A Case Study and Framing Analysis of the 2008 Salmonella Outbreak

Erica Irlbeck, Cindy Akers, Matt Baker, Scott Burris, Mindy Brashears
2014 Journal of Applied Communications  
During the summer of 2008, a nationwide Salmonella outbreak sickened more than 1,400 people; the initial cause was thought to be tomatoes, but after further investigation, jalapeno and Serrano peppers from Mexico were the cause. The purpose of this study was to examine television news coverage of the 2008 Salmonella outbreak in jalapenos with case study methodology, through the scope of framing theory, to gain an understanding of how reporters' ideologies, attitudes, corporate pressures, and
more » ... e pressures, and interview sources influenced the frames that were reported on national television news networks. The reporters revealed they would like to see changes within the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) food investigations and communications system, they had confidence in the U.S. food supply, and corporate policy did not influence news coverage. Reporters used the agency that issued the recall for an interview source; however, they also used consumer watchdog groups, industry organizations, and university researchers. This study concluded that in some instances, television news frames are influenced by the reporters' attitudes and ideologies, and in other instances, they are not. Agricultural communicators should be proactive with the news media -ensure they know about the organization, periodically offer information, and be willing to be interviewed -so that if a crisis does occur, it is much easier to get a message out. Abstract During the summer of 2008, a nationwide Salmonella outbreak sickened more than 1,400 people; the initial cause was thought to be tomatoes, but after further investigation, jalapeno and Serrano peppers from Mexico were the cause. The purpose of this study was to examine television news coverage of the 2008 Salmonella outbreak in jalapenos with case study methodology, through the scope of framing theory, to gain an understanding of how reporters' ideologies, attitudes, corporate pressures, and interview sources influenced the frames that were reported on national television news networks. The reporters revealed they would like to see changes within the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) food investigations and communications system, they had confidence in the U.S. food supply, and corporate policy did not influence news coverage. Reporters used the agency that issued the recall for an interview source; however, they also used consumer watchdog groups, industry organizations, and university researchers. This study concluded that in some instances, television news frames are influenced by the reporters' attitudes and ideologies, and in other instances, they are not. Agricultural communicators should be proactive with the news media -ensure they know about the organization, periodically offer information, and be willing to be interviewed -so that if a crisis does occur, it is much easier to get a message out. Research ing how food safety crises have been covered in the news can help agricultural communicators learn how to develop messages and risk and crisis communications strategies that better educate and inform the general public. Framing Theory The model used for this research was proposed by Scheufele (1999) (see Figure 1 ) and was used to analyze how organizational pressures, ideologies, personal attitudes, and other elites contribute to the frames that are built, or reported, by the news media. Those inputs are processed by the reporter and the outcome is the story aired in the newscast. The bottom half of the figure deals with audience perceptions of a story. When a story is reported, the audience processes the information through the lens of their own attitudes and ideologies. The audience then attributes responsibility and may change attitudes or behavior based on the information (Scheufele, 1999) . Research Opinions about the government/FDA A common opinion of the participants was that the FDA needed change. Some of the reporters acknowledged that the FDA does what it can with the resources available. However, the consensus of the participants was that the FDA needed to improve its communication strategy and operational structure, including, but not limited to, more funding and more inspectors. IZZY (network reporter): I recognize that the FDA's job, this sort of treasure hunt, slash episode of CSI that they have to do when these food outbreaks happen is really difficult. And (they are) relying on the faulty memory of human beings to do a lot of that tracking. So on that, I don't really fault them on that part, because I think that given the systems that are in place now, they do as well as they can ... How they communicate, though, to the media and to the public, is flawed. And there was a very odd thing that they were doing where they were trying to make it clear that some tomatoes were fine and others were not, in order to not decimate the entire industry. They realize that they did sort of a bumbling job of it and so it wasn't effective, and it decimated the industry regardless. Opinions about the U.S. food supply The researcher found another theme that could contribute to the reporters' attitudes about foodborne illness outbreaks. Some of the reporters were concerned that major food recalls seemed to occur every year. Reporters mentioned pet food, spinach, tomatoes, peanut butter, pistachios, and the Jack In The Box recalls. LUCY (network reporter): It's the same story year, after year, after year, with a little bit of a difference, but they just can't seem to get it right and fix the problem. And I felt that way with the pistachios, I'm like "come on people, this is getting ridiculous!" I guess, given all the food that is produced, there isn't more foodborne illness, perhaps. But, you know, they gotta get it right, especially now, because food comes from so many places. CHARLIE (network reporter): I don't think the story is going away anytime soon ... We'll always have this (bacteria) in some of our food. It's just a question of how much and how bad it is. I think we learn a little bit. I think Jack In the Box, in my knowledge, that's the first time I learned E. coli can be on the meat, but once you grind it, it's in the entire hamburger, versus a steak. If it had E. coli on it, you grill it, you kill it. So we learned something then, and it generally changed the way hamburgers are cooked in this country. So there are these marks where we learn, and we do things differently, but I don't think that it's ever going away. Some of the reporters expressed emotions about food safety; however, it was in relation to the peanut butter recall that occurred a few months before the reporters were interviewed for this study, rather than the tomato recall. CHARLIE (network reporter): You know, the one that makes me mad...these (agricultural) producers try, they really try. Like the peanut one -that makes me angry. Because this guy (the Georgia peanut butter plant owner) knew that he had problems with his plant ... if there's any emotion, it's the fact that ... you know, I do my job and it's important that I get it right. If you're producing food for somebody, it's important that you get it right, and anybody that just knows that they're not doing it right, that makes me angry.
doi:10.4148/1051-0834.1079 fatcat:bz6te67lyzhpjgrlzqhavculi4