David Miller and Jacquie Reilly

Media Unit, Glasgow University, Scotl


An earlier version of this paper was presented at the AGEV European Interdisciplinary Meeting,

Current Research into Eating Practices: Contributions of the Social Sciences,

14-16 October 1993, Potsdam, Germany.

Published by the Glasgow University Media Group

(in association with the MRC Medical Sociology Unit, Glasgow University)

© the authors, March 1994

ISBN 0 9521669 4 1

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David Miller and Jacquie Reilly

Media Unit, Glasgow University


In the late nineteen eighties a number of high profile 'food scares' received extensive publicity in the British mass media. These included stories about salmonella in eggs, listeria in cheese and BSE or mad-cow disease in beef.

While these dramatic food panics received widespread publicity, other issues, which are at least as consequential for human health, have received less dramatic coverage. The risks of salmonella in eggs and chicken have been well known for some time; why did such a media furore arise at that particular time? And why did this apparently cause a dramatic downturn in the buying and eating of eggs, when 'health warnings' about the links between eating eggs, cholesterol levels in the blood and coronary heart disease have not had similar effects?

This paper raises a number of problems associated with answering this question and proposes an approach to studying the media. In doing so it surveys some of the literature on media coverage of health issues and on scares in the media. We argue that the influential argument about 'moral panics' (Cohen, 1972) is flawed. In common with much other writing on the media it attempts to explain movements in social control , policy and public opinion and belief by reference to an analysis of media content alone. Consequently the notion that there may be a disjunction between the activities of 'the control culture', media content, audience belief and the impact of public opinion is frequently unexplored and the connections between the news media and their sources and audience are rarely directly investigated.

We conclude by emphasising the importance of examining the processes by which media accounts are produced, understood and acted upon for a full understanding of the emergence, non-emergence and disappearance of food scares



In the late nineteen eighties a number of high profile 'food scares' received extensive publicity in the British media. These included stories about salmonella in eggs, listeria in cheese and Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE or 'mad-cow' disease) in cattle.

While these dramatic food panics received widespread publicity, other issues, which are at least as consequential for human health, have received less coverage. The risks of salmonella in eggs and chicken have been well known for some time; why did such a media furore arise at that time? And why did this apparently cause a dramatic downturn in the buying and eating of eggs, when 'health warnings' about the links between eating eggs, cholesterol levels in the blood and coronary heart disease have not had similar effects? How and why do some food related issues come to have such a high public profile while others remain relatively obscure? And why might these high profiles sometimes result in dramatic (albeit short-term) changes in consumption patterns and shifts in important public policies.

This paper raises a number of problems associated with answering such questions and proposes an approach to studying the media in society. We will review the main currents of popular debate on media reporting of health risks and briefly consider the widely influential concept of 'moral panic' arguing both that it does not apply to food 'scares' and that it is in any case fundamentally flawed. The main part of the paper sets out three major areas of media research (on sources, production and content and public belief) which need to be linked. Running through this discussion is firstly a sketch of how the media operate in society, secondly, our main points of criticism of popular and academic debate and thirdly our view on an agenda for media research on food risks and food choice.

Our argument is that in order to understand the role of the media in food choice we need to do much more than simply examine media content. First, we need to be aware that choice is limited by the options provided by what Ben Fine and Judith Wright term the 'system of provision' (Fine and Wright, 1991). Central to the system of provision is the economic logic of the food manufacturing, distributing and retailing industry and the role of the State in regulating production and consumption. Clearly consumer choices are constrained by material factors at the level of consumption, but there are a whole series of constraints which operate at the levels of manufacture, distribution and retailing. We do not propose to examine such factors in detail. Nevertheless, we can note that material constraints matter not only at the level of the individual (or household, class, gender, neighbourhood or age, for example) and consumption, but also at higher levels in the system of provision.

There is a second way in which we might think of limits imposed by systems of provision; that is in the provision of information via the mass media. Media institutions themselves have their own distinctive rationale as producers of information. We can see the operation of media institutions and the distribution and consumption of their products in analogous ways to the system of food provision. Here again, the market and the state have very important roles in production and consumption.

In short, food choice is dependent upon an extremely complex food information system which must be analytically integrated with the food system itself if it and its role are to be properly understood (Fine et al, 1993: 6).

If we are to explain the role of the media in food choice we need to examine the operation of the whole media system and not just those parts which impinge directly on consumption. We need to understand firstly, the inputs into media organisations and their economic context; second, the production and content of media messages; thirdly, the impact of the media on public belief and consumption as well as the ways in which the media and public opinion affect the policy agenda and decision making and resourcing more widely.

Current commentary on the media and food

Both academic and popular discussion about the reporting of food risks is peppered with criticisms of the media. The media are blamed for purveying the 'propaganda' of the food industry or the government, or promoting unhealthy foods. For many food activists, the lack of information reaching the consumer is a major problem. This is seen as the responsibility of a secretive food industry (Cannon, 1987) and/or a timid, or in some cases, conspiratorial media. The media are also thought of as transmitting propaganda in giving unhealthy role models. This criticism applies to editorial content (e.g. Moore et al, 1992) but is particularly apparent in relation to advertising (Dibb, 1993; Morton, 1984; 1990; 1991; Ostbye et al., 1993). Such criticisms are commonplace in public health medicine, nutrition and health education/promotion

Alternatively, the media damage sales, are anti-business, a source of unwarranted 'scares' and in the grip of the food 'fascists', 'terrorists' or 'Leninists'.* In the crisis around Salmonella in 1988/89, Jerry Wiggin, Conservative MP and Chair of the Commons select committee on Agriculture denounced the role of television, accusing it of 'pouring petrol over the flames' by interviewing Professor Richard Lacey of Leeds University and Dr Tim Lang of the London Food Commission.

