Chapter 12

Scaremonger or scapegoat?

The role of the media in the emergence of food as a social issue
Jacquie Reilly and David MillerDiscussion about the reporting of food risks is peppered with criticisms of the media, which are variously blamed for purveying the ‘propaganda’ of the food industry or the government, or promoting unhealthy foods. Alternatively, the media are alleged to damage sales, to be anti-business, a source of unwarranted scares and in the grip of the food ‘fascists’, 1 ‘terrorists’ 2 or ‘Leninists’. 3 In all cases the media are seen as irresponsible and sensationalist, either by uncritically allowing the nation’s health to be damaged by the food industry or causing undue alarm by publicising the views of non-experts, pseudo-scientists and politically motivated pressure groups. This chapter 4 will draw attention to three main problems with these explanations:
1 Media organisations are not independent. Instead they are heavily dependent on their sources for information and context.
2 Media institutions are treated as though they are homogeneous, whereas in fact different media (and different parts of a single medium) have distinct and sometimes contradictory interests.
3 The impact of the media is not always predictable from an examination of media content alone.

These points will be illustrated by referring to some of the food risk stories which have arisen over the last few years, and by looking more specifically at BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) or ‘Mad Cow Disease’.

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