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Nanotechnology and news

Scientists and journalists have different things to learn, say Alan Petersen, Alison Anderson, Stuart Allan and Clare Wilkinson

We carried out one of the first UK studies exploring how nanotechnology was being reported in the press (between April 2003 and June 2004), and the role that the media could potentially play in public engagement.1 The project investigated how scientists, journalists, and editors viewed the production of news about nanotechnology.

We wanted to explore the role of the newspaper press in shaping the contours of public debate. Research on similar emergent technologies suggests that the way the news media frame issues involves a complex process of negotiation between journalists and their sources. We therefore asked: how were scientific voices handled in the reporting of nanotechnology? How did the scientists serving as sources feel about their treatment in this process? What were their views about the ensuing news coverage?

Our data are drawn from a questionnaire survey of 37 scientists within the field, as well as 11 semi-structured interviews with editors, journalists and scientists.

Mostly positive

Results suggest that the scientists involved in the study had a good level of awareness of media coverage. Most had extensive experience of acting as a source, and tended to regard the experience in positive terms. They interacted with the media for a variety of reasons, including a sense of duty, to help improve scientific literacy and, at least for some, for self-promotion.

Experiences varied, however, depending on the nature and quality of the media organisation they were contacted by, with several expressing serious concerns about misrepresentation and inaccuracies, as well as misunderstanding.  Many took particular exception to ‘nanosub’ and ‘nanobot’ images, and references to the so-called ‘grey-goo’ scenario. Perhaps not surprisingly, perceptions of the ensuing coverage were rather mixed.

Black box

Although nanotechnology scientists whom we surveyed widely acknowledged the significance of public engagement, they tended to characterise ‘the media’ as a type of ‘black box’. Some scientists thought of science popularisation in fairly simplistic terms. Certain scientists seemed to think that journalists should act as cheer-leaders for science, simply accepting that scientists’ interests were consistent with the public interest.

Their comments often revealed a one-dimensional view which overlooked the influence of their own claims. Objections to images such as ‘nanosub’, for example, showed that respondents assumed that a clear line can be drawn between science fact and science fiction. This is not necessarily so.  Fictional portrayals constitute a critical part of the development of nanotechnologies, which help bridge the gap between the current concepts and future technologies, and can potentially influence the ways in which the public responds to those technologies.

We concluded that scientists would benefit from a greater awareness of the complexities of the interactions between them and journalists, just as journalists could learn much about the complexities of the science involved.  

Mixed on hype

Some scientists sought media attention proactively, feeling that this made for more accurate reports; however most tended to be reactive. Their views also varied as to the proper role of fellow scientists in hyping the field (‘selling’ the perceived benefits of nanotechnology while downplaying possible risks). Some felt this was detrimental to science; others felt it was beneficial as it stimulated people’s interest.

Widely shared, though, was a strong desire for fair, balanced, and accurate news coverage of existing developments. None of them failed to recognise the importance of ensuring that questions surrounding nanotechnology would require public debate, so the importance of robust, rigorous journalism was seen as vital.

This flags up the importance of the research and training opportunities which organisations such as the Wellcome Trust, the Royal Society, the British Science Association and others are providing.  When demands for public engagement are increasing, the role of scientists in helping to shape news media reports deserves sustained attention.

1 The work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (RES-000-22-0596), and published in Public Understanding of Science (September 2009), vol 18 no 5, pp 512-530, under the title “Opening the black box: Scientists’ views on the role of the news media in the nanotechnology debate”.

Further discussion of the study’s outcomes can be found in the following book: Alison Anderson, Alan Petersen, Clare Wilkinson and Stuart Allan (2009), Nanotechnology, Risk and Communication, Palgrave Macmillan

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Alan Petersen is Professor of Sociology at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
Alan Petersen is Professor of Sociology at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
Alison Anderson
Alison Anderson is Reader in Sociology at the University of Plymouth
Stuart Allan
Stuart Allan is Professor of Journalism at Bournemouth University
Clare Wilkinson
Clare Wilkinson is Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at the University of the West of England, Bristol
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