The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)


Time Series Analysis of Risk Frames in Media Communication of Agrobiotechnology


Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes, Leonie Marks, University of Missouri-Columbia,
Kevin Allison, Economics and Management of Agrobiotechnology Center (EMAC)
Ludmila Zakharova, University of Missouri-Columbia





Media represent fora where public debates on agrobiotechnology have taken place for many years. They, of course, have not only been reflective of the ongoing public debates but they have had a role in shaping them. While they are not a singular influence, they have been shown to play a role in the risk (and benefit) perception of biotechnology that the public holds (Bauer et al.).

It has been argued that media coverage of various themes, including agrobiotechnology, is driven by events and that it is sensationalistic. That is, media tend to amplify risks well beyond what is implied by "actual or objective" risks. In the case of agrobiotechnology, it has been shown that key events do indeed have a significant impact on the level of coverage and the way risks and benefits are communicated (Marks and Kalaitzandonakes). However, it is unclear the social frames of risks used by media in their coverage of agrobiotechnology changed over time and space.

It is also unclear whether social frames of risks in media are different and distinct across different cultures. It has been suggested by many authors that differing cultural perceptions of risks are responsible for the significant differences in public acceptance of agrobiotechnology observed around the world and especially between the US and Europe (e.g. Zechendorff). Yet, empirical support for such hypotheses has been scant.

In this paper we analyze mass news media coverage of agrobiotechnology in a risk communication framework using content analysis (Wimmer & Dominick). Specifically, we analyze coverage in US and United Kingdom newspapers over the period 1990 to 1999. United States papers include the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and the USA Today. United Kingdom papers include the Daily Telegraph and the Times. Examples of risk frames associated with coverage of agrobiotechnology in press include: environmental risk to ecological systems (biosafety); food safety concerns; risks to rural communities (e.g., loss of the family farm as a way of life); risks to investors (e.g., from increasing consumer resistance or liability for possible catastrophic events); and risks to consumers (and farmers) from increasing industry concentration. We test whether these risk frames are different (more comprehensive or more exaggerated coverage of the risks) across newspapers and by country.

We also test whether risk frames vary within newspapers depending on the authorship and position of each article. Papers have different sections – science and technology, business, environment, recreation and leisure, and so on -- and many of them report on agrobiotechnology. A priori one would expect science and technology writers to be more acquainted with the complexities of biotechnology, and to frame the benefits versus potential risks in a more balanced way. Whereas, one might expect the leisure and lifestyle editorial staff to communicate biotechnology risks in a more exaggerated/sensationalistic way.

Risk communication and risk perception are key elements of the on-going public debate on agrobiotechnology and allow insights on attitudes and behavior of the general public. If policy makers, educators and scientists are to effectively communicate the risks and benefits of agrobiotechnology to the public – an understanding of how different media and reporters handle risk frames is important. This paper contributes in that direction.




Bauer, M., J. Durant and G. Gaskell, (1998) Biotechnology in the Public Sphere London, Science Museum

Marks, L., N. Kalaitzandonakes and L. Zakharova. "Public Opinion of Agrobiotechnology in the US and Europe: A Content Analysis Approach" paper presented in 1999 AAEA annual meetings, Nashville TN.


Wimmer, R.D. & Dominick, J.R. (1987). Mass Media Research: An Introduction. Second Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.



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