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Rural Life Is a Crime Scene on Network News

WASHINGTON, D–Over three of every four network television news stories about rural America focus on crime, according to a study released today by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The study finds an agenda gap between print and network coverage of rural issues. Land use issues such as urban sprawl received the most attention in major newspapers and news magazines, while television ignored these issues entirely. News reports in print or on television rarely linked rural life to agriculture, and Currier and Ives-like portrayals of rural charm were balanced by depictions of an economically challenged or socially marginal environment.

The study, which was conducted for The Kellogg Foundation by the A href=”http://www.cmpa.com/pressrel/ruralPR.htm”>Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA), analyzed samples of news coverage from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2002 in major print outlets, including The New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, and all morning and evening television newscasts, including primetime news magazine programs, on ABC, NBC and CBS. The study analyzed 337 stories that dealt with life in rural America, out of 2,900 stories that used the term “rural.”

Study reveals a dichotomy of coverage

“Rural life appears as a crime scene on the network news. In print, the study found the media frequently uses the term ‘rural’ to describe areas that are facing urbanization and trying to preserve their rural past or atmosphere,” said Rick Foster, Vice President for Food System and Rural Development.

“What we need is more and better coverage of the 56 million people who live in rural America, both their challenges and successes,” said Foster.

Overall, the most frequent rural topics covered were land use (24%) and crime (20%), followed by politics (15%), unemployment (13%), lifestyle (11%), the environment (6%), health (6%) and education (4%).

Ten percent of rural news stories, whether in print or on television, framed rural America as economically challenged or socially marginal. One out of 12 stories portrayed rural life as quaint. Only 1 out of 6 tied rural life to farming or agriculture, despite coverage of the Farm Bill being considered by Congress at the time of the study.

Print vs. TV coverage

The study highlighted an often-dramatic difference in the rural coverage of print and broadcast media. In newspapers and magazines, land use, discussed in 29% of all articles, was the most heavily covered topic, with extensive coverage of exurban counties encroaching on open countryside. In these stories, change in rural America was often equated with loss.

Land use issues were completely ignored by the network news media; 6% dealt with lifestyle, 6% with health and 2% with politics. In contrast, the vast majority of rural news on television (78%) focused on crime. Much of the television news on rural areas spotlighted a single criminal case, such as the mailbox bombings in the rural Midwest.

On the other hand, newspapers accorded much less significance to stories on crime in rural America, which amounted to only 7% of the overall coverage of rural issues. The most significant story in print media was the Farm Bill; 40% of all political coverage examined the passage of the Farm Bill.

Given their national perspective, weekly newsmagazines dedicated little space to rural topics. Together, they published only 9 stories on rural issues, while the broadcast outlets had 62 stories, which were distributed evenly: 22 at ABC, 22 at CBS and 18 at NBC.

The study, conducted from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2002, analyzed news samples from major print organizations and broadcast networks, including The New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, and all morning and evening television newscasts, including primetime news magazine programs on the ABC, NBC and CBS.

Founded in 1985, the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) is an educational organization that conducts nonpartisan and nonprofit research and scientific studies of news and entertainment media. CMPA’s goal is to provide an empirical basis for ongoing debates over media fairness and impact through well-documented, timely and readable studies of media content. Its scientific approach sets it apart from media watchdog groups, while its timeliness and outreach differentiates it from traditional academic research departments.

CMPA’s primary research tool is content analysis applied to both news coverage and the information content of entertainment messages. CMPA conducts surveys and focus groups to illuminate the media’s role in structuring the public agenda. Its studies are often featured in news accounts, journalism reviews, scholarly publications and college textbooks.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation was established in 1930 “to help people help themselves through the practical application of knowledge and resources to improve their quality of life and that of future generations.” Its programming activities center around the common vision of a world in which each person has a sense of worth; accepts responsibility for self, family, community, and societal well-being; and has the capacity to be productive, and to help create nurturing families, responsive institutions, and healthy communities.

To achieve the greatest impact, the Foundation targets its grants toward specific areas. These include: health; food systems and rural development; youth and education; and philanthropy and volunteerism. Within these areas, attention is given to exploring learning opportunities in leadership; information and communication technology; capitalizing on diversity; and social and economic community development. Grants are concentrated in the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the southern African countries of Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe.

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