Written by Hannah Brown UF/IFAS NCBS Scholar and PhD Student in the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Florida
When I tell people that I am a social scientist, they typically don’t have a clear idea what that means. Am I out in the field doing research? What is the research process like?
Well, let me give you a snapshot of one kind of social science research. Over the past two years, I have been working on a study that looks at how newspapers covered oyster restoration on the Gulf Coast. With the help of two undergraduates research assistants, we coded over 1,000 newspaper articles in an attempt to answer the questions: How did news media tell oyster restoration stories? What sources did they include? And how does news coverage of oyster restoration fit within other recent happenings in the Gulf, like the BP spill?
Before we could code those articles, however, our team went through four months of training—learning how to analyze articles consistently among the three of us so that our codes could be considered scientifically valid. This included dozens of meetings to practice and compare our findings. After we reached a level where our analyses were similar enough that we could be considered consistent and reliable, the actual coding of our research sample began. This took many more months. It was a long, slow process, and the work itself was quite tedious. Coding articles involves reading and re-reading an article very closely while looking for specific information: the people quoted, the topics focused on and the overall angle of the story.
What we found from this intricate and time-consuming process is that newspaper stories about oyster restoration were told in a very specific way. The most common article frame, or story angle, was an environmental frame. This would include stories about the environmental pressures on oyster reefs as well as the benefits of restored reefs to the surrounding environment. Economic stories were second-most common, followed by stories about community involvement. Natural resource managers were quoted far more than other sources. Fishermen and seafood industry representatives were rarely included, with less than 40 total quotes found from these groups in the entire sample of 1,020 articles.
What this tells us is that newspaper audiences are receiving a very specific perspective about oyster restoration projects. They are told about the environmental issues and benefits more than economic, community, political, tourism or harvest-related stories. And they are told about oyster restoration from the perspective of managers more than any other group. Fishermen, seafood industry and scientific perspectives are heard from much less often. We also found that stories about oyster restoration became more prevalent after the BP spill occurred than they were before. Articles after the spill were more likely to have an environmental frame than those published before the spill, and articles published directly after the spill were more likely to have a community frame than those published over two years after the spill. These are just a few of our findings, which we are working now to publish in an academic journal.
This is information that we hope can be used by natural resource managers as they plan future projects. By identifying the gaps in understanding about oyster restoration—the parts of the story that aren’t told—natural resource managers can approach communities involved in oyster projects with greater awareness of the areas where communication gaps exist.