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This is not the final version. Please refer to the final version when quoting or citing
this work. The final version of the entire book is available as an open-access
publication here: ndl.ethernet.edu.et/bitstream/123456789/3653/1/102.pdf
Chapter 10 in The Sciences' Media Connection -Public Communication and its
Staging High-Visibility Science: Media
Orientation in Genome Research
Scientists and scientific organizations in certain times and places orient some of their
activities toward the media – a phenomenon that Weingart (1998) in his analysis of
medialization glosses as science exhibiting a “media orientation.”1 The medialization
concept holds that an intensification of science-media coupling in contemporary
societies is producing changes in science. One line of evidence for this view is the
increasing coverage of science by the media; the other is evidence that science is
increasingly oriented toward media. Rödder (2009) describes these as two dimensions
of medialization. The main strategy for documenting the media orientation
of science has been to look at several indicators of the phenomenon, such as the
creation of media events, the practice of “publication by press conference,” the existence
of scientists who become media stars, and the coupling of scientific, political,
and media discourses. The medialization concept was defined and has been applied
analytically at the level of systems (Weingart 1998), using differentiation theory
to consider coupling and system change. In contrast to a system-level approach,
this paper develops a complementary perspective for considering medialization that
focuses on media orientation at the level of actors and interaction. How do scientists,
scientific organizations, and others associated with high-technology research
interact with the media? How do actors manifest an orientation to the media? In
what ways, and how intensely, does the media fit into their activities and practices?
To address these questions, this paper develops a framework that conceptualizes
media orientation at the level of the actor (e.g., the individual scientist or science intensive
organization), defining media orientation as a specific form of “theatrical
self-consciousness” (Goffman 1959) that attends to the media. This formulation,
which brings the tools of dramaturgical analysis to the staging of science (Hilgartner
2000), provides a vocabulary for exploring science-media coupling not as connections
abstract systems but as strategic interaction. The analysis is grounded in data
gathered in an ethnographic study of genome research conducted during the Human
Genome Project (HGP), which was officially launched in 1990 and officially completed
in 2003, and focuses on an episode that generated a burst of media coverage.
This ethnographic approach provides a look at the specific and varied ways in which
a particular research community related to the media.
Genome research is a good field for examining how scientists orient to the media.
As a large research enterprise for biology, the HGP won the ongoing attention of the
scientific, science policy, biotechnology, venture capital, and bioethics communities.
From its inception, genome researchers imagined the HGP as a highly visible
undertaking. Indeed, according to one influential account of the launching of the
genome project, the first meeting about the possibility of sequencing the human
genome was itself born in part in the pursuit of visibility, spurred on by a desire to
put the University of California at Santa Cruz “on the map” (Cook-Deegan 1994:
79). Genome researchers also framed the significance of mapping and sequencing
the human genome using a variety of metaphors, comparing it to the Manhattan
project and the Apollo Program. As these examples suggest, genome researchers
approached this enterprise with historical self-consciousness, conceiving of their
effort as something that would rank among the greatest of scientific achievements.2
The HGP also attracted substantial media coverage. To be sure, the volume of
coverage fluctuated (e.g., Schäfer 2009), but the project was discussed in major
newspapers and magazines; on television; in specialized media such as the news
pages of Science, Nature, The Scientist, and Genetic Engineering News; in investororiented
publications; and beginning in the late 1990s in an increasing variety of
Internet-based “new media.” The HGP also became something of a “lightning rod”
for bioethical issues connected to genetics and human biotechnology, inspiring the
funding of research programs on the ethical, legal, and social aspects of genomics
and generating ongoing analysis and commentary in both professional and popular
This list of “media” admittedly exhibits some lack of clarity at the margins about
what should be included in that category, but rather than regarding that as a deficiency
to be rectified through more precise conceptualization, this mixture – or
better, web of communication genres (Lewenstein 1995) – indexes the visible, Mode
2 (Nowotny et al. 2001) environment that genome researchers inhabited. The HGP
was discussed publicly in so many diverse forums that genome scientists developed
a sense that their field was on stage. Media became part of their professional
world in a significant way, especially for leaders of the project, who had to concern
themselves with its legitimation.3 Many of the genome scientists I talked with
seemed to regard the media as an active agent that produces potentially consequential
representations (and misrepresentations). They often expressed concerns
consistent with the “deficit model” of the public understanding of science (Irwin
and Wynne 1996), and they also used the notion of distorted popularizations of science
to do boundary work (Hilgartner 1990). In addition, they sometimes expressed
negative attitudes toward “hype,” attributing this discursive overbidding (Weingart
1998) not to the media alone but also to actors (such as individual scientists or
companies) that they charged were over-promoting their wares.4
Below, this paper examines more specifically how actors involved in genome
research manifested an orientation toward media. I begin by elaborating the conceptualization
of media orientation as a form of theatrical self-consciousness. Next,
the paper illustrates the framework by considering a specific episode: the intense
science/media interaction surrounding the announcement in 1998 that a private
company, later named Celera Genomics, planned to sequence the human genome
before the publicly-funded genome project could complete the work. The empirical
material focuses on a 10-day period immediately preceding and following the
announcement. Examining this episode offers an opportunity to consider interaction
with the media in ethnographic context and to examine how orientation toward the
media is connected to concerns about a variety of purposes and audiences. Given
the limited scope of this study, conclusions must be tentative. For one thing, to the
extent that medialization involves system-level changes that develop over time as
science-media coupling increases, a single case study focused on events occurring
within 10 short days cannot address change because it lacks a baseline for comparison.
In addition, the Human Genome Project – a highly-visible “big biology”
project forged amid a historically unique constellation of scientific, political, and
commercial circumstances – was unusual in many respects, raising questions about
whether the findings are applicable to other areas of science. Even so, the analysis
suggests that examining how a community of researchers interacts with the media
makes it possible to analytically differentiate four facets of media orientation, posing
new questions for research. In addition, the analysis may raise methodological
questions for macro-level studies of medialization.
10.1.1 Theatrical Self-Consciousness and Media Orientation
To develop a framework for examining media orientation in interaction, this paper
builds on the dramaturgical sociology of Erving Goffman (1959, 1963) and its
concept of theatrical self-consciousness. In his analysis of interactions among
individuals, Goffman examines how participants, who possess the capacity for
mutual monitoring and self-reflection, experience themselves as performers who
aim to present themselves strategically to others in ways that foster desirable impressions.
Through “information control” – the selective revelation and concealment
of information – actors highlight some information and present it on the front
stage, while relegating other information to the backstage, invisible to the audience.
Goffman stresses that strategic impression management does not imply dishonesty
(although dishonest performers certainly exist); on the contrary, the honest
performer must also artfully manage impressions to avoid unintentional misunderstandings.
The performer, thus, must attend to the audience, imagine its reactions,
monitor his or her self-presentation, and make adjustments as needed. Audiences,
for their part, are far from being passive recipients of information; they often monitor
carefully the acts presented to them to avoid being taken in, attending both to the
impressions that performers deliberately advance and also those that they unintentionally
communicate. In face-to-face interaction, playing the role of the audience is
itself a kind of performance. For example, audiences must at times tactfully overlook
flaws in a performance, feigning an appropriate reaction to it. Goffman’s analysis
applies at various levels of social organization. Most of the time, his focus is
on individuals, but the analysis also applies to organizations, which clearly must
collectively manage impressions.
