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Into the Unknown: Framing Uncertainty and Risk in News Media Portrayal of Gene Drive Technology

  • Canadian Institute for Genomics and Society

Abstract and Figures

This study examines media representations of gene drive technology between January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2016, focusing on its potential impacts on human health and the environment, ethical and policy considerations, and the overall tone towards the technology. The content analysis of news stories indicates that media coverage was mostly balanced in tone, rather than driven by unwarranted optimism or negative sensationalism – two extremes that often pervade media portrayals of emerging genetic technologies. There was nonetheless a considerable emphasis in the news on scientific uncertainty and heightened risk perceptions, with scientists being the strongest voice in providing authoritative statements about CRISPR-Cas9 gene drives as a high-risk technology. Taking into account the novelty of gene drive research, we suggest that media framing of gene drives as “a plunge into the unknown” may have a lasting effect on public perceptions of risks and may pose additional challenges to the public communication of this emerging technology.
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Into the Unknown: Framing Uncertainty and Risk in News Media Portrayal
of Gene Drive Technology
Kalina Kamenova, PhD1*, Jennifer Akerman2 , Claudia Emerson3
1 Department of Philosophy, McMaster University, Canada
2 Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, Canada
3 Institute on Ethics and Policy for Innovation, McMaster University, Canada
*Corresponding author: Dr. Kalina Kamenova, Department of Philosophy, McMaster
University, University Hall 307A, 1280 Main St W, Hamilton ON, L8S 4K1, Canada. Email:
Into the Unknown: Framing Uncertainty and Risk in News Media Portrayal
of Gene Drive Technology
Abstract: This study examines media representations of gene drive technology between January
1, 2015 and December 31, 2016, focusing on its potential impacts on human health and the
environment, ethical and policy considerations, and the overall tone towards the technology. The
content analysis of news stories indicates that media coverage was mostly balanced in tone,
rather than driven by unwarranted optimism or negative sensationalism – two extremes that often
pervade media portrayals of emerging genetic technologies. There was nonetheless a
considerable emphasis in the news on scientific uncertainty and heightened risk perceptions, with
scientists being the strongest voice in providing authoritative statements about CRISPR-Cas9
gene drives as a high-risk technology. Taking into account the novelty of gene drive research, we
suggest that media framing of gene drives as “a plunge into the unknown” may have a lasting
effect on public perceptions of risks and may pose additional challenges to the public
communication of this emerging technology.
Keywords: media representations, gene drives, CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, content analysis,
framing, science communication
Gene drives based on the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing system are a novel and powerful genetic
engineering method that defies the laws of Mendelian inheritance by allowing genetic dominance
of specific traits and their spread at an enhanced rate in nearly 100% of the next generation (Oye
et al., 2014). Many believe that the technology can offer substantial benefits to humanity and the
environment, with a number of promising applications in biomedicine, agriculture, and for
ecosystem preservation and protection. For instance, recent small-scale proof-of-concept models
of gene drives in insects have demonstrated the ability to quickly supress or modify disease
bearing mosquito populations, thus raising hopes for global efforts to eliminate and eradicate
vector-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya, and Zika (Hammond
et al., 2016; Gantz et al., 2015; Beaghton et al., 2017; Eckhoff, Wenger, Godfray, & Burt, 2017).
CRISPR-based gene drives can provide solutions for sustainable agriculture such as the reversal
of pesticide and herbicide resistance and more efficient pest control to help increase crop
productivity (Courtier‐Orgogozo, Morizot & Boete, 2017). Additionally, altering entire wild
populations through gene drives has promising applications in bio-conservation and for the
eradication of invasive species that undermine global biodiversity (Esvelt, Smidler, Catteruccia,
& Church 2014, Harvey-Samuel, Ant, & Alphey 2017).
Nonetheless, the rapidly progressing field of gene drive research has generated heated
ethical and policy debates, especially after successful experiments with gene drives in yeast, fruit
flies, and mosquitoes were reported in late 2015 and early 2016 (DiCarlo et al., 2015; Gantz &
Bier, 2015; Hammond et al., 2016). Most concerns revolve around uncertainties regarding the
environment impacts of gene drive technology and potential harms to the wellbeing of humans,
which are difficult to forecast given the current state of knowledge in this emerging field. While
many prospective applications of gene drive research are currently being explored in laboratory
settings, field tests or releases of organisms engineered through this technology into the open
environment have not yet taken place. This complicates both risk assessments and decision-
making processes, especially the development of appropriate safeguards and efficient mitigation
strategies in cases of unconfined release of organisms with CRISPR-based gene drives (Hayes et
al., 2018). Another problem that further obfuscates decision-making on the development and use
of gene drives is existing gaps in the current regulatory landscape. Gene drives have been
consistently viewed and handled as technical, policy and political anomalies in the policy arena,
and there is an ongoing debate on what fundamental changes in the regulatory frameworks for
biotechnology will be required to address this problem (Evans & Palmer, 2017). Despite
scientific uncertainty about risks and the current regulatory vacuum, proponents of gene drive
research have pushed for fast deployment of gene drives invoking public health and
humanitarian reasons (Koberstein, 2017). Global philanthropic organizations, such as the Bill
and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and the Tata Trusts of Mumbai, have invested heavily in
gene drive research to put an end to malaria, a mosquito-borne disease which caused an
estimated 445,000 deaths worldwide in 2016 (WHO, 2017). The Gates Foundation has provided
$75 million to Target Malaria, an international not-for-profit multi-disciplinary consortium based
at the Imperial College in London, which is planning an open release of gene-drive modified
Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes, the main malaria vector in Africa, in Burkina Faso (Regalado,
2016). This is the largest investment in gene drive research so far and, if implemented, the
project would be the first field test of gene drive technology. In a media interview in 2016, Bill
Gates made a rather optimistic prognosis that gene drive technology would be available for wide
use in just two years (Regalado, 2016).
