Media Matters: Decoding the Press Coverage of Biomedical Addiction, Part I

Editor’s Note: Points today welcomes the first in a two-part series by Alexandra Bogren, associate professor of Sociology at the Centre for Social Research on Alcohol and Drugs, Stockholm University (Sweden).  Today Bogren lays out the case for a more clear understanding of how media portrayals of biomedical models of addiction affect popular understanding of drug and alcohol abuse.  In a follow-up that will appear tomorrow,  she describes how her own work– present and future– will help to achieve that understanding.

Swedish and American researchers have discovered a mechanism that stops stress-induced alcohol cravings. […] -This is a big break-through and the most exciting experience I have had in my career as a researcher, says the Swede Markus Heilig, head of clinical research at the American NIAAA in Washington. […] The fact that long term alcohol intake increases the number of genes that code for the CHR-R1-receptor, at the same time as this increased activity is inherited, can also explain why humans are more or less sensitive to the addictive effects of alcohol.

“Discovery Can Help Alcoholic with Craving,” October 3, 2006, Dagens Nyheter [Swedish daily newspaper ]

Browsing through the pages of many daily newspapers, you find that biomedical research on alcohol use and addiction is a common topic in the news. To a social scientist, such media discussions bring to the fore a host of questions, among them the issue of language use and the metaphors and models used to explain scientific results in ways the public will find understandable. From a social scientific perspective, the choice of terms and models are not just coincidental or innocent, but merit study in and of themselves. For example, what does it mean that “long term alcohol intake increases the number of genes that code for the CHR-R1-receptor, at the same time as this increased activity is inherited”? How do we, as ordinary citizens, deal with and make sense of this type of news story?

Belfast, February 2012 (Photo Courtesy of Mr. Ulster)

Since around the middle of the 1990’s, biomedical solutions to alcohol-related social problems have attracted increasing public attention (Midanik & Room 2005), and new biomedical research on addiction is described as having revolutionary potential. This development is not limited to the alcohol field. On the contrary, in contemporary societies, biomedical research is central in explaining numerous health problems. Moreover, since the formal start of the U.S. Human Genome Project in 1990 – an initiative aimed at mapping the entire human genome – public interest in biomedical research has increased constantly.

Key components in the shift from medicine to biomedicine are the extension of medical jurisdiction to cover health itself (not only illness, disease and injury), and the new clinical innovations based on computer and information technologies that allow for new ways of organizing information about patients and new ways of doing medical research, treating disease, and producing health.  In the field of biomedical alcohol research, visual

It’s that Simple!

technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) are central instruments for producing knowledge about the brain mechanisms involved in addiction. The colourful images of the brain produced via these techniques are also often used in popular science publications explaining the physiological processes behind addiction.

Internationally, a growing field of social scientific research studies how the biomedical interest in the detailed molecular aspects of our bodies (for example, genes, biomarkers, and DNA) affect our everyday notions of health, risk, and responsibility for health problems. Nevertheless, this research focus is represented only marginally in social scientific alcohol research. Lorraine Midanik’s 2006 analysis of the distribution of financial resources to alcohol research in Sweden and the US – which, among other things, addresses the extent to which funding has been reallocated to biomedical rather than social research – is one of the exceptions; Peter Conrad’s 1997 study of British and American press reporting on genes for alcoholism another. Despite these important studies, there is a lack of research – in Sweden and internationally – on how the biomedical shift in alcohol research is articulated by central actors in the alcohol field. Moreover, in the field of biomedicalization research more broadly, there is a lack of larger scale, interdisciplinary projects that address what happens when the shift from medicine to biomedicine co-occurs with simultaneous transformations of specific social policy efforts, such as the current individualization of Swedish alcohol policy.

Indeed, social scientists have taken an interest in the various images of alcohol that the mass media conveys, but they have done so largely through focussing on media images of drinking and alcohol policy on a general level. In addition, while there is some international research on how ordinary citizens interpret media images of alcohol, these are generally few and they tend to focus on stories about drinking and alcohol policy rather than on stories about biomedical alcohol research.

In tomorrow’s post, I discuss an ongoing research project funded by the Swedish Council for Working Life and Social Research, [site in Swedish], in which research assistant Katarina Winter and I address some of these issues by studying debates in the Swedish press debate about biomedical alcohol research and interviewing newspaper readers about their interpretation of the newspaper stories.

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