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What is a gene?

Heidelberg, 5 September 2008 Even scientists define 'a gene' in different ways, so it comes as little surprise that the media also have various ways of framing the concept of a gene, according to a new study appearing in the October 2008 issue of EMBO reports.

The study, Frame that gene, is based on the 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.

The 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, which was 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. In contrast, the "evolutionary" frame, commonly used by scientists, gives more insight, but may be difficult to communicate. Moreover, the study also found that the gene has become a playful metaphor, for example by stating that "Mazda has many Ford genes".

The analysis in EMBO reports shows that journalists present the term 'gene' either consciously or subconsciously using a number of different frames that may 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 novel approach 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. Ferocious debates on genetically modified crops or stem cell research illustrate the importance that genetics and molecular biology have gained in everyday life.


Contact: Suzanne Beveridge
European Molecular Biology Organization

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