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This essay will draw on a range of scholars to show and explain how the media have influenced public and political opinion on controversial scientific and technical issues like biotechnology, nanotechnology, cloning and genetic modifications. This essay on the one hand will argue and show how the media exert influences on the perceptions of the public and policy-makers. On the other hand, it will object this notion by showing that the media do not ultimately determine public and political opinions. Finally, a conclusion will be drawn and ideas for further research in this field will be highlighted.
Plein (1991) explains that ‘biotechnology refers to the use of recombinant DNA techniques, cell fusion and bio-processing techniques to modify life forms for various research and commercial uses’ (ibid: 474). Biotechnology and other technical scientific issues have attracted intense media attention that it has become a fundamental aspect of an everlasting public and political debate.
According to Hansen (2006), discourse and research about biotechnology began to gain prominence in the 1990s and as a result of the increasing public and political controversy surrounding biotechnology, ‘a wealth of studies has examined the nature and evolution of public discourse on genetics/biotechnology representations in press, film and other media’ (ibid: 816).
Durant et al (1998) describe biotechnology as the ‘third strategic technology of the post-war period’ (ibid: 189). Durant et al (1998) describe biotechnology as strategic because it has ‘been seen to carry the potential to transform our future’ (ibid: 189).
Biotechnology is said to possess benefits like ‘new diagnoses and therapies to eliminate diseases, new crop varieties to eliminate world hunger’ (Durant et al 1998: 189), whilst feared for its threats to biodiversity (see Durant et al, 1998).
A controversial scientific issue like biotechnology was in its early stages surrounded by scepticism and disputes. According to Nelkin (1995), ‘one of the earliest disputes over biotechnology applications focused on the field testing of ice minus, genetically altered microbes intended to inhibit water crystallisation and protect strawberries from frost injury’ (Nelkin, 1995: 58). Nelkin (1995) emphasised that environmental groups were worried over the health hazards that this novel technology posed. Nelkin (1995) explained further that news reports of the ice minus test presented images which were ‘striking and provocative’ (ibid: 258).
Nisbet and Lewenstein (2002) point out that ‘modern biotechnology’s thirty-year old history has been inherently political’ (ibid: 360). The media are at the fore-front of this political controversy concerning biotechnology. Nisbet and Lewenstein (2002) state that the ‘mass media comprise the principal arena where policy relevant issues come to the attention of decision-makers, interest groups and the public’ (ibid: 360). This is perhaps why Nisbet and Huge (2006) noted that ‘media coverage is likely to both reflect and shape policy debate’ (ibid: 14).
In policy processes at first instance, the influence of the media comes in early as they determine what issues will be addressed by the policy-makers. These issues are usually generated by mass fear and scepticism created by the media. In the early stages of political policy processes, the influence of decision-makers can be direct when they manage to ‘keep decision making behind closed doors from public or media attention’ (Nisbet and Lewenstein, 2002: 361). However, the progress of such clandestine decision making often results in the ‘mobilization of bias’ (Nisbet and Lewenstein, 2002: 361). That is, decisions made only reflect the interest of certain members over others (see Nisbet and Lewenstein, 2002: 361).
Nisbet and Lewenstein (2002) explain that if this interest succeeds in controlling media and public attention, ‘then it has succeeded in controlling media and public agenda’ (Nisbet and Lewenstein, 2002: 361). However, Nisbet and Lewenstein (2002) point out that if such issues appear in the media and an interest can ‘define their stand as well as alternatives available for discussions’ (ibid: 361), then they have succeeded in ‘delimiting arguments that oppositions can make and screening them off from participation’ (Berkwitz, 1992, cited in Nisbet and Lewenstein, 2002: 361). This therefore relates to controversial scientific issues where different media frames are created by conflicting groups in order for their voices to be heard by the public and policy-makers. Nisbet and Lewenstein (2002) importantly note that policy-makers are aware of the importance of the media in influencing policy outcomes.