A key concern in criticisms of the media is the alleged effects of the media, particularly on the vulnerable (such as the young or ill informed). For example, Jerry Wiggin went on to say 'It might be too much to expect that any balanced view should be broadcast but I do wonder how widespread the distress caused by these two gentlemen must have been among less informed members of the public'.(Ford, 1989:3).

Both perspectives are agreed that the media have direct and harmful impacts on public belief and behaviour. For one side the problem is the power of the food industry to shape preferences in order to sell products, for the other it is the power of activists to marshal irrationality with the result that the nation is put off its food.

Problems of Media Research

Some of the characterisations of the media prominent in the public debates around food, find echoes in media research. One of the most common approaches to analysing the media has been to subject the output of television or newspaper reports to quantitative or qualitative content analysis. This can give us valuable insights into the output of media institutions and facilitate debates about how well media represent the world. It cannot, however, tell us much about why media content takes the form it does. Questions about the domination of the media by official sources, journalistic ideology, the influence of proprietors and editors, the dynamics of public service or capitalist media are all inadequately answered by examination of media content alone. Early research which started from this recognition included ethnographic investigations of news production (e.g. Schlesinger 1987) or attempts to look at the political economy of mass communications (e.g. Murdock and Golding, 1977).

But even these approaches suffered from what was to be called a 'media-centric' approach (Schlesinger, 1990). In much work (both Marxist and pluralist) there was a tendency to ignore the relationship between the media and the social institutions on which they report, except as that relationship was perceived by journalists. This recognition has ushered in a renewed interest in the ways in which social institutions organise strategies for dealing with the media (e.g. Anderson, 1991; Cook, 1989; Miller, 1993; Miller and Williams, 1993; Schlesinger, Tumber and Murdock, 1991)

A second limitation of content analysis is that the influence of the media on public opinion cannot simply be predicted or assessed by a reading of media content alone. (The term 'content analysis' is used here simply to refer to the analysis of media output. Thus it is intended to refer to all sorts of analyses which prefer to go by other names, such as discourse analysis or textual analysis.). Instead public understandings and media 'effects' need to be directly examined. In the last ten or so years, work on the impact of the media has again become very popular in media and cultural studies. Such work has concentrated on examining media (mainly television) audiences and has been concerned with demonstrating audience 'activity'. In some variants texts are seen as having no fixed meanings and audiences may (to some extent at least) pick and choose the meanings they take from a given message. This approach has been one reason for the lack of empirical research that analyses media texts together with their interpretation by audiences. McLeod et al cite this as one of the weakness of much audience research (1991, p. 256). Such an approach is as Corner notes 'the most important thing for audience research to focus on' (1991, p. 275). We think that it is important to study the media by examining the relationships between the media and their sources, media products, the response to them and their place in wider society. This includes examining the relationship between media messages and public opinion and behaviour and the impact of both public opinion and the media on policy and more broadly on society and culture.

We will go on to discuss some of the problems associated with each area of media research below, but first we want to examine the key and widely influential concept of 'moral panic' which is often used to explain media 'scares'. In our view this is a clear example of the problems of media-centrism and (typically) does not make adequate distinctions between different parts of the process of media production. We then briefly set out our criticisms of the newer, but still influential, public arenas model. In the following sections, we deal with some of the difficulties of contemporary writing and set out how to tackle empirical research on each phase of the process by which media messages are produced and circulated. Before that we will examine the key general problems with such writing.

Moral Panics

The term 'moral panic' is most often associated with criminologist Stan Cohen and his well known study Folk Devils and Moral Panics published in 1972. In it Cohen argued that inegalitarian social orders created problems for powerless and marginalised sections of society and then used their rebellion to reinforce the social order via the mechanism of a 'moral panic', which he defined as follows:

A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests: its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to (Cohen, 1972: 9).

Panics are held to function as a mechanism of control by the 'control culture' in which the mass media act as a means of deviancy 'amplification'. This analysis was developed further and 'politicised' (Harris, 1992) by Stuart Hall and his colleagues in their (again) widely influential book Policing the Crisis (Hall et al. 1978; See also Hall, 1988) in which they argue:

To put it crudely, the 'moral panic' appears to us to be one of the principal forms of ideological consciousness by means of which a "silent majority" is won over to the support of increasingly coercive measures on the part of the state, and lends its legitimacy to a "more than usual" exercise of control (Hall et al. 1978: 221)

The most widely noted problem with a deviancy amplification model is, as Cohen himself has noted, that it becomes difficult to explain how panics subside:

Although it is not implausible to suggest that something like this sequence may have operated, one problem immediately apparent in any attempt to generalise too rigidly from it, is that no readily available explanation exists as to how and why the sequence ever ends (1972: 198; cf. Ditton, 1979)

This also raises the issue of why 'panics' start when they do. Cohen's own answer was that there was 'a lack of interest' from the public and the mass media. This was the case 'when it was felt that "something is being done about it"' (1972: 200). In the variant elaborated by Hall and his colleagues this problem is compounded by the notion of a 'more then usual' exercise of control. When Policing the Crisis was being written there was abundant evidence of the drift to a 'law and order' society (under, it should be remembered, a Labour government). Indeed, it could be argued that there still is more than enough of that type of evidence. However, the problem with the theorising in Policing the Crisis is the lack of indication of a mechanism by which the degree of control could be lessened. If the state was able to secure a 'more than usual' level of control in the 1970s, then are we now in a period where it is able to secure 'much more than usual' control? If not, the question is how did we get back to 'usual' or 'normal'? Asking this question implies not just how do panics decline but also 'how were the coercive measures rolled back'? In fact the key problem is the lack of a mechanism by which society changes at all, except as dictated by the state structure. Because it is the state which (theoretically) creates and manages the moral panic as an instrument of control, there is no space for countervailing pressures to operate against the assumed might of the state. What is missing from the model, then, is a notion of active struggle at the level of the media.