Goffman’s dramaturgical perspective was designed to examine face-to-face
interaction and it has mainly been used in that context. Since so much scientific communication
uses written texts or visual displays, conducting a dramaturgical analysis
of science entails adapting the perspective to apply to written documents and other
texts (Hilgartner 2000). This involves focusing on the existence of audiences who
are not present in the same physical space as the performer but nonetheless are
considered during the creation and delivery of the performance. When preparing a
science advisory report, for example, a committee of experts “interacts” – albeit in
a virtual manner – with its imagined future audiences, attempting to anticipate and
address questions or objections in advance (ibid.; see also Bijker et al. 2009). The
stage management of a written document often involves a complex dialectic of revelation
and concealment: performers present some information directly and visibly
in the document; they also keep some information “backstage” by omitting it from
the text; and they erect temporal, social, and spatial boundaries that control access
to the document. Through such techniques, performers use stage management to
constitute audiences (and nonaudiences) with specific capacities and incapacities of
perception and speech (Hilgartner 2000).
In bureaucracies, the information control techniques surrounding written documents
are often quite elaborate (Smith 1974; Hilgartner 2000; Riles 2006), with
theatrical self-consciousness embodied not only at the individual level but also in
procedures and material practices that instantiate it as a kind of distributed cognition.
Of course, just as the audience of a performance presented in a face-to-face
encounter need not simply accept the show uncritically, so too can the audience
of a written document interrogate the text (and what is omitted from it) for clues
about its subject matter or about the character of its creators. This is not to say that
face-to-face and written communication are identical; on the contrary, the interaction
between performer and audience takes diverse shapes depending on countless
details about the specific communications tools employed. A press conference offers
its audience opportunities for participation that little resemble those provided by a
press release, for example. Nevertheless, the central concepts of dramaturgy – such
as theatrical self-consciousness – are useful for examining performances packaged
in many means of communication and for examining a variety of actors, including
individuals, organizations, and “teams” engaged in dramaturgical cooperation.5
As the above discussion suggests, theatrical self-consciousness is a phenomenon
experienced by performers and audiences alike, although in somewhat different
ways. The differences, and even the distinction between the roles, vary with the
mode of communication. In a two-person face-to-face interaction, each participant
may simultaneously occupy the roles of both performer and audience, whereas the
readers of a written text may experience themselves primarily in an audience role
(unless they are expected to comment on it).Members of media audiences also bring
an understanding of the theatricality of social life to their encounters with media
content, which they recognize to have a staged quality.When themedia are involved,
theatrical self-consciousness is complex; for the media can be fruitfully understood
in several ways: as audience, because journalists are a primary audience for certain
communication genres, such as press releases; as performer, because journalists
actively create news accounts and present them to audiences; and as stage, because
the media offer performers a platform for communicating with audiences, such as
newspaper readers or television viewers.
These observations provide a starting point for analyzing in dramaturgical terms
how scientists and other actors interact with the media. At the level of the actor,
media orientation can be conceptualized as a species of theatrical self-consciousness
that attends to the significant, and arguably increasing, role of the media in contemporary
societies. It is not surprising that many scientists and scientific institutions
recognize that the media offer dangers and opportunities. Beyond simply believing
that media coverage matters, many scientists and science-intensive organizations,
including the genome scientists discussed in this paper, sometimes engage with the
media in direct ways, approaching media organizations and media content with a
sense of the theatricality of situations that involve the press.
To provide an empirical look at genome scientists interacting with the media, we
now turn to the dramatic announcement on May 10, 1998 that a private company was
being founded to sequence the human genome in three years, sooner and at lower
cost than was then planned by the publicly funded HGP. After briefly introducing
the context in which this announcement was made, I turn to the media-oriented
activities of genome researchers and others engaged in human genome research in
the period from May 8 to May 17, immediately before and immediately after the
formation of the New Company was announced. My account is based on a variety
of sources, including press releases; selected news coverage; participant observation
at the Cold Spring Harbor Meeting on Genome Mapping, Sequencing, & Biology,
the main annual scientific meeting of the HGP community where roughly 400
scientists gathered from May 13 to 17; three audiorecorded interviews and many
informal conversations with genome scientists conducted during the week following
the announcement; and books later published by some of the most visible scientists
(Sulston and Ferry 2002; Collins 2006; Venter 2007) and by science journalists
(Davis 2001; Shreeve 2004).
Because events took place in geographically distributed locations and occurred
simultaneously, and because many of them took place in backstage spaces that left
no publicly available records, my account makes no pretensions of completeness.
However, this ethnographic approach provides a look at a research community in
the process of learning about and trying to understand the significance of an unexpected
and potentially major development in its field. Media were deeply entangled
in the events, so this case study offers an opportunity for considering how media and
science interact in practice and provides an occasion for illustrating various aspects
of media orientation in action.
10.2 The Announcement and Mediated Reception
of a Commercial Human Genome Project
Let us begin with the context in which the announcement took place. In the United
States, the HGP was officially launched in 1990 under the leadership of the National
Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Energy.6 The goals of the project –
to map and sequence the human genome and the genomes of several model organisms,
to develop mapping and sequencing technology, and to anticipate and address
the ethical, legal, and social issues associated with genomic knowledge – were
to be accomplished by 2005 at a cost of $3 billion. The plan was to house the
sequence data in public databases, such as Genbank, which would make this information
freely available to any and all (Hilgartner 1995). During the early years
of the project, work focused on creating basic maps of the human genome, developing
technology, and conducting some small pilot sequencing projects, with the
expectation that large-scale sequencing would take place only after significant
improvements in technology had occurred.7 By the mid 1990s, some genome
project leaders believed that the technology had matured to the point that largescale
sequencing of the human genome should commence (e.g., Olson 1995). DNA
sequencing machines, especially those manufactured by the Applied Biosystems
division of Perkin-Elmer (PE), had proven reliable, and success in completing
genetic maps, demonstrating physical mapping technology, creating effective laboratory
informatics systems, and finishing a number of pilot sequencing projects,
made obtaining the complete human sequence seem achievable. The NIH-funded
genome centers began moving toward scaling up sequencing, as did the Sanger
Centre in the United Kingdom, with financial backing of the largest funder of
biomedical research in Britain, the Wellcome Trust.
Orchestrating this multi-laboratory and international collaboration required
establishing policy agreements about such matters as data quality and data access.
The details of data access policies – which specify what types of data should be
provided to whom, when, and under what terms and conditions – had long been a
topic of debate in genome research (Hilgartner 1998). A variety of kinds of “public
release” of data are possible, depending on the precise details of policies. The international
collaborators developed standards for data release at a series of meetings
held in Bermuda. The so-called Bermuda principles required daily submission of
all newly-generated sequence data to publicly accessible biological databases. This
unprecedented policy was intended to prevent the hoarding of data for commercial
purposes or to gain a competitive edge in biological science. The U.S. and U.K.
programs also committed themselves to producing a “complete” sequence of the
human genome, not simply “skimming” the genome for genes or other entities of
particular interest. The task of producing “finished” sequence, high quality data with
no gaps in coverage, was considered difficult but worthwhile given the importance
of the data.