Nisbet and Huge (2006) identify ‘framing’ as a key mechanism used by the media to influence public and political opinions. Nisbet and Huge (2006) emphasise that frames are ‘thought organisers’, devices for packaging complex issues in a persuasive way by focusing on certain interpretations over others, suggesting what is relevant about an issue and what should be ignored’ (Ferree et al, 2002, cited in Nisbet and Huge, 2006: 11). Frames are hence the tools that the media use to successfully exert influences on political and public attitudes towards biotechnology and other controversial scientific issues. The frames ‘help guide policy-makers and citizen evaluation about causes, consequences of an issue and what should be done’ (Ferree et al, 2002, cited in Nisbet and Huge, 2006: 11). In the case of biotechnology which attracted negative media coverage in the 1990s (see Nisbet and Huge, 2006); media frames could however be an antidote to suppress the negativity associated with it. These frames will act as an educative tool to reduce public scepticism and influence political opinion. Nisbet and Huge (2006) emphasise further that plant biotechnology has been ethically framed in a ‘â€¦promotional light, emphasising the moral duty to pursue a gene revolution that could “end world hunger” (Nisbet and Huge, 2006: 11).
Plein (1991) emphasised that biotechnology today is being associated with positive economic themes such as ‘patent rights, international trade, research funding and regulatory policy’ (Plein, 1991: 475). This is as a result of the ‘efforts of a well-organised coalition to define biotechnology in positive terms’ (ibid: 475). This has also been achieved by brilliant media-agenda setting techniques which have influenced public and political opinion positively. One will emphasise that this is because these well-organised agenda-setters present the beneficial aspects of this controversial technology to the media and the media in-turn influence positively the notions of biotechnology in political and public fronts.
Plein (1991) importantly notes the reason for the decline in biotechnology scepticism was due to its application to the fields of ‘agriculture, industry and medicine’ (Plein, 1991: 476). Marks et al (2007) however, pointed out that the news media’s coverage on the medical features of biotechnology has been positive compared to that of the agricultural features. In fact, Marks et al (2007) stated that negative public opinion regarding agricultural biotechnology reflects the power of the news media.
On the other hand, Plein (1991) pointed out that as a result of poor-organisation in the years of 1968 to 1980, the pro-biotechnology community were ‘exposed to a hostile climate of opinionâ€¦’ (Plein,1991: 475). This negative influence on public and political opinions concerning biotechnology was as a result of scientists being primarily interested in ‘scientific freedom and protection from regulatory intrusion by government’ (ibid: 476), rather than use the media to educate citizens on the blessings of biotechnology which would hence influence positive political and public opinions.
Nevertheless, the 1980s ‘marked a turning point in biotechnology history’ (Plein, 1991: 476) as it turned from being a ‘dangerous pursuit of another weapon in America’s competitive arsenal’ (ibid: 476) to being a technology deserving inexhaustible accolades. Biotechnology has been made to be seen by citizens as one of the biggest scientific successes through brilliant agenda-setting techniques. In fact, Nelkin (1987: 40) emphasised that in the media ,’biotechnology underwent a metamorphosis from a runaway science of genetic engineering to a new technological frontier’ (cited in Plein, 1991: 476). In the political arena, the climate of opinion changed dramatically as biotechnology and its features began to dominate policy processes (see Plein, 1991). One can say therefore that well organised media campaigns can revolutionise an issue that was before deemed dangerous and harmful to the society.
Plein (1991) further explains that the ability of biotechnology to be defined in positive terms was as a result of its alliance with well-established groups which provided an opportunity for mediation and therefore influenced public and political opinion. Plein (1991) noted that the cultivation of support with well-established groups and businesses provided a better atmosphere for policy considerations and media coverage which hence reduces public scepticism. This therefore reflects the influential power of the media. For instance, a well established group like the London biotechnology network, a network of over 800 organisations which began in year 2000 has further helped reduce biotechnology scepticism through mediation (londonbiotechnology.co.uk).
Plein (1991) writes further that another reason for the positive media influence on public and political opinion was as a result biotechnology supporters to ‘disassociate biotechnology from negative issues such as environmental risk and ethical ambiguity’ (Plein, 1991: 480). This further provided an opportunity for media coverage as scientific groups were able to frame biotechnology in terms of its benefits to economic growth and development. Plein (1991) explained that these groups were also able to use the media to increase political support as they predicted that ‘biotechnology can play an important role in reversing America’s declining role in the global market place…’ (ibid: 481). One will assert that such prediction makes biotechnology a topical issue for the media as its coverage on it will garner more support thereby pushing policy-makers to take biotechnology into important consideration.
Biotechnology proponents have also been able to frame this technology in the media as not being novel or alien; rather it is a ‘benign, incremental technology…’ (Plein, 1991: 481). Therefore, it has been able to disassociate itself from common fears that it is a ‘new form of technology fraught with dangers’ (ibid: 481). Biotechnology has also been seen to dominate media agenda because of its association with already media-worthy topics (a period where science reporting became on the increase); therefore it has been able to draw the media to its side thereby communicating to the public and policy-makers the blessings of this technology. Hence, it influences a positive public and political opinion.
