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

Editor’s Note:  Yesterday, guest blogger Alexandra Bogren laid out the rationale for a multidisciplinary examination of the way newspaper reporting on biomedical models of addiction affects reader perceptions of drug and alcohol use/abuse and treatment.  Today, she explains exactly how such an examination should transpire.

In an ongoing research project funded by the Swedish Council for Working Life and Social Research [in Swedish], research assistant Katarina Winter and I address some of these issues surrounding the coverage of biomedical models of addiction by studying Swedish press debates about the topic and interviewing newspaper readers about their interpretation of the newspaper stories. In our analysis of the press debate, we have collected approximately 90 newspaper articles published between 1995 and 2010 in four of the major daily Swedish newspapers– Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet, Aftonbladet and Expressen.

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The newspaper articles were drawn from the full-text online database Mediearkivet and include editorials, debating articles, news articles and thematic articles. Our analysis concentrates on newspaper articles that explain the biochemical mechanisms behind alcohol use and addiction by using keywords such as genes, biomarkers, chromosomes, DNA, hormones, and neurotransmitters. In our analysis of these articles, we look at how health and responsibility are (re)defined in portrayals of biomedical alcohol research, and which actors and sources–for example, medical researchers, social science researchers, politicians, NGO-representatives– are interviewed and quoted in the newspaper stories. In addition, as discourse on biomedical alcohol research includes frequent references to sex differences, we have included a sub-study of the constitution of gender in the newspaper articles.

In the analysis of how newspaper readers interpret the newspaper stories, we rely on one-on-one semi-structured interviews organized around two news texts portraying biomedical alcohol research. These texts come from our corpus of 90 newspaper articles, and were selected because they are particularly rich and detailed examples of how newspapers are discussing the most dominant issues in biomedical alcohol research (for a similar methodological strategy, compare Törrönen 2001 ). The first news text presents research on the reward system of the brain, discussing how genetic and biochemical mechanisms are involved in addiction. The second deals with gender issues, presenting biomedical research on how alcohol affects the level of sex hormones in men’s and women’s bodies.

“I’d like to hear more about that.”

At the start of the interview, the interviewee reads the first news text. Initially, the interviewer asks for the interviewee’s general reflections on the news article, and the following interview discussion is based on open-ended questions about how the interviewee would describe the theme of the article, whether they agree with the situation as it is described in the articles and why/why not,  if they find the arguments convincing, and if and how they use and relate to these news texts in their own daily lives. They are also asked to consider whether they believe that important aspects are missing in the text. This is followed by a break where the interviewee reads the second news text, after which the interview continues. In the analysis, we study which concepts and arguments the interviewees use to interpret the news texts,  how they interpret the different theoretical (research-related) perspectives presented in the articles, and how they use the news stories in their everyday lives. We also study what discourses (individualistic, health-related, risk-oriented, feminist, etc.) the interviewees draw on when they relate the news stories to their own experiences.

The preliminary results show that a large majority of the newspapers cite biomedical researchers to explain the mechanisms of addiction (as we can see in the quote from Dagens Nyheter above), but that journalists also play a major role as interpreters of what the researchers say. Notably, the journalists act as storytellers who explain the biomedical research results to the readers, as we can see in this example:

Two genetic variants that increase the risk of becoming depressed, antisocial, or alcoholic for boys have the opposite effect for girls. And vice versa. This surprising conclusion is drawn by a Swedish research group in a large study of Swedish teenagers.
— “Bad gene for men is good for women,”
Svenska Dagbladet, February 8, 2007

However, it is not always clear how such explanations are to be understood; how are we to interpret the clause “And vice versa,” for example? In our interviews, so far, we have found that newspaper readers use terms like “genes”, “dopamine”, and “reward system” to explain their own and others’ relation to alcohol, but – at the same time – say that they lack the basic knowledge necessary to understand and evaluate biomedical alcohol research. Our interviewees clearly interpret the newspaper stories in light of their own experiences with addiction and drinking (for example, in terms of living with a parent with addiction problems). In this way, their own experiences are central to their view of the biomedical mechanisms behind addiction and, in particular, heredity.

The Problem with “Objectivity”

During our work with this project, it has become increasingly clear that if we are to understand the full societal effects of the ongoing biomedical shift, we need research that integrates studies of separate sectors of society within a common research framework. Given the central role of biomedical alcohol researchers in the newspaper stories, and the importance and credibility interviewees attach to media portrayals of biomedical alcohol research, we find it vital to expand the research on this issue.

