Oslo-scientists have found the media gene

The word “gene” is at the heart of public discussions - everything from food, health and disease to test tube babies and crime scene investigations. But what actually is a gene?

INCREASING AWARENESS: “I hope my work can make scientists and journalists more aware of how they communicate about genes,” says Rebecca Carver. Photo: Ola Sæther

No single scientific concept is more fundamental to the understanding of life science than ‘the gene’. It has also become a key term in public discourse and hardly a day goes by without some mention of genes or genetic research in the mass media. But what sort of information about genes is the public actually receiving?

This was one of the starting questions for Rebecca Carver’s doctoral work in the project Genes in the media at the Institute for Basic Medical Sciences (IMB) at the University of Oslo (UiO), Norway.

“To get an impression of how genes are communicated in public internationally, I chose to analyse Norwegian and British newspapers. Newspapers are important because they represent a range of voices in society, such as journalists, scientists and politicians, as well as members of public” remarks Rebecca Carver
to the the research magazine Apollon at University of Oslo.

She has previously studied in England and has a Master degree in Science Communication from Imperial College London (2004) – an important academic discipline internationally, but not yet in Norway

“Framing” the gene

The project is managed by Associate Professor Jarle Breivik from the same institute, who also initiated it. Professor Ragnar Waldahl from the Department of Media and Communication, UiO, has also been involved.

“We chose to analyse the national newspapers Aftenposten, VG and Dagbladet from Norway; The Guardian, The Daily Mail and The Sun from the UK,” Carver explains. “We randomly selected a total of 300 articles, including commentaries, features, news stories and news briefs that referred to the gene concept in various ways.”

Starting with a review of how genes are discussed in the biomedical and media studies literature, the young researcher then undertook a framing analysis of the newspaper material.

“Journalists and other communicators both consciously and unconsciously frame their stories in such ways to evoke particular meanings for the reader. Media theorists call this process framing. A particular scientific concept like the gene can be presented in ways that communicate different meanings, depending on which frame is used,” explains Carver.

“Based on a systematic analysis of key words, phrases, depictions, facts, metaphors and other framing features relating to the gene concept, I was able to identify five distinct gene frames.”

It’s not just a case of good taste

Each of these gene frames present very different understandings of what genes are and do.

“An awareness of these frames can also help scientists rethink the way they communicate about genes. The type of words and metaphors we use are not just a case of personal taste, but can also have a profound impact on our scientific understanding” asserts Breivik.

“When scientists try to explain what a gene is, they tend to use what we call a materialistic gene frame. With this frame genes are discrete entities defined by a particular sequence of the DNA molecule, like words in a book or codes in a computer program. But this is just one side of the coin,” explains Jarle Breivik.

“Gene for depression found”

Another type of frame is the deterministic gene frame, as exemplified in an article in VG, stating that scientists have found a gene that determines how depressive a person you are. This frame is often favoured by the tabloid press and can be misleading.

“Newspapers often write that they have found the gene for cancer, the gene for obesity, the gene for alcoholism, or the gene for longevity and so on, as if there is a direct causal relationship between genes and traits,” remarks Carver.

She mentions another frame called the relativistic frame, which, instead of treating genes as direct causes, treats them as predisposing factors that increase the probability of developing particular traits.

“This frame is generally more scientific than the deterministic frame, but not necessarily more informative for the general public.”

Carver believes that journalists and editors, striving for a catchy news story, often convert a relativistic message into a deterministic one.

However, scientific research shows that genes are very much affected by other genes, and environmental and lifestyle factors in a complex interaction. The evolutionary frame gives insight into this interaction, portraying the gene as part of a dynamic system. Its problem however, is that it demands more biological insight on the part of the author.

The gene concept can also be used in an unscientific and often humoristic manner, signifying characteristics that are obviously more dependent on cultural than genetic inheritance. Everyday statements like ‘I have the shopping gene from my mother’ are examples of a symbolic gene frame. The gene can even be used as a metaphor for illustrating technology and information transfer, for example when Aftenposten writes that the newest Mazda cars have lots of “Ford genes” in them.

“An article can contain more than one frame. Moreover, we have found that the titles and bylines are often deterministic whilst the relativistic and evolutionary frames tend to be present further into the article, if at all” says Carver.

Invitation for dialogue

The study shows that the gene concept can have several different meanings assigned to it.

“Genes are molecules, causes for traits, risk factors, a basis for evolution and an important cultural symbol. An in-depth understanding of genetics and human health involves the ability to combine the gene frames into a complete picture,” Carver concludes.

The study was recently published in the important international journal EMBO Reports, issued for the European Molecular Biology Organization.

“We hope our work will increase awareness of how we communicate the gene concept, and would like to come into contact with both scientists and journalists,” invite Rebecca Carver and Jarle Breivik.

By Mikal Hem og Trine Nickelsen
Published Feb. 1, 2012 11:47 AM - Last modified Feb. 1, 2012 1:12 PM