This technology according to Plein (1991) has been able to attract favourable media coverage because of its ability to undercut the positions of anti-biotechnology groups. The coverage of this conflict further boosts the confidence of citizens and policy-makers that biotechnology is indeed beneficial.
However, Plein (1991) importantly notes that such well-organised coalition frames are ‘never secure in its fortunes’ (ibid: 484). That is, the issues and events that attracted media coverage and gave biotechnology its stamp of legitimacy ‘will likely pass’ (ibid: 484). This is because other questions will emerge which cannot be effectively answered and therefore the medias coverage of this debate will influence public and political scepticism. This might be due to the emergence of ‘competition among proponents of biotechnology’ (ibid: 484) who have ‘issues with differing priorities and agenda’ (ibid: 484). Hence, the controversy is re-built by the media as such scandals and conflicts add sensation and spice to their stories thereby creating and influencing public and political uncertainty.
Scientists have even pointed out that their major reason for involving the media in biotechnology issues is for it to utilize its influential power in ‘public education’ (Nisbet and Lewenstein, 2002: 363). This is important as such education will reduce public and political fear.
Nisbet and Lewenstein (2002) also pointed out that scientists are not only the ones involved in capitalizing on the medias influence. Nisbet and Lewenstein (2002) explain that in the early 1980s, media coverage was characterized by biotechnology promotion. Nisbet and Lewenstein (2002) showed that even policy-makers after being influenced also attempted to shape biotechnology strategically to influence positive public opinion. This is because policy-makers after being educated and influenced ‘considered biotechnology development critical to domestic economic growth, international competitiveness and global security’ (Krimsky, 1991, cited in Nisbet and Lewenstein, 2002: 364). These considerations are therefore sounded-out more by the media, thereby exerting influences on public opinion. In fact Nisbet and Lewenstein (2002) point to a 1984 OFFICE OF TECHNOLOGY (OTA) assessment report that ‘uncritically characterized biotechnology as a possible solution to many of the worlds health problems including; malnutrition, disease, energy availability and pollution’ (cited in Nisbet and Lewenstein, 2002). These characteristics will be highly reflected in the media’s report agenda and will hence influence positive public opinion.
However, biotechnology opponents were also active in using the media to present it as being associated with environmental risks and hazards. This is perhaps why Nisbet and Huge (2006) stated that as a result of the agenda-setting techniques of biotechnology opponents in the 1990s, the media attention garnered by them increased the controversy and scepticism towards this technology. Nevertheless, as part of the power game of politics, advocates for biotechnology still aimed to frame biotechnology positively in order to gain favourable coverage and hence influencing public and political attitudes.
Priest (2001) emphasises that journalists have been accused of only covering the controversies associated with biotechnology as this is reflected in public attitudes towards it. Since ‘news serves as a primary source of risk communication’ (Marks et al, 2007: 184), it only goes to show that the coverage of the risks of biotechnology will influence the publics idea of it. Marks et al (2007) state that it is the media who ‘…spark up public concern about a potential hazard’ (ibid: 184). Biotechnology has been accorded media attention and such media dominance ‘influences the priority accorded to it by the general public’ (McCombs and Ghanem, 2001: 67, cited in Marks et al, 2007: 184). Priest (2001) states further, that even institutions within the biotechnology industry ‘seek to use the media to frame public perceptions of policy issues in ways they feel will be to their advantage as well’ (Plein, 1991, cited in Priest, 2001: 31). This further proves the influential power of the media.
Priest (2001) importantly notes that the media’s influence on the public will determine the influence on public officials. This is because public officials tend to respond in line with that of the public. In fact, Priest (2001) affirms this as she writes that ‘when the U.S public responds with vigor to particular perceived threats to public safety, this often seems to come as a shock to stakeholder corporate interests and government officials alike’ (ibid: 52).
Durant et al (1998) alike, explain that with the development of biotechnology, public debate and criticism increased and in response, policy processes became sensitive to public opinion. The generation of public debate towards this issue can be tied to the media who as a result of the news-worthiness of this technology, cover its merits and de-merits which influences public and political opinion.