The most serious flaw of moral panics, especially in the variant developed by Hall, is its lack of agency. It is never very clear who is doing the panicking; is it the media, the government, the public or who? (cf. Barker, 1992). This problem is partly explained at the methodological level by the fact that both Cohen's and Hall's work is largely based on an analysis of press cuttings, and the activities of the rest of the 'control culture' (for the press is seen as part of it) or the beliefs of the public go entirely unexamined except as they are 'read-off' from an analysis of news coverage. Cohen refers to the impact on public opinion as 'mass delusion' (1980: 200), yet whether the public were actually as deluded as Cohen imagines remains an open question.

There is a further problem in using the concept of 'moral panic', as some sociologists have recently done (Beardsworth, 1990; Gofton, 1990) to explain food safety crises. In the original study Cohen concludes:

More moral panics will be generated and other, as yet nameless, folk devils will be created. This is not because such developments have an inexorable inner logic, but because our society, as present structured, will continue to generate problems for some of its members - like working class adolescents - and then condemn whatever solution these groups find (1972: 204)

There are two problems here. First, food scares just don't fit the model and second, moral panics are held to be instruments of the ruling class. 'Folk Devils' in this analysis are marginalised sections of society labelled 'deviant' by the 'control culture' In the case of the 'scares' or 'panics' over Salmonella or Listeria who are the folk devils?; and who are the representatives of the 'control culture'? Should we label the egg industry as a marginalised section of society for which society 'as present structured' generates problems? Are we to label food pressure groups and consumers the 'control culture'? A further issue is to which side do we allocate the government in this analysis. According to policy analysts of differing persuasions and to the former Permanent Secretary at MAFF, Sir Michael Franklin, it is on the contrary the food industry which has been the most influential player in the policy arena in the entire post-war period (Mills, 1991; 1992; Franklin, 1993; Smith, 1989; 1991).

Secondly, 'society as present structured' is described as creating problems for marginalised groups, to which they only respond. This is a very instrumental model and assumes that the power to define social issues rests only with the 'control culture' or the 'structure' of society (cf Miller 1993). However, it is our contention that the definition of social issues is drawn up in struggle between different social groups and between the agency of living humans and the structures of society which they constitute and reconstitute by their actions (cf Giddens 1994).

Our criticism of Moral Panic theory is, therefore, wider than just saying that it doesn't fit the case of food and health issues. We think that the remarks we have just made point to a much more profound criticism of the model and its explanations of media practice. At the methodological and theoretical levels, we need to be clearer about what is meant by the amorphous concept of a 'control culture' which makes no analytical distinction between the media and the state. Indeed in the work of Hall and his colleagues, the media are theorised, following Althusser, as an Ideological State Apparatus.

However, It does not seem unreasonable to suppose that the state or industry (or sections of them) do on occasion launch public relations campaigns which result in large scale media attention and widespread public concern or changes in legislation or official practice. However, it is possible, in principle, (given official secrecy and the self denying status of propaganda) to discover that this is the case. It cannot be assumed by reading off from media content alone.

Public Arenas model

More recently American Sociologists Stephen Hilgartner and Charles Bosk (1988) have set out an empirically grounded model. This might explain both the emergence and decline of public issues or social problems. Rather than focus on the state or the 'control culture' they take the public sphere as their starting point.

The 'public arenas model' proposes that issues compete for space on the public agenda, but that space is limited by the 'carrying capacities' of public institutions. There are obviously more potential public issues vying to get on to public agendas than issues which actually become publicly important. Once an issue is defined as important it is subject to continuing pressure for attention. This is how Hilgartner and Bosk explain the demise of social issues: They are literally forced off the agenda by other competing issues.

For Hilgartner and Bosk 'public arenas' include:

the executive and legislative branches of government, the courts, made for TV movies, the cinema, the news media (television news, magazines, newspapers, and radio), political campaign organisations, social action groups, direct mail solicitations, books dealing with social issues, the research community, religious organisations, professional societies, and private foundations' (1988:58-59).

This seems to us a rather broad definition which raises the question of what is not a public arena? This in turn highlights one of the deficiencies of the model, which is that it seems to leave out the non-public, i.e. the private. There is no mention of the management of secrecy. Since almost everything is a public arena the airing of public issues is seen as being determined by factors internal to the arena. We might therefore characterise the model as 'arena-centred' in that almost all fora are described as public arenas. There is little space for activity outside an arena, i.e. in private or in secret. Therefore there is little interest in assessing the part which such factors play in setting the agenda in a public arena.

Public Arenas and the Media

The public arenas model has the advantage over models such as moral panic that it includes a notion of the active pursuit of definitional advantage. The public arenas model draws on a wide variety of literatures.

