December 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 6 // Feature Articles // 6FEA2

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News Reporters as a Target Audience for Extension Food Safety Programs

This article describes the development and evaluation of a food safety resource manual for news reporters. The manual, prepared by a multi-disciplinary team of Extension faculty, was distributed to news reporters/directors affiliated with print and broadcast media in three Western states. Program evaluation showed that over half had used the manual and found it helpful, easy to use, and timely. These findings suggest that a proactive approach may be an effective way to work with the news media and may increase the impact of Extension's efforts.

Jamie Benedict
Nutrition Specialist
University of Nevada, Reno
Internet address:

Paul Baker
Associate Specialist
University of Arizona

Charlotte Brennand
Associate Professor
Utah State University

Howard Deer
Associate Professor
Utah State University

Mary Dodds
Nutrition Specialist
University of Nevada, Reno

Leslie Krysl (Deceased)
Extension Livestock Specialist
University of Nevada, Reno

William Kvasnicka
Extension Veterinarian
University of Nevada, Reno

Carolyn Leontos
Nutrition Specialist
University of Nevada, Reno

Peggy Nipp
Nutrition Instructor
University of Nevada, Reno

Stanley Omaye
University of Nevada, Reno

Pamela Parks

Clyde Sorenson
IPM Specialist
University of Missouri


Because many consumers only receive information on foods and nutrition from the news media, journalists play a pivotal role in food safety education (Gallup Organization, 1994). Most schools of journalism, however, focus on the process of news gathering and news publishing. Content education is often secondary and consequently, comes with experience and/or from subject-matter specialists (Giles, 1992). This article summarizes the development and evaluation of a food safety resource manual for news reporters developed by a multi-disciplinary team of Extension faculty from Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. The purpose of the manual was to improve the ability of consumers to make informed, responsible decisions related to food safety and quality by enhancing the media's understanding and reporting of these issues.

Program Development and Implementation

Three sources of information were used to guide the content and format of the manual. Initially, interviews were conducted with news reporters to learn more about their needs and preferences. Extension faculty were then polled to assess food safety topics of interest/concern to their clientele. Lastly, a survey of food safety coverage by Nevada newspapers was conducted (Tyler, Benedict & Good, 1994). Based on these three sources, collaborating faculty agreed that the following topics would be included in the manual: (a) Consumers and Food Safety, (b) Pesticide Residues, (c) Organic Foods, (d) Risk Assessment, (e) Foodborne Illness - Causes, (f) Foodborne Illness - Prevention, (g) Food Additives, (h) Hormones and Antibiotics, (i) Natural Toxicants, and (j) Regulating Food Safety.

Extension faculty with expertise in the areas listed above, prepared text for the manual. The multi-disciplinary composition of the team enhanced the scope of the manual, as did the variety of individuals serving on the national peer review committee. The 83-page manual, entitled the Food Safety Fact Finder for Media, was organized in a three-ring binder with color-coded subject dividers between sections. Sample news stories, suggested readings, a dictionary of terms, and subject index were included to enhance usefulness. Also included was a unique, area-specific resource directory for each participating state (Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah) listing names/phone numbers of Cooperative Extension faculty and other local agencies.

The manuals were distributed in Nevada, New Mexico and Utah by Extension faculty during personal visits with their local media. The recipients in these states (n = 141) included reporters and news directors working in print (60%) and broadcast media (40%), serving urban (52%) and rural (47%) areas. At that time, most recipients (62%) reported having some/little interest in reporting food safety issues, and 33% had no interest. Twenty-three percent said that they often/sometimes report on food safety stories and 73% said that they rarely/never report on food safety stories. Distribution of the manuals was handled differently in Arizona where letters were sent to news reporters indicating that the manual was available upon request. Because this resulted in only a few requests and because information about the recipients was not gathered, Arizona was not included in the program evaluation.

Program Evaluation

Approximately four weeks after the manuals were distributed, recipients were sent a brief survey on the usefulness, readability, organization, and content of the manual. Self-addressed, postage-paid postcards were provided for their responses. Thirty-four percent (n = 49) returned the postcard. Of those, 67% found the information to be useful, 31% found the sample news stories useful, and 45% found the dictionary of terms useful. Readability, organization, and content of the manual were rated as excellent by 69%, 75% and 77% of the respondents respectively.

Recipients who had the manual for at least three months or more were contacted by telephone by an independent survey center for the purpose of conducting a more in-depth evaluation. Eighty-five interviews were completed. This included 54 reporters working with print media and 31 working with broadcast media. Estimated audience size of those interviewed ranged between 140 to 300,000 for print (n = 54); 3,500 to 900,000 for radio (n = 27); and 200,000 to 500,000 for television (n = 4).

The interviews indicated that approximately half of the recipients (n = 46) had used the manual. As shown in Table 1, these reporters said that it was a helpful way to get information and found it organized, easy to use, and timely. The most common reason for not using the manual was because there had been no food safety story to report.

