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The discourse of the GM food debate: how language choices affect public trust

Agricultural Communications Documentation Center (ACDC)
Cook G (main author), Pieri E (author), Robbins P T (author), Economic and Social Research Council, United Kingdom
Research report
Publication Date:
UK: University of Reading
Agricultural Communications Documentation Center, Funk Library, University of Illinois Box: 141
Subject Term:
biotechnology, content analysis, coverage, food, food safety, languages, mass media, public attitude, reporting, risk communication, genetic engineering, bias, news papers
13 pages, The research aims to analyse the language and discourse of the debate over GM crops and food during February-July 2003. This period is expected by all sides to be one of renewed controversy and interest in the UK, with a government initiated national debate, discussion of the GM crop field trial results, and reconsideration of the current moratorium on commercial cultivation. Although it is impossible to predict either the exact course or duration of the debate, it is certain to provide a wealth of material for research into the impact of stakeholders' communication strategies upon public trust and understanding. Recently, the GM debate has generated a great deal of research and publication. The proposed project, however, is distinctive for its attention to the language and discourse of the debate, and for its combination of linguistic and sociological methodology. The GM debate brings together scientific, ethical, political and social concerns. Each perspective has its own discourse, and this in itself can be a source of misunderstanding and disagreement. The research will focus less upon the content of the debate, as other research has done, and more upon the forms in which it is expressed, as well as ways in which it is framed by its actors. It will explore how styles of argument, metaphors and analogies, phrases and single words can change in meaning and effect when they cross discoursal boundaries. As such, it will make a unique contribution to understanding of the public debate, and be of value and relevance to all stakeholders, interested academics, and society in general. More generally it will provide insights into the communication of controversial new technology and the responses of both public, media, and policy makers. For this purpose, the project will collect, analyse and relate three datasets. The first will be an electronically stored corpus of newspaper articles and public statements by major stakeholders (such as NGOs, government, and biotechnology companies). This first datatset can be automatically analysed using current corpus linguistic software to reveal frequent word choices and combinations. The second dataset will be transcripts of interviews with representatives of major stakeholder organisations about the factors governing their choices of language and strategies of argumentation. This second dataset will be coded using software for qualitative analysis, to reveal recurrent themes and opinions. The third dataset will be transcriptions of six focus groups, meeting on two occasions each, in which participants react to the language choices and communicative styles of selected extracts from dataset one. Focus groups have been chosen for the depth which they allow in the exploration of views and opinions among targeted groups with a particular relation to the topic. In our research each group identity will relate to one area of the debate, as follows: parents of young children (diet and health); charity volunteers (ethical concerns); students in higher education (long term effects); birdwatchers (biodiversity); farmers (consequences for agriculture); temporary UK residents from poor countries (effect on crop nutrition and yield). The intention is not to provide a survey of opinion, of which many already exist, nor to duplicate the existing focus-group literature on public responses to GM, but to provide new evidence of the discoursal sources of conflict and mistrust. This third dataset will also be coded for themes and arguments. This research will elucidate the actual (rather than presumed) effect of styles of argument on public perceptions and trust, thus complimenting and deepening existing understanding.