During the 1990s, commercial versions of genome research also became
prominent. No private firm prior to 1998 had launched an effort to sequence the
entire human genome, although several tentative schemes along those lines had
been explored and failed to materialize. However, several companies, notably Incyte
and Human Genome Sciences, had developed businesses based on sequencing lots
of tiny fragments of the genome – believed to be parts of genes. J. Craig Venter
was the first scientist to undertake a project to sequence large numbers of these
fragments – which he called Expressed Sequence Tags (ESTs). Venter formed an
alliance for a time with Human Genome Sciences, which provided funding for a
non-profit organization that Venter founded, The Institute for Genome Research
(TIGR). Patents filed on ESTs inspired international controversy and opposition
from many HGP scientists and the international Human Genome Organization. A
few years later, Venter led the group that completed the sequence of the first freestanding
(non-viral) organism, using what became known as the “whole genome
shotgun” technique. By the mid 1990s, he had also become something of a visible
scientist, at least for aficionados of genome research. After the formation of
Celera, his public profile grew (Rödder 2009) and it has continued to do so with his
involvement in synthetic genomics.
The May 1998 announcement that a new company was being founded to
sequence the human genome altered the course of the HGP. From the start, the news
was taken very seriously – by the genome research community, the media, and by
investors – in part owing to the fact that the team who advanced the plan consisted of
Venter and Michael Hunkapiller, head of Perkin-Elmer’s Applied Biosystems group,
the world’s leading manufacturer of DNA sequencing machines. Venter enjoyed
much credibility as a genome scientist, as well as some notoriety for his association
with the EST patent applications. Many HGP researchers worried that the
company would try to capture large parts of the human genome as intellectual property.
Intense competition developed between the new company, later named Celera
Genomics, and the public HGP, despite repeated attempts to stage détentes. The
most dramatic of these occurred in June 2000 at a White House press conference,
where U.S. President Bill Clinton and (by satellite) U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair
helped celebrate the completion of a “draft” of the human sequence, a feat that was
presented as the joint achievement of the public HGP and Celera.8
In late 1997, Hunkapiller began making overtures to Venter to see if he was
interested in discussing the prospects for sequencing the human genome with a new
automated sequencer that the company was developing. In early 1998, Venter went
to California to see the instrument and began talks. PE indicated that it was willing
to invest $300 million in an effort to sequence the genome if Venter believed it
would work and would lead the project (Venter 2007). Venter agreed and the parties
developed a plan for PE to form a new company, with Venter as CEO. Because the
company did not yet have a name (the name was announced in a July 1998 news
release), people availed themselves of such descriptors as “the New Company”
or “the Venter/Hunkapiller proposal.” In keeping with the situation during the
10-day period focused on here, I will avoid the name Celera, generally referring
to the firm and its principals with the generic name the New Company or as the
10.2.1 The Announcement
Until May 10, 1998 when the story appeared on the front page of the Sunday
New York Times and in a press release issued by the New Company, there was
no media coverage of the plan. However, once the decision to form the company
was made, the question of how to announce the plan – to whom, when, and
how – became salient. According to Venter’s autobiography, there was “considerable
debate” about how to unveil the news. “Some wanted to do it by press release,” he
wrote, “but I preferred to touch base with key leaders in the genome community first
to see if we could have real cooperation in one effort” (Venter 2007: 237). Initially,
the New Company told a small number of selected people; for example, a handful
of well-known scientists were invited to join the company’s advisory board. Shortly
before the announcement, a few HGP scientists learned that Venter was planning
to launch a commercial sequencing project. These included such genome project
leaders as James Watson, John Sulston of the Sanger Centre, the NIH’s Francis
Collins of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), and Michael
Morgan of the Wellcome Trust. On Friday, May 8, Venter and Hunkapiller personally
met with Harold Varmus, the director of the NIH, and Francis Collins, head of
the NHGRI; it was then that NIH officials first learned any details of the plan or that
PerkinElmer was involved (Sulston 2002: 149–152; Venter 2007: 238–243). Two
days later, the news hit the press. In the week following the announcement, articles
appeared in leading newspapers, including the New York Times, the Washington
Post, and the Independent (London) as well as such magazines as The Economist.
In light of the startling news and the incomplete and sometimes confusing media
coverage, HGP researchers experienced some of the extreme uncertainty described
by Lewenstein (1995) in his analysis of the cold fusion case.
The New Company carefully orchestrated the announcement in a manner
designed to produce well-placed news coverage. Venter (2007: 241) describes how
“we decided to offer the story on a plate to a reporter who we thought could get
the space to do it justice,” namely, Nicholas Wade of the New York Times. The plan
was for the New Company to “issue a press release before the markets opened on
Monday, May 11, 1998” while Wade’s story would appear on the front page of the
Sunday New York Times on May 10 (ibid.). The press release, dated May 9, was
loaded into the Business Wire press release distribution service on Sunday, May
10. It announced the plan for the new genome sequencing company and also told
reporters and investors that they could phone into a conference call on Monday,
May 11 at 10:00 am. Under the headline “Perkin-Elmer, Dr. J. Craig Venter, and
TIGR Announce Formation of New Genomics Company; Plan to Sequence Human
Genome Within Three Years” the press release began:
The Perkin-Elmer Corporation (NYSE:PKN), Dr. J. Craig Venter, and The Institute for
Genomic Research (TIGR) announced today that they have signed letters of intent relating
to the formation by Perkin-Elmer and Dr. Venter of a new genomics company. Its strategy
will be centered on a plan to substantially complete the sequencing of the human genome
in three years (Perkin-Elmer and TIGR 1998).
It went on to suggest that the company’s business plan would be based on
providing genome data.
The new company’s goal is to become the definitive source of genomic and associated medical
information that will be used by scientists to develop a better understanding of the
biological processes in humans and deliver improved healthcare in the future. Using breakthrough
DNA analysis technology being developed by Perkin-Elmer’s Applied Biosystems
Division, applied to sequencing strategies pioneered by Dr. Venter and others at TIGR, the
company will operate a genomics sequencing facility with an expected capacity greater than
that of the current combined world output.
Concurrently, the new company also intends to build the scientific expertise and informatics
tools necessary to extract valuable biological knowledge from genomic data, including the
discovery of new genes, development of polymorphism assay systems, and databases for
the scientific community. Perkin-Elmer and Dr. Venter believe that this information has
significant commercial value and that the new company can provide this information more
rapidly and more accurately than is currently possible (ibid.).
The press release presented a number of narrative elements that could easily be
repackaged into news stories with themes of progress, market value, and private
sector efficiency versus government inefficiency. A second press release by PE also
announced its new sequencing machine (Perkin-Elmer 1998). As is typical of the
genre, neither press release contained much technical information; for example, they
said nothing about the proposed method (known as a whole genome shotgun) or
the ongoing internal discussions of possible technological strategies for making that
method more robust. Nor did the announcement provide much detail on the business
plan through which the company planned to make money. Importantly, however, the
press release announcing the New Company said that it “plans to make sequencing
data publicly available to ensure that as many researchers as possible are examining
it and that applications, such as the development of diagnostic tests and new drug
discovery, are as broad as possible” – a formulation that made the plan seem, at least
potentially, to be consistent with the HGP goal of making sequence data public –
although the terms and conditions of access were not discussed (Perkin-Elmer and
In staging the announcement, the New Company managed to keep its developing
plans backstage, preventing all but a few people from learning what was happening
until it was ready to present a neatly packaged account for front-page placement in
a leading U.S. newspaper with a notable role in agenda setting for the U.S. media.
