Year

2005

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

School of Social Sciences, Media and Communication - Faculty of Arts

Abstract

This thesis examines factors shaping journalistic coverage of risk debates involving new technologies, using the Australian debate over genetically modified/manipulated (GM) food and crops during the period 1999-2001. It argues for a more thorough application of constructivism in risk journalism scholarship, and a more sophisticated application of the conflict frame in risk journalism practice. Theoretical tools for analysing risk journalism are developed from empirical research and a broad range of literatures. Prospects for one particular type of critical risk journalism, which is based on insights from science and technology studies (STS), are explored. The thesis first documents the forceful communication effort by institutional proponents of GM, which tends to foreclose debate over the problem of unforeseen consequences arising from the technology. It argues journalism, which challenges such powerful interests, is central to democratic debate over the risks and benefits of new technologies. The thesis explores opportunities for, and barriers to, such a journalism by drawing on interviews probing the beliefs, values, experience and output of 11 Australian journalists, textual analyses and other scholarship on science, society and journalism (with a focus on science, risk and uncertainty). The practice and theory of risk journalism is organised into two ideal types. One plays down the significance of unforeseen consequences of technological innovations and promotes the dominant institutional response to risk. This ideal type of journalism relies on positivist approaches to knowledge and scientific consensus. By contrast, the other ideal type, which challenges the dominant institutional response to risk, relies on constructivist approaches to knowledge and journalistic notions of conflict and criticism embedded in the professional ideal of the fourth estate. The practices of the journalists interviewed demonstrate various combinations of features from the two ideal types and are better represented by four modes of journalism. The thesis evaluates existing approaches to constructivist risk journalism scholarship and calls for the development of an STS-informed critical risk journalism that frames risk debates as being about competing responses to uncertainty. A resonance between professional ideals of objectivity in both science and journalism is found to be a key barrier to this mode of journalism.

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