In addition to using the work of natural history theorists, our model draws on work that emphasises the role of drama in the social problems process. We also use the literature on interpretive processes in the mass media, noting the importance of the selections made by well-positioned cultural "gatekeepers" in controlling the flow of messages to audiences. In addition, we borrow from organisational network theory, stressing the influence of and the interrelationships between institutions and social networks in which problem definitions are framed and publicly presented. At times, we draw on resource mobilisation work on social movements, although we recognise that the focus of this literature - on collective action, rather than on collective definition - distinguishes its central concern from ours. We press into service the political science literature on agenda setting, recognising that its original focus (the processes that structure the agenda for government decision making in official forums) is narrower than ours (the processes that structure collective concern in public arenas). Finally, we anchor this model in an ecological framework, not to suggest deterministic relationships, but to highlight the resource constraints that human actors face in constructing social problems.' (Hilgartner and Bosk, 1988:53-54)

For our purposes, we can identify especially the literature on social problems. One key limit of much of this field is that the issues defined as social problems are in the main problems caused for the social order by the powerless. Less attention was devoted to the social problems caused by the powerful. Governments had problems with deviants, rather than the people having problems with the state. This is particularly the case in criminology and the study of deviance. A central plank of the 'new criminology' of the late 1960's, early 70's was a critique of this functionalist approach (Taylor et al, 1973).

In relation to the public arena(s) provided by the mass media, we would not want to deny the importance of media factors in maintaining issues on the public agenda. News values, novelty and the economic logic of media organisations clearly have an important impact on the emergence and coverage of public issues such as food safety or Coronary Heart Disease, but it seems to us that the public arenas model approaches the discussion from an overly media-centric perspective. In the Salmonella epidemic, our argument is that the key limiter was not a technical phenomena such as a 'saturation effect', but that interest declined because some arguments are apparently won or lost and others resolved. This is more than saying it was impossible to maintain interest because of a lack of drama and novelty. The public arena model places an undue emphasis on factors internal to the arena, or perhaps more correctly conceives of the arena in a way too broad to cope with strategic action. It is too arena-centred. It is not only a lack of media (arena) interest which kills off stories. If enough news sources stop pushing an issue, then it will disappear. In the Salmonella crisis the food industry managed to shift responsibility to the consumer (the victim) and the government agreed to introduce food safety legislation thus (at least) giving the appearance of moving towards some of the campaigning demands of food pressure groups. In such circumstances the rationale for the story is removed or symbolically, if not actually, resolved; Something is being done. (See Reilly and Miller, 1993 for a discussion of developments in media coverage of the Salmonella outbreak). As Hilgartner and Bosk emphasise, it does not matter whether the problem has actually been solved: According to official figures Salmonella poisoning today is much greater than it was in 1988 when the crisis emerged as a public issue (PHLS-SVS, 1993). The public arena provided by the mass media are a key terrain on which arguments are won or lost. It should not be forgotten that while this arena is subject to all sorts of media priorities these are also bound up with the priorities of all sorts of social institutions. The central advantage of studying the media strategies of such organisations is that inputs into the media become much more visible.

Researching the Media

As we have just noted, an examination of the relationship between the media and the social world on which they report, entails examining the activities of individuals and groups in their attempts to: 1. build credibility, status, resources or morale as an end in itself or 2. influence food policy, media coverage, public knowledge or consumption behaviour. Research therefore needs to be conducted which examines the activities of media sources from the perspective of sources themselves. The strategies organised by social institutions to influence the media and the public will be related to the (financial, institutional and cultural) resources available and to the economic and cultural logic of the field in question. This is a particularly important question in understanding the food industry and advertising (Fine and Leopold, 1993).

It is essential in properly analysing the activities of sources to pay close attention to the economic context and economic logic within which organisations exist. Clearly the media strategies of business and industrial organisations relate to questions of market penetration and profit maximisation. This will (to a greater or lesser extent) determine the kind of advertising conducted by such organisations. It is not enough to read the interests and intentions of big corporations from the content of advertising images. (Fine and Leopold, 1993)

Media dependence on sources and their publicity strategies

Media institutions depend for their existence on their sources. Without informants there would be very little of what we currently understand as news. News sources increasingly recognise the value of planning media strategies to manage their image in the media and with the public. One consequence of focusing attention on the media as the cause of many and diverse social ills is that critics often lose sight of the relationship between the media and other social institutions in the production of news accounts. The Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture employ large numbers of Information Officers whose function is to liase between the media and government. In 1991 the Department of Health had 54 people employed in their Information Division and MAFF had 26 staff in the press and public relations section of the Information Division (Figures from Hansard, 26 April 1991, Col. 103-104, 12 March 1990, Col. 82). Together their budgets for advertising and public relations for 1991/92 was over £30 million (Figures from Hansard. 5 November 1991, Col. 78-80, 103-105). Government departments are the continuous site of bureaucratic activity which produce large amounts of information for journalists every day. Such institutions have a considerable potential for managing news coverage.

However, if media strategies contain diverse elements which pull against each other then contradictions within strategies, should they emerge, will obviously be news. It is in this sense that we can speak of media strategies being well or poorly handled. The recent concern about Patulin in Apple Juice is a case in point. There seems to have been a feeling in some parts of MAFF that the handling of that incident was a case of the Ministry shooting itself in the foot. The story reached the media in February 1993. The contamination had, however, been known about for seven months and had deliberately been kept from the public. Much of the press concern at the time was about what was seen as unacceptable secrecy in MAFF which has been promoting itself quite successfully, as the most open department in Whitehall. There were a total of 41 items in the British national press on Patulin. Thirty of these (73%) were chiefly about government secrecy. Indeed in an interview with the Guardian in January 1993, the food Minister Nicholas Soames had gone so far as to claim that 'It's impossible to give the brutes more. If the Chief Vet does have a secret file stuck up his jumper, I don't know about it' (2 January 1993). At the same time as this his department was sitting on information about poisoned Apple juice.

