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Publication Date


Document Type

Honors Project




Genetics in mass media, Human chromosome abnormalities-Diagnosis-Social aspects, Risk assessment-Social aspects, Social medicine, Critical discourse analysis, Medicalization, Risk society, Predictive genetic testing, Media, Medical sociology


This Honors Thesis, prepared for the Department of Sociology at Smith College, seeks to outline and analyze the representations of predictive genetic testing that exist in today's mainstream news media, and to contextualize these representations within the frameworks of relevant sociological theory. Techniques of critical discourse analysis were utilized to code the dataset, which was comprised of the fifty most recent articles on predictive genetic testing that have been published by the US' five most widely circulated newspapers. In general, analysis of media discourses can contribute significantly to research on social change, given the media's documented role in influencing public opinion (Fairclough, 1995, 2; Bryant et al., 2002, 274). In scientific and health-related journalism, this is especially significant given the responsibility news reporters have to ‘translate' the scientific discourse – in this case, on genetics and predictive genetic tests – into accessible language for a lay readership. Sometimes, this act of translating information about scientific developments and genetic medicine for a public audience can leave out important concerns. Furthermore, the content of the articles is inherently influenced by the presuppositions of the journalists and media entities themselves, about the power of scientific knowledge, the role of biomedicine, and the assumed relationships between experts, the media, and the public in considerations of health and illness. Newspapers are also accountable to the interests of their corporate sponsors, and in order to maintain their reputable status cannot deviate widely from mainstream perspectives on a given issue. Nevertheless, the media constitutes an important site of public debate and negotiation around the meaning of scientific truth, biotechnologies, and their societal applications (Hamilton, 2003, 268). The dataset analyzed for this research contains themes representing both sides of the debate on predictive genetic testing: some are supportive of its use, while others critique its current applications. Both the themes that are made visible, and the considerations that are left out, are best contextualized by the sociological theories of medicalization and risk society. Analysis of the articles reveals a struggle between the corporate ‘engines' of medicalization promoting these tests, and the increasingly skeptical journalists debating the marketed applications of genetic knowledge in today's risk society. Scientists' role in this debate is to provide expert commentary on these genetic developments, and to assess their relevance in various contexts, though their views are increasingly oppositional and conflicted (Mythen, 2004, 58). Journalists are therefore able to utilize scientific expert opinion to support claims both for and against predictive genetic testing, leaving the public in a place of uncertainty. However, underlying this struggle is a continued reliance in the journalistic community on scientific knowledge, and a reproduction of neoliberal individualism. In most cases, an individual's genetic makeup was conceptualized as the cause of disease risk, while other social or environmental contributors were rarely noted. The articles position a rational, neoliberal readership as responsible for informing themselves about emerging genetic issues, and for monitoring their health accordingly. Acknowledging the contributions that recent genetic research has made to scientific knowledge, this thesis ultimately seeks to critique the social interpretations and applications of genetic medicine through an analysis of the ways predictive genetic testing is discussed by the mainstream news media.




107 p. Honors project-Smith College, Northampton, Mass, 2011. Includes bibliographical references (p. 104-107)