Source choice in agricultural news coverage: impacts of reporter specialization and newspaper location, ownership, and circulation



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This study examined coverage of the December 2003 bovine spongiform encephalopathy event to discover reporters? sources for breaking agricultural news, the impact of reporter specialization on source choices, and the impact of newspaper differences, including location, circulation, and ownership, on coverage. Quantitative content analysis was performed on 62 stories selected through a keyword search for the period December 23, 2003 through October 31, 2004 from U.S. newspapers included in the LexisNexis database. These stories were divided into two equal groups based on reporter work-role identity and were analyzed by length, number of sources, and source variety, and by location, circulation, and ownership of the newspapers in which they appeared. ANOVA, bivariate correlation, and forced entry regression were statistical techniques used. Results indicated numbers of stories, story length, and numbers of sources per story appear related to newspaper location, and use of scientists and agricultural scientists as sources to be correlated with type of newspaper. Newspaper circulation and ownership type were found to explain a statistically significant amount of variance in number of sources used. No statistically significant differences between mean length or mean number of sources used were found between stories written by science-specialty beat reporters and those written by reporters not assigned to such beats, contradicting previous research. However, while mean overall source variety did not differ between the two reporters groups, work-role identity was found to be correlated with use of scientists and agricultural scientists as sources. Extrapolation from this study suggests it is open to question whether (a) reporters would be well-advised to pursue courses of study or to seek additional training to build defined areas of expertise, better equipping themselves to cover more complex issues; (b) editors should seek candidates with such special training and structure their newsroom routines to accommodate specialty reporters when considering adding employees to their reporting staffs; and (c) universities should offer journalism curricula that facilitate both acquisition of basic reporting skills and registration for substantive electives which build subject-matter knowledge. Answers to these questions should be actively pursued, since they may shape the future of journalism education and practice.