Reflecting diversity or selecting viewpoints : an analysis of the GM debate in New Zealand's media 1998-2002 : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of PhD in Communication at Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand
The advent of genetically modified (GM) food in New Zealand in 1998 saw the beginning of
a highly politicised debate about GM use in the country. The concern over GM and the
political situation after the 1999 general election saw the Government establish a Royal
Commission of Inquiry on Genetic Modification in May, 2000. The Royal Commission and
strong public opposition to GM, evident in large public protests and other actions, made the
issue highly newsworthy.
The aim of this study was to explore how newspapers reported the GM debate, in particular,
examining whether the reportage facilitated greater public debate and awareness about GM
through journalists adhering to the ideals of the theory of social responsibility and enacting
their watchdog role as encapsulated in the Fourth Estate tradition of the media. To achieve
these aims the overall tone of the reportage and also which news source types and themes
were most frequently reported were examined. In addition, the relationship and perceptions
of scientists and journalists involved in the reporting were explored to examine how these
relationships may have influenced the reportage.
Content analysis showed the reportage had a pro-GM bias with policy-makers, scientists and
industry spokespeople the most frequently cited news sources. The themes of Science,
Economics and Politics dominated the reportage. Other source types and themes were less
represented, especially themes dealing with ethical and environmental arguments. This lack
of representation occurred despite the Royal Commission offering a space for all interested
parties to speak.
The interviews illustrated that scientists believed the quality of newspaper coverage of GM
lacked depth and that important issues were unreported. Journalists found the issue complex
to report and said they took care not to oversimplify the science and issues surrounding GM.
The relationship between scientists and journalists indicated particular tensions existing
between the two groups.
The thesis concludes that if robust public debate is to occur within New Zealand regarding
GM and other scientific developments, then the media should reflect a greater diversity of
opinion by citing other potential news sources offering alternative arguments based on, for
example, ethical or environmental grounds.