Texas Tech University

Mad cows, Oprah Winfrey and communicating the science in a high-profile court case

Asheley R. Landrum and Larry Lemmons

February 24, 2018

Raw Story - Twenty years ago, images of staggering cattle and descriptions of brains resembling Swiss cheese became associated with one of the most popular television programs of the day when Texas Panhandle cattlemen sued “The Oprah Winfrey Show” for defamation under Texas’ “veggie libel law.” They claimed the program’s negative portrayal of their business caused a steep decline of beef prices.

By Larry Lemmons, Doctoral Student in Communications, Texas Tech University and Asheley R. Landrum, Assistant Professor of Media and Communication, Texas Tech University.

On the surface, this conflict looked like a battle between an industry and the TV producers who portrayed it negatively. But at its heart was some complicated science that had the potential to scare the public and be sensationalized by the media.

Today's practitioners of science communication grapple with the difficulty of transmitting science information via the media to a lay audience. This 1998 trial serves as a rare public case study documenting the media's imperfect attempts to clarify the science of "Mad Cow Disease" in the midst of a celebrity spectacle.

Ultimately Oprah won the legal case. But how did the public's understanding of the science fare?

Read the story here.