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Media Framing of Risk Project

Award Holders: Jenny Kitzinger, Emma Hughes, (Cardiff) and Graham Murdock (Loughborough)

Funder: Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

Based at: Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies (JOMEC)

Media framing of risks involves complex processes both at the level of media representation and of audience reception. Representing risk involves telling stories, providing context, prompting hopes and fears, invoking images and associations, inviting identification, allocating blame and stimulating the imagination. This project provides a multi-level analysis of media discourses and their potential influence on public perceptions. We are using interviews, media analysis and focus groups in order to examine:

  • The concerns of policy makers, pressure groups and practitioners around media representation of such risks;
  • The discourses, framing and narratives used within the media, and across diverse formats, in risk representation;
  • How people relate to such diverse representations and how they draw on such discourses and framing in their talk about and response to risks.

Key Points from the Research

The research involved interviews with key stakeholders (n=38); analysis of media coverage (six months); focus groups with diverse ‘publics’ (n=20 groups) and follow up interviews (n=45). We examined the framing of GM food, stem cell research and nanotechnology.

Our research shows that the frames used to define the risks and the benefits may be more important in shaping how people respond to risks than the balance of 'factual' information. Key 'discursive cues' in framing of risks are:

  • Contrasting labels: e.g. In the GM debate terms such as 'cross-pollination' compete with 'contamination'.
  • Competing historical templates: e.g. Stem cell research may be linked to 'medical breakthroughs' such as penicillin, or to the more sinister historical association of eugenics.
  • Visual imagery: e.g. The embryo/blastocyst is the central visual icon in the stem cell debate - magnified images of the cluster of cells used by stem cell researchers compete with representations of more developed embryos, with tiny fingers and toes.
  • We also identified recurring points of appeal across the coverage e.g. to ‘Nature’ and to National interest/identity

The success of such framing devices in penetrating popular discourse varies. The notion of contamination, for example, dominates media/public discourse about GM crops and the term 'embryo' has been more successful than terms such as 'blastocyst' in the stem cell debate. However, even an evocative term such as 'embryo' may be associated with acceptable risk-taking if the benefits (e.g. medical advances through stem cell research) are sufficiently highlighted. Our focus group research highlighted the fact that:

  • People are willing to negotiate around ‘instinctive reactions’ such as distrust of the ‘unnatural’ or the ‘Yuk factor’ if convinced of the value of a new development.
  • Attitudes toward emerging technology are closely linked to ‘branding’ and ‘clusters of associations’ (e.g. GM was associated with junk food but nanotechnology triggered associations with keyhole surgery and neat little Ipods).
  • People take from the media ‘why’ (the science is done) rather than ‘how’ (it is done) and ‘who’ (is doing it) than ‘what’ (it involves).
  • Common concerns focus on where a technology might lead, whether consequences can be predicted and the threat of misuse. Such concerns are reiterated through historical templates linked to economics and politics(e.g. with discussion of BSE, global arms race, The Iraq war)
  • Identities and experiences of citizenship mediate concerns (e.g. the only group who were very wary of nanotechnology linked this to their concerns about civil liberties and surveillance as Muslims in a post 9/11 world).
  • The fictional image of a technology is significant, but less important than news reports addressing who is developing the technology, why they are developing it, and who will benefit from it.

Examples of outputs

Kitzinger, J (2009) Myths and Realities podcasts: Making sense of risk, a presentation from the public debate held at the British Library Conference Centre on 18 November 2009

Professor Jenny Kitzinger on making sense of risk

Also British Library, Myths and Realities podcasts: Making sense of risk

Kitzinger, J (2010) Questioning the sci-fi alibi: a critique of how 'science fiction fears' are used to explain away public concerns about risk. Journal of Risk Research, 13(1):73 - 86 
Questioning the sci-fi alibi: a critique of how...

Kitzinger, J (2008) ‘Questioning Hype, Rescuing Hope? The Hwang stem cell scandal and the reassertion of hopeful horizons', Science as Culture 17(4): 417-434

Hughes, Emma, Kitzinger, Jenny and Murdock, Graham 'Media Discourses and Framing of Risk',Social Contexts and Responses to Risk Network, 27 – 2008 (2008)
Media Discourses and Framing of Risk [291KB]

Hughes, Emma and Kitzinger, Jenny (2008) 'Science fiction fears? An analysis of how people use fiction in discussing risk and emerging science and technology', SCARR working paper.
Science fiction fears? [81KB]

Horlick-Jones, Tom, Walls, John, and Kitzinger, Jenny (2007) Bricolage in action: learning about, making sense of, and discussing, issues about genetically modified crops and food’ Health, Risk and Society , 9(1): 83-103

Kitzinger, Jenny (2007) ‘Framing and Frame Analysis’. In Devereux, E (ed) Media Studies: key issues and debates. Sage: London. p134-161

Hughes, Emma (2007) ‘Dissolving the nation: Self-deception and symbolic inversion in the GM debate’ Environmental Politics 16(2) 318-36. Also to be reprinted in Bluehdorn, I and Welsh, I (eds)The Politics of Unsustainability: Eco-Politics in the Post-Ecologist Era, Taylor and Francis Group: London.

Kitzinger, Jenny (2006) ‘The Role of the Media in Public Engagement with Science’ in Turney, J (ed)Engaging Science: thoughts, deeds, analysis and action. Wellcome Trust. 44-50

Hughes, Emma, Kitzinger, Jenny, Murdock, G. (2006) ‘Risk and the Media’ in Taylor-Gooby, P and Zinn, J (eds) Risk in Social Science, Oxford University Press: Oxford. 250-270

Hughes, Emma (2005): ‘The Contaminated Risk of GM Crops: Nationalism and the Genetic Modification Debate.’ Journal of Public Affairs 5: 251-262.