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Patricia A. Curtin [*]
Critics have accused public relations practitioners of providing materials to journalists that promote an environmental backlash agenda and lack news value. This content analysis study compares two types of information subsidies provided to members of the Society of Environmental Journalists: public relations materials mailed to members and news tipsheets put together by SEJ for the use of their members. Results suggest that although the critics' charges have some merit, the preponderance of materials promoting a backlash agenda stem from just a few public relations sources. Additionally, although the news tipsheets possessed more overall news value, the public relations materials possessed more overall news utility for journalists. [C] 2001 Elsevier Science Inc. All rights reserved.
In 1995 the Center for Media & Democracy published Toxic Sludge Is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry, in which authors Stauber and Rampton  charge public relations practitioners with selling out the environment and forsaking public health concerns in favor of the economic bottom line. According to these and other critics, public relations firms representing corporate interests are fueling the environmental backlash movement, which claims that environmental risks have been overplayed in the media and that less costly actions and regulations are sufficient to preserve the environment and protect human safety.  While the book outlines real, egregious misuses of public relations efforts to downplay environmental hazards, it presents these few cases as if they are the norm and journalists as unwitting dupes who never exercise news judgment or initiative.
To determine if Stauber and Rampton's anecdotal claims possess empirical validity, this study examines two sources of information subsidies supplied to members of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) over a one-year period: (1) public relations materials mailed to SEJ members, and (2) story tipsheets assembled by SEJ staffers for members. A content analysis of these materials was performed to determine if significant differences exist between the issues, sources, tone, news worthiness, and utility of the materials supplied to environmental journalists by public relations practitioners and those supplied by their peers.
Environmental coverage and agenda building theory
Following publication of Silent Spring and the start of the environmental movement in the early 1970s, environmental journalism became a specialized beat and environmental issues became a top concern of corporate public relations practitioners.  Although the recession of the late 1980s caused environmental issues to take a back seat to the economy, the environment remains near the top of the public, corporate, and media agendas.  In recent years, however, the environmental backlash movement, which proposes that the environment is not in as bad shape as media reports have suggested and that more scrutiny should be given to the economic ramifications of proposed environmental actions,  has gained strength. While critics charge public relations professionals with fueling the backlash, prominent environmental journalists have publicly joined the backlash, claiming many reporters have lost their objectivity and become advocates instead. As one notes: "There's a tradition in environment writing of giving an unquestioning alarmist spin to the stories." 
The tenor of the media's environmental agenda is important because studies suggest a significant media agenda-setting effect for environmental issues: the public relies heavily on the media for information about the environment, and a strong correlation has been found between the media and public agendas.  In turn, the media's environmental agenda is highly dependent on the agenda-building efforts of sources, who provide information subsidies to the media to ultimately influence public and policy agendas.  Early studies found that 85% of environmental reporters relied on press releases for information and 82% relied on brochures, pamphlets, and other reports.  Twenty years later, Griffin and Dunwoody  confirmed that local press environmental coverage often uses the least costly, most readily available sources of information.
Previous agenda-building studies, however, have found that journalists prefer information from sources whom they perceive as having no obvious self-serving economic purpose--that is, government agencies and nonprofits.  In Witt's 1974 study,  the most frequently used sources were government conservation agencies. More recent content analyses of newspaper, magazine, and television news broadcast coverage confirmed that government sources were the most commonly cited, with a slight rise over time noted for nonprofit sources as well.  In a 1993 survey of journalists' sources of environmental data, 51% listed government officials, press releases, and reports as their first source of information, while 25% listed environmental activists and groups. Business and industry officials and news releases garnered only a 1% mention.  A 1995 survey of environmental journalists, however, found that university sources were considered the most credible, followed by government sources and environmental groups. Business sources were a very credible source for only 6% of these respondents. 
Conversely, while nonprofit sources usually possess credibility for journalists, studies demonstrate that environmental groups are better at placing individual items on the media agenda than they are at framing coverage of those items because of their activist stance.  Recent studies have shown that environmental advocacy groups are becoming increasingly media savvy, however, targeting information to specific media, monitoring coverage, and cultivating a more research-based image, resulting in more successful agenda-building efforts. 
Sources often used by journalists to provide an opposing side and thus "objective" coverage are spokespeople from membership or trade associations.  But critics, including Toxic Sludge authors Stauber and Rampton, contend many of these groups are funded and populated in part or in whole by industries with a definite agenda, who hire public relations practitioners to shape media coverage that obfuscates these industry ties. They note that 10 public relations firms earned more than $75,000,000 total in 1993 for lobbying and working on environmental issues. 
Focus of this study and hypotheses
To date, most research has centered on the agenda-setting role of the media. This study fills a gap in the literature by examining agenda-building efforts of public relations and journalistic sources through an analysis of information subsidies provided to the approximately 1,200 members of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ). Formed by 20 journalists in 1990, SEJ is the fastest growing journalism …