The company clearly treated the media as an important audience, but its attention to
the media did not entail viewing the media as the only or the ultimate audience. The
press release was also aimed at investors, and it conformed as a text to requirements
relevant to both audiences. Thus, the press release provided a differentiated list of
contacts for people who sought more information:
Contact: Perkin-Elmer (Investors)
Charles Poole, 203/761-5400
Noonan/Russo Communications (Media)
Timothy Sipols, 212/696-4455 Ext. 272
Hill & Knowlton (For TIGR and Dr. Venter)
Jim Jennings, 202/944-5102 (ibid.)
When speaking to investors, Perkin-Elmer – a company with shares traded on
the New York Stock Exchange – was legally obligated to disclose major developments
pertaining to its operations and to ensure that investors are informed of
risks. Accordingly, the press release ended with a lengthy standard disclosure paragraph,
indicating that “certain statements in this press release and its attachments
are forward-looking” and stating that in order to comply with the “safe harbor” provisions
of The Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, PE “notes that a variety of
factors could cause actual results and experience to differ materially from the anticipated
results or other expectations expressed in such forward-looking statements”
(ibid.). In other words, the document not only complied with the conventions of the
journalistic genre of the press release, but also with a set of legal requirements from
securities law. At the same time, the disclosure paragraph underlined in a conventional
way (much commented on in recent STS work on genomics) the promissory
and speculative nature of such ventures (see Fortun 2001, 2008; Rabinow and
Dan-Cohen 2005; Sunder Rajan 2006; see also Hedgecoe 2004).
Other salient audiences for the New Company included the biological research
community and the scientists associated with the HGP. Indeed, the company took
into account a variety of audiences as it planned and performed its presentations to
the press. For example, according to a scientist with knowledge of company decision
making, the New Company’s reached a decision about precisely when to unveil
its plan to the media for “lots of reasons”: several investment firm meetings were
coming up; the Cold Spring Harbor meeting offered a chance to explain the plan to
the genome community; rumors were starting to circulate; and the company needed
to announce its new sequencing machine because word of the new machine was
getting out and starting to hurt sales. Orientation to the media, thus, was intertwined
with orientation to a variety of other audiences, including investors, scientists, and
As planned, the New York Times published Nicholas Wade’s exclusive article on
page 1 on the same day that the press release was distributed. The article, headlined
“Scientist’s Plan: Map All DNAWithin 3 Years,” made the challenge to the publicly
funded HGP a main theme.
A pioneer in genetic sequencing and a private company are joining forces with the aim of
deciphering the entire DNA, or genome, of humans within three years, far faster and cheaper
than the Federal Government is planning. If successful, the venture would outstrip and to
some extent make redundant the Government’s $3 billion program to sequence the human
genome by 2005 (Wade 1998a).
The article said that Hunkapiller believed that the new sequencing machines were
“so fast” that they could sequence the human genome “far sooner and 10 times more
cheaply than envisioned by the National Institutes of Health.” Wade also presented
a picture of the HGP leadership’s immediate response:
The director of the Federal human genome project at the National Institutes of Health,
Dr. Francis Collins, first heard of the new company’s plan on Friday, as did the director of
the N.I.H., Dr Harold Varmus. Both said that the plan, if successful, would enable them to
reach a desired goal sooner. Dr. Collins said he planned to integrate his program with the
new company’s initiative. The Government would adjust by focusing on the many projects
that are needed to interpret the human DNA sequence, such as sequencing the genomes of
mice and other animals (ibid.).
The article also seemed to imply that the HGP leadership planned to move on to
Both Dr. Varmus and Dr. Collins expressed confidence that they could persuade Congress
to accept the need for this change in focus, noting that the sequencing of mouse and
other genomes has always been included as a necessary part of the human genome project
10.2.2 The NHGRI’s Response
The New Company’s plan clearly put the leadership of the HGP in delicate position.
The first article in the New York Times raised the question of whether a publicly
funded HGP was still needed. Yet the details of the plan remained sketchy, the technical
feasibility remained open to question, and no one outside of PE had worked
with the new sequencing machine. In light of doubts about both the technical issues
and the availability of data, the HGP leadership did not want to allow the New
Company to take over the sequencing. The HGP had already discussed the possibility
of using a whole genome shotgun method, and it had concluded that this
technique was risky and unlikely to yield a complete sequence of the quality that it
sought to produce. Yet simply dismissing the plan, which was backed by some serious
scientists and considerable financial and managerial resources, might make the
HGP appear rigid and defensive. Genome project leaders worried that in the United
States, with its enthusiasm for privatization and small government, people might
perceive the HGP as an inefficient government program. Not surprisingly given this
context, the NHGRI chose to respond by “welcoming” the New Company’s plan
as a positive development that might speed the sequencing effort while simultaneously
raising questions about whether the proposed method would work and, even
if successful, whether the company’s product would meet the HGP’s goals for data
quality and access.
In analyzing the situation, genome scientists imagined how salient observers
would perceive things given their lack of sophistication and exposure only to a
mass-mediated version of events. As one scientist put it in a May 15 interview:
I think even my mother would look at this and say, ‘oh, wait, somebody’s saying they’re
going to do the genome.’ I’m not sure – My mother may not be savvy enough to know
the difference, and the Congressmen may not be either, [between] what’s an intermediate
product versus the final product. ‘I think it sounds like a good shortcut.’ ‘We don’t need to
be spending all this extra money.’ And so, you just have to be concerned about that, and we
need to keep enthusiasm constantly up for continued good, healthy funding of the genome
project. And if somebody can run out and get a shortcut, it may not dawn on them until
several years later that, oh my God, that wasn’t really quite what we wanted.9
For the NHGRI, the U.S. Congress, which at the time was controlled by
Republicans with a strong anti-government ideology, was an especially salient audience.
On Monday, May 11, the NIH held a press conference at 3:00 pm in which
Varmus, Collins, Ari Patrinos of the DOE, Venter, and Hunkapiller all participated.
The director of the Sanger Centre, John Sulston, later called this joint press conference
“the first of what was to become a series of bizarrely staged shows of unity”
(Sulston 2002: 152). I was not in Washington and did not attend the press conference,
but post hoc accounts from people who did indicated that the message the NIH
tried to convey was that the New Company’s initiative was something that “should
be embraced” if it plays out as portrayed. If was the operative word; so the message
was that its initiative could be a helpful supplement to the HGP if the method in fact
produces high-quality data and if the data are in fact made truly publicly available.
The main point was that the public program should take no hasty steps given that
the instrument was new and the whole genome shotgun method remained untested.
Whether this message would be effectively delivered via the media was a source of
worry because superficially the plan looked like a sensible cost-saver.
Media coverage generated by the NIH press conference presented a somewhat
confusing picture. Immediately after the press conference, an Associated Press wire
story, headlined “Gene Technology Must Be Proven Before Government Will Use
It,” led with the idea that the new technological strategy was unproven:
A new technology that promises a faster and cheaper way of piecing together the human
genetic pattern will have to prove itself before a National Institutes of Health agency will
adopt it, federal health officials said Monday. Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National
Human Genome Institute, said it was premature to change the plan now being followed by
government-supported laboratories to sequence the human genome, which is the pattern of
genes in each human cell (Recer 1998).
