Agenda-Building Influences on the News Media's Coverage of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Push to Regulate Tobacco, 1993-2009

Article excerpt

Tobacco use remains the leading preventable cause of death and disease in the United States despite significant reductions in its use over the past 40 years. Tobacco-related medical care and lost productivity costs the US $193 billion annually (Healthy People, 2011). These persistent tobacco-related harms to individuals and society have been given voice through mass media (Smith, Wakefield and Edsall, 2006), on which people depend for information (Ball-Rokeach et al., 1984). An array of paid media campaigns have aimed to inform, educate, and/or frighten smokers and potential smokers into changing their attitudes and behaviors around smoking (Farrelly et al., 2002), and they have met with varying degrees of success. (Leshner and Cheng, 2009; Flay, 1987; Erickson, McKenna and Romano, 1990).

Mass media have also been examined as a means to advance arguments in favor of and against tobacco control policies (Menashe and Siegel, 1998)(Brownson et al. 1995; Lima and Siegel, 1999; Smith and Wakefield, 2006). Media advocacy involves promoting policy change through the media by generating media coverage that is favorable to the policy (Wallack and Dorfman, 1996). This approach is based on the contention that media agendas can influence the policy preferences of the American public (Jordan, 1993).

Effective influence of media coverage of an issue should involve understanding beyond that offered by research in the media effects paradigm. A clearer understanding of how to gain access and use media more effectively can enhance the likelihood of successful policy promotion (Jordan, 1993). This study contributes a case study of this process by analyzing media coverage about the United States Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) authority to regulate tobacco and tobacco products. News coverage of this battle between the FDA and the tobacco industry, a battle that played out in public places, in laboratories and lecture halls, and in all three branches of the US federal government, changed over time, both in quantity and in the nature of content. We aim to describe these changes in order to better understand the relationship between the media and changes in tobacco control policy.

Our approach is informed by agenda-building theory (McCombs, 1992), which details the internal and external factors of news organizations that affect the processes of their news selections and production. As such we examined changes in the volume and content of coverage over time in order to determine how these changes are related to three key influences on media agenda: influential sources (such as the president of the United States), real events and journalistic norms. This approach aims to shed light on what roles these factors played in shaping how the media cover health-related policy issues. The results aim to enhance our understanding of how to approach the media to maximize the effectiveness of media advocacy effort.



Public opinion researchers have documented the interaction between media coverage of issues and public knowledge and attitude toward those issues, particularly regarding tobacco use (Menashe and Siegel, 1998). Agenda-setting scholars have documented the role of the news media in setting the agenda for the public and for policy makers (McCombs and Shaw, 1972); therefore it is very important to understand who sets the news media agenda or how the news media agenda is selected. In 1985, Weaver and Eliot examined these questions, asking "who sets the media's agenda?" This question led scholars throughout the 1980s to explore influences on the media's agenda, making the news agenda the dependent variable in their research. This ongoing scholarly conversation explores the concept of agenda-building (Semetko, Blumler, Gurevitch and Weaver, 1991; Gilbert, Eyal, McCombs and Nicholas 1980; Turk, 1986).

The news media form a complex and diverse set of outlets targeting diverse groups and seeking diverse agendas and outcomes. …