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Controversial new sciences in the media: content analysis of global reporting of nanotechnology during the last decade.

Bucchi (1998a, 1998b) notes that public exposure to scientific ideas moves across different mediums in different stages, from refereed academic journals (intraspecialist), to bridging journals such as Nature and Science (interspecialist), to information being taught, such as in textbooks (pedagogical), and into a final stage of popularisation, where the science is explained in the printed, broadcast or online media. Although efforts have been made to elicit public participation at the early stage of nanotechnology's development and innovation (Pidgeon and Rogers-Hayden, 2007)--a process known as 'upstream engagement' (Wynne, 2001; Wilsdon et al., 2005)--and although media reporting of nanotechnology has been increasing steadily over the past decade (Stephens, 2005), public understanding of nanotechnology remains minimal at present (Cobb and Macoubrie, 2004; Scheufele and Lewenstein, 2005). This provides an opportunity to study the messages about nanotechnology being portrayed by journalists at a stage between pedagogical and popularisation. Previous research focusing on public perceptions of nanotechnology has emphasised the divide between public and expert opinion (Ho et al., 2011), the widening knowledge gap within societies based on education level (Corley and Scheufele, 2010) and the responses of different communities to nanotechnology risks (Gaskell et al., 2005), as well as individual factors such as religiosity (Scheufele et al., 2009). Other studies have shifted the focus to analysing media narratives regarding nanotechnology (Cobb and Macoubrie, 2004; Stephens, 2007; Dudo et al., 2011).

We expand on this research by performing a systematic computer-based examination of the messages the public has received from journalists regarding nanotechnology in all its applications, across various regions and in multiple time periods. The results of this study offer a detailed comparative content analysis of how journalists have reported developments in nanotechnology at its initial moments of popularisation, which in turn provides some insight into how the public forms opinions on new and controversial sciences.

Existing research

Cobb and Macoubrie (2004: 397-8) note that close to 80 per cent of Americans they surveyed knew 'nothing' or 'little' about nanotechnology. They went on to report that (for the entire sample) 38 per cent thought risks and benefits associated with nanotechnology would be about equal, and 40 per cent thought that nanotechnology benefits would outweigh risks, while only 22 per cent thought risks would outweigh benefits. These beliefs correlated with knowledge of nanotechnology, in that higher levels of knowledge led to more positive beliefs about nanotechnology. This suggests a need for the public to become as informed as possible about nanotechnology. Research regarding public perception of nanotechnology risks has consistently suggested that there are regional variations in this perception, and in particular that European countries are more sceptical and less accepting of nanotechnology than their US counterparts (Burri and Belluci, 2008; Einsiedel, 2005; Gaskell, 2005; Gaskell et al., 2004). It is possible that this is a function of differential media reporting, among other factors. Therefore, in evaluating media reporting of nanotechnology, it is important to compare reporting in different regions to tease apart these differences.

Further, though most of this research has been performed in the Unites States and Europe, other regions have highly active nanotechnology research programs, including India, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Media reporting of nanotechnology developments in these emerging hotspots has been sparse, but is vital not just to nanotechnologists aiming to promote acceptance and contain exaggerated messages of risk, but also to the broader scientific community wishing to influence the messages that reach the public. Some preliminary studies have begun to make the link between media reporting of nanotechnology and the tone of public opinion. For example, Gaskell et al. (2005) note the results of a face-to-face survey in Europe and a telephone survey in the United States. They found that Americans were significantly more likely than Europeans to believe that nanotechnology would improve their way of life. They found that a US newspaper (the New York Times) was more likely than the London Independent to report positive stories about the potential benefits of nanotechnology. Though the directionality is unclear at present, studies such as these suggest a correlation between public attitudes towards nanotechnology and the valence of media coverage.