In contrast, the New York Times published an article the next day that used the
past tense to suggest that the “takeover of the human genome project” was a fait
The sequencing of the human genome, a historic goal in biomedical research, was snatched
away last Friday from its Government sponsor, the National Institutes of Health, by a private
venture that says it can get the job done faster. Now Government officials are scrambling
to adjust to the stunning turn of events, saying that the task of interpreting the genome may
begin much sooner now, and that there is every reason for Congress to continue to fund the
project (Wade 1998b).
It also presented criticism of the management of the HGP:
There have been serious problems of organization and management both at the Department
of Energy and at N.I.H., together with internal dissension among the senior scientists
involved, said Dr. William A. Haseltine, chief of Human Genome Sciences, a genome
sequencing company in Rockville, Md (ibid.).
And reported that NIH officials
are preparing to persuade Congress to continue funding the genome project but to switch the
focus from getting the sequence to the enormous tasking of interpreting it. Dr. Venter plans
to enter his findings in a public database. One essential aid to understanding the human
genome is to sequence the surprisingly similar genome of the mouse. Though all biologists
recognise the need for such a project, it may not be immediately clear to members
of Congress that, having forfeited the grand prize of human genome sequence, they should
now be equally happy with the glory of paying for similar research on mice (ibid.).
A contradictory message appeared that same day in the Washington Post, which
reported that NIH officials expected no immediate change in course:
Federal officials said the accelerating government effort to find and decode all 60,000 or
more genes in the human body would remain on its current course for the next 12 to 18
months, by which time it will be clearer whether the project should change its approach to
accommodate the new players in the field. ‘It would be vastly premature to go out and [. . .]
change the plan of our genome centers,’ said Francis Collins [. . .] (Gillis and Weiss 1998).
On May 12, the day before the annual international meeting of genome scientists
was to begin, the heads of the largest American genome laboratories gathered in
Cold Spring Harbor. Venter and Hunkapiller attended part of this pre-meeting gathering
and presented their plan to the genome center directors. By all accounts the
proposal was not well received, and Venter and Hunkapiller left Cold Spring Harbor
(Sulston 2002: 153–158; Venter 2007: 243–245).
10.2.3 The Wellcome Trust’s Response
The news of the New Company’s plan provoked intense discussions among HGP
scientists about how to respond. Some of the most consequential discussions took
place among genome scientists in the U.K. and the Wellcome Trust, funder of what
was then the largest genome laboratory, the Sanger Centre. In his account of events,
Sulston describes how he and other genome scientists worried that the American
program was in jeopardy. What was needed, he believed, was a powerful statement
that could counter the mounting perception that the public HGP was clumsy,
inefficient, and no longer needed.
Trying to get reporters to print the admittedly more complex analyses that we felt were
being ignored was going to be an uphill struggle. We were learning fast that we would have
to play the public relations game if we were to survive. But that didn’t mean indulging
in empty hype. What we needed was a big vote of confidence in the public project as a
counter to Craig’s [Venter’s] hints that it was an expensive white elephant (Sulston and
Ferry 2002: 162).
On Wednesday, May 13, Sulston, along with Michael Morgan of the Wellcome
Trust, made a presentation to a previously scheduled meeting of the Trust’s Board
of Governors that persuaded them to make such a statement in the form of a serious
financial commitment (ibid.). That same day, the Trust issued a press release saying
that it would increase its funding of human genome sequencing by “£110 million
over seven years, bringing the total Trust investment in the Human Genome Project
to £205 million” (Wellcome Trust 1998). The press release also said that
The Trust is concerned that commercial entities might file opportunistic patents on DNA
sequence. The Trust is conducting an urgent review of the credibility and scope of patents
based solely on DNA sequence. It is prepared to challenge such patents (ibid.).
Over the next few days, a new frame focusing on two competing groups took
hold. The New York Times published an article called “International Gene Project
Gets Lift.” After saying that the $3 billion project had been “upstaged” by a private
company that was aiming to complete the human genome sequence at a fraction of
the cost, the article continued:
Now the Wellcome Trust of London, the world’s largest medical philanthropy, has stepped
into the fray in an effort to maintain the impetus of the publicly financed program and to
prevent the human genome sequence from falling under the control of a private company
[. . .] ‘To leave this to a private company, which has to make money, seems to me completely
and utterly stupid,’ said Dr. Michael J. Morgan, program director for the Wellcome Trust.
Asked if the Trust was prepared to finance the sequencing of the entire human genome,
Dr. Morgan said, ‘If we had to and if we wanted to, we could do it.’ The Wellcome Trust,
he noted, has assets of $19 billion (Wade 1998c).
Some of the media accounts used war metaphors; for example, The Gazette
(Montreal) published an article saying Venter had “secured $300 million of private
funding to launch his assault,” saying his “chief weapon” was speed, and describing
the Wellcome Trust funding as “retaliation” (Irwin 1998).
The Wellcome Trust press release was not only distributed to the media; copies
of it were also provided with the registration materials to the attendees of the Cold
Spring Harbor meeting, where it helped boost sagging morale. During the meeting,
the New Company’s plans were discussed extensively, both in side meetings and
informal settings and in a special session hastily squeezed into the meeting agenda.
10.2.4 Extracting Information, Criticizing Coverage
For most genome scientists, the media (or press releases) was the only source
of information about the New Company’s plans during the first days after the
announcement. Only a few HGP scientists learned anything about the New
Company before the May 10 New York Times article, although a few leaders picked
up bits of news prior to the announcement. A consistent theme in discussions among
genome scientists, however, was how sketchy the news coverage was – about technical
details, about the company’s business model, even about the NHGRI’s response.
One scientist who was in Washington at the time of the announcement explained in
an interview that shortly before the news broke he learned “something was cooking”
from people in NHGRI.
I started to get pieces of it but with incredibly vague scientific details. [. . .] I did know that
they all met on Friday, but I still didn’t get a whole lot. And the press was already calling
me actually on that Monday. And they were asking me questions and I didn’t know if it was
a BAC-by-BAC shotgun, I didn’t know if it was a whole genome shotgun.10 I didn’t really –
I didn’t know anything about these instruments. So I really learned about a lot of the details
pretty much by, you know, the press advisory that took place with NIH on Monday at 3:00.
Another scientist described how he was so busy that he initially missed the news,
even though someone had tried to call it to his attention.
I was in [name of city] trying to get some grant out, so I didn’t see it. Although someone
gave me, Monday, a webpage announcement and got it in my hands, and I looked at it and
I just thought this is a press release from a company. There’s a lot of these things. Someone
said do you know about this? I looked at it and I just thought press release so I didn’t take it
seriously. It’s only when I heard about it on Tuesday. Someone told me about it and I picked
[the New York Times] up at the airport [on the way to Cold Spring Harbor].
He also said he had been baffled by the New York Times accounts, and described
trying to fill in the blanks.
I guessed they meant whole [genome] shotgun. I guessed that they meant looking for lots of
polymorphisms quickly. I guessed that they weren’t serious about closing the genome [that
is, completing it without gaps]. What shocked me was that NHGRI, from reading the newspaper,
I got the impression that the leaders had said we’re going to move to mouse and we’re
going to move to other things, and I said how can you retreat? There’s so much information
that you don’t know here that we shouldn’t be changing our plan. I met [genome project
leader] Tuesday night when I arrived here the day before for a pre-meeting. I confirmed the
shotgun and learned NHGRI hadn’t said these things about retreating.
