New Study Shows Link Between Media Coverage, Public Opinion
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Holmes Report

New Study Shows Link Between Media Coverage, Public Opinion

In the case of the biotech study, the story it tells is troubling, but also suggests the direction the industry needs to take to avoid further problems.

Paul Holmes

There are many companies out there that monitor media coverage, and there are many companies out there that track public opinion, but InsightFarm is set up to do both, and to find the correlations between the two, providing corporate communications professionals with information that should help them shape the public discussion of their products and services.
Launched by Bruce Jeffries-Fox, former head of public relations research at AT&T, in partnership with Burrelle’s Information Services and Video Monitoring Services, InsightFarm recently completed an in-depth study on media coverage and portrayal of two of the hottest topics in the biotechnology industry—bioengineered foods and cloning—and presented its findings at this weekend’s Public Relations Society of America conference, providing compelling information for communicators in the biotech sector.
The firm found that most consumers were not particularly well informed about either issue, and—more troubling—that the better informed consumers were, the less comfortable they became.
“What we want to do is give the industry a good feel for how the media are portraying these issues,” says Jeffries-Fox. “If we can demonstrate a link between the way an issue is portrayed in the media and changes in public opinion, we can help companies understand how they can present their case to the media in a way that influences public opinion.”
Jeffries-Fox says InsightFarm employs both social scientists and public relations professionals, which means it can not only gather data efficiently, but also analyze it in ways that are meaningful to professional communicators. “There are all kinds of place were people can get these data, but we can look at it in terms of what it means from the PR perspective, and we can counsel companies on what they need to do from in PR terms to change the coverage.”
When InsightFarm’s research finds public concern over inoculations, for example, it can identify a spike in negative coverage and provide its clients with instant access to the stories that caused that spike. It delivers reports that are HTML coded, so that when the client clicks on that part of the graph, the stories pop up on screen.
“Then it becomes like a focus group, which each of the articles performing like a participant in the focus group,” says Jeffries-Fox. “Our analysis really tells a story.”
In the case of the biotech study—the first in a series of Industry Issues Studies the company will be producing to demonstrate how its approach works—the story it tells is troubling, but also suggests the direction the industry needs to take to avoid further problems.
“The awareness of these issues is still quite modest,” according to Jeffries-Fox, who tracked the coverage of both bioengineered foods and cloning from January to August 2001, but increased awareness typically led to increased trepidation.
“We found that people who have heavier exposure to the media’s portrayal of the biotech industry are much more negative in their attitudes and their likely behavior in terms of eating genetically modified foods, for example,” says Jeffries-Fox. In fact, 31 percent of heavy news consumers said they were concerned about the safety of genetically modified foods, compared to 22 percent of light news consumers.
The industry could take that as a signal to keep quiet about its products, but that would likely be a mistake, since InsightFarm found an 82 percent increase in media coverage of bioengineered foods between April and July (and a massive 400 percent increase in media coverage of cloning from January to August, propelled by the focus on stem cell research as President Bush pondered whether it should receive funding from the federal government.
“The biotech industry is spending billions of dollars on project development but a relatively small amount to promote their activities in a positive light to gain widespread public support,” says Jeffries-Fox.  “Ultimately the industry is putting this tremendous expenditure of time and money at risk if they cannot overcome the concerns of the public, which may eventually result in the creation of legislation that bars these companies from going forward.”
The media coverage is shaping not only consumer attitudes, but also public policy decisions, says Jeffries-Fox.
“As the volume of public debate, scientific discussion and media coverage increases, the industry and advocacy groups will need to ensure an equal share of voice in order to see to it that their messages are being heard. Our study makes it perfectly clear what the dominant and underlying public concerns are and how they are being expressed throughout the media. Armed with this information, biotech companies can take proactive steps to shape and direct their messages effectively and gain the vital support they need.”
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