Words of mass destruction: British newpaper coverage of the genetically modified food debate, expert and non-expert reactions

This article reports the findings of a one-year project examining British press coverage of the genetically modified food debate during the first half of 2003, and both expert and non-expert reactions to that coverage. Two pro-GM newspapers and two anti-GM newspapers were selected for analysis, and all articles mentioning GM during the period in question were stored in a machine readable database. This was then analyzed using corpus linguistic and discourse analytic techniques to reveal recurrent wording, themes and content. This text analysis was complemented by 12 interviews with experts involved in the communication of GM issues, and 12 focus-group sessions in which members of the public reacted to selected newspaper texts and other GM material. Both in the press and in public reaction, the issue of GM was found to be intimately associated with other political events of the time, notably the invasion of Iraq. Except among experts, there was little awareness of the official national debate and issues were approached in more general terms. Pro-GM characterization of the issues as primarily scientific, both by newspapers and experts, was rejected by the anti-GM press and campaigners, and by the focus-group participants. They assessed the issues in a more global frame, rejecting scientists and companies as unreliable. In addition, they linked both US and British GM policy to the invasion of Iraq, and, by analogy, rejected pro-GM arguments as untrustworthy.
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