Of equal concern is the changing of messages over time. Many studies have concluded that, overall, science news reporting can be uncritical of the claims of science for the purpose of promoting a positive viewpoint. But when something goes wrong, the message changes drastically to a more sceptical and negative outlook (Nisbet et al., 2003; Nisbet and Lewenstein 2002; Roth et al., 2003). Scheufele (2011)

suggests that patterns of news coverage of nanotechnology are comparable to those of other new sciences such as agricultural biotechnology, wherein early coverage posits a generally optimistic view of the technology and its potential benefits (Friedman and Egolf, 2005), and with an emphasis on the economic and business implications. Some research suggests that this message has changed with time to highlight the relative risks of nanotechnology (Weaver et al., 2009), a change consistent with patterns in the US media coverage of biotechnology--which was, in general, initially positive, but grew more critical over time (Ten et al., 2004).

Research by Dudo et al. (2010) challenged this: they looked at food nanotechnology in the news over a decade by analysing 1971 US news articles published in the period 1999-2009, examining them for dominant content themes (including consumer issues such as packaging, and sector issues such as agriculture) and conceptual themes (risks, benefits, uncertainty). The newspaper articles were coded for the presence of these themes, using a tally of root words comprising each theme (safe, economy, unclear, etc.). They found that relative mentions of risks and benefits remained equitable throughout the time period examined, and risk reporting actually decreased in more recent years.

In a method that is perhaps most comparable to the present study, Stephens (2005) combined regional and temporal analysis, and found mixed messages in his content analysis of both US and non-US newspapers for stories about nanotechnology. This study focused on how the stories were framed by the newspapers in general, how US newspapers differed from non-US newspapers in their reportage, and how the content changed over time (from 1986-2005). He found that dominant themes included scientific discoveries, social implications and risks, and nanotechnology as a 'business' story. Further, he found that approximately half the stories did not express an opinion on the ethical, legal and social implications of nanotechnology, but of the half that did, 31 per cent implied that the benefits would outweigh the risks, 10 per cent that the risks outweigh the benefits, and 11 per cent that, although the relative risks and benefits would need to be considered, the overall costs were not yet known. He also found that the news narrative surrounding nanotechnology had changed over time. The theme of 'scientific discoveries' was more of a feature in 2003 than in 2004, and the risks of nanotechnology were discussed more in 2004 than in any year prior. The US newspapers emphasised the scientific discovery and business themes more than other newspapers, while discussing the ethical and social implications significantly less than non-US newspapers.

Although similar comparisons are made in the present study, we expand on the study by Stephens in a number of ways. First, nanotechnology was less visible in the public eye in 2004 (the latest time period covered in the Stephens study) than in 2011. There has been an investigation by the British House of Lords (2010) into nanotechnology, as well as a ruling in Australia about nanotechnology product labels, and nanotechnology has become widely used in popular products such as sunscreens and cosmetics. More widespread media coverage of nanotechnology might be expected over the past seven years, allowing this analysis extra data as nanotechnology became more open to public scrutiny. Second, though most previous research has been performed in the United States and Europe, we include Asian and Australian/New Zealand sources as well as American and UK sources, and systematically compare the four. In a review of existing literature regarding the social and economic impacts of nanotechnology, Seer et al. (2009) identify the lack of investigation into media portrayals of nanotechnology as the first main gap in the literature. This study begins to address this gap. Third, we use Leximancer, a text-analytics software program from which dominant themes and concepts emerge, rather than being pre-selected by the authors, as in the Stephens study. This encourages an additional degree of objectivity in the results, while still allowing a human phase of interpretation.

Analytic approach and data

Content analysis is a research method that uses a set of procedures to draw valid inferences from texts (Weber, 1990). Such inferences can relate to the attitudinal and behavioural responses of organisations or people to particular issues (Krippendorff, 2004; Weber, 1990). Content analysis techniques determine the presence of words or concepts in collections of textual documents and can be used to break large amounts of materials into manageable categories (Leximancer Manual, 2010; Stokewell et al., 2009; Krippendorff, 2004). Content analytical techniques do this through extracting the most commonly occurring terms in a body of literature (termed 'conceptual analysis') and tabulating the frequency of their co-occurrence to identify relationships (termed 'relational analysis'; Leximancer Manual, 2010; Weber, 1990). It can be used to understand the conceptual structure of a set of documents, and identify the most important themes evident within text-based data relating to a particular domain (e.g. political, social or economic).

Leximancer is content-analysis computer software that identifies core concepts within textual data (conceptual analysis) and clarifies the properties of these concepts and how they are related (relational analysis). It employs proximity values for text mining and artificial learning (Smith and Humphreys, 2006) to automatically identify and map themes and concepts in textual data. This approach differs from standard content analysis in that particular word strings are not required; instead, Leximancer identifies what concepts exist in a set of texts, allowing concepts to be coded automatically. For example, Leximancer can take a set of 1000 documents, containing millions of words, and produce a map containing the 50 most important concepts within that text, along with their relationships with each other.

A feature of Leximancer's analysis is its reliability, assessed in two ways: stability and reproducibility. Stability is equivalent to inter-coder reliability (see Smith and Humphreys, 2006 for a detailed discussion). Leximancer is consistent in the way it classifies text and identifies the relationships between concepts; the same result is produced no matter how many times a data set is coded and recoded.

Data collection

Data were collated from online sources using a variety of news databases: Factiva, Press Display and Google News. Articles were located via a search for 'nanotechnology' (variant searches such as 'nanoscience' and 'nanoparticles' were also attempted, but the most relevant content was found with a full search for 'nanotechnology'). Web-based news aggregators such as Google News provide comprehensive coverage of topical media, from elite newspapers to local outlets (Weaver and Bimber, 2008). Combined with the use of more traditional news archives, the messages about nanotechnology being conveyed in the media should be well represented in the present study. Media outlets capable of reaching a broad public in their region were prioritised for this analysis. For example, the New York Times, the Guardian, the China Daily and The Australian were all prioritised as sources. Online science and technology outlets such as Nanowerk Weekly and AtoZNano were considered too specialist to reach the general public. Popular science journalism such as that in New Scientist was included, though only when it was displayed via the press database/news aggregation search (i.e. the online archives of New Scientist were not searched for all articles containing a mention of nanotechnology. It is also important to note at this stage that, although we include and analyse Asian sources (as a whole) in this project, only articles reported in English, or translated into English, were used as sources. Naturally this limits the conclusions available from the Asian data, as Chinese citizens are more likely to prefer reports in Chinese. Still, we believe Chinese media reports in English are a small representative sample of content reported in local languages.

Each article was downloaded in .html format and saved with the other items in its year category (prior to 2007; 2007-09; 2009-present) and regional category (UK; US; Asia; Australia/NZ). For example, a single article might be filed under '2007-09/United Kingdom'. In total, 390 articles were analysed, with approximately 130 articles in each time category, for a total of 30-40 articles in each cell (i.e. specific time and region).

Concept maps

Several concept maps were produced for this study, each providing a unique perspective on the data. First, an overall map was produced, in which all the media sources were combined, with no distinction between categories. Second, a map comparing reports by region was produced, in which all media reports were combined but each was individually 'tagged' with its regional source. Each regional source then appeared as its own point on the map, with related concepts surrounding it. Third, maps were produced in which only news articles from one country were included, with the time period tagged on the map. This allowed a more detailed analysis of changes within each country through time (i.e. data from the United States, compared between the period prior to 2007 and 2007-09). These maps were interpreted individually and the results integrated and discussed collectively. Maps and separate analyses are available on request from the authors due to a lack of available space.


Leximancer results are analysed here on three levels: first, an overview of the entire dataset, without any distinction between categories; second, a comparison of the four regions, collapsed across time periods; and third, results within each region categorised by time period.

All 390 news articles were run through Leximancer on its default settings, to give an overall snapshot of the information contained in the data set. Themes have been numbered to indicate their importance and connectivity within the data. Twelve main themes emerged in order of importance: applications; development; safety; health risks; engineering/medical; technology; testing; nano definitions; investors; computing; science funding; and science fiction. Figure 1 represents the ranked data.

Many of these themes will contain related concepts--for example, safety, health risks and testing are located closely on the map and seem intuitively conceptually related. Further detail regarding the overall picture of the data can be gained from investigating the ranked list of concepts, presented in Figure 2.

Figure 2 reveals similar information: across all countries and timeframes, the scientific and technological advancements made in nanotechnology were the most commonly discussed concepts. Further investigation reveals this coverage within these concepts to be mostly positive: the benefits and applications made possible by nanotechnology. 'Benefits' and 'applications' are both in the top five concepts co-occurring with the concept 'nanotechnology', although the need for balance is commonly emphasised, and there is recognition of the need for engagement with the public on the issue of nanotechnology. This is followed by existing or potential applications of nanotechnology: the materials and products made possible by the technology. Finally, coverage generally includes the health applications, such as nanotechnology's use in cancer treatments, and food nanotechnology. These results indicate generally objective reportage, although when the media do weigh in on the ethical and social implications, the results are mixed.

Some concepts common to all the regions were regarding the applied use of nanotechnology, with concepts including potential, applications and impact. The text supporting these concepts was positive, indicating a general shared theme of the positive future of nanotechnology. Issues also appears as a concept (on the bottom right of the map, though is not connected directly to the nanotechnology concept. Other central concepts include the specific applications of nanotechnology, including medical, environmental and energy.

Consulting some of the top concepts to uniquely co-occur with the nanotechnology central concept supports the premise that the overall nanotechnology coverage is positive, with the benefits concept a highly ranked co-occurring concept.

However, a query on these two concepts uncovered a more complex story. While some of the retrieved text highlighted the benefits of nanotechnology--for example, the Telegraph notes in 2009 that 'the new science of nanotechnology, which involves manipulating matter on ultra-small scales, could bring enormous benefits to society' on closer examination, much of the original text linking the two concepts invokes the need for careful weighing of benefits and risks, and of informing the public of each.

The top-ranked co-occurring concept is biotechnology, with the context of this concept being the comparison of nanotechnology to biotechnology in its early stages as an emerging, and controversial, technology; or the potential of combining the two technologies--for example, for agricultural purposes. The former concept is concerned with looking to the past as example, particularly with regard to how the public will react to nanotechnology. The latter looks to the future for ways in which the technologies will impact society. This past/future dichotomy is explored further in regional and temporal comparisons.

The top 10 themes have been chosen for detailed analysis, since items 11 and 12 had less than 20 per cent connectivity in the study.

Analysis using regional comparison


The main concepts discussed in Asia included the possible health benefits of nanotechnology (particularly for cleaning drinking water), the development potential for the region available from nanotechnology, and possible economic benefits. The dominant theme relating to media coverage from Asia was the potential for nanotechnology to cheaply provide clean drinking water across the region. This was an issue specific to Asian media, with a 91 per cent likelihood that the presence of a drinking water concept would be contained within the data from Asia. This issue is discussed mostly in the earlier reporting--that is, prior to 2007. Conceptually related discussions involved the use of nanotechnology to boost local production.

The second dominant theme to be discussed in Asia's media was the economic benefit of developing new technologies, in particular profits from trade with highstatus trading partners such as the United States and China, as well as national benefits from boosting local production using new technologies. These appeared mostly in the 2007-09 timeframe, with a skew towards later reporting dates. Less prominently, local developments in nanotechnology, along with other cutting-edge technologies, were discussed as a means of enhancing global power for the region.

We observe that before 2007, the discussion focused heavily on the potential life-saving properties of nanotechnology--specifically, as mentioned previously, the use of nanoparticles to remove arsenic from drinking water. Another main focus was nanotechnology in space programs. Following this, main concepts moved on to government initiatives and development of the nanotechnology sector.