Table 1
Responses to Statements Related to the Food Safety Fact Finder
for Media Among Reporters Who Had Used the Manual (n = 46)
StatementStrongly Agree/Agree
(Percent of Reporters)
The Food Safety Fact Finder is a helpful way to get background information. 99%
It is important to know food safety experts I can count on. 100%
The organization of the food safety manual made it easy to use. 95%
I found the information in the Food Safety Fact Finder to be timely. 95%
If more material was written on food safety, I would like to receive it. 100%
Public interest in food safety is growing. 95%

Use of specific sections in the manual corresponded closely to reporters' ratings of audience interest. Information on the causes and prevention of foodborne illness was used most often and rated the highest in audience interest (Table 2). It is important to point out that the evaluation of this program was conducted after a regional E. Coli O157:H7 outbreak had occurred, and that this incident may have affected use of the manual and interest in foodborne illness. Nearly half (48%) had used the dictionary of terms and 16% had used the sample news stories. Suggestions for additions to the manual included information on food values, cutting boards, E. Coli O157:H7, eating away from home, and reasons for public fear.

Table 2
Comparison of Reporters' Use of the Food Safety Fact Finder for
Media with Ratings of Audience Interest (n = 46)
Percent (& Rank) of Reporters Who Had Used Manual Components Reporters' Ratings of Audience Interest
Consumers and Food Safety 58 (3) 2.3 (3)
Pesticides 41 (5) 2.4 (4)
Organic Foods 23 (7) 3.1 (8)
Risk Assessment 32 (6) 3.0 (7)
Foodborne Illness-Causes 61 (2) 2.1 (2)
Foodborne Illness-Prevention 61 (1) 1.9 (1)
Food Additives 20 (8) 2.8 (6)
Hormones and Antibiotics 18 (9) 2.5 (5)
Natural Toxicants 18 (9) 2.8 (6)
Regulating Food Safety 46 (4) 2.4 (4)
Note. Rating scale range was as follows: 1 = "Very Interested" to 5 = "Not At All Interested."

Although only a small number had contacted someone listed in the resource directory at the time of the interview, nearly all (96%) anticipated using it when/if the need arose. Reporters who had used the directory (n = 21) were very satisfied with the results. Using a scale from one to five (1 = very satisfied and 5 = not at all satisfied), reporters' mean rating was 1.3 (SD = .48). Other sources of food safety information mentioned by reporters were local health departments, wire services, local libraries, newsletters, and federal agencies.

Reporters who had used the manual were also asked if they had changed their personal food handling practices. Forty-one percent noted changes in both cooking temperature (for meat, fish and poultry) and methods for thawing food; 30% made different food selections; and 28% stored food differently. Other changes were related to sanitation and cleanliness (avoiding cross- contamination, washing produce, wearing gloves, washing hands) and handling leftovers.

Several open-ended questions were also included in the interview including suggestions on how Cooperative Extension can work more effectively with the news media. Most reporters emphasized the need for additional information on timely subjects (e.g., press conferences/releases, calendar of events, camera- ready graphs and illustrations, monthly updates), in addition to background information such as the Food Safety Fact Finder for Media.

Implications for Extension Educators

The Food Safety Fact Finder for Media manual was developed to enhance news reporters' understanding and reporting of food safety issues. Before the manuals were distributed, a significant proportion of the recipients indicated that they had some/little interest in food safety and rarely/never reported on the topic. Four to six months later, half of the recipients had used the manual and found it helpful, easy to use, and timely. These findings suggest that a proactive approach may be an effective way to work with the news media and thus, increase the impact of Extension's efforts--particularly those related to food safety.

With regard to reporters' utilization of specific parts of the manual, reporters found the information on foodborne illness most useful. In fact, many had made changes in their own food handling practices to avoid foodborne illness. Although few had used the resource directory to contact a food safety expert, nearly all reporters anticipated using it when/if the need arose.

Given the potential audience size of both print and broadcast media and the impact that the media can have on public awareness (Boston University, 1994), it is important that Cooperative Extension continue to support reporters' efforts. This may include sending information on timely issues routinely, providing background information, such as the Food Safety Fact Finder, and being available for questions. By supporting and promoting this important partnership, Cooperative Extension's role in community education may be enhanced.


Boston University, College of Communication. (1994). Reporting on food and nutrition--and getting it right. Proceedings of Issues in Nutrition Reporting Symposium (p. 9). Boston: Author.

Gallup Organization. (1994, April). How are Americans making food choices?--1994 update. Princeton, NJ: Author.

Giles, R. H. (1992). Educating the masses--of reporters, that is. The Bulletin of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 740, pp. 14-16.

Tyler, P. L., Benedict, J. A., & Good, A. M. (1994, July). Survey of food safety news coverage. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Nutrition Education, Portland, OR.

Author Notes

Funding for this project was provided by Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under special project number 91-EFSQ-1-4005.