Background The media has the potential to define the terms in which we think about the world, both reflecting and constructing reality. Media content can consequently increase people’s awareness of, and shape their interactions with, public health interventions. As part of a mixed-method, natural experimental evaluation of the travel, physical activity and health impacts of the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway (CGB), this paper analyses related print and social media (Twitter) to understand how the new infrastructure has become embedded in public discourse and the implications for evaluation.
Methods Using systematic searches, newspaper articles from 2004 to 2012 were retrieved from the Lexis Nexus database and tweets from 2008 to 2012 were identified from an online archive. An inductive thematic analysis was performed and the interaction between Twitter and print media was explored by examining how print coverage was reconceptualised.
Results The media facilitated the promotion of the CGB to non-bus users, for example by appealing to those who perceived buses to be uncomfortable through the publicising of features such as leather seats, free WiFi and air-conditioning. Passenger numbers and a transport award for innovation were publicised as markers of the interventions success. The process by which the CGB then became part of people’s everyday lives was reflected in references to shared experiences and familiarisation with novel aspects, such as railway-style ticket machines. Initial impressions were important, and if the anticipated immediate benefits — such as reduced journey times — were not realised, some users reported reluctance to use the service. The walking and cycling route alongside the busway received less media attention than the new bus service. The lack of lighting was defended by stakeholders as environmentally friendly, but criticised by the public, on Twitter and in print, on safety grounds. The Twitter content (including re-tweets and conversations) decoded the print media in a variety ways. By repeating, opposing and supporting messages, Twitter users frequently reconceptualised official media, for example using humorous puns such as ‘the mis-guided busway’. Through this process, print communication was often recontextualised to convey a different meaning.
Conclusion Media content offers an indication of the public discourse surrounding an issue and can inform public attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. These findings contribute to further evaluation of the CGB, informing hypotheses about how the local population interact with the infrastructure, which will be explored further in interviews. Future natural experimental studies should acknowledge the media’s contribution to people’s experience, interpretation and acceptance of environmental interventions.
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