Analysis of German language media coverage of nanotechnology

Austria’s NanoTrust project published, in October 2012, a dossier tittled: Nanotechnology in the media; On the reporting in representative daily newspapers in Austria, Germany and Switzerland which has been highlighted in a Jan. 21, 2013 Nanowerk Spotlight article (Note: Footnotes have been removed),

The media can have a significant influence on the public image of science and technology, in the specific case nanotechnology. This is true in particular if only a small percentage of the population only comes directly into contact with such fields of research. Mass media reporting serves to increase awareness of selected topics, informs about current debates involving a wide variety of actors who need to be heard and thus also prepares a basis for future social debates. The population is introduced to central aspects of technical applications, which also include the opportunities and risks associated with the new technologies.

A media analysis has been conducted of selected quality newspapers within the framework of the “NanoPol” project [cooperation between the Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS) at the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology (KIT), the Institute for Technology Assessment (ITA) at the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW), TA-Swiss in Berne and the Programme for Science Research of the University of Basel], which analyses the nanotechnology policies of Austria, Germany and Switzerland.

Quality newspapers are characterised by their target group, comprising persons who have a specific interest in national events and information and who are of significance as multipliers for opinion formation amongst the national public. At the same time, mass media as an ongoing observer in the public can contribute to determining the significance of the topic for the public discussion. For each country, two print media were investigated, the investigation period extending over ten years (2000-2009):

– Der Standard and Die Presse (A);

– Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and die Süddeutsche Zeitung (D);

– Neue Züricher Zeitung and der Tagesanzeiger (CH).

The media analysis covered almost 2000 articles produced between 2000 and 2009,

Roughly 44 % of all articles were accounted for by the two German print media, while Switzerland and Austria had a share of 29 % and 27 % respectively, with in each case one national newspaper having published significantly more articles with nanotechnology topics. At the beginning of the investigation period, the frequency of articles still varied considerably in the different countries, but converged towards the end of the period.

The reports on nanotechnology are overwhelmingly (88 %) to be found in fact-focused report formats such as news reports or background coverage, while a small percentage of the contributions are drawn up in the form of interviews, comments and essays.

There’s a bit of a surprise (to me) concerning popular topics in that medical applications don’t place first in terms of interest,

Topics related to basic research, which for instance include toxicology and risk research, constituted an in part clear majority in all three countries. Applications in the field of information and communication technology, extending from data media to sensors, were the second most frequently referred to topic. Medical applications, from diagnostics to specific therapies, occupied third place in all three countries, although relatively speaking there were somewhat more reports about medical topics in Austria than in the other two countries.  [emphases mine] Reports from the field of business and politics, dealing above all with companies, research subsidies, environment and economic policies, occupied places four and five.

The conclusion of this Spotlight article seems to hint at a little disappointment,

The reporting on nanotechnology in the media in the three German-speaking countries is largely science-centred and attracts a generally low level of attention amongst the broad public thanks to its less emphasised placing. There is hardly any opinion-focused reporting, with classical news reports and reports relating to current research activities or events predominating. In all three countries, the newspapers’ science departments play a dominant role, and scientists also play a central role as actors.

An event-focused positive representation predominates. A focus on risks and controversial reporting, a concern raised regularly in expert circles, was not proven in the present study. Risk topics play a role in fewer than 20 % of articles; the benefits and opportunities of nanotechnology, on the other hand, are mentioned in 80 % of all articles.

Benefits are seen above all for science. Scientific actors are likewise mentioned relatively frequently, which indicates the close connections between science and business, and the economic expectations of nanotechnology. One would have to examine the extent to which the absence of controversies can be attributed to the hitherto lack of evidence of possible dangers and risks or to well-functioning strategic scientific PR work. [emphasis mine]

Why mention  “well-functioning strategic scientific PR work” in the conclusion when there has been no mention of public relations (PR) in any other section of this dossier?  As well, if strategic scientific PR work was that effective, then nuclear power might not be quite so controversial.

Overall, this study doesn’t break any new ground but does confirm a growing consensus of opinion, the public regardless of which country (with the possible exception of France) we are discussing tends not to be all that interested in nanotechnology.

For those curious about the French controversies, there’s a mention in my March 10, 2010 posting (scroll down about 1/4 of the way) about an Agence Science-Presse radio interview with Celine Lafontaine, a Quebec-based academic who studies the social impact of nanotechnology and was in France during a very contentious series of public debates on the subject.

For anyone who found the reference to ‘actors’ in this research a little unexpected, the term is being used by researchers who are using ‘actor-network theory’ as an analytical tool. You can find out more about actor-network theory in this Wikipedia essay.

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