However in Lewenstein (2005)’s account, the medias influence on policy-makers does not automatically lead to an influence in public attitudes. This could be seen in the attempt of policy makers and activists attempting to generate a positive consensus towards a ‘G.M Nation’. Contrary to what policy-makers might have hoped for, given the intense media coverage which it attracted, no consensus was reached. Nevertheless, Bauer (2002)’s research from 1996 to 1999 confirmed that opinions of biotechnology became negative which was in line with the medias coverage of biotechnology during this period (see Bauer, 2002: 103).
Nucci and Kubey (2007) in their account emphasise that the media play a vital role in the public awareness and understanding of new innovations in science in the ‘genetic engineering of food products for human consumption’ (Nucci and Kubey, 2007: 149).
Nucci and Kubey (2007) write that the experience that the ‘majority of the public have with genetics and biotechnology means that news coverage has a strong influence on theses subjects’ (Nucci and Kubey, 2007: 149). In fact, Priest (1999) emphasises that the ‘media possess the ability to influence public opinion on science and technology than other issues’ (cited in Nucci and Kubey, 2007: 149). In fact, Nucci and Kubey (2007) noted that the PEW foundation found that ‘the U.S public’s knowledge of G.M food tends to be driven mostly by the degree to which it is covered by the media’ (PEW INITIATIVE ON FOOD & BIOTECHNOLOGY, 2006 cited in Nucci and Kubey, 2007: 171). This further proves the argument that indeed the media is responsible for influencing public and political opinion on controversial scientific issues.
A specific example of the media having an influence on political opinion was the period of the ‘great G.M food debate’ (P.O.S.T, 2000). The public’s suspicion about it drove the media to campaign against G.M foods which led to a heated public debate.
However, it should be carefully noted that the power of the media influencing political processes should not be overstated as G.M food was already a major controversial issue in the British Parliament (P.O.S.T, 2000).
In a specific case-study concerning G.M foods; Larry Bohlen in 2000 suspected that StarLink a genetically modified corn variety that had been approved for animal feed had began to mix with ‘common food products such as corn dogs, taco shells and tortilla chips’ (cited in Nisbet and Huge, 2006: 4). Bohlen predicted that this mixture will lead to serious ‘allergic reactions’ (cited in Nisbet and Huge, 2006: 5). Bohlen was able to capitalize on this media-worthy issue to influence public and political opinion. Despite attracting press attention, it did not gather the public and political attitudes it needed to disapprove G.M foods.
On the other hand, recent news stories have shown that G.M foods are becoming acceptable and popular. Despite the scare for G.M food, the Royal Society has argued that G.M food research was needed to urgently avoid food crisis as this will help crops survive harsher climates as populations grow and global warming worsens (Guardian.co.uk, 21/10/09). G.M food is being developed further as meat is being laboratory grown from cells. Scientists at the University of Technology in Eindhoven confirmed that in a few years long strips of this artificially grown meat will become a part of our everyday frank-furter sausages. However it is agreed that this will only be achieved through super-human advertising before the world can accept to eat genetically modified meat (Guardian.co.uk, 1/12/09).
In addition to biotechnology, other technologies like cloning and nanotechnology have become part of an increasing controversy.
According to Lee et al (2005), media coverage on nanotechnology could have affective and cognitive influences on public opinion. Lee et al (2005) explain that the cognitive influences on public attitudes towards nanotechnology are based on the extent of the scientific literacy of the reader. Lee et al (2005) explain that those who have been influenced more affectively may be tied to media influences. This is perhaps why Lee et al (2005) in their research even confirmed that ‘only science media use had direct influence on general support for nanotechnology’ (ibid: 253).
However, Cobb (2005) pointed out that ‘framing nanotechnology in terms of its benefits did not increase respondents trust in industry leaders’ (ibid: 233).
The Wellcome Trust (1998) found that peoples negative attitudes towards cloning was drawn from examples expressed in popular media culture. Science fiction films were part of the major influences on people’s attitudes towards cloning. For example, Frankenstein, Brave new world and the boys from Brazil’ (Wellcome trust report, 1998).
In conclusion, one would have to state that reading newspaper articles or any medium being consumed that ascribes all sorts of accolades to biotechnology, nanotechnology, and cloning does not necessarily determine a positive public attitude. As Lee et al (2005) ‘found that people use their knowledge about science in general in order to evaluate possible risks and benefits…’ (ibid: 260).
Finally, one will suggest that studies of biotechnology should move past the western world into the third-world were food crisis are on the increase in order to show whether the scepticism towards artificially made food is a western ideology.
Number of words: 3,285.
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