Nanotechnology Doesn't Make News

Dec 14, 2005, 00:00 ET from Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

    WASHINGTON, Dec. 14 /PRNewswire/ -- Nanotechnology is hailed by some
 scientists, venture capitalists, and government officials as the next
 industrial revolution. But two media experts at a program sponsored by the
 Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies report that, compared to
 other areas of science, nanotechnology newspaper coverage is scarce.
     "The most notable characteristic of media coverage of nanotechnology is
 the lack of it," according to Andrew Laing, president of Cormex Research.
 Laing's findings are drawn from a 2004 survey of top U.S. and Canadian
 newspapers funded by the government of Canada.
     "On average, Canadian and American news outlets surveyed published
 slightly more than one news item of substance on nanotechnology per month last
 year. To put that in context, the survey of twelve American print publications
 -- including outlets like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and
 Washington Post -- found an average of eight items per month in 2004 on stem
 cell research, and over two items on agricultural biotechnology," said Laing.
     "Over half (52%) of U.S. nanotechnology coverage appeared in business
 pages, and 15 percent in newspaper health and in science and technology
 sections. American reporting of nanotechnology tended to emphasize the
 benefits of nanotechnology to a much greater extent than the possible risks
 associated with it. Almost 71 percent of the American news items surveyed
 highlighted at least one benefit associated with nanotechnology. Twenty-four
 percent of U.S. news items noted a risk -- with investment risk cited most
 often (35%)," according to Laing.
     In a larger, baseline study analyzing the content of selected U.S. and
 U.K. newspaper articles obtained during 2000-2004 from the Lexis-Nexis
 newspaper and newswire database, Lehigh University professor Sharon M.
 Friedman discovered that "The number of newspaper articles found about health
 and environmental risks was low for both American and British coverage.  Only
 71 U.S. and 50 U.K. health and environmental risk articles were found between
 2000 and 2004, with The New York Times (13) and Washington Post (9) running
 the most." These findings were reported by Friedman and co-author Brenda Egolf
 in the Winter 2005 issue of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine.
     "While in both countries, news stories were overall balanced, article
 headlines were not," said Friedman. "Close to half of them were negative: 48
 percent in the U.S. and 44 percent of the U.K. articles. Only about 23 percent
 of the U.S. and 14 percent of the U.K. headlines were positive, the rest were
 either neutral or mixed. Often the study found that negative headlines did not
 reflect the more moderate articles they topped."
     Despite negative headlines, Friedman believes that from her analysis, it
 does not appear that U.S. or U.K. newspapers and wire services published
 articles from 2000 to 2004 that would negatively influence public opinion
 about nanotechnology. This is because the health and environmental risk
 coverage has been generally positive, even when containing negative
     Citing a 2004 public opinion survey showing that 80 percent of the
 American public had heard little or nothing about nanotechnology, Friedman
 warned government officials and industry that, "The current public calm
 surrounding nanotechnology -- and the public's lack of awareness about
 nanotech -- could change radically. All it would take would be mass media
 coverage of a research finding of a potentially dangerous health effect to
 consumers who are currently unknowingly exposed to nanoparticles in their
 sunscreens or cosmetics," according to Friedman.
     Julia A. Moore, deputy director of the Project on Emerging
 Nanotechnologies, stated that both the Laing and Friedman studies showed the
 need for stepped-up public education and information efforts on
 nanotechnology. "The need to engage the public in a dialogue about nano's
 potential benefits and risks, and how government proposes to manage them, has
 never been greater or more propitious. Without such an effort,
 nanotechnology's benefits could be lost in a sea of scary headlines and
 confused publics."
     The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies was launched in 2005 by the
 Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and The Pew Charitable
 Trusts.  It is dedicated to helping business, governments, and the public
 anticipate and manage the possible health and environmental implications of
     Contact: Sharon McCarter
     Phone: (202) 691-4016

SOURCE Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars