Study: Soda industry played behind-the-scenes role in influencing news coverage of Richmond and El Monte, Calif., soda tax proposals
BERKELEY, CALIF. — Feb., 26, 2014 — The soda industry influenced news coverage of two soda tax ballot measures in the working-class cities of Richmond and El Monte, Calif., found research released today by the Berkeley Media Studies Group.
According to the study, which analyzed news articles and industry publications from November 2011 to January 2013, the soda industry infiltrated news stories while camouflaging its identity. The industry recruited a broad range of community spokespeople, from pastors to politicians, to voice an anti-tax position on their behalf. Many of these sources received industry funding but were not identified as connected to industry. This allowed soda companies to distance themselves from the political debate and create the appearance that opposition to the taxes came from within the community, rather than from a well-funded PR campaign, said the study's authors.
"The soda industry's thumbprint was all over the news coverage," Pamela Mejia, BMSG researcher and lead author of the study said. "But they hid behind business owners, religious leaders and other community residents to give the illusion that the proposals self-destructed. Now we are seeing the same pattern in San Francisco and other places trying to pass a tax on sugary drinks."
The study also found that the soda industry, which spent $4 million to defeat the proposals, exploited existing class-based and, in the case of Richmond, race-based tensions to portray the tax as financially ruinous and regressive. The industry claimed — sometimes directly and sometimes through community spokespeople — that it would be financed off the backs of the cities' poorest residents.
"The soda industry tried to position itself as a friend to low-income communities and communities of color — the very groups it has historically targeted with its marketing — as a distraction from the harms it has caused them," Andrew Cheyne, a co-author of the study, said. "The soda industry knows that word is getting out about the role sugary drinks play in diabetes and other diseases. It sees the writing on the wall. That's why it fought these taxes so hard and will continue to do so in other cities."
According to the study, the soda industry also leveraged California's legal structure to orchestrate arguments against the tax. Because the state's Proposition 13 requires a two-thirds supermajority to pass taxes intended for a specific purpose, rather than for the general fund, Richmond and El Monte decided to forego earmarks so that they would need fewer votes to succeed. In spite of both cities having companion ballot measures that explained how the funds would be used — including for health purposes — the soda industry used the structure of the proposals to cast doubt on city officials' motives and paint the tax as a money grab.
"What's striking is that this wasn't a case of journalists or public health advocates being asleep at the wheel," Fernando Quintero, one of the study's authors, said. "Many local reporters investigated the soda industry's tactics, and advocates highlighted how a tax would improve community health. What this shows is that soda companies have an alarming amount of power over setting public policy."
The study includes recommendations for journalists on ways to improve coverage of soda taxes, as well as lessons from Richmond and El Monte that advocates can use to push for soda taxes in other cities. It was supported by the Healthy Eating Research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and by The California Endowment.
View the full report: Two communities, two debates: News coverage of soda tax proposals in Richmond and El Monte.
To learn more about the study's findings, join BMSG for a tweet chat, co-hosted by Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, on March 6 at 10 a.m. PST (1 p.m. EST), using the hashtag #SodaTaxNews.
About Berkeley Media Studies Group
Berkeley Media Studies Group researches the way public health issues are characterized in the media and helps community groups, journalists and advocates use the media to advance healthy public policy. BMSG is a project of the Public Health Institute.