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UW researchers use data science to assess soil conservation stories in Wisconsin agricultural media outlets

The adoption of soil conservation practices by farmers offers the potential to greatly improve soil health and water quality in Wisconsin and beyond. Farmers learn about these practices from many sources, including agricultural media outlets, which constitute one of the main channels farmers use to learn about methods to help conserve Wisconsin’s fertile agricultural soils and protect the state’s abundant water resources.

To better understand the media coverage about soil conservation practices, researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison used advanced data science methods to collect and analyze online stories about soil conservation from Wisconsin’s most-read agricultural print media outlets: Agri-View, The Country Today, Wisconsin Agriculturalist, and Wisconsin State Farmer.

“In considering the potential benefits of soil conservation practices, it is important to understand where farmers get their information about these practices and what types of infor­mation they are exposed to and by whom,” says study co-author Bret Shaw, associate professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication and environmental communication specialist for the Division of Extension at UW–Madison. “We know these media outlets reach a lot of farmers, and it’s valuable to know the role they play in getting information out about soil conservation, given how important agriculture is in Wisconsin.”

The researchers focused on 10 differ­ent soil conservation practices and found that, overall, the most frequently written-about soil conservation practices were tillage agriculture, manure management and grazing. In more recent years, however, coverage has grown significantly for other soil conservation practices such as cover crops. Generally, articles tended to mention environmental and economic benefits more than agricultural benefits across all soil conservation practices. 

The study also found that there was a much greater use of positive than negative words for each practice, suggesting that editors and journalists for these publications are generally casting soil conservation practices in a positive light. The researchers also examined the message sources for stories on soil conservation and found that Extension and the federal government were the most frequently cited in stories about soil conservation.

The UW–Madison study examined a total of 68,401 news stories from the four agricultural print media outlets between the years 2002 to 2020. In order to do such a large-scale analysis, the researchers had to develop a computer program that utilizes custom-built dictionaries to find and assess soil conservation-focused articles on the outlets’ websites.

“Our study is the first to use computational methods to assess the entire body of online articles from agricultural media outlets related to the import­ant context of soil conservation practices,” says lead author Kaiping Chen, assistant professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication. “The volume of stories we studied would be an overwhelming task using the traditional manual content analysis methods. With computational communication methods – an emerging sub-area in communication and social science research in general – scholars can scale up their research to examine news coverage at a regional or national level, and over a much longer period of time.”

The researchers hope their study results can be used by organizations, Extension professionals and researchers working to promote soil health and water quality to assess their efforts to educate farmers about soil conservation practices through agricultural media outlets. For instance, the USDA has spent billions of dollars on soil conservation efforts and wants to use “big data” to inform agriculture practices. Findings from this study will allow these organizations to better understand how the coverage of soil practices align with their strategic priorities to maintain a strong, sustainable agricultural systems in the United States.

The study was published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation at https://www.jswconline.org/content/early/2022/02/09/jswc.2022.00167.

For further inquiries, contact Kaiping Chen at kchen67@wisc.edu or Bret Shaw at brshaw@wisc.edu or (608) 448-9958.