In 2016, in response to a request by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the
Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH), the National Academies of Sciences,
Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) convened a special committee of experts to consider the
benefits and risks associated with gene drives and develop recommendations for responsible
governance of the technology. The NASEM report, titled Gene Drives on the Horizon:
Advancing Science, Navigating Uncertainty, and Aligning Research with Public Values, was
released in July 2016. While acknowledging the enormous potential of gene drive research, the
Committee concluded that our present state of knowledge does not warrant the release of gene-
drive modified organisms into the environment and emphasized the need for a comprehensive
assessment of potential irreversible harms to organisms and ecosystems from gene drives
(National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), 2016). It further
recommended the adoption of a precautionary, step-by-step approach including phased testing,
greater engagement of stakeholders and publics, and strict regulatory oversight of field trials
(NASEM, 2016).
Searches for news reports on gene drive research prior to 2015, which we conducted on
different databases, did not yield results, thus indicating that early scientific developments in the
field did not attract media and public attention. Media coverage, however, has dramatically
increased since the reported success of proof-of-concept studies with gene-drive modified
organisms and the release of the NASEM report in July 2016. The current media hype
surrounding CRISPR-Cas9 based gene drives and their prospective applications has not been
previously studied. This study is the first attempt to explore, in a systematic way, the media
discourse on the issue, particularly how scientific uncertainty, ethical and policy concerns, and
potential benefits and risks associated with gene drive applications have been represented. It is
important to engage in such an analysis since media representations may potentially influence
both public perceptions and the ongoing policy dialogue on this emerging technology. We
explored representations of gene drive technology in 145 news reports published in English-
language media sources around the world from January 1, 2015 to December 31, 2016 - a period
when the issue became salient in the popular press. Content analysis was deployed to determine
frequencies and major themes in media coverage, focusing on ethical concerns, perceptions of
benefits and risks associated with different applications, and policy and practical considerations
for implementation.
It is important to note that both media coverage and public debates on CRISPR-Cas9
technology, which makes possible the engineering of gene drive systems, have largely revolved
around its use for genome editing of human embryos and potential therapeutic applications (e.g.,
gene therapy). While the topic of genome editing in humans is worthy of consideration and
relevant to our study, it technically does not fall under the category of gene drive research, which
currently focuses exclusively on non-human organisms. Although there were a few mentions in
news reports of a hypothetical future use of CRISPR-Cas9 gene drive systems in humans, this
line of research is not currently pursued due to our limited knowledge on how such systems
would work in more complex species and the extended time needed to spread genetic
modification in human populations.
Gene drive technology has incited intense interest from governments, philanthropists, and
global health organizations, and efforts are under way to deploy gene drive-modified mosquitoes
in open field trials to eradicate malaria in Africa (Dunning, 2017). There is nonetheless a fierce
opposition to efforts for genetic modification of species in the environment. Environmental
advocacy groups and some governments have pushed for a global moratorium on both gene drive
research and its applications, warning against deliberate extinctions of wild populations and
potential severe impacts on ecosystems (Gallaway, 2016). This proposal was rejected by world
governments at the 13th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on
Biological Diversity (CBD) in Cancun, Mexico in December 2016, however, the use of
genetically engineered gene drives remains a highly contested technological innovation. We still
have limited knowledge of how the release of gene-drive modified mosquitoes or invasive pests
may affect non-targeted animal populations and ecosystems, and decision-making is largely
informed by theoretical constructs and hypothetical models. A recent study by Noble et al.
(2017) has suggested that it may be difficult to contain the spread of gene drives to the targeted
population of a certain species. This new theoretical model directly contradicts previous claims
that CRISPR-based gene drives are unlikely to invade wild populations (e.g. subspecies of the
same species) due to drive-resistant alleles. It further questions conclusions on the safety of field
testing in the NASEM Report. Some experts, however, disagree with the assertion of that field
trials with gene-drive modified mosquitoes pose unacceptable risks for ecosystems and argue
that risks assessments should be made on a case-by-case basis (Koberstein, 2017). Given the
existing conditions of scientific uncertainty and conflicting opinions on the benefits and
drawbacks of gene drive research, it is important to scrutinize how news media have framed the
underlying issues for public and policy debate.
Media framing of controversial science
Past research in science communication has shown that news media play an active role in
shaping the public understanding of scientific controversies by giving legitimacy to certain
opinions and perspectives and selectively presenting information to their audiences (Mazur,
1981). People routinely use media sources and rely on media professionals for information and
interpretation on critical issues concerning innovation in science and technology, especially
when they attempt to understand new and controversial science in ways that relate to their own
lives and needs (Friedman, Dunwoody, & Rogers, 1999). Moreover, news media have been
instrumental in framing risk and uncertainty associated with science and technology innovation
and have frequently influenced the public understanding of scientific debates by providing
legitimacy to knowledge claims, social values, ethical concerns, and political interests (Pellechia
1997; Weingart 1998).
Although the notion about media messages having direct impact on beliefs and behavior
(the so-called “media effects model”) has been discredited in the past (Gauntlett, 1999, 2005),
two interrelated processes in news media production - “framing” and “agenda-setting” provide
an analytical framework to assess how media content can potentially influence audiences and
public discourse of specific issues. The concept of framing describes the process of selective
presentation in news coverage of specific topics, facts, controversies, actors, and assertions in
news stories (Entman, 1993; Scheufele, 1999). To frame an issue, according to Entman (1993),
“is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating
text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral
evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation” (p. 52). Media outlets routinely deploy frames in
news reporting to call attention to some aspects of reality while obscuring other elements.
Framing can have a lasting influence, and once news reports have framed an issue in a particular
light, public perceptions remain stable over time (Entman, 1993; Nisbet, Brossard, & Kroepsch,
2003). Additionally, dramatic narratives and emotive language are frequently used in news
production to attract interest and help media organizations increase their audience share.
Similarly, scientific news reports utilize intriguing narratives, striking images, metaphors, and
emotive language to make the information exciting, relevant and comprehensible for lay
audiences and to provide specific contexts for understanding that often limit the range of
interpretations on complex topics (Friedman et al., 1999; Nisbet et al., 2003).
While media framing theory emphasizes how “frames” as rhetorical and organizing
structures influence people to process information and construct meanings in shared contexts, the
related agenda-setting tradition provides additional insight into how media can make people
focus their attention on some topics, while overlooking others. The major tenet of this
perspective is that even though media cannot make people think or behave in a certain way, they
can still have a profound impact on what people think about by highlighting certain issues and
excluding others from coverage (McCombs & Shaw, 1972). Mass media, therefore, can play a
considerable role in the processes of public opinion formation and policy making through their
ability to increase the salience of certain issues on the public agenda. Previous studies of media
representations of genetic engineering, particularly its medical applications, have shown that
news coverage had been largely unbalanced, focusing either on negative consequences of genetic
advances (e.g., insurance or employment discrimination and the possibility of human genetic
modification), or exaggerating the potential of genetic technologies for medicine and the health
benefits of genetic testing - a phenomenon described as “genohype” (Geller, Bernhardt, &
Holtzman, 2002; Caulfield, 2004; Bubela & Caufield, 2004; Kamenova, Reshef, & Caulfield,
2013). Longitudinal studies have also established that media have tended to portray medical
biotechnologies in a positive light by emphasizing their benefits, while exhibiting a negative bias
towards agricultural applications, which have been framed in terms of risk and uncertainty
(Marks et al., 2007).
In light of the existing media hype in reporting new developments in genetic engineering
and genomics, our analysis has a two-fold objective. First, we aim to establish major themes and
issues concerning the deployment of gene drives that were highlighted in the news stories and
whether the technology was generally represented in a positive, negative, neutral or balanced
light. Second, it is important to shed light on how news media have framed scientific uncertainty
and risks inherent in emerging applications of gene drives, as this portrayal may have an impact
on people’s perceptions and their willingness to support the release of gene drive-modified
organisms in the environment.
We used the database Factiva, which provides an extensive archive of news and business
information, including access to 1000 newspapers published internationally. We collected news
articles about gene drive technology published from January 1, 2015 to December 31, 2016. The
term “gene drive” was used as a main keyword, and at least one of the following additional
keywords were applied: “genetically modified mosquitoes,” “malaria,” “Zika,” “dengue,” and
“chikungunya.” The search generated 497 entries: 55 web news (including 14 duplicates) and
442 print articles (including 169 duplicates). A broad range of news sources were searched such
as print and online editions of major newspapers, online newsletters, popular magazines, online
news, and radio and TV broadcast transcripts. We excluded duplicates and sorted out the
remaining news stories for relevance.
Articles were considered relevant if their central theme was CRISPR-Cas9 based gene
drives or, alternatively, if there were substantive discussions about the technology and its
impacts such as scientific aspects, ethical and policy issues, environmental impacts, public
perceptions and engagement, regulatory oversight, public health considerations, related scientific
developments, economic considerations, or social factors that can influence adoption. We
excluded the following types of articles: 1) news stories that contained only passing mentions of
gene drives and no further discussions on the topic; 2) business or industry-related news that did
not address ethics, policy or broader societal implications; and 3) abstracts of scientific studies.
The final dataset comprised 145 articles published in diverse media sources (Figure 1). The
geographic spread of media coverage on the topic included 18 countries (Table 1).
[Insert Figure 1 here]
[Insert Table 1 here]
Coding categories for content analysis were developed through an inductive-deductive
process. This involved, as a first step, a close reading of the entire dataset to inductively derive
recurrent themes and determine if there were emerging issue-specific frames, particularly around
the ethics of gene drives. The next step was to organize them in structured codes and develop a
coding book. The coding categories included: 1) frequencies of coverage by country; 2) the
central theme of each news story; 3) attributes of CRISPR-based gene drive systems, particularly
scope of application, safety, and readiness to be deployed in field trials (e.g., contained or open
release of vector mosquitoes with a gene drive system); 4) ethical concerns about the technology;
5) public health benefits and risks; 6) environmental benefits and risks; 7) policy and practical
considerations; 8) the overall tone of the article; and 9) the use of sensational language. After
coding the media content, statistical analysis using SPSS statistical software was performed to
establish frequencies for each category.
We further integrated a deductive approach to frame analysis to place the results in the
context of past research on media portrayal of science and technology. We applied a
generalizable typology of frames in science communication and science policy debates, which
was initially developed by Gamson and Modigliani (1989) in their analysis of media discourse
and public opinion on nuclear power and subsequently refined in studies of debates over climate
change, food and medical biotechnologies (Durant, Bauer, & Gaskell, 1998; Nisbet &
Lewenstein, 2002; Nisbet, 2010). This analytical framework has established eight generic frames
or cultural schemata that had served as organizing rhetorical devices in media coverage and
policy debates on controversial developments in science and technology: 1) social progress; 2)
economic development/competitiveness; 3) morality/ethics; 4) scientific/technical uncertainty; 5)
Pandora’s box/Frankenstein’s monster/runaway science; 6) public accountability/governance; 7)
midway/alternative path; and 8) conflict/strategy. The typology of frames in science
communication provides an analytical tool to identify the leading general frame(s) in media
portrayal of gene drive technology, in addition to emerging issue-specific frames that we
inductively derived from the news stories. We present our assessment of how media coverage of
gene drive technology can be situated within this general typology of frames in the concluding
In order to establish the level of agreement on qualitative codes used in this study, we
conducted an inter-coder reliability assessment using Cohen’s kappa (κ). We asked an
independent researcher to code 10 percent of the news reports in our data set (n = 15) and
calculated k scores using SPSS. The majority of κ scores indicated substantial or almost perfect
inter-rater agreement, based on Landis and Koch’s (1977) benchmark standards for interpreting
kappa. Since the level of agreement on a few of the coding categories was moderate or fair, the
two coders (the first and the second authors) revisited the dataset and resolved disagreements by
[Insert Table 2 here]
How CRISPR-Cas9 based gene drives were represented in the news
Potential applications
News reports identified the following promising applications of gene drive technology: 1) to
combat vector-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya, and Zika
(97%); 2) to eliminate invasive species (30%); 3) to increase agricultural productivity (29%); 4)
to support bioconservation projects (17%); and 5) for human genetic modification and
enhancement (7%). A small number of articles (17%) highlighted other potential uses, including
deployment for bioterrorism; the engineering of algae as a source of biofuel; as a potential
solution to mitigate the consequences of climate change; applications in industrial farming and
food industry; for the development of genetically engineered bacteria that can eat oil spills; for
“reverse engineering” of extinct species (e.g., to bring back extinct species such as the woolly
mammoth and passenger pigeon); as a method that can allow to target human cells that carry
mutated genes, such as cancer cells and HIV; as well as general statements about potential to
fight human diseases without mentioning specific conditions.
Safety and readiness of the technology
The majority of news stories (75%) presented gene drives as a high-risk technology, noting
likelihood of unforeseen or unintended consequences for human health and the environment.
[Insert Figure 2 here]
More than half of the reports (51%) cited different experts on the high level of risks,
including scientists (28%), representatives of environmental and genetic watchdog organizations
(7%), policy and ethics experts (6%), government representatives (3%), journalists (3%), industry
representatives (1%), philanthropists (1%), and others (1%). Overall, gene drives using CRISPR-
Cas9 gene editing were portrayed as a technology that is still in an experimental phase and far
from ready for deployment in field trials (97%).
Central themes
The use of gene drive technology to combat vector-borne diseases was the leading theme of 32%
of the news stories. The second most frequently occurring central theme was the reporting of
important scientific meetings or policy forums on gene drives (12%). Most articles in this
category focused on the NASEM Report or the UN Convention on Biological Diversity COP-13
Meeting in Cancun, Mexico in December 2016. Other major themes included: general
discussions of gene drive technology and its potential applications (10%); gene editing using
CRISPR-Cas9 (10%); the biosafety of gene drives, including potential for bioterrorism (8%); the
use of gene drives for bioconservation (5%); broad discussions about the latest developments in
science and technology (5%); the ethics of gene drives (2%); the Zika crisis (2%); and the UK
company Oxitec and its work on GM mosquitoes (2%). There were also single news stories on
miscellaneous topics that included substantive discussions of gene drive technology (12%).
Ethical concerns
Ethical issues were addressed in 46% of the articles, with the most prominent critique being that
environmental release of gene-drive modified organisms could lead to unanticipated public
health and environmental harms (28%). The argument that the deployment of gene drive
technology is unethical because nature has intrinsic value and it is immoral to undermine the
balance of the natural world was presented in 18% of the articles. Additionally, 17% objected to
the use of gene drives, citing “sanctity of life” or “playing God” arguments. These critiques
expressed concerns about the hubris of scientists tampering with nature and creating new life
forms, which often echoed themes from Merry Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein (1818).
Finally, there were principled objections in another 3% based on a “slippery slope” reasoning
(e.g., that deployment of gene drives could lead to the normalization of other questionable
applications of CRISPRCas9 gene editing).
Policy and practical considerations
The majority of news reports (80%) mentioned policy and practical issues concerning the
deployment of gene drives. The most pressing concerns identified by the media fall into the
following categories: 1) development of regulatory frameworks (43%); 2) how to ensure
biosafety (40%); 3) the need for public engagement and building public trust (40%); 4) to
mandate ethics review (15%); and 5) to address potential health risks for human populations
(6%). Additional, more specific considerations coded as “other” were discussed in 31% of the
articles. These included: the need for international safeguards to ensure biosafety in labs; greater
transparency and more funding for research on potential risks; concerns about commercial
pressures to deregulate gene-editing techniques; that effects on the specific species and their
ecosystems need to be carefully examined and monitored; that instructions for making gene
drives should be classified; that a broader moral consensus on genetic modification is needed
before implementing gene drive technology; that news media have failed to educate the public
about the risks of genetic technologies; and the need to build long-term relationships with
scientists in low and middle-income countries.
Benefits and risks
The potential public health benefits of CRISPR-Cas9 gene drives were widely discussed (90% of
the articles), with a focus on the potential to prevent the spread of malaria (81%), dengue (28%),
Zika (29%), Lyme disease (11%), and eradicate parasitic flatworms that cause Schistosomiasis
(3%). By contrast, health risks to humans were discussed in only 31% of the articles. These
included: 1) potential harms from deliberate misuse of gene drive research for bioterrorism
(19%); 2) harms from unintended effects of gene drive interventions on the environment (6%); 3)
potential to increase the population of another insect disease vector, if an entire mosquito species
was removed from the ecosystem (4%); 4) health risks related to accidental release of gene
drive-modified organisms from labs (2%).
Benefits to the environment were mentioned in 40% of the news. The following benefits
were mentioned: 1) use of gene drives to control invasive species (21%); 2) engineering
beneficial traits in threatened species (10%); 3) preventing mosquitoes from transmitting avian
malaria (9%); 4) control of nonindigenous rodents (9%); and 5) various other benefits (15%),
including the potential to eliminate the use of insecticides, reverse negative impacts from past
human activities on ecosystems, produce genetically-engineered bacteria to eat oil spills, develop
new ways to interact with nature, using biology rather than bulldozers and toxins, and remove
genetic defenses that allow some weeds to resist herbicides.
Potential harms to the environment were discussed in 60% of the articles, with the major
issue being unintended and unwanted changes in ecosystems that may result from the release of
gene drive modified organisms (48%). There were also concerns about adverse effects on highly
valued species that depend on mosquito populations (11%) and the possibility of destabilizing the
entire ecological system (10%). Other concerns (13%) were as follows: fears about cross-
breeding of GM mosquitos; that GM larvae will damage and contaminate the crop, making it
unfit for human consumption; that a pathogen would adapt and becomes endemic in a different
species; that suppression of undesirable organisms may lead to the emergence of others that are
worse; that another harmful species might take the place of mosquitoes; that altered genes might
escape into another species; and that gene drives may cause extinctions.
Overall tone of news coverage
Our analysis showed that the overall tone towards gene drive technology was mostly favourable,
with 38% of the articles presenting a balanced perspective, 26% were neutral/descriptive in
nature, 24% were positive and only 12% presented a negative perspective. The articles were
assessed as “balanced” if both benefits and risks arising from potential uses of gene drive
technology were accurately presented and discussions were substantive (e.g., supported with
investigative evidence, references to scholarly perspectives, and expert opinion). By contrast, the
category of neutral/descriptivewas used to categorize news stories that reported on gene drives
in a descriptive manner, without presenting more substantive arguments, and did not include
evaluative claims about the nature and impact of the technology.
[Insert Figure 3 here]
Sensationalism in reporting
Additionally, 25% of the news stories in our dataset used sensational language to describe gene
drive technology. Most sensational headlines and emotive language used to describe gene drives
had strong negative connotations as shown in Table 3. Gene drive research in these articles was
frequently characterized as a “genetic Pandora’s box,” “hubris,” “scientists playing God,” “moral
blackmail,” “mass insecticide,” “next weapon of mass destruction,” “terrorist bio-weapon,”
“gene bomb,” “turbocharged version of genetic engineering,” “weaponizing insects,” “radical
approach,” “genetic tinkering,” “silver bullet,” etc. The press used similar negative descriptors
for gene drive-modified mosquitoes that show potential to eliminate vector-borne diseases, e.g.
“mutant mosquitoes,” “biotech bugs,” “newest weapons,” “monster mosquitoes,” “scary,”
“Frankenmosquitoes,” “Frankenbugs,” “something out of a horror film,” etc. There were fewer
cases of unwarranted optimism and positive hype around the benefits of gene drive technology,
as exemplified by phrases such as “promise to revolutionize medicine” and “immense potential.”
[Insert Table 3 here]
Media framing of gene drive technology
Our content analysis has shown that media portrayal of gene drives was favorable, with only
12% of the news reports using an entirely negative tone. It further suggests that media
representations have tended to be balanced and nuanced, rather than driven by unwarranted
optimism about the promise of this emerging technology or entirely by negative sensationalism
that can instill fear about it. The enormous potential of gene drives for prevention, elimination
and eradication of vector-borne diseases, with an emphasis on malaria, clearly dominated media
coverage, yet there were fewer claims exaggerating the technology’s readiness for deployment in
field trials. The balanced reporting on gene drives stands in stark contrast to the media’s general
tendency of hyping the potential of emerging technologies in biomedicine as shown in previous
studies of media representations of stem cell therapies (Kamenova & Caulfield, 2015;
Benjaminy, Lo, & Illes, 2016), genetic testing (Caulfield, 2004; Bubela & Caufield, 2004) and,
most recently, cell-free fetal DNA and non-invasive prenatal diagnosis (Kamenova et al., 2016).
Nonetheless, gene drives were portrayed as a high-risk technology, with a potential for
unintended and unforeseen effects on human populations and the environment. There was a
considerable emphasis in the news stories on scientific uncertainty, difficulty in forecasting risks,
and warnings about premature deployment. More than half of the news reports used expert
opinion from different fields in support of heightened risk perceptions. Scientists were the
strongest voice, providing authoritative statements about gene drives as a high-risk technology in
55% of all articles that included expert opinion. Interestingly, even critiques of the ethics of gene
drive research featured in the news stories have revolved more around scientific uncertainty and
concerns about potential catastrophic consequences for the environment, rather than the morality
of genetic modification and tampering with nature in principle.
Furthermore, our analysis has shown a discrepancy in how media presented benefits and
risks regarding potential impacts of gene drives on public health and the environment. While
public health benefits were mentioned in 90% of the articles, only 31% discussed potential health
risks, with the major concern being harms from deliberate misuse of gene drive research (e.g.,
bioterrorism), rather than resultant human harms from unintended consequences (only 6%). By
contrast, discussions about impacts on the environment have tended to emphasize risks over
benefits (60%), with most articles in this category warning about unintended consequences to
ecosystems, including the potential to destabilize the entire ecosystem (58%). Unlike the focus on
anticipated public health benefits, only 40% of the news stories mentioned potential
environmental benefits from gene drive systems for bioconservation, control of invasive species,
and de-extinction. The greater emphasis on potential benefits over risks in discussions of gene
drive applications addressing public health challenges such as vector-born diseases is consistent
with the overall positive media bias towards medical applications of genomics and other
biotechnologies vis-à-vis agricultural and environmental applications, established by previous
longitudinal studies (Marks et al, 2007).
After applying Gamson and Modigliani’s generalizable typology of frames in science
communication, we established that the “scientific/technical uncertainty” frame was the central
rhetorical and organizing device in media discourse on gene drive technology. The news reports
additionally deployed, albeit to a lesser extent, two other generic frames of “morality/ethics” and
“Pandora’s box/Frankenstein’s monster/runaway science,” which have traditionally dominated in
media reporting on controversial genetic technologies. The overall media framing of gene drive
technology in terms of scientific/technical uncertainty brings to the fore the importance of issues
such as establishing what is known versus unknown and whether there is an expert consensus on
risks and benefits.