Our ongoing project is limited to analysis of the daily press and ordinary citizens’ interpretations of the press. However, we are in the middle of preparing and starting up a new research project that extends the ongoing project, where we are planning to recruit a multidisciplinary research team with personnel drawn from Anthropology and Political science, or similar disciplines. The new project strives for a comprehensive overview of the state of biomedicalization in the Swedish alcohol field through studying three types of central actors: (a) biomedical alcohol researchers; (b) politicians and other stakeholders, i.e., the alcohol and pharmaceutical industries, and NGOs, and (c) the new electronic media.

Our main research questions are structured according to these three types of actors. We ask, firstly, how  biomedical alcohol researchers produce knowledge about addiction (this involves studying the epistemologies, assumptions, and values they bring to their research, and how they communicate their research to the wider community). Secondly, we ask how policymakers and other stakeholders (notably, the alcohol and pharmaceutical industries, and NGOs) understand and use results from biomedical alcohol research (this involves studying their epistemologies, assumptions, and values, and how they communicate what they learn about biomedical alcohol research to the wider community). Thirdly, we ask how the results from biomedical alcohol research are conceptualized and communicated in the new electronic media (in particular, we plan to analyze the content and the dissemination patterns of websites and blogs for patient/interest organizations in the alcohol and drug field). The project uses a combination of different methodologies; ethnography, interviews, document analysis and a survey. Through focussing these three types of actors, we hope to create a better understanding of the social processes of knowledge production, communication and utilization in the field of biomedical alcohol research in late modern Sweden.

Maybe It’s Not That Simple

It is true that the boundaries between these processes are not clear-cut – the actors above all engage in them to varying extents: researchers produce knowledge but also communicate research results; politicians utilize knowledge but also communicate it to the public; the media communicate knowledge but in this process also contribute to producing knowledge, etc. However, this is one of the rationales for including all these actors in the project – in this way, we are able to study how the processes intertwine and interact, and therefore also to study how politicians and other stakeholders co-produces knowledge.

To sum up, we may note that the growing interest in biomedical solutions to alcohol-related social problems appears at a time when restrictive Swedish alcohol policy finds itself in a period of transition, heading towards a more individualistically oriented policy. Due to its interest in the individual’s genetic make-up, biomedical alcohol research carries a potential for reinforcing individualization at the expense of collective responsibility. The collective model of social responsibility characteristic of the Swedish welfare state – as articulated in the total consumption model central to Swedish alcohol policy – is then confronted with a model of genetic responsibility that focuses on the individual. Thus, biomedicalization invites an individualization of social problems, in the sense that it foregrounds solutions tailored to deal with individual disease. At the same time, the biomedical perspective of addiction as a genetic brain disease reduces the moral culpability of the individual – he or she is no longer seen as bad but as sick (compare Conrad & Schneider 1980).

The issue of responsibility for causing and solving addiction problems becomes even more complicated if we take into account that the biomedical shift involves an increasing interest in how our lifestyle affects our genome, an issue that is studied in the field of epigenetics, and in the more controversial subfield of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. In this context, the great importance placed on biomedical addiction research today, and the hopes and expectations linked to this research, make it even more important to study the field from a social scientific perspective. We hope that our projects will contribute to the public debate about the role of biomedical science in contemporary societies, in particular in relation to issues of social and personal responsibility.

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2 thoughts on “Media Matters: Decoding the Press Coverage of Biomedical Addiction, Part II

  1. This is an extremely important area of research. It would also be good to know more about how the interpretations available to the public are generated, what is added as well as lost in translation. How, for example, could a journalist manage to come up with the “fact” that long-term alcohol intake increases the “number of genes that code for the CHR-R1 receptor”? It must have something to do with the studies indicating an increased number of receptors, but of course those are two different claims. No wonder there is so much straw-man argumentation aimed at drug and alcohol research.

  2. What’s extremely provocative is, I think, the fact that reporters tend to develop rolodexes of individuals on whom they rely for their research. Often as reporters rush to meet deadlines, they rely on the experts who are already in their rolodex, as opposed to seeking out the true specialist who can give the nuanced and in-depth answers they need. This can result in some really problematic articles as the “experts” cited in many pieces are not necessarily the real experts.

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