Badgers and bovine TB in the newspapers: it’s not black and white

This blog post was written by Beck Smith, the Biochemical Society’s Head of Policy.

Yesterday I attended the last London PUS Seminar of this academic year where Dr Angela Cassidy from the University of East Anglia gave a talk on ‘Badgers and Bovine TB (bTB): a messy science/policy controversy in the UK’.

The issue of badgers and bovine TB is longstanding.  After 20 years of variable policy and unresolved controversy over the culling of wild badgers, the mid-90s saw the commissioning of the largest field experiment ever carried out in the UK– the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT).  It was hoped that this vast study would provide the definitive answers on the issue. 

However, at the conclusion 10 years later in 2008, the scientific group which convened to run the RBCT concluded that culling “could not meaningfully contribute” to the management of the bTB.  The inconclusive results of the study were contested (and continue to be) by many, including the Government’s own Chief Scientific Advisor at the time, Sir David King.

Dr Cassidy’s talk covered her quantitative analysis of the badger/bTB issue in the British national press from 1995-2010 – in particular the observation that badger/bTB has been covered as an agricultural, political and environmental problem, but rarely as an explicitly scientific issue.  LexisNexis was used as the primary data source (slight unreliability acknowledged) to collect articles which were then analysed for who were seen to be key actors, where was the coverage taking place, and when were stories being reported?

Who?

The analysis identified several key actors: DEFRA, NFU, Badger Trust (a tiny organisation with a now disproportionate profile), RSPCA (indicative of how this issue is seen as an animal welfare issue), Professor John Bourne (Chair of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB), Sir David King (former Government Chief Scientist), Sir John Krebs (author of 1997 Krebs Report) and Prince Charles.  The numbers of key actors illustrates another finding, the plurality of ‘expert’ advice sourced in the coverage.  Despite the number of expert sources and actors, the newspaper coverage of this issue has focused heavily on culling in comparison to other policy actions (and other issues involved i.e. cattle to cattle transmission) with all sides agreeing ‘the public’ will not tolerate culling.

The badgers themselves (although not an ‘actor’ as such) and how they are depicted plays an important role in this issue.  Dr Cassidy found that Wind in the Willows is frequently referenced in the coverage, exemplifying that much of the coverage has become polarised with ‘good badgers’ (emblematic of healthy environment – don’t cull!) on one hand and ‘bad badgers’ (seen as vermin and vectors – cull! cull! cull!) on the other.  However, these preconceptions significantly pre-date the bTB issue with Dr Cassidy showing that the idea of badgers being brave fighters and staunch defenders of family dates back to c960.

Where?

The Times (Daily and Sunday) and Telegraph (Daily and Sunday) accounted for over half of all badger/bTB coverage with both publications adopting a predominately pro-culling stance in their articles – the Telegraph more so than the Times.  The anti-culling stance was taken by the left wing press and perhaps surprisingly, the Daily Mail at first glance appearing to be adopting a balanced position.  However, a more detailed look showed the Daily Mail’s seemingly balanced coverage was caused by extreme bipolarity in their coverage.

The issue has been covered primarily as a main news feature (61%) followed by general features (19%), supplement (9%), comment (8%) and unknown (3%).  Of particular interest is who is writing these articles – columnists and commentators form the majority with 21%, generalists 17%, environmental science journalists 15%, agricultural journalists 14%, (anonymous 13%, other 8%) politics journalists 7%, science journalists 5%.  More recently (the results above span the time period 2001-2009), it does appear the science journalists are being called on when there’s an overt scientific controversy but the bulk of the coverage is now coming from the environmental science journalists.

Related note: Dr Cassidy questioned (and I tweeted) if anyone knew of any work done/being done on the differences between science and environmental science journalism?  Please do comment below/tweet at me if you have any suggestions.

When?

When analysed on a yearly basis, frequency of coverage shows a general upward trend, building to a peak in 2008.  However, when looked at more closely on a quarterly scale, the events-led nature of coverage becomes clear.  Peaks of coverage levels can be seen to coincide with the start of the RBCT, the Sir David King report and Hilary Benn’s decision not to permit a cull in 2008 – as opposed to linked to  scientific findings, Dr Cassidy has found no link between UK newspaper coverage and Web of Science citations.

The badger/bTB case study is a good example of the problems associated with uncertainty (in particular the challenge of developing policy when this happens) in science and raises the question of why the science of bTB is being contested in the public sphere – as opposed to in the scientific literature – and why this issue is and other similar issues aren’t?  Dr Cassidy observes that scientific controversies/conflicts are normally (GM, MMR obvious examples of when this is not the case – suggesting the effectiveness of the science/policy interface is a key issue) housed within academic science.

Dr Cassidy’s fascinating work throws up almost as many questions as it answers.  The badger/bTB issue is clearly culturally specific to the UK and there are exciting opportunities for comparing this issue with similar situations in other countries e.g. possums (problems associated with and attitudes towards) in New Zealand.  Her analysis is focused on the UK national press, but as she recognises, analysis of regional press is likely to illustrate further polarity on the issue.  The biggest question remains, what can we learn from Dr Cassidy’s work about how to deal with and talk about scientific uncertainty in a way which doesn’t lead to such entrenched polarity in which the fate of the badgers will be decided by politics as much as science?

To find out more about Dr Cassidy’s work:

Visit her webpage at the University of East Anglia with a list of recent publications

Visit her Academia.edu page

View her powerpoint slides (these are slightly different to the slides used yesterday but include more insight on the good badger/bad badger idea)

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