Media framing effects can have a lasting impact on public perceptions, as it is difficult to
change the public’s understanding of an issue once it has been framed in a certain way in the
public domain. Taking into account the novelty of the technology, which has only recently come
to the forefront of public attention, it may be suggested that the media faming of gene drives as
“a plunge into the unknown” will likely influence public perceptions of risks. While there are
complex factors at play in the formation of public opinion and the adoption of gene drive
technology, its framing around scientific uncertainty in the media and public debates may further
contribute to the already difficult environment for policy decisions on this issue.
The trope of scientific uncertainty has been routinely used in past and current debates on
climate change by politicians and other groups to undermine expert consensus, create confusion
and forestall action (Nisbet, 2010; Lewandowsky, Oreskes, Risbey, Newell, & Smithson, 2015).
As organizing devices for arguments and interpretations, frames are valence neutral and it
remains to be seen how references to scientific uncertainty and calls on the authority of “sound
science” will play out in policy debates on gene drive technology. This is particularly relevant in
the current context of strong public sentiments against GMOs, as illustrated by the wide opinion
gap between experts and the public on the issue of the safety of GM foods demonstrated in the
2015 Pew Research Center’s Report on Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society
(Funk & Raine, 2016). As our analysis has shown, concerns about biosafety and environmental
risks appear prominent in media discourse on gene drives and can additionally reinforce such
negative public attitudes towards genetic modification of species. While it may be tempting to
draw a further comparison with the argumentative dynamics of climate change scepticism and
intelligent design, concerns over the safety of gene drive research are real and hardly constitute a
“manufactured” scientific controversy - a notion proposed by Ceccarelli (2011) to designate
cases in which deceptive arguments about science are used to undermine scientific consensus
and manipulate policy outcomes.
Authors’ contribution: K.K. designed the study, collected the materials, developed the coding frame,
coded the articles, completed the statistical and qualitative analyses, wrote and edited the paper, and
completed all revisions on the final manuscript. J.A. contributed to the development of the coding frame,
coded the articles, and proofread the paper. C.E. commented on earlier drafts and proofread the paper.
Acknowledgements: The authors would like to thank Katelyn Cullen for research assistance. The authors
were supported by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). The funders had no role in study design,
data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
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Table 1: Country of origin of news articles in the analyzed data set
Number (n)
United States
United Kingdom
New Zealand
Sri Lanka
South Korea
South Africa
Table 2: Inter-coder agreement on coding categories*
Coding frame question
Cohen’s κ
Number (n)
Were gene drives characterized as a high
-risk technology, with
potentially unforeseen consequences?
What was the central focus/theme of the news story?
Did the article cl
aim gene drives were ready for field trials?
Did the article provide ethical arguments against gene drives?
What specific ethical objections were raised?
Did the article include
discussions of policy and practical
What specific policy and practical issues were discussed?
Did the article mention public health benefits of gene drives?
What specific health benefits were
Did the article mention publi
c health risks from gene drives?
What specific health risks were discussed?
Did the article mention environmental benefits of gene drives?
What specific
environmental benefits were discussed?
Did the arti
cle mention environmental harms from gene drives?
What specific environmental harms were discussed?
What was the overall tone of the
article towards gene drives?
Was sensationalist
language used to describe gene drives?
The level of agreement between coders was interpreted based on the Landis & Koch
Benchmark Scale
(1977). This scale establishes the following as standards for strength of
agreement denoted by κ: <0 =
“poor,” 0.01 to 0.20 = “slight,” 0.21 to 0.40 = “fair,” 0.41 to
0.60 = “moderate,” 0.61 to 0.80 = “substantial,” and 0.81 to 1 = “almost perfect.”
Table 3: Examples of negative media hype
Sensational language
Genetic Engineering: Who Cleans up
the Mess?
World Net Daily, 26/11/2016
“Unintended consequences that could be
catastrophic”; “potentially disastrous effects”
U.S. Military Preps for Gene Drives
Run Amok
Scientific American,18/11/2016
“Gene drives gone wild
The Perils of Planned Extinctions
The Jordan Times, 2/11/2016
“A cynical move is underway to promote a new,
powerful and troubling technology known as
"gene drives”; “the idea that we can--and should--
use human driven extinction to address human-
caused extinction is appalling”; “game-changing
bioweapons”; “technological silver bullets”
To Fight Malaria, Scientists Try
Genetic Engineering to Wipe out
National Public Radio, 14/12/2016
“He shows me one of the gene drive mosquito
larva magnified on a screen. It looks like
something out of a horror film, like a huge
radioactive worm.”
The Perils of Planned Extinctions
Korea Joongang Daily, 12/09/2016
“A cynical move is underway to promote a new,
powerful, and troubling technology known as
gene-drive for conservation”; “a biological tool
with unprecedented power”; “we recklessly throw
in our lot with technological “silver bullets” as the
way forward”
PLAYING GOD: Major Fears as
Scientists Begin to Alter Genes and
Affect Ecosystem, 06/09/2016
“Scientists are at risk of playing God and could
ruin the natural ecosystem.”
GM Insect Research Can Be a
Lifesaver, and London Leads the Way
London Evening Standard, 03/08/2016
Three Babies Born in US with Birth
Defects Caused by Zika, Government
Report Reveals
Daily Mail Online, 16/06/2016
“Genetic Pandora’s box”
A Fruit Fly or Two Is behind Most
Scientific Breakthroughs
Waikato Times, 13/06/2016
“Last year, using gene drive, American scientists
turned fruit flies into yellow mutants. Had any
mutants escaped their lab they could potentially
have turned every fruit fly in the world yellow.”