competition between sources

Government, industry and pressure groups all recognise the value of formulating strategies to gain influence. These will inevitably involve elements of enclosure and disclosure - secrecy and publicity. Any organisation which attempts to manage the media will find itself in competition with a whole range of other organisations in its own field and other fields for space and favourable comment. Sometimes media strategies will involve explicit aims in relation to competition or co-operation with other organisations. The National Farmers Union, for example, has, since 1990, instituted a three phase Public Affairs strategy which located some of the problems of the farming industry in the 'siege mentality' of farmers themselves (Dillon, 1990). Two years later, the NFU themselves regarded the strategy as a great success. This success was described in an internal report in the following terms: 'The Today programme, one of the most influential among decision makers, has now made it official: "Farmers are no longer whinging"' (Dillon Roberts, 1992).

The planning of such a strategy recognises that it is necessary and potentially possible to improve relations with the media and hence that problems of image or power are not only due to the media

Division within sources

Bureaucratic organisations house large numbers of competing interests and agendas (Williams 1989). It is precisely the function of the press office to manage such differences and divisions and present a unified face to the outside world (Miller, 1993; Miller and Williams, 1993). A divided organisation can be a weaker organisation. Similarly a divided government can mean a failure of government agenda-building or conversely the success of a part of government in promoting it's own interests. It is too simplistic to say that such divisions are then reported or exaggerated by the media. In fact media interest in such divisions are an intimate part of the failure. One of the key factors which prompted the explosion of interest in Salmonella in Eggs in early December 1988 was the fact that there was an obvious division within government between DoH and MAFF. The rise in Salmonella poisoning and the attempts by MAFF and the industry to keep it out of the news was well documented by the Commons Agriculture Committee (1989a; 1989b) in their report Salmonella in Eggs. After Edwina Currie had made her famous statement that 'Most of the egg production in this country, sadly, is now infected with Salmonella' on Independent Television News on December 3, 1988, the explosion of media interest could not be sustained on it's own momentum. The 'story' would in fact have died a lot sooner than it did if it had not been for an abrupt tactical about turn by the industry including the National Farmers Union (NFU). Instead of playing the issue down the priority at the NFU was to keep it in the news, in order to push for compensation and to secure Edwina Currie's dismissal or resignation. According to the then NFU head of PR, Warren Newman:

It was in our interest at the NFU to make it stay in the news as an issue because of the distress that was going to be happening down there on the farm... What we had to do was refocus on the consequences of what she (Edwina Currie) said and for that reason we had nothing to lose. We were pressing for compensation, we had to make it embarrassing for the government. We had to force the government to introduce compensatory measures and we had to force the government to disown what Edwina had said. You could only do that by keeping it alive (Interview with the authors, 8 April 1993).

The story was eventually limited by Edwina Currie's departure as well as by a shift in media perceptions of the cause of the problem from egg production to kitchen hygiene. Speaking very generally, this is one reason why Salmonella is different to the issue of BSE which has not been dampened so quickly. Indeed, the very uncertainty of scientific knowledge on BSE and the key question of possible human transmission, has meant that BSE can even now re-emerge sporadically on the front pages of the newspapers. By comparison Salmonella is a dead issue. In 1991, 1992 and 1993, British national daily and Sunday newspapers carried 99, 95 and 132 separate stories on BSE. By comparison Salmonella was covered in only 36, 12 and 23 items respectively in the same period. Unless it can be shifted back to a problem of production Salmonella in eggs is unlikely to become a major issue again.

Divisions in scientific knowledge can also lead to controversies in the media, especially if research appears to overturn the scientific orthodoxy. Let us use as an example the 1991 controversy over the preliminary findings of the Caerphilly study of coronary heart disease among middle aged men (MRC Epidemiology Unit, 1991). This MRC study apparently contained data which cast doubt on the well known hypothesis that there is a link between saturated fat consumption and Coronary Heart Disease. This was reported widely in the press under headlines such as 'Pinta men are all heart' (Daily Star, 13 February 1991), and 'Milk 'helps avert heart disease"' (The Guardian, 13 February 1991). Journalism relies on credible, authoritative and expert sources. Journalists have no independent set of criteria by which to evaluate the truth of news stories, so they tend to value status and authority over other criteria. Natural science, by contrast, does claim to have an independent way of knowing the truth about the world. In addition, as Anne Karpf has pointed out 'science and medicine still have a unique social authority, as if they somehow bypass social, political, economic and emotional factors: we seem to believe that science is thought with the thinkers removed - as if that were possible' (Karpf, 1993). So, when apparently reputable and high status research gives new and controversial findings, it is difficult for journalists to ignore. Of course, it is also true that such findings are very important for some sections of the food industry. Public relations companies working for the industry will be eager to promote some aspects of such work. In this case it was apparently a PR company working for the Butter Council which helped to distribute parts of the findings (Connor, 1991).

Media production and content


Media institutions are not simply the instruments of either government, the food industry or of pressure groups. They have their own interests and agendas. Newspapers are run as a business, but this does not mean that they simply go for the story which will bring in the most readers. Newspapers are carefully targeted at particular social groupings and stories in the papers will, to some extent, reflect the 'personality' of the paper. Despite recent changes in broadcasting regulation, television and radio do still retain a significant public service ethos. This can mean that some sections of the broadcast media consider their role as an educative one and accordingly their programmes will reflect the dominant trends in medical thinking in relation to diet. With it's responsibility for 'minority' programming, Channel Four is more likely to broadcast contending alternative views on issues of diet and health, such as the recent 'Food file' series or programmes questioning the link between dietary fats and heart disease (The same is true with other health issues such as HIV/AIDS).


