There are many aspects of media coverage that can influence its impact. One is the "frame" or "schema" of a story--the core piece of information around which a piece is shaped. Frames may be "episodic," focusing on a particular event (for instance, a recent attack by a wild animal) or "thematic," discussing broader issues (such as whether or not a particular law will enhance conservation efforts). Another important characteristic of news items is their "valence"--the positive or negative way in which they depict a given issue. Media consumers will also be impacted by the presence and content of images, as well as the inclusion of quotations from well-informed experts, such as scientists, lawmakers, or park rangers.
(A Florida panther, Puma concolor coryi)
Recently, there has been increasing interest in understanding how media coverage impacts local wildlife efforts, since an improved understanding of cultural attitudes and beliefs should help conservationists and policy-makers draft better plans. This was the motive for collaborators from the University of Florida who recently analyzed newspaper coverage of the Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi), an endangered subspecies of cougar (also called "mountain lion" or "puma" elsewhere in its range). In the 1970's, there were only approximately 20 individuals left in the wild, but as of this year the population has swelled to over 160 animals, all of whom dwell in the southwestern portion of the state.
The main purpose of the current study was to examine whether newspaper coverage of panthers might "amplify perceived risk of harm" from the cats, thereby reducing public support for conservation efforts. Since exposure to, and therefore feelings about, panthers vary depending on proximity to the animals, the researchers wanted to compare attitudes in local newspapers with those found in publications with a wider distribution. To do this, they focused on articles, editorials, and letters published in The News-Press, the Naples Daily News, the St. Petersburg Times, the Orlando Sun Sentinel, The Florida Times Union, and The Miami Herald; the first 2 are local publications circulating near where the panthers are concentrated, while the remaining 4 are statewide papers. The researchers collected data on many aspects of each article, including whether it was a primary or secondary article (with "panthers" as the major focus or as an incidental topic, respectively), its word length, and the major topic it emphasized. The researchers also classified each primary piece according to its frame content, its valence, and the affiliation of any sources it quoted.
A total of 513 Florida panther-related articles were found over the 3-year focal period. Approximately three-quarters of these were published in local papers, while the remaining quarter were found in statewide publications. Only a third of articles were primary news stories. Of these, significantly more were found in local publications, which also tended to run longer pieces. Approximately half of all articles were secondary news stories, which also were more common locally. The remainder of panther-related publications were letters and editorials.
Local publications were less likely to include photographs with their primary articles. When they did, they often showed panthers that had been photographed in the wild, and/or were depicted in a neutral way. Statewide papers, on the other hand, published photographs more often, often showed captive animals, and frequently featured panthers with their mouths open and teeth showing. This is an important element to news coverage, not only because photographs help catch a reader's eye, but also because favorable pictures--including those of females with cubs, cubs alone, or adults in nonthreatening positions--can significantly alter public perception.
(Florida panther lounging in the Big Cypress National Preserve)
Although both local and statewide publications had similar levels of episodic and thematic frames for their panther stories, their articles covered quite different topics. Local newspaper articles were more likely to address the risks associated with panther attack, whereas statewide pieces more commonly addressed panther biology. Secondary articles discussed land development and urban growth about three times as often in local publications as in statewide papers. Surprisingly, articles at both levels tended to support panther preservation efforts. Even more surprisingly, local papers generally discussed panther risks (to people, pets, or livestock) in a positive way, stressing that they were a manageable threat. This is despite the fact that, of all formal press releases distributed by management agencies and covered by newspapers, approximately half dealt with predation.
The extent of panther coverage in Florida indicates that these animals continue to be an interesting source of news stories. It was no surprise to find that this was particularly true at the local level, among people who are most likely to encounter a panther during their daily lives. Because readers' attitudes are likely to be swayed by newspaper coverage, these sorts of content analyses are often more useful for predicting future attitudes rather than reflecting current conditions. Thus, it would appear that Floridians are likely to support cougar conservation in the near future--particularly at a local level. To confirm this trend, it will be important to investigate panther portrayals in other types of media, including television, radio, and the Internet.
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Jacobson, S.K., Langin, C., Carlton, J.S., and Kaid, L.L. 2011. Content analysis of newspaper coverage of the Florida panther. Conservation Biology, online advance publication.
Thanks to the following websites for providing the images used in this post: