nick Kalaitzandonakes, associate professor of agribusiness and director of EMAC, press coverage of biotech during the past 10 years hasn't been one-sided. For every positive story, there is one negative story. In the early 1990s, it seemed as if the ratio was in technology's favor, with as many as two or three positive stories for every one negative.

"We went back to 1990, when biotech discussions were aspirational," he says of the research. "Stories were about what this technology may hold for the future. After that, the ag community assumed that all consumer communication about the technology that needed to take place had happened. That left a communications void in the mid- to late 1990s. This void was filled very effectively with negative messages."

The research shows a distinct change in coverage in the UK's Daily Telegraph in 1996. When mad cow disease hit the front page, there was an obvious spike in the amount of negative biotech coverage. Thus, the ratio of positive to negative coverage fell sharply.

"We can point on a time horizon to when mad cow disease happened and how that affected biotech press and public perception," Kalitzandonakes explains. "This illustrates the effect of specific issues, such as anxiety about food safety, on biotech press coverage. Negative coverage of biotech in the UK clearly accelerated since 1996."

Keep in mind that before the mad cow disease scare, the UK was second behind the U.S. in biotechnology research. Yet a 1999 UK survey found that only 1 percent of consumers saw any benefits in food biotechnology. What's more, when asked about trustworthy sources, doctors ranked first with experts and environmental groups following. Industry ranked last.

Reaction to mad cow disease in the U.S. hasn't been the same as in Europe, and its effect on biotechnology media wasn't as profound. "We didn't see the amount of negative content per article per newspaper increase in the U.S.," he says. "We saw a reduction in positive content, but there wasn't an increase in negative content until this year."

That's because the U.S. simply hasn't had a scare like mad cow disease. "The situation is different here," he says. "I don't think what's happening in the UK and EU will be replicated here. The debate about biotech will unfold in the U.S. In some cases, the debate will be difficult, but it will be a dialogue," Kalaitzandonakes says.

A recent IFIC survey reports that 75 percent of consumers believe that benefits are forthcoming and 78 percent trust FDA's approach to regulating biotech crops.

But work remains to be done. The same research also shows that 67 percent of surveyed consumers have heard little or nothing about biotechnology. Only 12 percent feel well-informed about biotech. And a mere 33 percent believe that there are bioengineered foods in the supermarkets.

Branding Fear

EMAC's research was complicated because media coverage isn't always positive or negative or neutral. In fact, messages can be contradictory within a story. The copy may appear neutral yet communicate strong messages through captions, call-out quotes or sidebars.

For example, Kalaitzandonakes points to the story in Consumer Reports, September 1999. This article seems well balanced when read in its entirety. However, prominent subtitles to the story included words such as ėsuperweeds," creating a negative image of biotech.

Kalaitzandonakes suggests that terminology such as "superweeds" and "franken foods" have become effective negative brands. These brands played an integral role in increasing consumer distrust in biotechnology.

"By definition, good brands must communicate quickly and create emotion. These words do both," he says. "In addition, it is a lot easier to create fear than excitement, especially in a population that doesn't understand food production."

He uses the acronym "GMO" as another example of a negative brand. "The term 'GMO' is negative to most consumers, but it means nothing," Kalaitzandonkes explains. "Every food today is genetically modified in one way or another. Even those of us in agriculture use that term, despite the negative connotation."

He also notes the lack of a positive brand. "We have a lot of positive content, but we haven't been able to establish a positive brand - a simple one-liner - for this new technology," he says. AM


Sarah Vacek is a free-lance writer based in Copperas Cove, Texas.

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