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«1 Contested science in the media: linguistic traces of news writers’ framing activity Trine Dahl, Norwegian School of Economics, Department of ...»

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Contested science in the media: linguistic traces of news writers’

framing activity

Trine Dahl, Norwegian School of Economics, Department of Professional and Intercultural

Communication, Helleveien 30, 5045 Bergen, Norway

Email: trine.dahl@nhh.no


Science reporting in the media often involves contested issues, such as, e.g., biotechnology,

climate change, and more recently, geoengineering. The reporter’s framing of the issue is likely

to influence readers’ perception of it. The notion of framing is related to how individuals and groups perceive and communicate about the world. Framing is typically studied by means of content analysis, focusing primarily on the ‘stories’ told about the issue. The current paper, on the other hand, springs from an interest in writer behavior. I wish to investigate how news writers strategically exploit their rhetorical competence when reporting on contested issues, and I argue that text linguistics represents a fruitful approach to studying this process. It is suggested that genre features may serve as a basis for identifying key framing locations in the text, and that the notion of evaluation plays an important part in writers’ framing activity. I discuss these aspects through a case study involving six news reports on a geoengineering experiment.

Keywords Science communication, news discourse, framing theory, text linguistics, genre, evaluation For most people, the reality of science is what they read in the press. They understand science less through direct experience or past education than through the filter of journalistic language and imagery. The media are their only contact with what is going on in rapidly changing scientific and technological fields, as well as a major source of information about the implications of these changes for their lives. (Nelkin, 1995, p. 2) The two decades that have passed since this observation was made have seen the rapid development of new information and communication channels for mediating science issues to non-expert audiences, such as the blog network ScienceBlogs (scienceblog.com; see also Colson, 2011; Luzón, 2013) and initiatives like the university-based scientific news portal Futurity (futurity.org). However, traditional media sources such as newspapers still seem to represent important providers of news to the general public (e.g., Pew Research Center, 2013), and the material analyzed in the current study belongs in this category. Science reporting by the media often involves complex and contested issues characterized by risk and uncertainty. In addition, economic, political, and ethical aspects, as well as even broader social and values-based considerations may be involved. Cases in point are nuclear power (e.g., Bickerstaff et al., 2008;

Peoples, 2014), nanotechnology (e.g., Cobb, 2005; Cutcliffe, Pense, & Zvaralen, 2012), biotechnology (e.g., Holmgreen & Vestergaard, 2009; Nisbet, Brossard, & Kroepsch, 2003), climate change (e.g., Boykoff, 2011; Trumbo, 1996) and, more recently, the related phenomenon of geoengineering (Shepherd et al., 2009; see below for further references). The news reporters’ mediation – or, more specifically, their particular framing – of the issues is likely to have an impact on how readers perceive them. The importance of such issues to the future of humanity makes it particularly relevant to study the interaction of science and society as negotiated between news writer and readers. The current paper wishes to study such framing activity by means of a text linguistic approach, focusing specifically on the news writer’s perspective.

The notion of framing is related to how individuals and groups perceive and communicate about the world. Research on perception (e.g., Spence & Pidgeon, 2010) has demonstrated that events and issues are not experienced in the same way by all involved parties. What are perceived as the important aspects of the event/issue will depend on a range of contextual factors. In his seminal paper on framing, Entman (1993) states that To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and /or treatment recommendation for the item described.

(Entman 1993, p. 52, italics in original) From a writing perspective, framing may thus be considered as a process that implies a strategic (conscious or subconscious) choice of angle (frame) by the text producer. The chosen framing implies selecting specific aspects of the issue/event at hand, making these particular aspects salient to readers. Considered in this perspective, framing clearly relates to persuasion. It thereby shares concerns with classical rhetoric, e.g., the notion of special topic, which deals with the specific content of an argument through deliberative, forensic, or epideictic oratory. Fahnestock (1986) shows how scientific knowledge, presented through forensic (validating) arguments in scientific reports, is accommodated in popularized accounts to a new rhetorical situation through a shift to mainly epideictic (celebratory) rhetoric. However, with contested scientific issues of the kind mentioned above, there may also be traces of deliberative rhetoric (involving choice and preferred action). As media plays such a vital role in science communication (cf. the quote from Nelkin 1995 rendered above), journalists’ framing of these issues is likely to have a substantial impact on public opinion and ultimately action or non-action related to the issues.

Studies on framing have been undertaken in various disciplines and epistemological contexts, even though different scholars have different understandings of the concept/term (Entman, 1993;

Vliegenthart & van Zoonen, 2011; de Vreese, 2005). Entman (1993) observes that “[d]espite its omnipresence across the social sciences and humanities, nowhere is there a general statement of framing theory that shows exactly how frames become embedded within and make themselves manifest in a text” (p. 51). While framing may also take place through visuals (e.g., Bednarek & Caple, 2012; Oddo, 2013), verbal representation is the key focus in most framing studies (see the next section for examples).