By combining his knowledge of genome science with the fragments of information
in the news, he formed some guesses about both the sequencing method the
company was planning to use and about the business plan, which he imagined to
be based on quickly skimming the genome for commercially valuable bits (e.g.,
polymorphisms). He went on to explain that as he learned more, he concluded that
the response of the HGP leadership had not been misguided. He had assumed from
the way the news stories were written that the leaders were retreating, but he was
very pleased to realize that they had been merely taking a few days to get more
As these examples suggest, genome scientists attempted to extract information
relevant to technical questions from the media, as in the cold fusion episode
(Lewenstein 1995), combining the sparse details provided with their own knowledge
and analysis to make educated guesses. In addition to narrowly technical
information, the missing details that they sought included questions about the company’s
business model and precise plans for making data public. Among the genome
researchers gathered in Cold Spring Harbor there was much speculation about how
the company planned to make money; for example, by patenting genes, selling
access to sequence data, building databases of polymorphisms for use in research
and diagnostics. While speculating, some genome scientists exhibited skepticism
about certain claims presented in the news coverage, which they clearly approached
as a performance that in principle could be misleading. For example, an Associated
Press story reported on May 11 that Venter said the company “would release its
results every three months and would not patent any genes discovered by his group.
However, the new partnership will extract promising genetic sequences from the
mapping effort and use that information to develop gene products” (Recer 1998).
Many scientists at Cold Spring Harbor regarded these reassuring words as unconvincing;
for one thing, plans could easily be changed. Similarly, the New Company’s
assertion that it would make the data “publicly available” seemed to many to omit
information on the crucial issue; namely, the terms governing availability.
Genome scientists pursued a number of strategies to try to acquire additional
information. One strategy was to piggyback on the New Company’s efforts to reach
the media, such as the conference call that it held on Monday, May 11 “to discuss
this press release” (Perkin-Elmer and TIGR 1998). One participant in the call
told me that when the teleconference began, the company read a U.S. Security and
Exchange Commission disclaimer. The teleconference was audiorecorded for legal
reasons. She said that the investment banking community was calling up and asking
questions like “How come you are introducing a new instrument when you already
lead in this instrument area. Aren’t you going to cut into your own sales?” The
investment people were often friendly and congratulated people or said something
nice, she said, whereas the reporters just called in and coldly asked their questions.
During the call, she had said something like “congratulations” to Craig Venter
because, she said, I know him. Later, at Cold Spring Harbor, someone gave her shit,
as she put it, for having congratulated him. That person was someone who was
listening in, not someone who had asked questions. She could not tell how many
people were doing that, but she concluded that a number of people associated with
genome mapping and sequencing community had listened in.
Beyond attempting to extract information from the media coverage, many of the
scientists at Cold Spring Harbor also commented on its quality. During the meeting,
many HGP scientists complained about the media coverage in conversations and
informal settings. Some genome researchers were particularly incensed by news
coverage reporting that the HGP was half way through its projected 15 years but
only 3 percent of the genome had been sequenced (e.g.,Wade 1998a). The following
excerpt from an audiorecorded interview is worth quoting at length:
Scientist: I mean, a lot of this is a heavy amount of propaganda coming and publicity
coming from them. And on top of it, it’s a very harsh treatment
by the press, and particularly the New York Times, of this whole thing.
So it’s not only that you have this scientific agenda that could be perceived
as undermining the public [project], but immediately, instead of,
you know, instead of having time to scientifically evaluate and discuss
this, immediately there’s been some major darts thrown at the organization
in the execution of the public genome project. [. . .] ‘How come
we’re half way through the genome project and we only have 3% of the
genome sequence?’ I mean, this is a really stupid argument. [. . .] And it is
just absolutely ridiculous. It was a planned program from the beginning.
[. . .] And it’s measured in milestones and we [. . .] didn’t even think we’d
be this far along in sequencing now. And forget the fact that we’ve built
physical maps. Forget the fact that we’ve built genetic maps. Forget the
fact we’ve built infrastructure for sequencing and just focus on the 3%.
This is just really naïve and it’s just a stupid way to look at it. So it’s a lot
of publicity and it’s that type of publicity. [. . .]
SH: Have you seen, coming out of the New Company or the group, any kind
of documents? Any kinds of papers?
Scientist: [disdainful] Press releases. Only thing I’ve seen.
In this comment on the news coverage, this scientist argues that the media
accounts are misleading and aims to set the record straight. His statement about
“propaganda coming [. . .] from them” seems to implicate people associated with
the New Company. He also hints at a strong distaste for press releases as a genre
of scientific communication and stresses the importance of a proper scientific
evaluation of the New Company’s plan.
10.2.5 Unavoidable Visibility
During the Cold Spring Harbor meeting there was a great deal of informal discussion
of the Venter/Hunkapiller proposal. The events also occasioned a departure from
the announced schedule of scientific talks – a move that was rather unusual, though
not unprecedented, at the Cold Spring Harbor genome meetings. On the morning
of May 15, the chair of the session titled “Large-Scale Sequencing Symposium”
announced that owing to the excitement of the last week, the allotted time would be
divided into two parts: the first would follow the pre-organized session, and the second,
would address the Venter/Hunkapiller proposal and theWellcome Trust/Sanger
Centre plans. No official representative of the New Company venture was present,
so the meeting organizers asked a well-known sequencer and leader in the HGP,
who I will call Matthews, to summarize what they then knew about the proposal,
filling in some of the gaps in the news reports with information from the meeting
that Venter and Hunkapiller had held with genome center directors on May 12.
For the leadership of the HGP, this discussion offered an opportunity to build
morale and challenge the idea that the project had been snatched away from them.
The gathering of so many HGP scientists offered an opportunity to begin to build
a collective response based in shared framings of the situation. But there were also
issues that they sought to leave backstage. Even before the Cold Spring Harbor
meeting had officially started on May 13, genome project leaders had begun vigorous
closed-door discussions about how to respond – both in public statements and
in their scientific strategy. The issues were complex because an effective change of
course would have to maintain the HGP’s commitment to its original goals while
speeding up sequencing and addressing multiple challenges, including the possibility
of a political campaign to cut funding of a “wasteful” public program and the
potential threat of large-scale patenting of features of the genome that the shotgun
sequencing might reveal. Final decisions were far from being made, however, and
the leadership was not ready to announce a change in course. Anything “officially
said” during the discussion had a decent chance of appearing in the press. The registrants
for the meeting included several science journalists, as well as a handful of
employees from PE Applied Biosystems or TIGR. In this context, the scientists leading
the HGP – and especially the representatives of funding agencies such as NIH –
could not avoid performing in an official role, for their words would surely be interpreted
that way. Unlike a press conference, this session did not address journalists
directly; in effect, however, the visibility of events and the nature of the audience
made it into something different from an ordinary discussion at the typical scientific
Matthews prefaced his remarks by framing his role in the session as “unusual,”
noting that his charge placed him in a “somewhat awkward” situation that offered
“some temptations,” but nonetheless, he would try to be “dispassionate” and present
the proposal fairly. With the audience thus notified that he had adopted a selfconsciously
neutral persona, distinct from his everyday self, he proceeded in a
just-the-facts mode, describing some technical details about the whole genome shotgun
approach and the new PE instrument. Some of the information in Matthews’
description had previously appeared in news accounts and press releases announcing
the New Company, but other information had not. The PE press release on
the new instrument, for example, merely referred to it as “ultra high throughput,”
whereas Matthews had sufficient quantitative details to shed light on its theoretical
throughput (96 capillaries/run °ø 500 bp/capillary °ø 3 runs/day = 144,000 bp/day) –
very fast by 1998 standards. Such information, while outlining some features of the
sequencing plans, the capabilities of the instrument, and the vision for the company,
raised many additional questions. For experts in the field, knowing a few details
(e.g., that the strategy for assembling the sequence was designed to proceed incrementally
and make use of BAC ends and ESTs to help with anchoring and closure)
was informative, but raised additional questions about precisely what the sequencing
strategy was and how well it would work. The question of how closely the
instrument – which was still under development – would approximate its theoretical
capacity remained open, as did issues of its accuracy, the technician time required
to operate it, and so forth. Matthews also addressed what he called “other important
issues,” such as the data release policy, noting that current plans call for data
to be released quarterly and that the company had said it planned to patent 100 to
300 genes. At one point commenting on the scale of the $300 million investment,
Matthews remarked “given that amount of money, there has to be a business plan,”
then, apparently concluding he had stepped outside his neutral role, added “sorry,
that was an editorial comment.”
