Servicio de Información Comunitario sobre Investigación y Desarrollo - CORDIS

Public acceptance of automatic milking

One of the main objectives within this work package was to investigate the state of public opinion with regard to automatic milking. In order to assess the central role of the mass media in this respect a descriptive content analysis of newspapers from six countries (Belgium, Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden, and United Kingdom) was conducted in order to establish which events become news and to assess the ways in which newspapers cover agricultural and food issues. Content analysis is, “a research technique for the objective, systematic and quantitative description of the manifest content of communication”. The analysis was designed to examine news coverage in each country with regard to food production (especially milk and dairy products) and to identify specific national issues and concerns.

Agricultural news items per country.
In neither of the two Dutch language Belgian newspapers, with 313 articles covered in total, were any news items related to automatic milking found. In the two French language Belgian newspapers 105 articles were recorded. In the period studied neither featured a single news article on milk or dairy production. In the Two Danish newspapers no less than 427 items were recorded, easily the highest number in the six countries studied. Two large articles relating to automatic milking were found, both in Jyllands Posten and both positive. In the two German newspapers 95 articles were recorded, the lowest number in the six countries studied. No articles dealing with dairy production were found. In the two newspapers from the Netherlands 131 articles were recorded. Only one news item dealing with dairy issues was found - dealing with labelling of milk from free grazing cows. In the two newspapers from Sweden 186 articles were recorded. One large article about automatic milking was found in Svenska Dagbladet and it was positive. Moreover, one article dealt (positively) with the fact that new farm technology provides farmers with more free time. In the two British newspapers 128 articles were recorded. No articles dealing specifically with dairy production were found in either newspaper.

Issues of general concern.
The analysis in each country shows varying particular national concerns, reflecting the importance of local events. However, by aggregating the results across the six countries one obtains an indication of which issues are of more general concern. The list of five most frequently dealt with topics in the 14 newspapers is, interestingly, topped by the issue of GMO’s with 15% of all items, followed by BSE and akrylamid (accounted for by the large number of items in the Swedish newspapers), both with 12%. The economics of farming comes in fourth place (11%), followed by Nitrofen (11%). In the distribution of news items across more general categories one issue in particular dominated the news coverage of the sector: food scares/safety which accounted for just over a half of all news items and which was dominated by akrylamid, nitrofen, PCB and FMD. In second place comes animal welfare (9%) dominated by stories of animal mistreatment, especially in relation to transport of livestock. In third and fourth place came GMO’s and gene technology (both around 9%).

Milk in the news.
In the year studied automatic milking was virtually absent from the news contained in the 14 European newspapers studied. Of the 1,385 news items concerning agriculture and the food chain recorded only 3 dealt with this new technology. In terms of informing and sensitising the public to the advantages offered by automatic milking this result is not favourable. On the other hand, given the fact that much news is ‘bad’, in the sense of events being negatively evaluated by journalists (41% of all items were evaluated as negative, compared to 21% positive), it also implies that the development is not an issue and is perhaps best left alone. Moreover, milk and dairy products as a whole appear only infrequently in the news and seem largely to have escaped the bad press received by some other sectors. However, while milk as such escapes, issues surrounding livestock do receive significant (and negative) coverage - particularly BSE, foot and mouth disease, GMO’s and pesticides in fodder, and animal welfare. GMO’s and animal welfare in particular appear to be widespread concerns in the press being kept visible, at least in part, by powerful pressure groups. What is evident from these results is that the press is extremely sensitive to scares over food safety. Consequently, if for any reason one should ever break loose over milk quality, especially in relation to automatic milking, the damage to the imago of the sector in the short and medium term might be considerable and difficult to redress.

Reported by

Catholic University Leuven, Department of Communication sciences
Van Evenstraat 2A
3000 Leuven
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