Biotech And Hurricanes: Media Coverage Spawns Fear And Myths

February 15, 2008


 By JAN KNIGHT Katrina coverage driven by disaster myths, reinforces push to use military during domestic disasters, study suggests

News reporting in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina presented New Orleans as a war zone filled with "opportunistic looters and violent criminals" and requiring military intervention, a recent study suggests. Calling these frames "disaster myths," University of Colorado researchers found that journalists used the frames to describe Katrina victims' behavior and official responses to it in ways that matched post-9/11 political discourse, which called for a greater role for the military in times of domestic disaster. But, they noted, research shows that typical human responses to disaster – such as intense informationseeking and concerns about looting, versus actual looting – differ from popular images presented in all types of media, which tend to portray normal responses to disaster as sheer panic.

One problem with this portrayal is that "incorrect assumptions about the potential for looting and social breakdown can lead to misallocations of public safety resources that could be put to better use in providing direct assistance to victims," they stated. "Concerns with public panic can also lead officials to avoid issuing timely warnings and to keep needed riskrelated information from the public."

In the case of Katrina coverage, they argued, this portrayal also served "to justify stances adopted by law enforcement entities and other institutions concerned with social control."

They noted a distinction between looting during times of civil unrest versus times of disaster. In the case of the former, looting tends to be open and relatively accepted, while in the latter case, large-scale looting is "vanishingly rare" and socially condemned. But the fear of looting, whether it is occurring or not, prompts residents to take preventive measures, such as tacking strong warning signs on their property, the researchers wrote. They noted that at the time of their study, no empirical data indicated that large-scale looting had occurred in New Orleans and no studies of crime before and after the hurricane had been completed.

"Hurricane Katrina may well prove to be the focusing event that moves the nation to place more faith in military solutions for a wider range of social problems than ever before," the researchers speculated. "If this does turn out to be the case, the media will have helped that process along."

Their conclusions were based on a qualitative analysis of Katrina news reports from Aug. 29, 2005, to Sept. 11, 2005, in The New York Times, Washington Post and New Orleans Times-Picayune.

For more information, see Kathleen Tierney, Christine Bevc, and Erica Kuligowski, "Metaphors Matter: Disaster Myths, Media Frames, and their Consequences in Hurricane Katrina" in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Volume 604, Number 1 (March 2006), pp. 57-81.

U.S., U.K. focus on agrifood risks, frame international biotech events differently, research suggests

News coverage in two countries over 12 years emphasized the "dreaded aspects" of agricultural biotechnology while focusing on the benefits of its medical counterpart, recent research shows.

At the same time, the coverage tended to localize international biotech events, leading to the use of different frames for similar events, which drove each country's continued coverage of the broader topics, according to the study.

The researchers, all from the University of Missouri-Columbia, focused on news biotech frames because, research shows, news can influence public opinion and policy. They examined 2,000 news articles on medical and agricultural biotechnology appearing in the Washington Post and London Times from 1990 through 2001 to determine how journalists presented the risks and benefits associated with each application.

Among other things, they found that the death of Jesse Gelsinger in 1999 after experimental gene therapy at the University of Pennsylvania steered U.S. news coverage toward focusing on an individual death and framing gene therapy risk from an individual point of view. This differed from its framing of agrifoods, which amplified risk "to all sorts of medical interventions with multiple populations," the researchers stated.

U.K. reports, on the other hand, framed gene therapy positively, while treating Gelsinger's death as a local story specific to the United States and mentioning it in only 2.3 percent of all gene therapy stories, compared to its mention in 22 percent of U.S. gene therapy coverage.

The researchers also found that the Post reports were generally negative for both agricultural and medical biotech, focusing more on the environmental and food safety risks of agrifoods than the Times and more on all risks associated with medical biotech. On a more specific level, the two papers each focused on the risks of human cloning and xenotransplantation more than their benefits.

To understand how these frames might have occurred, the researchers compared journalistic framing of biotech risks to "informational milestones" in the scientific development of biotech applications, including the birth of Dolly the sheep in 1997; a U.K. researcher's controversial televised statement in 1999 that GM potatoes had seriously damaged the organs of lab rats; a 1999 study showing that the monarch butterfly had been harmed by GM foods; and Gelsinger's death in 1999.

The monarch butterfly story was negatively framed in both countries and was the only event that the two papers framed in the same way. Dolly the sheep was framed negatively in the Post and positively in the Times. The televised report on the effect of GM potatoes on lab rats, a controversial event in the scientific community, received balanced coverage in both countries and actually broadened the London Times' coverage of GM foods to address their environmental risks and benefits, the researchers found.

In a brief check of their findings with poll data, they found that public opinion changed with the volume and tone of news coverage in each country. This research shows that "the very same event can be framed differently," the researchers wrote. "The local focus and selective use of the same information provides the strongest evidence yet that the media can frame ... public debate through its coverage."

For more information, see Leonie A. Marks, Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes, Lee Wilkins, and Ludmila Zakharova, "Mass Media Framing of Biotechnology News" in Public Understanding of Science, Volume 16, Number 2 (April 2007), pp. 183-203.


Jan Knight, a former magazine editor and daily newspaper reporter, is a former assistant professor of communication at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu, where she continues to teach online courses in writing and environmental communication. She can be reached at

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2008

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