Could GM Mosquitoes Stop Zika?
Scientists Warn Powerful Gene Editing
Technique Could Cause More Harm
Than Good”
Daily Mail Online, 10/06/2016
“Genetic Pandora’s box”
Bill Gates: Some People Think
Eradicating Mosquitoes with Genetics
Is Scary, But I Don't Think It Will Be, 10/06/2015
“Next weapon of mass destruction”
The National Academies’ Gene Drive
Study Has Ignored Important and
Obvious Issues
The Guardian, 10/06/2016
“Gene bomb”
New Genetic Engineering Method
Called Promising - and Perilous
National Public Radio, 08/06/2016
“Turbocharged version of genetic engineering,
weaponizing insects”
A World without Mosquitoes
Smithsonian, 01/06/2016
“Mutant mosquito”
Tweaking Genes to Save Species
The New York Times, 17/04/2016
“Genetic tinkering”; “brought back from the
brink”; “hubris to think”; “ecosystems are messy,
murky and highly complex”; “silver-bullet”;
“species circling the drain”
GM Insects and Moral Blackmail
The Guardian, 11/04/2016
“Moral blackmail”; “radical approach”, “hyped”,
Move over Ebola, here comes Zika!
Alive, 06/04/2016
“Biotech bugs”; “newest weapons”
Mass Insecticide Set to Halt Zika
Taranaki Daily News, 03/03/2016
“Nothing can make mosquitoes cuddly, whereas
healthy babies definitely are cuddly”
Genetic Sex Change for Mosquitoes
Could Stop the Spread of Zika
The Guardian, 17/02/2016
“Turn deadly, blood-drinking females into
harmless, nectar-sipping males”
Should We Wipe Mosquitoes off the
Face of the Earth?
The Guardian, 10/02/2016
“Blood suckers”, “no one ever had a cuddly
mosquito”, “game changer”
Technology Bends Rules of Genetic
Sunday Tribune, 07/02/2016
“Endowing genes with special equipment to foil
the rules of genetics may sound magical”
Mosquitoes, This Time It's War; Zika
Is the Last Straw: Eradicate the
World’s Deadliest Creature
USA Today, 04/02/2016
“Scary”; “monster mosquitoes”;
Using Mutant Mosquitoes to Kill
Malaria Can Be Dangerous for
Daily O, 16/12/2015
“Mutant mosquitoes”
Modified Mosquitoes Can Halt
Malaria Spread
Deccan Chronicle, 08/12/2015
“A team of researchers playing God
Gene Drive Turns Mosquitoes into
Malaria Fighters
Science, 27/11/2015
“Firestorm has erupted over the risks of
experimenting with gene drives”
Improving on Mother Nature?
The Daily Herald, 25/11/2015
“California researchers hatched some malaria-
resistant mosquitoes and then gave evolution a
shove - using ground-breaking technology";
“mutant mosquitoes kept in a secured lab"
A Mutant Mosquito That Could
Wipeout Malaria
Guelph Mercury, 25/11/2015
“Mutant mosquito”
Malaria-Resistant Mosquitoes Have
Scientists Abuzz
Toronto Star, 24/11/2015
“U.S. researchers hatched some malaria-resistant
mosquitoes and then gave evolution a shove"; “the
mutant mosquitoes kept in a secured lab”
SuperchargedGenes Could Wreak
The Canberra Times, 08/08/2015
“Supercharged” genetically modified organisms;
“could be used a terrorist bio-weapon”;
“technology is like a nuclear chain reaction”;
“promises to revolutionize medicine”
New Isis Weapon: Mozzies
The Daily Star, 05/08/2015
“TERRORISTS are planning to create killer
mosquitoes to attack their enemies”; “the
genetically modified creatures could be used by
terror nuts to spread lethal diseases”; “If warped
Islamic State militants get hold of the idea, it is
feared they could use it as a terror tactic.
Threat of Lethal Attacks
The Advertiser, 05/08/2015
“‘Supercharged’ genes in insects could be used by
terrorists to cause an environmental disaster.”
GM Mosquitoes “Could Be Used by
Scottish Daily Mail 04/08/2015
“Supercharged” genes in insects could be used by
terrorists to cause an environmental disaster, an
unstoppable “nuclear chain reaction,” “gene drives
carrying cargo for delivering lethal bacterial
toxins to humans”
Worry That “Super GM” Organisms
May Accidentally Escape
Cape Times, 04/08/2015
“Supercharged” genetically modified organisms
Could supercharged genesbe used
by terrorists? Technique to genetically
modify insects could spread lethal
Daily Mail Online, 03/08/2015
the GM creatures could be used to spread lethal
diseases”; “supercharged genes”
Scientists Sound Alarm on
The Independent, 03/08/2015
“Supercharged” genetically modified (GM)
organisms, “could be used a terrorist bio-weapon”,
“technology is like a nuclear chain reaction”
A Power for Good or Evil: The
Technology of 'Gene DrivesHolds
Immense Potential for Improving Our
Life on This Planet And Also Great
The Independent, 02/08/2015
“Immense potential…..but also great danger",
“spreading genetic traits rapidly….like a virus”,
“supercharges genetically modified genes so that
they defy the normal rules of inheritance"
Figure 1: News coverage by media type
Figure 2: Perceptions of risks associated with gene drive technology
Figure 3: Overall tone towards gene drive technology
... On the whole, however, media coverage supported the image of scientists as trustworthy, transparent, and not hiding inconvenient facts. In the press, scientists were the key source of both hopeful statements and warnings about risks, a finding also reported by Kamenova et al. (2017). In the coverage, the words "warn," "alarm," or "fear" were used to describe experts' pronouncements on risk and unintended consequences of gene drive. ...