Australia/New Zealand

Coverage in Australia and New Zealand was largely positive, with an emphasis on the technological benefits of nanotechnology (with journalists particularly partial to discussion of quantum computing) and health benefits (specifically, the potential to treat breast cancer). Later time periods introduced the topic of labelling of products containing nanoparticles, a proposal rejected by the government, which drew some discussion of relative risks and benefits. Noticeably, Australia and New Zealand, more than any other region, used academics and scientists as direct sources. During the 2007-09 period, Australia/New Zealand reporting was mostly around a 'quantum' theme, located closely to the tag, containing concepts surrounding the idea of nanotechnology opening the path to a quantum computer.

United States

Media coverage of nanotechnology in the United States was predominantly positive, and focused on solutions to existing problems. Some of the main topics included environmental benefits, particularly green technology; the possible use of nanotechnology to clean up oil spills (following the BP disaster in 2010); and regulation (in the context of the FDA declining to regulate the use of nanotechnology in consumer products). The optimistic tone of the coverage was notable, with risks being discussed rarely and mostly consisting of brief and dismissive references to unlikely science fiction outcomes. In more recent years, however, more nuanced coverage of the risks has begun to emerge.

Regulation of nanotechnology was also discussed in the United States, mainly with regard to labelling of consumer products containing nanoparticles, within the 2007-09 period.

United Kingdom

Media reporting in the United Kingdom contained the most critical coverage of nanotechnology. Many of the immediate concepts surrounding the UK media tag comprised risks associated with nanotechnology: cancer, disease, heart concerns. Other negative concepts were concerned with nanofibres possibly causing damage to the lungs in a manner similar to asbestos, and called for labelling of products containing nanoparticles. Positive concepts included the potential for nanotechnology to contribute to renewable energy sources, and nanotechnology assisting in medical research. Concepts with mixed messages revolved around the use of nanotechnology in food production and the use of nanotechnology in sunscreens and other cosmetics. Many of these messages were associated with a particular time period.

The concepts most closely situated in the United Kingdom were largely negative, with direct pathways to the concept cancer, and indirect pathways to the concepts asbestos, damage, and disease. Most of the text surrounding these concepts was related to the reporting of nanofibres entering the lungs and causing damage that could lead to cancer; however, more recent text reported the use of nanoparticles in targeted cancer treatments.

Some specific health concerns were related to nanoparticles infiltrating the blood through the skin, with sunscreens a particular cause of concern. Upon further investigation, these skin-related threats seemed to be related to a general apprehension of the tiny scale of nanotechnology. This could be through a 'fear of the unknown', supported by its prevalence as a theme in early years.

The most positive concepts in the UK media involved the renewable energy prospects of nanotechnology.


This study has examined media reporting of nanotechnology in four regions across three time periods. We began by analysing the main themes reported by journalists and found twelve main themes common to all regions and time periods. These main themes were applications, development, safety, health risks, engineering/medical, technology, testing, defining nanotechnology, investors, computing, science funding and science fiction. The top-ranked ten themes by connectivity were positive, though negative themes were also represented on the ranked list, with negative concepts grouped into distinctive themes reflecting specific perceived risks.

The analysis examined differences in the reporting of particular regions, and how the messages within those regions changed over time. We found that relative risks and benefits were differentially reported by region, possibly indicating that citizens in these regions are forming different risk perceptions. In Asia, coverage was more positive, highlighting the developmental potential of nanotechnology, and was also concerned with nation-enhancing efforts (for example, economic gain and technological competitiveness). Though concrete examples of the risks of nanotechnology were available, the coverage around such incidents stressed the need for occupational safety regulation, rather than the inherent risks of nanotechnology itself.