The current study is to some extent inspired by the frustration I as a text linguist have experienced when reading interesting and well-argued discourse-based framing papers emanating from other research traditions (see the next section for some examples). Always hoping to find details of the elements considered in the analysis, I eventually came to realize that as a text linguist primarily interested in the text producer’s point of view and by implication the linguistic traces of framing activity, I would have to deal with the notion of framing by means of my own research tools. I therefore here focus on writer behavior and argue that text linguistics offers a systematic approach to addressing the question of how frames “make themselves manifest in a text” (Entman, 1993, p. 51). A text linguistic approach will enable a more fine-grained analysis of individual texts (e.g. considering attitudes expressed in sources’ statements and the journalist’s framing of these) than allowed for in traditional framing studies undertaken by means of content analysis or survey-based studies (see below).

Thus, based on linguistic principles pertaining to the macro level (text structure/genre) and the micro level (sentence and word), text linguistics seems particularly well suited to study how writers exploit available linguistic resources for framing purposes.1 More specifically, I intend to approach this issue by considering, firstly, framing location. While framing clearly may take place by means of linguistic choices made by writers throughout the text, which locations are likely to be particularly important for framing? Secondly, I consider framing indicators. How are linguistic resources exploited to make certain aspects of the issue salient to readers? The paper suggests that genre features (e.g., Bell, 1991; Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1995) may serve as a point of departure for identifying key text locations involving framing activity (see also Tankard, 2001), and that the notion of evaluation (e.g., Hunston & Thompson, 2000; Martin & White, 2005; White, 2012) plays an important part when writers engage in such activity. I discuss these aspects through a case study involving six news reports on the contested phenomenon of geoengineering, and thus, by implication, climate change. The reports all relate to the same ‘trigger event’ (Buck, 2013), the publication of a scientific paper. In this respect, the case study may be considered as a naturally occurring framing experiment and hence very well suited to

undertake a framing analysis as recommended by Entman (1991):

Comparing media narratives of events that could have been reported similarly helps to reveal the critical textual choices that framed the story but would otherwise remain submerged in an undifferentiated text. Unless narratives are compared, frames are difficult to detect fully and reliably, because many of the framing devices can appear as ‘natural,’ unremarkable choices of words or images (p. 6).

My material thus allows for such a comparison, including some considerations related to intertextual borrowing, through comparison with two ‘trigger texts’ (the scientific paper and a press release; see the case study below for details).

As the framing literature is so extensive, the literature review section for reasons of space mainly focuses on studies dealing specifically with climate change and geoengineering. Next, I outline the proposed text linguistic approach to framing. I then go on to illustrate the application of such an approach through the case study. A concluding section assesses the contribution that text linguistics may offer to framing research and points to aspects to be considered in future studies.

Framing studies involving climate change and geoengineering Framing studies are particularly prevalent within media and communication science (see Anderson, 2009 for an overview) and political science (e.g., Chong & Druckman, 2007). The intention in such studies is broadly speaking to unveil – typically by means of the quantitative method of content analysis – patterns of meaning in the text material under study. From such research, we gain insight into how society or specific groups within it ‘talk about’ a particular issue. The patterns observed are linked to the stories and participants in the debate and are valid for specific locations (local/national/global) and periods in time. An alternative approach is cognitively-based framing research, where psychological experiments and survey studies have been able to demonstrate, inter alia, differences in effects on respondents to similar or apparently equivalent linguistic expressions. The alternatives climate change and global warming are cases in point (Schuldt, Konrath, & Schwarz, 2011; Whitmarsh, 2009; see also Cockerill, 2003).

Koteyko, Thelwall, & Nerlich (2010) undertake a quantitative and qualitative linguistic investigation of what they term creative carbon compounds (e.g., carbon footprint) and their role as framing devices. Other linguistically oriented framing studies are found within the tradition of critical discourse analysis. Many of these studies involve climate change in the news (e.g., Boykoff, 2011; Carvalho, 2007; Olausson, 2009).

Much more recently, the closely related phenomenon of geoengineering has started to attract scholarly − and public − attention (Corner, Pidgeon, & Parkhill, 2012; Pidgeon et al., 2012).

Geoengineering has been defined as deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, in order to moderate global warming (Shepherd et al., 2009). The techniques involved are divided into two main categories. The most controversial is solar radiation management, intended to make the Earth absorb less solar radiation. The other, involving carbon dioxide removal, comprises a range of more or less controversial techniques to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Among these we find ocean iron fertilization. This specific technique is the topic of the texts discussed in the case study (below). So far, few framing studies of news discourse related to geoengineering have been undertaken. Published studies that I am currently aware of are Nerlich & Jaspal (2012), a qualitative exploration of the framing of geoengineering through metaphors; Luokkanen, Huttunen, & Hildén (2013), a qualitative/quantitative study investigating to what extent the light a technology is presented in (‘for’/’against’/’neutral’) has an effect on the choice of metaphors; Buck (2013), a quantitative content analysis of voice and authority in media texts on geoengineering and the storylines that emerge; Porter & Hulme (2013) a qualitative study identifying key media discourses on geoengineering since the term started to appear in the UK press; and Scholte, Vasileiadou, & Petersen (2013), a qualitative/quantitative study undertaken to identify the common news frames posited for geoengineering, also considering whether the diversity in frames becomes greater or smaller during the observed period (2006-2011).

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