Examining Journalists' Perceptions and News Coverage of Stem Cell and Cloning Organizations

Article excerpt

This study examines the relationship between credibility and news coverage of organizations involved in the stem cell and/or cloning debate. Medical, health, and science journalists were asked to rate thirty organizations on their credibility-trustworthiness, accuracy, fairness, and bias. The study also involved a content analysis of 883 news stories to rate how the news content portrayed those thirty organizations in terms of five indicators of news coverage. The findings suggest that source credibility is related to the quality aspect of news coverage, such as regular and positive coverage, whereas it is not related to the amount of news coverage.

Credibility is a key concern in any communication effort, regardless of circumstances, but for organizations competing to influence a public policy, their credibility to journalists as information sources can be critical to whether they can achieve their communication goals. Credibility can be an important resource for organizations since credible sources tend to receive more favorable coverage from the media.1 Blumler and Gurevitch contend that journalists' evaluations of social organizations determine the treatment those organizational sources receive from journalists: The more respect journalists view the sources with, the more favorably they act toward the sources.2 Assuming that credibility can be a type of respect, it is likely to influence journalists' overall treatment of sources.

In fact, journalists list credibility as one of the greatest influences in source usage.3 They view some sources as more credible than others and tend to use that categorization in selecting news stories.4 Stempel and Culbertson suggest that a source's credibility as determined by journalists can affect both a source's prominence (frequency of mention) and dominance (tendency to be quoted rather than reported about) in news coverage.5 Counts found that what student reporters emphasized in a story was in part due to how credible they perceived the source.6

The importance of a source's credibility in receiving favorable news coverage may be notable in a public policy debate involving unfamiliar scientific information such as stem cell and cloning issues. Journalists, most of whom are not scientific experts, may not have indepth knowledge of the issue and therefore are likely to rely on sources for information.7 Thus, their perceptions of a source's credibility may play a larger role in source usage. This can have serious implication for the course of the public policy process. Given that most Americans get information about scientific issues from the media,8 journalists are likely to help form the public's ideas about the issues.9 Thus, credibility of sources as perceived by journalists may have a critical influence in the public policy decision making.

Scholarly examination of credibility is plentiful and perhaps among the oldest lines of communication research.10 Mainstream communication research identifies two traditions of credibility studies." One tradition that emerged from the attitude change studies of Hovland and associates focuses on characteristics of individual speakers or message senders, such as trustworthiness and expertise. The other tradition, also called media credibility, concerns the public's perceptions of news media believability. One area of credibility study largely absent in this long tradition is how journalists ascribe credibility to their sources and how these perceptions influence their source usage in news stories.

Although a limited number of studies exist on this topic, they are largely nonempirical essays and case studies.12 Furthermore, quantitative studies that tackle this topic rely on journalists' testimony about both their ratings of source credibility and usage; thus, whether those sources are actually used in news stories is not known.13 If a mature theory is one that is used extensively in development of hypotheses and that has been widely tested as Shoemaker, Tankard, and Lasorsa say,14 credibility research focusing on journalists' perceptions of their news sources needs more scholarly attention. …