Matthews was immediately followed by a representative of the Wellcome Trust
who said that the Trust had already been discussing options for its continuing support
of sequencing that included the one announced in its May 13 press release. He
added that the decision to announce the increased commitment on that day publicly
was a response to the New Company. The press release was issued with the “enthusiastic
support” of the “entire” Wellcome Trust Board of Governors. He then said
that he would like to read the press release “into the record of this meeting.” When
he finished reading, extremely enthusiastic applause followed.
In the open discussion following these formal presentations, genome project
leaders from both the United Kingdom and the United States reiterated what had
become the official line of “welcoming” the new initiative while also stressing
the need to complete the entire sequence and not be derailed from that goal. An
American HGP leader stressed that the company’s sequence data would be useful
but emphasized that we cannot be satisfied by disconnected paragraphs in a bag
without order and connection. The noble goal of decoding the “book of life” cannot
be satisfied with an incomplete view. He also said that the press accounts saying
either that the HGP will pay no attention to this development or that it will move on
to the mouse are not true. We should be energized by this announcement, he said.
An additional $300 million! Let’s see if we can use it to speed up the project.
One questioner sought more information than was available from the Wellcome
Trust’s press release about its plans to challenge the patentability of DNA. The
representative of the Trust replied that it would make a serious effort to understand
the law and to consider challenging the patents, adding that the Trust has the
resources needed. Some questions stayed close to technical issues. For example,
one member of the audience asked whether it might be possible for HGP scientists
to use simulation to understand what this proposed project would be able to do. He
was answered from the floor by a well-known mathematician turned genome scientist,
who argued that such a simulation would be hard to do, but that the whole
genome shotgun was likely to produce an incomplete sequence with many gaps.
Late in the session, the discussion turned to the details of data release and
patenting, with a stream of people asking questions: Would the company patent
single nucleotide polymorphisms? Mike Hunkapiller and Craig Venter said they
would not, right? Can we rely on their quarterly data release policy? They said they
would not release traces, raw data, right? As these issues came up in rapid succession,
orderly turn taking began to break down. A scientist with connections to the
New Company jumped up from the audience, and was given the floor with the words
“Let’s hear from someone who knows what’s going on.” The scientist said that many
details remain to be decided: the people who are launching the New Company do
not have a really concrete plan of exactly what to do. It is a company in process,
not in concrete. Part of the business plan includes early release for a price with later
release to all for free. Be really careful making judgments, he stressed, because they
are still working out the details themselves.When he was done speaking, the session
reached the end of its scheduled time and was adjourned.
The Cold Spring Harbor meeting ended two days later, with the stage set for
ongoing competition between the public HGP and the New Company, which later
that summer was named Celera. In the fall, the HGP announced a change in scientific
strategy: it would produce a rough draft of the human genome and subsequently
complete the entire finished sequence. This change resulted from many considerations,
including: ensuring that the sequence ended up in the public domain rather
than being encumbered by intellectual property claims; shoring up Congressional
support for the public program; making a valuable “intermediate product” available
to the scientific community; and defining a new milestone so that observers would
not inappropriately equate the incomplete sequence expected to result from Celera’s
whole genome shotgun with the “finished” sequence that the HGP was committed
to eventually produce. This shift in the research program stemmed from too many
considerations to be simply attributed to media orientation, but there is no doubt
that concerns about audience perceptions and legitimating continued governmental
expenditures for a public domain project figured prominently in shaping this
Above, this paper has examined how genome researchers interacted with the media
during a salient episode in the history of the HGP; namely, the announcement of
a well-funded and credible private effort to sequence the human genome. What
remains at this point is to consider what this study suggests about how media
orientation is manifested in action. Because this study takes an action orientation
that complements the medialization perspective, it does not address precisely the
same questions. Nevertheless, it is useful to ask what implications the perspective
developed here might have for research that takes a more macro-level approach to
medialization. Conclusions must be tentative owing to the focus on a single episode
with many unusual features.
This paper has argued that the orientation of scientific actors to the media can
be understood as a specific form of theatrical self-consciousness expressed in interaction.
The genome scientists involved in this episode paid significant attention to
the media and approached the media and media content with intense theatrical self-
consciousness. The events described suggest that, media orientation is an extremely
complex phenomenon – thoroughly embedded in the particularities of specific situations
and the performers and audiences who inhabit them. But even given situational
particularities, this account suggests some tentative conclusions about how media
orientation is manifested in action.
First, for analytical purposes, one can discern in this episode four facets of media
orientation – the actor as performer, as audience, as commentator, or as builder
of media relations infrastructure – each of which expresses a different aspect of
theatrical self-consciousness. In practice, these facets are often intertwined and are
sometimes experienced simultaneously, but it is useful to consider them separately.
(1) Actor as Performer. One facet of media orientation is the theatrical self-consciousness
of the scientists and other actors who present themselves, their organizations, and
their science to the media, aiming to shape the amount, location, timing, and content
of media coverage. In the episode described above, salient performers included officials
from the various organizations (e.g., Venter and Collins) as well as the organizations
themselves (e.g., PE, NIH, and the Wellcome Trust). Whether they interacted
interpersonally with journalists or via the circulation of texts, such as press releases,
they addressed the media in ways that involved extensive information control.
