The Emergence of Nano News: Tracking Thematic Trends and Changes in U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Nanotechnology

Article excerpt

Mediated messages can influence awareness and nascent perceptions of novel or new issues. Nanotechnology is one such issue. This study explores descriptive and thematic characteristics of journalistic coverage of nanotechnology over a twenty-year span using computer-aided content analysis, finding an emphasis on research throughout the period with an increasing focus on both business and health aspects of nanotechnology. Later stories are more likely to address potential risks, while the regulatory dimensions, environmental implications, and uncertainty inherent in this emerging technology remain largely unaddressed.

Ensuring that technologies develop in ways that are socially responsible - that is, reflective of societal considerations - entails investigations of how the public acquires baseline information about these technologies that can shape their judgments and perceptions. Understanding this process requires systematic, longitudinal assessments of how mass media portray these issues. This type of assessment is particularly salient for emerging issues that are largely unfamiliar to lay publics, situations when media depictions can be particularly influential regarding the awareness and mental associations that come to affect policy decisions.1

With these considerations in mind, the goal of this study is to chart the evolution of U.S. newspaper coverage of an emerging technoscientific issue, nanotechnology. We use a comprehensive sampling technique and analysis to identify the coverage trends, authorship patterns, and thematic emphases that have marked journalistic accounts of this issue over the last two decades, from the late 1980s through 2009. By identifying the dominant characteristics of these journalistic depictions, we seek to improve our contextual understanding of public opinion formation relevant to nanotechnology and other emerging technologies more generally. We also consider our findings within the context of the changing landscape for science journalism.

Media Messages and Emergent Issues

Decades of research illustrate that the media are the public's primary sources of information about science and technology.2 How individuals come to understand and perceive emerging technoscientific issues is complex, but media representations can contribute to individuals' awareness, knowledge, opinions, and even behaviors related to such issues. Numerous theoretical frameworks help explain how these effects can occur. For example, one important role of mediated messages is that of making audiences aware of new, novel, and /or problematic issues. The media, in this role, help audiences monitor relevant social issues.3 This surveillance function forms the conceptual foundation of the agenda-setting effect, which posits that exposure to mediated messages about an issue can increase the perceived importance of that issue among audience members.4

In addition to enhancing audience awareness of technoscientific issues, mediated messages also contribute to issue perceptions. This can occur in different ways, one of which is by making certain information about an issue more accessible and, hence, more likely to be used by individuals to form perceptions. This theoretical orientation, known as the "accessibility principle" in social cognition research,5 asserts that the information that comes to mind most readily is that which is most likely to form the basis of judgments.6 Numerous factors can determine what enhances the accessibility of certain information. For example, constructs that are activated frequently7 and recently8 are often recalled more easily and used in the construction of judgments.

Cultivation is another theoretical orientation that helps explain media effects on public perceptions of technoscientific issues. Conceptualized by George Gerbner in the late 1960s, the cultivation approach has been used for decades to explore how media content, principally television programming, shapes audience perceptions. …