Media coverage of genetic research: the product of the interactions of various actors
Genomics research and gene therapy are among the most controversial areas of science and close to the top of the political agenda worldwide, as shown by the significant number of articles about genetics, genomics or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) published almost every day. Media are a key site for the production and dissemination of cultural images of emerging biogenetic technologies; therefore understanding media representations of this area of science and of the derived technologies is important. Using the actor-network theory as a framework, my PhD research analyses the media coverage of genetics and the coverage’s construction. Articles on genetics in the newspapers are considered to be the effect of heterogeneous networks, a kind of ‘black box’ in which several actors (journalists, scientists, pharmaceutical groups, lobbyists, etc.) interact and leave traces. My study focuses on two of these actors whose environment has evolved dramatically in the last fifteen years: science journalists and academic researchers. For my research, I use both qualitative and quantitative methods. First, to open the ‘black box’, I undertook a content analysis of genetic stories in the general-interest press. I used multiple angles of analysis to provide a targeted set of descriptors allowing a thorough understanding of the corpus. Secondly, I interviewed science journalists. Newspapers rarely hire staff science reporters and nowadays, they even tend to dismiss them. The way science journalists work is worthy of attention: how is their work affected by the specific competition of researchers’ blogs, the increased difficulty to separate relevant and non-relevant scientific information and the difficult economic context of the press? Thirdly, I am engaged in interviewing scientific researchers who have specialized in genetics. Academic research, especially in genetics, has evolved considerably since the 1980s. Because research in this area is increasingly financed by the private sector (the industry in particular), scientists have to justify their work, provide progress reports and prepare the society for the applications that might follow. So they have to communicate via the media. But how do they really comprehend this communication and the media coverage of their field? This three-step approach will lead to a better understanding of the way genetics is covered by the media and above all, in which way the coverage is a network effect and the product of the interaction of various actors.