Media organisations can be highly internally differentiated within the media organisation. It is quite possible to find reports which are completely contradictory in factual details or in perspective. In the broadsheet press there are a large number of specialist correspondents who each have their own 'beats' and their own range of contacts. Health and medical correspondents have quite different contacts than agriculture correspondents and these in turn are different from those of consumer correspondents. Specialist journalists can often become very close to their sources and become dependent on a limited range of contacts. In the post war period the Times agriculture Correspondent was, according to Martin Smith 'almost a member of the policy community' (Conversation with Martin Smith, Dept Politics, Sheffield University 29 April 1988. See Smith, 1989; 1991). This is one reason why a paper like the Sun has very few specialist correspondents. It has no health, medical, consumer or agriculture specialist in order that they don't miss a story because of the journalists protectiveness towards their sources. As former editor Larry Lamb put it:

specialists on newspapers were mostly dilettantes anyway, under-employed and equipped with expensive perks like private secretaries. Worst of all, they became members of their respective clubs, which actually encouraged them not to dirty their patch by writing embarrassing stories. If a story was big enough, Lamb held, it could be covered by a general reporter. The alternative argument, that specialists had in-depth knowledge of their subject, did not interest him (Chippendale and Horrie 1990).

The Sun does however have a slimming editor.

The increase in coverage of food issues in the last 10 years is also partly attributable to the marketing strategies of newspapers. In the 1970's food writing was apparently confined in the broadsheets to what has been called the 'ghetto' of the women's pages. 'The usual dose then was a weekly cookery column from a single regular, outside contributor' (Crawford Poole, 1993:19). From being a domestic topic appearing weekly on the women's page, food and drink writing now has its own two or three page spread in the style and leisure parts of the weekend paper. The increase in food writing opportunities was one factor in the formation of the Guild of Food writers in April 1984 (Cooper, 1985). The Guild now sees itself as having a campaigning agenda and since 1989 has produced it's own newsletter. One consequence of this process has been the opening up of space in food pages for critical and political views on food in addition to recipes and gourmet writing.

The existence of advertising is an additional factor in newspapers and on commercial television. The content of advertising is determined (within certain limits) by the motive of selling products. This is quite different from a public service motivation, and it means that there can often be a contradiction between the messages given about food in advertising and those in editorial coverage. However, given that advertising revenue is what funds commercial television, there is a sense in which it is audiences themselves rather than television programmes which 'are the primary commodity. The economics of commercial broadcasting revolves around the exchange of audiences for advertising revenue' (Golding and Murdock, 1991:20). The need to secure large audiences promotes the production of familiar programming and limits the production of innovative or risky programmes. 'Hence', as Golding and Murdock argue 'the audience's position as a commodity serves to reduce the overall diversity of programming and ensure that it confirms established mores and assumption far more often than it challenges them' (1991:20). The contest between food and health pressure groups and advertisers over acceptable advertising is thus adjudicated on by a body (the Independent Television Commission) which, although required by law to be 'independent', depends for its existence on advertising revenue (See Dibb, 1993 for some decisions on particular cases)

News Content

The analysis of source strategies and media production informs analysis of media output. The contest between news sources comes to a temporary close at this 'moment of definition' (Schlesinger et al, 1991:391). Our analysis assumes that it is possible to analyse media content in its place in the process of mass communication. News content cannot, however, tell us about the context or process of media production, nor can it tell us how media messages are interpreted or reveal their impact. It is perfectly possible for media messages to 'mean' something different from what was intended by its producers (for example, a text containing ideological assumptions of which the producer is not consciously aware) as it is possible for viewers to interpret something differently from the meaning of the text - that is to misinterpret. But we do not follow the 'use value' (as Fine and Leopold, 1993 call it) school of interpretation in which the analyst can read almost anything into any text as a means of revealing its 'deep structure'; in everyday language this is known as speculation. One example of this approach is to be found in Roger Fowler's analysis of press language in the reporting of the Salmonella crisis. Fowler starts off by revealing 'a working principle in discourse analysis or critical linguistics'. This is that 'we assume that the ostensible subject of representation in discourse is not what it is "really about"' (1991:170). Garnham has argued against such an approach which, as he says, remains 'dominant' in the field. This is the :

tendency which privileged the text and laid its analytical focus on questions of representation and ideology. This tendency developed out of literary and film studies and carried its textuality into versions of structuralist and post-structuralist Marxism and on into post modernism. It took with it the bacillus of romanticism and its longing to escape from the determining material and social constraints of human life, from what is seen as the alienation of human essence, into a world of unanchored, non-referential signification and the free play of desire. The dionysian mind-set of this tendency and its deep roots within western European culture are, I think, clear. It is also perfectly designed as an ideology of intellectuals or cultural workers for it privileges their special field of activity, the symbolic, and provides for cheap research opportunities, since the only evidence required is the unsubstantiated views of the individual analyst (Garnham, 1990:1-2).

In Fowler's analysis, the problems of ignoring the production process are illustrated when he talks of the food industry being 'mostly silent' (1991: 151) during the Salmonella crisis. As we have already noted, one of the key reasons why the story lasted as long as it did was because of the active public relations tactics of at least part of the industry. Fowler's analysis usefully points up the victim-blaming nature of much press coverage of the Salmonella affair. He then attributes such coverage to the press following the lead of the egg industry: 'That such a strategy was deployed does not need proving: it is widely evident in the newspaper(s)' (1991:181). The thing which does 'need proving' is the relationship between the egg industry and the media and the conditions under which the victim-blaming approach taken by MAFF and the industry came to dominate the media. Fowler writes as if the press deliberately followed a strategy of victim-blaming for particular political purposes. It is conceivable that this occurred, but he has no evidence for such a proposition.

