Jan 3, 2006
Nanotechnology in the news
Nanotechnology has been the topic of intense media scrutiny over the last couple of years. From grey goo to body-repairing nanobots to space elevators and even to more down-to-earth applications such as targeted drug delivery and nanoelectronics, the media has given its views on nanotechnology. But what do the nanoscientists themselves think of the way that the media has portrayed the field? With that question in mind, researchers from the University of Plymouth, UK, examined UK national newspaper coverage of nanotechnology between April 1 2003 and June 30 2004.
Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the "Nanotechnology and News Production" study found a total of 344 newspaper articles for the time period under scrutiny. The researchers supplemented analysis of these articles with an email survey of journalists, editors and scientists, followed by in-depth interviews with some of the respondents. This article reports on preliminary findings from the newspaper analysis and email survey.
Press coverage of nanotechnologies was concentrated in a relatively small number of elite newspapers with fairly small distribution figures. The highest number of items appeared in The Guardian (24%). This was followed by The Times (19%), The Financial Times (14%), The Independent (10%), and The Daily Telegraph (7%). Mass-market newspapers carried relatively few items during the survey period. The News of the World, a Sunday mass-market publication with the highest circulation rate of all UK newspapers, was the only paper not to feature any articles containing the keywords.
The three most prominent overall frames for articles were "science fiction and popular culture", "scientific discovery or project" and "business" (see Figure 1). The overall tone of the coverage was a mixture of strong optimism regarding the benefits of nanotechnologies, combined with concerns about the risks, and uncertainties about possible benefits or risks. However, these frames were not uniformly spread across all papers.
A significant amount of the coverage was not authored by a health, science or environmental correspondent or editor - writers who are likely to have at least some knowledge of the area. Indeed, 57% of items in the sample were by "general" or "other" correspondents. News items in the elite press were more likely to be authored by a science correspondent, while news items in popular newspapers were more often by a political or non-specialist news reporter.
The team also questioned 37 scientists about their views of news coverage via email. The scientists were chosen for their contributions to press coverage, the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering study on nanotechnology, and academia. Coverage of nanotechnologies peaked around Prince Charles' purported comments concerning the grey goo scenario and the instigation and publication of the Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering study. Despite both these events raising issues of toxicity and risk, the reaction in the press, while often sensationalist at the outset, went on to discuss nanotechnology in a supportive manner. This was due to the large reliance on scientists' and industry views (used to "balance" the comments of Prince Charles) and also the shifting of the argument around nanotechnology to a political arena where Prince Charles' views were situated as "anti-science". This was a point recognized by one of the scientists who took part in the email survey:
"I ticked 'detrimental to science' mainly due to the negative portrayal of nanotech in the initial articles. However, such articles have been largely condemned by informed scientists, fuelling the media to condemning uninformed (and perhaps uneducated) politicians and figure-heads speaking against issues they do not (fully) understand."
Other scientists expressed a range of views on news coverage of nanotechnology (see figure 2). They widely agreed that the public presently lack an understanding of nanotechnologies - 68% of survey respondents described the public as uninformed on the issue. Despite this low estimate, the scientists agreed with the principle of public engagement and 46% stated it was very realistic to engage with the public about nanotechnologies. This suggests scientists do not necessarily see prior information or knowledge as essential for public engagement on nanotechnologies.
The issue of sensationalism and "hyping" was also complex. When asked an identical question to members of the public in research commissioned by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering study - namely, "what will be the impact of nanotechnology in the next twenty years?" - results varied. A total of 54% of the scientists said that they think nanotechnology will improve our way of life in the next twenty years, 27% that it would depend on what nanotechnology is used for, and 11% that it would improve our way of life, also depending upon what it is used for. Thus while sensationalism was frequently described as negative for science, it was difficult to balance that with the advertising it could also provide, as this respondent indicates:
"I definitely share the view that nanotechnology has been hyped out of all proportion, which then means that the actual science done cannot live up to the expectations of nanobots etc. However, almost any discussion of science in the media is a good thing."
The press was frequently criticized for "inaccuracy" and lack of balance, with some recognition that the pressures of journalism frequently make these issues inescapable. There was also uncertainty about how metaphors and analogies, so often present in the news coverage analyzed, could aid understanding or provide a positive depiction of science. One scientist commented:
"'Nanobots' always feature highly in press coverage, as do artists' renditions of Fantastic Voyage-like 'nanosubs' hunting down viruses in the bloodstream. I can understand why these concepts and images are continually used, as they certainly add a lot of interest to what might initially be seen as a dry science story. It seems that such 'sensationalized' images are used to 'spice up' otherwise well-balanced articles. Is this detrimental to science? It's a moot point - if the 'nanobot' or 'nanosub' image succeeds in attracting a reader's attention to a well-balanced and scientifically correct article then one might argue that the 'artist's impression' has served an appropriate purpose and this has been beneficial to science. If, however, the nanobot or nanosub image is the only information that remains with the reader, then this is extremely misleading and is rather detrimental to the future of nanoscience."
This statement echoes the view expressed by a number of interviewees that the press tends to use misleading imagery in its nanotechnology coverage. This dissatisfaction with reporting presents a real challenge for scientists to come up with more adequate imagery. Those working within the nanotech field would also benefit from ensuring that when they agree to speak to the press they find out the kind of questions they will be asked in advance, what the overall angle of the piece is and, if possible, who else the journalist is planning to speak to. Further research currently underway at the University of Plymouth that focuses on how journalists view their relationship with nanotech scientists will add greater insight into the factors shaping reporting in this emerging field.
Further information about the Nanotechnology and News Production project is available at http://www.research.plymouth.ac.uk/nanotechnology/.
About the author
Alan Petersen is Professor of Sociology in the School of Sociology, Politics and Law at the University of Plymouth, UK. He has researched and written extensively in the sociology of health and illness, sociology of the body, the sociology of risk, and sexuality and gender studies. He has also published a number of articles on the media and genetics. Alison Anderson is Principal Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Plymouth. She is author of Media,Culture and the Environment (UCL, 1997) and co-editor of The Changing Consumer (Routledge, 2002). Her recent articles on journalistic portrayals of environmental risks, genetics and war have appeared in Science as Culture, Sociological Research Online, Knowledge, Technology and Society and New Genetics and Society. Stuart Allan is Professor in the School of Cultural Studies, University of the West of England, Bristol, UK. He is the author of News Culture (Open University Press, 1999; second edition, 2004) and Media, Risk and Science (Open University Press, 2002). His edited collections include Environmental Risks and the Media (Routledge, 2000), and Journalism: Critical Issues (Open University Press, 2005). Clare Wilkinson is a Research Fellow in the School of Sociology, Politics and Law at the University of Plymouth. Clare was awarded her PhD in 2005. Her thesis examined relationships between experts, the media and publics, contextualised by new genetic issues.