Studies Look At News Bias And Internet's Impact On Coverage

May 15, 2008



 The Internet has transformednewsaboutoil spills by providing accounts that rivet global attention and go beyond official versions of the disasters, a recent study suggests.

Specifically, environmental groups' increasingly sophisticated Internet use has expanded the ways in which oil spills are framed. Via their websites, email and blogs, the groups have interrupted official efforts to control information about the spills and mobilized local and international action, according to the study.

Focusing on one event – the November 2002Prestigeoil tanker spilloffSpain'snorthern coast – the researchers examined reports from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including theWorldWildlife Fund, Greenpeace andsmaller,morelocalgroups.Theyalsostudied coverage of the spill appearing in newspapers in Spain, the United Kingdom and, to a lesser extent, France.

Overall, they found that the spill received more international attention than spills of the past. In 1989, for example, the Exxon Valdez spill received intense news coverage within the United States, but relatively little on an international scale. In contrast, the Prestige spill spawned the creation of a bevy of globally available NGO websites, which challenged official accounts, mobilized local and international protests and pressured the oil industry and governments to protect the environment, according to the study. Academics also posted their views on the Internet, including a manifesto endorsed by 422 Spanish scientists representing 322 universities and six research institutes that denounced authorities' failure to use readily available knowledge to predict the fuel's behavior in the sea.

For their part, local and regional newspapers framed the spill in terms of its impacts on the local economy, rather than on the environment, and provided sustained long-term coverage. On the other hand, newsmedia outside of Spain largely focusedontheenvironmentalimpactsofthespill, even when it posed no immediate local or regional threat to their home country.

But this attention was short-lived, with the bulk of it occurring the day after the sinking of the Prestige and the release of its cargo, 77,000 tons of heavy crude oil, into the ocean.

Although the researchers assessed international coverage as problematic for its "selective and intermittent" attention, they concluded that, together, the international press and especially the Internet "provide the public with a greater range of competing interpretations of a major oil spill, and it is more difficult for official sources to put their spin on the story."

"Even where local people tend to rely mostly upon the local/regional news media as their primary source of information," they added, "activists across the globe can coordinate protests and challenge official accounts with increasing sophistication and speed."

For more information, see Alison Anderson and Agnes Marhadour, "Slick PR? The Media Politics of the Prestige Oil Spill" in Science Communication, Volume 29, Number 1 (September 2007), pages 96 – 115.

Recent research suggests that people use news reports to assess public opinion of social issues: They may perceive unfavorable news coverage as an indication that public opinion is unfavorable or just the reverse.

This includes policy-makers, who also use news media accounts as informal public opinion polls. But the strength of influence depends on many factors, including people's perception that a media slant is hostile to their views. In such cases, people likely will not equate news coverage with public opinion.

In part because of the policy implications involved, researchers recently conducted experiments focusing on two factors believed to be involved in this indirectmedia influence –the perceived slant of news and the perceived "reach" of news, or people's perception of audience size.

The researchers asked participants to read print and Internet news articles about the Bush Administration's position on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and on ratifying the Kyoto Treaty. The participants believed that the articles came from The New York Times, Time magazine or local news sources, but the researchers had altered the articles to provide slants that were clearly favorable to the Bush positions (pro-drilling and anti-ratification) or clearly unfavorable to them (anti-drilling and pro-ratification). Before reading the articles, participants provided their political party affiliation. When they finished reading, they answered questions about the slant of the articles, estimated the reach of the articles and gave their assessments of public opinion on the issues. 

While participants from both political camps viewed the pro-drilling article as biased in favor of drilling, Democrats found it much more favorable toward drilling than Republicans, the researchers found. Likewise, both groups agreed that the anti-ratification article was clearly biased against the Kyoto Treaty, but Democrats found it to be much more negative toward ratification than Republicans. And participants' assessments of public opinion matched past research findings – those perceiving a hostile media bias did not view the articles as representative of public opinion.

For more information, see Cindy T. Christen and Kelli E. Huberty, "Media Reach, Media Influence? The Effects of Local, National, and Internet News on Public Opinion Inferences" in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Volume 84, Number 2 (Summer 2007), pages 315 – 334.

Research Note 

Press releases for research published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly can be found at, the website of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC).

On the home page, point to "Scholarship." In the drop-down menu, point to "Publications" and then point to "Journals." Click on "JMC Quarterly," scroll down to "Research You Can Use" and click on it to find the press releases.

The AEJMC web site is worth exploring if you want to know more about journalism research or are thinking of an academic career. It also contains information aboutotherjournalspublishingresearchonnews coverage and journalism education and many useful links.

Jan Knight, a former magazine editor and daily newspaper reporter, is a former assistant professor of communication at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu, where she continues to teach online courses in writing and environmental communication. She can be reached at

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2008 issue


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