Media and public opinion

Media researchers are generally united in the conclusion that public opinion does not follow directly from media messages. Today the so-called "magic bullet" theory of media effects that are strong, immediate, direct, and uniform has been almost universally discarded by media scholars, although it is still regularly reinvented by commentators seeking to blame a host of social ills (such as prejudice, violence, and so on) on media representations. These are important issues. People do learn things from the media, which can shape their behavior and their images of themselves and others in a variety of ways, both negative and positive. But audiences bring to their understanding of media messages their own personalities, experiences, values, priorities, beliefs, and interpretations. Furthermore, media messages also reflect, as well as shape, the experiences, values, priorities, beliefs, and interpretations of the social groups that create them.

Specifically with respect to technology, Mazur (1981) claimed some years ago to have demonstrated a (presumably causal) relationship between negative media coverage of a technology and negative public opinion. While his correlations undeniably show an association, it is just as plausible on the basis of correlational data like these that the media—especially if doing a good job—reflect and perhaps even foreshadow public controversies as that they somehow induce them. (For further discussion of the limits of this model and data challenging it, see Gutteling, 2005.) The relationship between media content and public opinion is an extremely complex "chicken-and-egg" relationship that is not well captured by correlational studies that do not take the nature of news-gathering processes or audience cognition into account.

However, and while available evidence does not provide much support for the idea that negative or positive public opinion directly follows from negative or positive media opinion, this is not to say that the media have no effects. The most consistently demonstrable short-term effect of media coverage is "agenda-setting," the idea that the media call attention to certain issues and not others, and that in the process readers and audiences are influenced in their thinking about what are the most important issues of the day. Mazur may be partially correct in that by calling attention to particular technologies, the media may be inviting readers and audiences to consider them controversial; news media are usually in the business of covering bad news more often than good, and this is what we routinely expect of them.1

"Framing" (sometimes called issue definition or second-level agenda-setting) is another well-established media phenomenon that has measurable effects on public thinking. Framing refers to the selection of some aspects of an issue, topic, event, or problem for emphasis. This is a necessary part of newswork; the media cannot publish or broadcast everything, but must by necessity publish and broadcast only highly selected portions of "reality," and in describing a particular event or issue, journalists necessarily make judgments about which elements people most need or want to know and then must fit these elements into a coherent account or story. However, framing is also influenced by news sources (including public information officers, public relations practitioners, scientific experts, and members of advocacy groups) who want, in turn, to influence public opinion.

Given the breadth of applications involved and the problematic character of both the category "biotechnology" and the category "nanotechnology," framing is a potentially important influence in both cases. Toward the more recent years of the agricultural biotechnology debate, as evidence of divided opinion on both sides of the Atlantic became more and more difficult to ignore, the promoters of this technology attempted to reframe the debate as one about liberating a set of tools that could end developing-world hunger and malnourishment, eradicate diseases associated with nutritional deficiencies, and put subsistence farmers around the globe on a sound economic footing even if their available land was of marginal utility. While many scientists working in this area are no doubt completely sincere in their hopes that their work will bring these changes about, this shift in the frame of the debate was primarily about influencing public opinion. In this respect it has been, at most, only partially successful. What "frames" will dominate nanotech-nology coverage over the next few years remains to be seen.

Finally, longer term, media also have what are known as "cultivation effects" on our general perception of the nature of the world. Whether we believe the world to be dangerous and risky or safe and welcoming, whether we believe certain groups (scientists, capitalists, people of a particular nationality or ethnicity or gender) to be trustworthy or unreliable, whether we believe certain forms of social behavior to be common and acceptable or deviant—in short, our perceptions of social reality—are believed to be built up over long periods of time in part through exposure to the media, alongside influences from other social institutions. In the same way, reactions to new technologies are influenced by reactions to older technologies; if previous technologies consistently carried unacknowledged risks that we heard about on the news, then most likely the newest technologies will also. Ordinary people certainly use their knowledge of older technologies as an important resource for asking questions about newer technologies. But it is also important to restate here that ordinary people also make distinctions between one technology and the next; those who oppose GM foods are not necessarily those who oppose nuclear power, for example. Having said that, naturally people's experience with biotechnology—whether seen as positive or negative, how trustworthy the experts are believed to be, whether the technology carries more risks or more benefits, whether ethical issues have been addressed—will certainly influence their expectations for nanotechnology in a general way.

Given that people make distinctions among applications within these broad categories, however, the expectations they bring to bear are not necessarily as general as the problematic "nano, bio" categories. In thinking about the risks of nanotechnology-based drug delivery systems, for example, focus group participants in the US regularly refer specifically to their observations about the reliability of the FDA with respect to regulating other drugs (Priest and Fussell, 2006). While the analogies people use to grasp issues associated with new technologies are not always correct in every respect, everyday life experiences—often including information gleaned from the news media—are a crucial cognitive resource people rely on to make sense of the unfamiliar. This will be true of each specific application as it rolls out; while generalized expectations for technology based on previous experience will continue to persist in the background, making decisions about individual applications and products will often rely on more specific associations.

Another aspect of the relationship between media content and the GM food and broader biotechnology debates that does need to be stressed for understanding emerging nanotechnology is that media opinion has very often—too often—been mistaken by the policy community for public opinion. Thus the illusion persisted for years that people in the US were almost exclusively pro-GM food because much of the early media coverage in the US was industry- and researcher-driven and therefore positive (Priest, 2000). The nature of the US news system is that it is largely source-driven, especially in technically complex areas. Differences of opinion that existed in the US were not visible to policymakers; variations in survey data suggested a public that was not certain how it felt, not one that was becoming (as it turned out) increasingly polarized.

Conversely, some segments of the European press follow a different, more aggressive, less "objective" tradition. While dissent in the US remained largely invisible in the news, with some of the exceptions remaining confined to local issues without reaching national prominence (Priest and Ten Eyck, 2004), differences of opinion about GM foods in Europe came to the surface much more quickly, and may have been exaggerated in press accounts. On the one hand, for complex reasons of culture and geopolitics, it is true that European reactions to GM food technology were somewhat more negative, especially initially. On the other hand, impressions about the relative absence of dissent in the US and about its relative prevalence in Europe were partially illusions derived from different press traditions and styles of coverage.

At present, media coverage of nanotechnology is largely positive (Stephens, 2005) and both North American and European opinion leans toward the positive as well (Gaskell et al., 2005a; Priest, 2006). This does not mean these will stay this way, nor that one controls the other. It remains to be seen what impact emerging health and environmental issues that might be associated with nanotechnology and its products will have on this climate of opinion. But nanotechnology policy and industry organizations appear to be rightfully concerned that missteps at this stage of nanotechnol-ogy's "roll-out" could have long-lasting consequences; as a result, so far we have seen a healthy transparency in discussions of these risks.

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