Counter-Hegemony and Environmental Justice in California Newspapers: Source Use Patterns in Stories about Pesticides and Farm Workers

By Burch, Elizabeth A.; Harry, Joseph C. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn 2004 | Go to article overview

Counter-Hegemony and Environmental Justice in California Newspapers: Source Use Patterns in Stories about Pesticides and Farm Workers


Burch, Elizabeth A., Harry, Joseph C., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


Articles from four California newspapers focusing on pesticide use and farm workers were content analyzed to track inclusion of pro- and antipesticide sources, along with neutral sources. The authors applied hegemony theory to news content and historical, socioeconomic, and demographic data. Results indicate that in all newspapers, "counter-hegemonic" anti-pesticide sources were the most-often quoted. Analysis suggests that newspapers, themselves part of the ruling hegemony, nevertheless do sometimes provide significant space for opposing voices on environmental justice issues, especially when the sources become professional challengers, such as the United Farm Workers Union, highly legitimized by their routine use in the press.

Ninety percent of the 2.5 million people hired as farm workers in the United States are people of color, comprised primarily of Mexican Americans.1 In California, farm workers help sustain the state's $27 billion agriculture economy. Yet the United Farm Workers Union argues that farm workers are treated unfairly because they receive below the minimum wage, subsist in substandard housing, and work in dangerous conditions.2 As "The Law of Environmental Justice" notes, Hispanic farm laborers face serious health risks more than whites due to repeated exposure to pesticides in the workplace-a situation activists label "environmental racism," a form of social injustice.3

A major forum in which environmental justice issues such as pesticide use and misuse are articulated is the mass media, especially newspapers. Activists contend the press should better publicize farm labor causes, thereby providing a more balanced forum for examination of the pesticide and racial disputes in agriculture economies.4 Little, however, is heard, specifically, aboutenvironmental racism in California newspapers. Likewise, a paucity of social scientific research on the topic is reflected in the mass media literature.5 Based on what we know about agenda setting and its role in directing public attention to issues, it is critical to understand how journalists portray environmental racism and ultimately help shape public policy on civil rights and environmental issues such as these.6

The U.S. press attempts to follow the professional norms of objectivity, balance, and fairness,7 but are stories involving a contentious environmental justice issue like pesticide use and farm worker safety fair and balanced, given environmental and farm-labor activists' concerns about having a fair "say" in the press? Are certain kinds of sources, such as government officials or industry representatives, given a greater "say" over environmental activists, or farm workers? Are the socio-economic factors in which media outlets operate important influences upon the depiction of conflict-laden stories? One means of answering such questions is to analyze how often certain types of news sources are presented, given that each rhetorically (persuasively) puts forth its own position.8

The present research is an exploratory case study focused on four California daily newspapers and was designed to seek basic answers about how environmental justice issues centered on pesticides and farm labor were covered. We examined differential sourcing patterns in news articles under the paradigm of hegemony theory, analyzing to what degree "challenging" voices would be mixed in with more status-quo views.

Literature Review

Fico and Cote note that fairness in news "starts with getting 'the other side.' And balance starts by alerting readers...that there is another side."9 This presentation of sides is a key compositional component in journalism's construction of social reality,10 and occurs through the professional norm of objectivity as part of a libertarian news system.11 The selection (and omission) of differing source views, in principle, is meant to present relatively equal sides of a dispute. Shoemaker and Reese, among others, provide a model that facilitates the examination of the "sociology of news," identifying media routines and a set of other influences that affect media content such as environmental news. …

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