Coverage in Australia and New Zealand also emphasised the benefits of nanotechnology, though with less emphasis on nation-developing potential; rather, the focus was on the technological (computing) and health benefits. This may have been the product of a reliance on university and government press releases, a possibility reflected in the use of scientists as sources more than in any other country. For example, when reported, risks were straightforward statements from scientists, rather than extrapolation on behalf of the journalist, leading to more measured coverage than in the other regions, though with less interpretation. Concepts and themes remained relatively consistent over time, though government rejection of mandatory labelling laws generated related concepts in more recent time periods.

Media coverage of nanotechnology in the United States was predominantly positive, and focused on solutions to existing problems. Some of the main topics included environmental benefits, particularly green technology; the possible use of nanotechnology to clean up oil spills (following the BP disaster in 2010); and regulation (in the context of the FDA declining to regulate the use of nanotechnology in consumer products). The optimistic tone of the coverage was notable, with risks being discussed only rarely, and mostly consisting of brief and dismissive references to unlikely science fiction outcomes. More recently, however, more nuanced coverage of the risks has begun to emerge.

The results from the United Kingdom were in line with previous research, suggesting a more critical media than in the United States. Though no research has compared nanotechnology reporting in the United Kingdom with that in Australia/New Zealand or Asia, it was found to be more negative than in these areas. This may be a reflection of a more diverse news culture in the United Kingdom, with media ownership being more than the product of a few powerful groups, as in Australia/New Zealand and the United States.

These results align well with studies showing attitudes towards nanotechnology in the United States are more favourable than those in the United Kingdom and Europe (Burri and Belluci, 2008; Einsiedel, 2005; Gaskell, 2005; Gaskell et al., 2004). Although no studies have established causality, the present research contributes to an emerging evidence base suggesting that more negative public attitudes towards nanotechnology, such as in the United Kingdom, could be the product of more critical media content. If this link is supported, the present results bode well for public perceptions of nanotechnology in Asia, where the nation-building potential of the technology thematically unites media reporting, and to a lesser extent in Australia and New Zealand, where sources direct from nanotechnology labs emphasise positive future developments.

We found no support for coherence in the changing of media reports over time, instead discovering regional variations in these patterns. If anything should be taken away from the present study, it is the need to take into account the regional source of new science reporting when drawing conclusions about changing media messages over time. Patterns apparent in studies such as those mentioned above should be considered only a function of their regional source and not assumed to be global.

Public attitudes towards nanotechnology do not follow the traditional knowledge deficit model: greater knowledge does not necessarily lead to more positive attitudes (Brossard et al., 2005). Rather, public perceptions of nanotechnology are more reliant on heuristics (cognitive shortcuts) even in the absence of information (Scheufele, 2006). This makes the framing undertaken by journalists, and the messages received by the public, particularly important (Ho et al., 2011).


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Kylie Fisk is a doctoral candidate in the School of Psychology, University of Queensland.

Richard Fitzgerald is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Journalism and Communication, University of Queensland.

John Cokley (corresponding author) is an Associate Professor in Journalism in the Faculty of Life and Social Sciences, Swinburne University of Technology.

Figure 2: All data--top-ranking
concepts listed by relevance

Word-Like        Count   Relevance

nanotechnology   658     100%
research         443     67%
technology       349     53%
used             342     52%
science          284     43%
use              271     41%
materials        264     40%
products         249     38%
nanoparticles    227     34%
cancer           218     33%
prostate         218     33%
report           214     33%
scientists       209     32%
work             193     29%
health           191     29%
human            190     29%
people           187     28%
particles        181     28%
using            1S3     28%
researchers      180     27%
cells            172     26%
food             164     25%
potential        157     24%
work             151     23%
tiny             150     23%
industry         149     23%
nanotubes        146     22%
energy           146     22%
time             146     22%
field            143     22%
carbon           138     21%
study            13S     21%

Note: Table made from bar graph.
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Author:Fisk, Kylie; Fitzgerald, Richard; Cokley, John
Publication:Media International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Feb 1, 2014
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