The New Company, for example, was careful to prevent news of its emerging plan
from seeing the light of day until it was ready, and when it issued its announcement,
it projected confidence while backstaging the fact that some major questions remained
unsettled, such as the details of the business plan and the continuing discussion about
how to tweak the whole genome shotgun strategy. Similarly, the NHGRI worked
to combat certain kinds of narratives, such as the inefficient government program
frame, while keeping its internal discussions of how to respond private. In
addition, as they addressed the media, these actors did not simply perform for
journalists; they also spoke to additional audiences. The New Company and the
HGP leadership alike aimed their performances not only at the media but also
through the media, hoping that news coverage would convey their version of the
story to some very salient imagined audiences. These imagined “reach-through
audiences” included not only generic categories defined in terms of the media
(such as “readers of the New York Times”), but also generic categories defined
in other ways (such as “members of the U.S. Congress” or “investors”) and
perhaps even in some cases specific individuals (such as Collins or Venter).11
Other salient reach-through audiences included the broader biological research
(2) Actor as Audience Member. A second aspect of media orientation is the perspective
of the audience member who self-consciously recognizes that he or she is
on the receiving end of a performance. As they scrutinized the news accounts
surrounding the announcement of the New Company, the genome scientists
described above clearly understood newspaper readers (including themselves)
as part of an audience for staged performances that journalists or their “sources”
constructed, possibly in order to foster certain impressions. In this audience
mode, actors may engage with the performance to extract information. The
term information here encompasses not only scientific information, such as the
shape of an experimental apparatus that one might discern from the news coverage
(Lewenstein 1995), but also information about the character and intentions
of the performers. Genome scientists approached performances with a variety
of purposes and with varying degrees of skepticism, sometimes treating media
accounts as containing useful information and at other (and often the same)
times regarding them as thin on detail and prone to distortion arising from the
constraints of the genre, the lack of sophistication of journalists, or deliberate
efforts to “hype” developments or “spin” stories. Actors operating in this critical
mode sometimes attribute the distortion to the media itself, but they may also
“reach back” to the sources used or quoted and speculate about their strategies,
credibility, competence, and motivations.
(3) Actor as Commentator. A third way that scientists interacted with media was
as commentators who actively presented evaluations of media coverage to an
audience. This mode of interaction is closely related to the performer and the
audience modes, in that it includes aspects of each. These commentaries are
instances of a distinctive kind of performance that focuses on the media coverage
itself as a topic. These commentaries are distinguishable from the audience
mode because they are less about attempting to acquire information from news
coverage than about attempting to evaluate – and often discredit – the coverage
before an audience. These commentaries sometimes “reach back” via the
media to evaluate the sources quoted in or displayed in the news coverage,
often negatively; for example, when scientists complain about “propaganda,”
publicity seeking, or publication by press conference. Actors perform such commentaries
in various settings, and for various purposes. Most of the comments
that I observed were not made to the press or before large groups, but to colleagues
in informal conversations or, under the veil of confidentiality, to me
as an ethnographer. A notable exception was the statement that an American
leader of the HGP made at the special session on the New Company’s plans
contending that the press accounts had misrepresented the HGP’s response to
the announcement of the New Company.12 The comments seemed to be aimed
at dispelling rumors, reassuring worried scientists, and rallying the troops for
action. Even when made before small, targeted audiences of colleagues and
observers, these commentaries can contribute to framing situations collectively
and building responses to them. On one level, attacks on news coverage are
complaints about how the media and its sources represent science and science-
intensive activities; but they can also be a means through which controversies
among scientists are conducted.
(4) Actor as Builder of Media Relations Infrastructure. The account above also provides
indirect evidence of another aspect of media orientation: self-conscious
efforts to build or enhance organizational infrastructure or personal skill aimed
at interacting with the media more effectively. Examples include creating
media relations offices in large organizations, hiring publicity firms, taking
media training seminars, and so forth. Other examples include contracting with
services that monitor television coverage or having staff regularly produce summaries
of recent media coverage – things that some organizations involved in
the HGP did do, at least during the final years of the project. One can infer the
existence of this facet of media orientation from the ethnographic and media
data presented above, although I did not observe people deciding to invest
money or time in media relations infrastructure during the ten days discussed
above. Nevertheless, such investments clearly had previously been made, and
the major organizational players – the NIH and the Wellcome Trust as well as
PE, TIGR, and the New Company – made use of media relations infrastructure
and professionals. The hiring of communications firms by PE and TIGR
is a case in point. Such efforts express theatrical self-consciousness because
they indicate that actors are making concerted efforts to improve future performances
directed at the media and to monitor how they themselves are appearing
Described at this level of generality, these forms of theatrical self-consciousness
no doubt appear in varied organizational settings, some far removed from science. In
the case of the episode investigated above, the behavior of the main actors seems at
an abstract level to match that which we might expect from any organization operating
under a media spotlight when stakes are high and events are rapidly-unfolding.
PE – like any company launching a potentially controversial new initiative – formulated
a communications strategy and made use of public relations professionals.
HGP leaders, for their part, arguably did what the managers of any enterprise would:
they tried to react strategically to emerging events, seeking to acquire information,
develop a short- and longer-term plans for responding, and tailor media messages
that would defend their legitimacy. These observations suggest an important question
for further research: what, if anything, is distinctive about how theatrical
self-consciousness regarding media operates in the everyday action of scientists and
science-intensive organizations, as opposed to actors of other kinds? To address this
question, research might compare events such as the New Company announcement
with structurally similar episodes involving rapidly-unfolding events, ranging from
hostile corporate takeovers to technological disasters, that feature mass-mediated
battles for the hearts and minds of audiences. Similarly, examining how patterns in
the four facets of media orientation vary across cases would be useful. In particular,
international comparisons (Jasanoff 2005) and change over time might offer
especially promising lines of investigation.
Finally, the focus on theatrically self-conscious actors may raise some methodological
questions for more macro-level studies of science-media interaction. Most
studies of science and the media begin with the media (or relatively close to the
media) and select a set of science-related media phenomena for detailed examination.
This study proceeded in something approaching the opposite manner,
beginning with a research community and examining its interactions that involved
the media or took place via the media. In the social sciences, as in other fields of
inquiry, the sources of data employed and the results obtained are often highly coupled,
and studies of science in the media are by no means an exception. Content
analysis of published news stories, for example, offers an aggregated picture of topics
addressed, issue classification, emotional valences, metaphors and symbols, and
other aspects of media content, such as tracking the volume of coverage over time.
But studies of published news stories, unless supplemented by other methods, shed
only a limited light on how scientists and others use media to acquire information
or how they “reach back” to evaluate sources and look ahead to imagined “reach
through” audiences. Such studies also tell us little about how scientists and others
work to control the backstage/front-stage boundary.
Conceiving of media orientation as a form of theatrical self-consciousness casts
a spotlight on questions about precisely what actors seek to make visible to whom
and when. The dramaturgical framework suggests that the volume of media coverage
about a topic (especially in the short term) is not necessarily closely related to
the intensity with which actors are oriented toward media and various reach-through
audiences in their day-to-day action. For example, the New Company’s interest in
shaping news coverage clearly began long before it handed the story to New York
Times reporter Nicholas Wade “on a plate.” Efforts to keep certain things out of
the press – often one of the central goals of public relations strategy – express an
important form of media orientation, used both to control the timing of public performances
and to prevent some things from ever being made public. Performers who
aim to keep imagined audiences from learning their secrets may do a great deal of
work to construct sealed backstage spaces, to enclose information, to fight leaks and
unauthorized disclosures, to battle against rumors. On the one hand, avoiding certain
types of news coverage is a feature of many areas of high-technology research,
especially in the commercial and military sectors. On the other hand, performers
who attempt to attract media attention often fail to win it. For these reasons, the
volume of media coverage may at times be an imperfect proxy for the degree of
media orientation found among actors in a particular domain; for volume alone
misses both failed efforts to win coverage and successful efforts to operate in an
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