The representation of synthetic biology in Dutch media

The representation of synthetic biology in Dutch media

Author: Liesbeth de Bakker – Utrecht University, Netherlands

An important source of information about science is news media. Media do not only inform about emerging issues in society, they also shape the public agenda through their agenda setting function and frames used by journalists. By studying news media content, a greater understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the public discourse about emerging, controversial science issues, such as Synthetic Biology (SB), can be obtained.

The emerging field of Synthetic Biology (SB) is expected to bring many promising applications. However, as it is often regarded or described as a form of ‘extreme genetic engineering’, there are also concerns for safety, security and of an ethical nature. Hence, involving society in decision making regarding SB’s potential applications, risks, and ethical issues is necessary. Until now it was largely unknown how SB is covered and framed in Dutch news media. So in this study both qualitative and quantitative methods were used to investigate SB representation in Dutch newspapers.

A total of 261 Dutch newspaper articles (published between 2000 and 2016) were analyzed for 5 aspects. These aspects were also used in similar, recent studies carried out in other European countries. They include 1) publication data, 2) motives for publication, 3) normative impression, 4) mentioned applications, risks and ethical issues, 5) and metaphor use.

Results show that SB media representation was predominantly event-based, positive, future-oriented, relatively small, and science-led. SB media coverage in other European countries shows many similarities. Findings suggest that public discourse about SB in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe is still in its infancy and that the current representation of SB is skewed, mainly focused on the positive, application side of the new technology. In that sense it resembles developments seen in media coverage of genetic engineering. Opportunities and challenges for the public discourse about synthetic biology will be discussed.

Presentation type: Individual paper
Theme: Society
Area of interest: Investigating science communication practices