Science and Humanity in the Era of Synthetic Life: How the News Media Cover Synthetic Biology

By Marjorie Kruvand.

Published by The International Journal of Communication and Linguistic Studies

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Synthetic biology aims to design and build novel biological systems by engineering man-made sequences of genes and stitching them together in new combinations. Like other topics in science and technology, public knowledge of synthetic biology is mediated. The rapidly growing field has generated considerable U.S. media coverage and prompted the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to examine the potential risks and benefits and evaluate whether safeguards are needed. Scientists view synthetic biology as a natural progression from breeding techniques used for centuries to produce plants and animals with desired characteristics, and, more recently, genetic engineering tools to move individual genes across species to produce organisms with traits not found in nature. But synthetic biologists are expanding the boundaries of biotechnology by attempting to create the “software” of life from scratch. While synthetic biology holds promise for producing new pharmaceuticals, cleaning pollutants, and fixing defective genes, among other things, it has been accompanied by bioethical issues, including renewed questions about whether humans are playing God by tinkering with life. The field has also attracted a community of do-it-yourself biologists, called biopunks, whose experiments in kitchens and garage labs stem from their belief that synthetic biology is too important to leave to university and corporate scientists. Through a qualitative and quantitative content analysis of U.S. media coverage between 2008 and 2011, this study will analyze how journalists cover synthetic biology. The language and images used, the tone of stories, as well as how the potential risks and benefits have been delimited and discussed, may influence public understanding and acceptance of synthetic biology, and ultimately, investment and political support.

Keywords: Synthetic Biology, Science Communication, Biotechnology, Content Analysis

The International Journal of Communication and Linguistic Studies, Volume 10, Issue 2, pp.17-27. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 578.358KB).

Marjorie Kruvand

Assistant Professor, School of Communication, Loyola University Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA

I teach public relations and health communication at Loyola University Chicago. My research focuses on health and science communication, especially mass communication of bioethical issues. Previously, I was a science journalist and a public relations counselor specializing in health, science and environmental communication.