A Longitudinal Study of Newspaper and Wire Service Coverage of Nanotechnology Risks


Sharon M. Friedman, Department of Journalism and Communication, Lehigh University, 33 Coppee Drive, Bethlehem, PA 18015, USA; tel: 610-758-4179; fax: 610-758-6198; smf6@lehigh.edu.


This study reviewed coverage of nanotechnology risks in 20 U.S. and 9 U.K. newspapers and 2 wire services from 2000 to 2009. It focused on information that citizens could come across in daily newspaper reading that could highlight the salience of these issues and alert readers to potential risks. Few articles about nanotechnology health, environmental, and societal risks were found in these publications during this period, averaging only 36.7 per year for both countries. The coverage emphasized three main narratives over time: runaway technology, science-based studies, and regulation. Health risks were covered most frequently, followed by environmental and societal risk issues. Regulation coverage was not as frequent but increased over time. The majority of the coverage focused on news events and 10 events drew modest media attention. Scientific uncertainty discussions appeared in about half of the articles, and scientists and engineers were the dominant information sources in both countries. Some significant differences between U.S. and U.K. coverage were found: U.K. coverage emphasized more societal concerns, while U.S. coverage paid more attention to environmental risks. Because the volume of coverage was not extensive and was counterbalanced by many more articles extolling nanotechnology's benefits, it is questionable whether this coverage alerted readers about potential nanotechnology risks. Coupled with citizens’ minimal knowledge about nanotechnology, this type of coverage could create public distrust of nanotechnology applications should a dangerous risk event occur.