Furthermore, the impact of media messages cannot be read off from news content as some analysts suggest. According to Fowler, the use of statistical extrapolations in the media, and in particular a Sunday Times claim that salmonella was possibly infecting up to 2 million people a year, was so dramatic 'as to make an alarming impact on public consciousness' (1991:166). Fowler writes that 'the reader is bombarded with lots of very high numbers, and will certainly remember the 2,000,000, however sceptical s/he is about it' (1991:167). However, he also argues, in direct contradiction, that 'such figures are very difficult for newspaper readers to take in and retain' (1991:167). The plain fact is that Fowler doesn't know whether readers of the press did, or did not, remember this, or any other figure, because he hasn't done any research on audience understandings, or even an analysis of public opinion data. Such approaches to the analysis of texts or systems of thought are not only to be found in media and cultural studies. They can also be found in sociology and anthropology. One example is Fiddes' analysis of meat, in which he explores the apparent unease with which we treat the idea of eating carnivores. It was this, says Fiddes, which is at the root of public disquiet over Salmonella and BSE. The revelation that Salmonella infections were being exacerbated by the practice of feeding chickens the remains of dead chickens, and that BSE was apparently caused by the feeding of Scrapie infected sheep carcasses to cattle, was a major factor in public concern:

This disclosure outraged members of the public who had been unaware of such practices. Concern seemed partly to stem from the uneasy feeling that by recirculating the ground-up remains of dead birds we were causing the chickens to be unnaturally cannibalistic, but also partly because this meant that they had now become carnivores (Fiddes, 1991:139)

Public concern there certainly was, since both egg and beef sales declined as a result of the crises, but whether it related to deep seated concerns about the ingestion of predators is open to resolution only by empirical analysis of public understandings or, possibly, opinion polls (See Ross, 1980, for a critique of such anthropological approaches ). As with Fowler's analysis of news texts, this part of Fiddes' analysis of the 'deep structure' of public concerns is entirely unsupported by evidence or public understandings.

The analysis of news can tell us how the world is represented and which ideas are promoted and which marginalised. News texts also indicate the preliminary closure of contest over definition. It is important for us to make analytical distinctions between the state, the media and the audience in order that we properly investigate the links and disjunctions between different arenas.

The impact of the media

The main debates about the problems of the media revolve around their damaging impact on the 'gullible' public. We should also recognise that the media can have effects on industry, government, pressure groups and a host of other categories of organisation. It seems likely that the 1990 Food Safety Act was born partially out of media coverage of Salmonella and Listeria. Similarly, a high media profile can bring in new resources or membership for poorly resourced pressure groups. Often the results of media coverage on policy or politics will not be visible to the general public but will make important differences to the organisations involved.

A major problem for critics of the 'malign' influence of the media is their assumption that the impact of the media is straightforward and direct. Consumers, (especially groups perceived as vulnerable such as children and 'housewives' are thought to be particularly at risk from media messages. This is true of much of the health education literature as well as that on advertising and health (Dibb, 1993, Karpf, 1990b). It is also true of much of the comment from those who see the media as being in league with the 'food terrorists', as in the following critique of the first of six programmes in the Channel Four series Food File from gourmet and restauranteur Egon Ronay. The programme, he argued:

misleadingly coats the pill of intimidation, conceals the obsessiveness of doom-merchants and insidiously turns half-baked theories into received wisdom.... The television ridden British public, slumped in sofas and vulnerable to prettily presented generalisations, needs to be forewarned to take the diet to be dished out over the next five weeks with thousands of grains of salt (Sunday Times, 8 March 1992).

The problem is that people do not passively absorb everything that is beamed from their television set. Instead, they interpret and contextualise. They might end up believing the information they get from television or the press or advertising, or they might not. Preliminary results from our research with groups of people in Scotland indicate that national identity can strongly influence the credibility of dietary advice. There is a tendency to disbelieve healthy eating information because it is perceived as 'English' in origin. Such factors will of course work unevenly in relation to the experience and background of members of the public. Scottish national identity is likely to be a much less salient factor in interpretations of media messages amongst English people!

Methods for investigating public belief vary quite widely. The use of surveys, questionnaires, statistical data, individual or group interviews, observation and participant observation have all been used. Some research (especially that associated with more quantitative methods) is limited by its origins in a model which assumes that individuals make choices in the light of the available information (Fine et al., 1993). Such research tends to be either victim blaming or media bashing (Miller and Reilly, 1993). On the other hand, research which uses more qualitative methods tends to reject approaches which focus on 'poor choices' and redirect attention to the rationality of the lay public (e.g. Davison, 1989; Davison et al, 1989; 1992; Frankel et al 1991).

There is, however, one factor which unites the first type of research with some of the more qualitative approaches; The portrayal of public belief as static. We think this is the result of particular methods, but also because of an approach which investigates the content of people's beliefs rather than the process of decision-making itself. Even when data are compared over time, we are still often left with a black box containing the reasons for changes in belief. We are more concerned with asking questions about how people make up their minds and, at least as importantly, how they change them. It is important, therefore, for us to investigate the sources of public belief. Our research examines public familiarity with media messages about particular food stuffs, assesses beliefs, and the use of mass media and other sources of information or experience.

