Studies Consider Coverage Of Biotech And Environmental Justice In The United States

May 15, 2006


U.S. biotech coverage presents less risk than Canadian coverage, few popular views, preliminary study suggests

A recent study compares U.S. and Canadian public opinion of genetic technology and combines it with a preliminary study of the countries' biotech news coverage, finding that U.S. coverage focuses less on risks of genetic manipulation than Canadian coverage and fails to represent the wide range of public opinion on the topic.

Susanna Hornig Priest, research director for the University of South Carolina's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies, used telephone poll responses from 1,500 residents of both countries to questions about genetically modified (GM) foods and stem cell research, among other topics. She organized their responses into five opinion categories and found that:

• About 11 percent of Canadian respondents and 24 percent of U.S. respondents are "true believers" – those who see little risk in biotechnology.

• About 30 percent of Canadian and 30 percent of U.S. respondents are "utilitarians" – those who tend to see GM food risks as outweighing their benefits but generally support the Human Genome Project and stem cell research.

• About 25 percent of Canadian and 25 percent of U.S. respondents are "moral authoritarians" who believe that gene technology policy should be guided by ethics and decided by experts.

• About 12 percent of Canadian and 12 percent of U.S. respondents are "democratic pragmatists" who believe policy decisions should be based on risk/benefit equations rather than ethics but determined by "the people" rather than experts.

• About 13 percent of Canadian and 21 percent of U.S. respondents are "ethical populists" who believe policy should be based on ethics and determined by the people.

She found that those who see biotechnology as less risky tend to come from the United States while those who see it as morally problematic tend to come from Canada.

She noted that most of those polled did not belong to either of these two groups. But her pilot study of 144 biotech news articles showed that U.S. coverage reflected one frame more than any other – that of the "true believer" (genetic research is not risky), which she attributed to the efforts of "research advocates," including those from research-oriented organizations and institutions. Canadian coverage generally reflected a "moral authoritarian" theme (genetic research should be guided by ethics and policy determined by experts).

In contrast, although her sample of articles on GM foods was relatively small (26 articles), she also found that both the Canadian and U.S. coverage was dominated by "utilitarian" views (GM food risks outweigh their benefits), suggesting that sources favoring GM foods may have become less dominant in the press of both countries. Priest added that GM foods are less controversial in the United States than in Canada.

Priest concluded that her results illustrate "the way that media coverage consistently reflects visible events and the perspectives of vocal spokespersons rather than 'general' public opinion, while at the same time resonating with culturally significant themes that are not always fully shared."

For more information, see Susanna Hornig Priest, "The public opinion climate for gene technologies in Canada and the United States: Competing voices, contrasting frames" in Public Understanding of Science, January 2006 (Volume 15), pp. 55 – 71.

Study suggests that African-American newspapers' use of identity politics might weaken environmental justice efforts

A University of Indiana researcher recently compared coverage of environmental-justice issues in three U.S. African- American newspapers and concluded that some of their frames tend to match those of the mainstream media, offering both benefits and pitfalls to the quest for equality specifically in regard to environmental justice and generally to resisting oppression.

In this qualitative study, the researcher examined the Los Angeles Sentinel, the Chicago Defender and the Michigan Chronicle and found that all three emphasized frames of community and racial identity.  The newspapers tended to describe pollution using violent images and to "portray environmental racism as a crime against the community," the researcher wrote.  At the same time, the articles did not portray community residents as helpless victims but, rather, as a community united against a common enemy: Whites," the researcher stated.

The Michigan Chronicle and Chicago Defender also framed environmental justice as a civil rights issue, drawing on the histories of racial discrimination and poverty and helping "portray a sense of unity among 'us' against the enemy," she wrote.

Meanwhile, The Los Angeles Sentinel portrayed environmental justice using a broader frame to include Latinos and Native Americans, possibly reflecting the activism of Latino, Native American and African-American groups in the U.S. Southwest, she wrote.

While the coverage shows positive aspects, the researcher suggested that constructing environmental-justice issues in terms of two races continues the status quo thinking about power in the United States. Communication theorists suggest that while powerful groups hold great sway in a society, those with less power might actually maintain inequality by continuing to accord power to a dominating group via language use. In turn, groups that initially are less powerful can become an equally dominant force, in part by resisting definition of their group in terms of being something "other" than the dominant group.

"If the environmental-justice movement is to counter mainstream environmentalism's racially exclusive nature, it must also address how media coverage is often embedded in exclusive categories of community, race, and identity," she suggested.

Communication theorists resist strict classification by race into large categories such as "black" and "white" because this risks losing the diversity of voices existing within those groups.

On this point, the researcher observed, the African-American newspapers tended to seek out sources similarly to mainstream newspapers – quoting the most vocal while failing to seek out views of less visible but often more numerous members of the population, which can lead to "exclusion even within a minority group."

For more information, see Teresa L. Heinz, "From civil rights to environmental rights: Constructions of race, community and identity in three African American newspapers' coverage of the environmental justice movement" in Journal of Communication Inquiry, January 2005 (Volume 29, No. 1), pp. 47-65.

Jan Knight, a former magazine editor and daily newspaper reporter, is an assistant professor of communication at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu. She can be reached at

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2006 issue

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