TP2: Narrative as practicing evidence in public discourse about genetic research

Prof. Dr. Susanne Kinnebrock, Prof. Dr. Helena Bilandzic, Magdalena Klingler

Genetic research is popular – as a field of inquiry, but also as a topic in mass media. It is mainly therapeutic applications and the fear of uncontrollable gene mutations that account for the overwhelming attention of society and the media to genetic research, even though the topic is highly abstract and thus difficult to communicate.

This raises the question how results from genetic research may be presented to a lay audience, and how evidence may be attributed to research which is potentially impenetrable for ordinary citizens. As a non-scientific audience lacks the expertise to routinely evaluate scientific findings, journalism has the crucial responsibility of verifying out the accuracy of research results, and conveying findings that are deemed to be evident to a media audience. Journalists in fact engage in (secondlevel) practicing evidence. On the one hand, journalists themselves are recipients of scientific evidence; on the other hand, they communicate scientific evidence to the public at large – certainly not without transforming scientific evidence according to media rationale.

This project explores the use of narratives for practicing evidence in the media. We assume that the media – in addition to the practice of evidencing through presentation of methods and data borrowed from science – use narratives to explain and qualify genetic research. Narratives have a privileged position among all possible presentation forms: Audiences are familiar with this type of everyday communication; in addition, narratives facilitate memory, interest, understanding, accessibility, and relevance attribution to scientific topics. This is especially true for topics that are abstract, and usually cannot be experienced in daily life – such as genetic research.

In a standardized content analysis of a wide array of print media coverage on genetic research, we explore narratives as a mode of evidencing, and compare this to other modes used in the media. To this end, the foci of media stories on genetic research (e.g., stories related to the acquisition of scientific insight, the people affected, or the scientists involved), the level of narrativity, as well as references to fictional masterplots (such as the Frankenstein myth), and the values assigned to them by media coverage will be surveyed.