Some research examines lay constructions as if these are generated from folk beliefs passed from adults to children with very little interaction with societal developments (See Mennell et al, 1992). It is, of course, possible that such undercurrents survive in popular cultures which have otherwise undergone profound alterations in the past hundred years or so, but by focusing research only on lay beliefs themselves and not on their sources it becomes very difficult to know. The question of how information (in the mass media, health education campaigns, leaflets, schools, workplaces, Doctors surgeries, the playground and in the home) is framed and used tends not to be the object of very close scrutiny in such research.

Our research begins from the assumption that people draw on a variety of sources of information together with direct experience of 1. food and 2. material circumstances. It attempts to tap into both categories of experience as well as examining sources of information such as the real or apocryphal stories of friends and acquaintances and the mass media.

Examining the emergence of social problems

What we have then is a model which conceives of the role of the media as complex. The media are not simply instruments of the state or big business, nor on the other hand are they the fearless 'fourth estate' monitoring the wrongs of the powerful. The media have had a central role in reflecting, representing and promoting political, environmental, ethical and social questions about food. In particular, those issues raised by pressure groups in the field of food policy and food safety have been widely debated as have issues related to environmentalism, animal rights and world trade/famine. On the other hand, the superior resources of the state and industry mean that alternative ideas about food tend to be pushed to the edge of the public sphere; in the margins of the media (late night television, Channel Four documentaries, specialist pages in the broadsheet newspapers and the alternative press). This is compounded by the ability of the industry to spend millions on advertising, product placement and sponsorship, with which not even government health education campaigns can compete (Dibb, 1993).

Nonetheless, it is apparent that sections of the food industry are highly sensitive to the activities of the food activists and do all they can to marginalise them. In their view food activists pose a genuine threat to the interests of the industry.

The media may at the same time promote the concerns of the food industry and those of the food activists. Organisations like Parents for Safe Food and the Food Commission (formerly the London Food Commission) are of the view that they have been successful in putting food issues on the public agenda while at the same time continuing to be marginalised in the policy process. What is important here is attempting to understand the relationship between the media, the public agenda, decision-making in society (at the local, national and international levels) and the social distribution of risks, benefits and resources.

Instead of trying to fit in with models such as 'moral panic' or 'public arenas' we think it is best to examine the public sphere as an arena of contest and negotiation in which there are profound inequalities of resources and access, but in which such factors are not necessarily sufficient to overwhelm alternative voices. The emergence of food safety as a public issue and the ways in which Coronary Heart Disease is framed are, we argue, the result of complex processes and struggles for definition and resources. The decline or disappearance of a particular public issue owes more to the symbolic or apparent resolution of conflicts than to processes such as a general 'falling off of interest' (Cohen, 1972: 200). Of course, such resolutions do not necessarily resolve the problem which generated the contest; indeed they rarely do. Instead, the public sphere provides an arena where society can resolve debates at the level of definition. Thus the problem itself does not need to be resolved, only to appear so. This is in fact one of the key roles of the mass media as an arena in which definitional battles are fought out.


We conceive of the media as providing a sphere in which struggles for public definition occur. Access to this sphere is subject to pervasive and continuing inequalities, but does not simply reflect existing power balances. Indeed the result of these public struggles influences the balance of forces in society in an ongoing and dynamic process.

Examining the media in this fashion allows us to account for the emergence of some food issues into the public domain and the non emergence of others. It also allows us to understand the particular form that public issues take, for example in the contrast between the coverage of pesticides and food borne hazards or between food safety risks and dietary risks for Coronary Heart Disease. We can also account for the disappearance or decline in importance of particular food issues or for their transformation from acute to chronic problems in the public sphere. Our suggestion is that one reason for the continuing periodic concern with BSE is that it remains an unresolved issue at the level of public debate as well as at the level of human health.

Our suggestion is an agenda for media research which moves beyond an analysis of news content and looks at the inputs into the public sphere as well as the impact of media coverage. This means trying to understand the context within which the media operate, as well as the direct investigation of the strategies of organisations in their attempts to use the media, and an examination of internal conflicts and negotiations between organisations. It also means researching the relationship between journalists and their sources, relationships inside media organisations and the content of media coverage. Lastly, it means investigating the responses of audiences to media messages as well as the impact of the media and public opinion and on decision making and policy decisions.

It is likely that the media play a contradictory role in our eating habits. They provide new information and they sell entertainment (both of which may carry all sorts of ideological baggage and commercial interest). They are the focus of media strategies by many and various social groupings. Media coverage can have important impacts on consumption behaviour both in constructing average patterns of consumption and in changing diet. But it would be wrong to see the public response to media messages as simple, direct and predictable. People do make judgements on what they see and hear as well as on what they eat. Our aim is to find out which judgements and why they are made.



This paper arises from our Research Project 'The Role of the Media in the Emergence of Food Panics' (Ref No X209252011) as part of the ESRC funded Nation's Diet Programme. The research is concerned with the whole process of mass communication in relation to food 'panics' such as Salmonella in eggs, listeria in cheese and BSE or 'mad-cow disease' in beef. Our thanks to the ESRC.



* The then Agriculture minister John Gummer dubbed those who are 'spreading unwarranted alarm about the safety of British food', ''fascists' (See, Michael Hornsby, 'Gummer attack on food alarmists', The Times, and 'Gummer blasts food "fascists"' Daily Star, 1 February 1990). See also: 'The food terrorists are on the attack once again' in Egon Ronay, 'Eat up your greens - the food fascists are on the march again', Sunday Times, 8 March 1992; 'Don't panic, it's only a paranoia of food Leninists', Glasgow Herald, 28 January 1992.



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