What is a gene?

You'll be forgiven if you have a few definitions. Even scientists define ‘a gene’ in different ways, so it may come as little surprise that the media also have various ways of 'framing' the concept of a gene.

But how journalists 'frame' what you might think are common terms has a very real impact on what readers think, and since more and more readers are becoming accustomed to making voting decisions based on science policy ones, how terms are used, and their context, has become ever more important.

Ferocious debates on genetically modified crops or stem cell research illustrate the importance that genetics and molecular biology have gained in everyday life so it's important that people understand the terms being used; and how they are sometimes misused.

In a new study in EMBO reports called, "Frame that gene", researchers did an analysis of 300 articles in British and Norwegian newspapers: The Guardian, The Sun and The Daily Mail from the UK; and Aftenposten, Dagbladet, and VG from Norway.

These researchers — a molecular biologist, a media expert and a PhD student in science communication from the University of Oslo, Norway — identified five main ‘gene frames’ in different types of media.

For example, the “deterministic” frame, particularly evident in tabloid media, involves one-dimensional conclusions along the lines of “Drunk? It’s in your genes”. According to the authors of the study, this may be related to the desire of journalists to sell a story by keeping it simple and accessible.

By contrast, the “evolutionary” frame, which is commonly used by scientists, provides more insight but may be difficult to communicate.

Beyond that, the study also found that the gene has become a cultural metaphor, for example by stating that “Mazda has many Ford genes”.

The analysis shows that journalists use the term ‘gene’, either consciously or subconsciously, in these different frames to invoke various prejudiced images in the reader’s mind.

“Such a diversity of meanings presents a key challenge to science communications, so both scientists and journalists could benefit from a clear classification of the polysemy,” the paper argues.

The authors hope that their analysis will be a useful tool for journalists and scientists to improve their explanations of genetics for a broader audience and better understand how scientific topics are framed in the mass media.

“The common understanding of scientific topics is increasingly important because the public is more and more able to influence policy-making on scientific issues and thus the funding and even the nature of research itself”, explained Rebecca Carver from the Institute of Basic Medical Science at the University of Oslo and the first author of the study.

Article: "Frame that Gene: A tool for Analyzing and Classifying the Communication of Genetics to the Public", EMBO reports, October 2008.