Full-text available
Gene drive is a controversial biotechnology for pest control. Despite a commitment from gene drive researchers to responsibility and the key role of the media in debates about science and technology, little research has been conducted on media reporting of gene drive. We employ metaphor and discourse analysis to explore how responsibility is reflected in the coverage of this technology in the U.S., U.K., and Australian press. The findings reveal a rhetorical strategy of trust-building by evoking the moral attributes of gene drive researchers. We discuss the implications of these findings for the communication of new technologies.
... Although the media articles provided a range of metaphors, and explanations of the gene drive technology (for discussion see Stelmach, Nerlich and Hartley Forthcoming; see also Kamenova, Akerman, and Emerson 2017), the original metaphor of a train/locomotive and carriages for gene drive was missing from the coverage. Nobody commented on what gene "drive" might actually mean. ...
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Metaphors have been crucial in making genetics and genomics public, from the code and the book of life to genetic scissors and gene surgery. A new field is emerging called “gene drive” – a range of controversial technologies that can potentially be used for the eradication or conservation of animal species. At the same time, metaphors are emerging to talk about the promises and dangers of “gene drive”. In this article we use thematic analysis to examine thirty interviews with gene drive science and communication experts, and stakeholders, focusing on how they talk about their lived experience of metaphor use in the context of gene drive communication, including their struggle to remember salient metaphors and their reflections on which metaphors to use and which to avoid. We discuss the significance of our findings for research and practice of responsible science communication.
Gene drive is an emerging biotechnology with applications in global health, conservation and agriculture. Scientists are preparing for field trials, triggering debate about when and how to release gene-drive organisms. These decisions depend on public understandings of gene drive, which are shaped by language. While some studies on gene drive communication assume the need to persuade publics of expert definitions of gene drive, we highlight the importance of meaning-making in communication and engagement. We conducted focus groups with humanities and science teachers in the United Kingdom and United States to explore how different media framings stimulated discussions of gene drive. We found diversity in the value of these framings for public debate. Interestingly, the definition favoured by gene drive scientists was the least popular among participants. Rather than carefully curating language, we need opportunities for publics to make sense and negotiate the meanings of a technology on their own terms.
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Decisions about the development and use of gene drives are framing broader debates about the need for fundamental changes to biotechnology regulatory systems. We summarize this debate and describe how gene drives are being constructed as potential anomalies within the regulatory landscape. Drawing on literature from Science and Technology Studies and other fields, we outline a broad set of anomaly-handling strategies and provide examples from current gene drive debates. While often couched in technical terms, decisions about how to address anomalies are also decisions about whether to strengthen or weaken different forms of governance. By exploring the different ways that anomalies are constructed and handled, we highlight the active role that anomalies play within a changing governance system and invite a more nuanced examination of the multifarious goals these strategies serve.
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Gene drive based on the CRISPR/Cas-9 gene editing system is a powerful technology that promotes the inheritance of the gene drive tool itself via sexual reproduction and can therefore spread quickly through a population. It holds great potential for public health and humanitarian purposes, such as reducing the burden of vector-borne diseases like malaria. Here, we discuss another potential application of CRISPR-based gene drive, namely the control of pest species to increase crop production. We argue that gene drive-based pest control strategies should receive more attention from policymakers and the public given their enormous potential impact on the environment, their easy accessibility, and the current dearth of regulations.
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Invasive species remain one of the greatest threats to global biodiversity. Their control would be enhanced through the development of more effective and sustainable pest management strategies. Recently, a novel form of genetic pest management (GPM) has been developed in which the mating behaviour of insect pests is exploited to introduce genetically engineered DNA sequences into wild conspecific populations. These ‘transgenes’ work in one or more ways to reduce the damage caused by a particular pest, for example reducing its density, or its ability to vector disease. Although currently being developed for use against economically important insect pests, these technologies would be highly appropriate for application against invasive species that threaten biodiversity. Importantly, these technologies have begun to advance in scope beyond insects to vertebrates, which include some of the world’s worst invasives. Here we review the current state of this rapidly progressing field and, using an established set of eradication criteria, discuss the characteristics which make GPM technologies suitable for application against invasive pests. Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s10530-017-1384-6) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
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There is a need for new interventions against the on-going burden of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue. One suggestion has been to develop genes encoding effector molecules that block parasite development within the vector, and then use the nuclease-based homing reaction as a form of gene drive to spread those genes through target populations. If the effector gene reduces the fitness of the mosquito and does not contribute to the drive, then loss-of-function mutations in the effector will eventually replace functional copies, but protection may nonetheless persist sufficiently long to provide a public health benefit. Here we present a quantitative model allowing one to predict the duration of protection as a function of the probabilities of different molecular processes during the homing reaction, various fitness effects, and the efficacy of the effector in blocking transmission. Factors that increase the duration of protection include reducing the frequency of pre-existing resistant alleles, the probability of non-recombinational DNA repair, the probability of homing-associated loss of the effector, the fitness costs of the nuclease and effector, and the completeness of parasite blocking. For target species that extend over an area much larger than the typical dispersal distance, the duration of protection is expected to be highest at the release site, and decrease away from there, eventually falling to zero, as effector-less drive constructs replace effector-containing ones. We also model an alternative strategy of using the nuclease to target an essential gene, and then linking the effector to a sequence that restores the essential function and is resistant to the nuclease. Depending upon parameter values, this approach can prolong the duration of protection. Our models highlight the key design criteria needed to achieve a desired level of public health benefit.
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Significance Gene drive mosquitoes have tremendous potential to help eliminate malaria, and multiple gene drive approaches have recently shown promise in laboratory settings. These approaches include population suppression through fertility disruption, driving-Y chromosomes, and population replacement with genes that limit malaria transmission. Mathematical modeling is used to evaluate these approaches by simulating realistic field settings with seasonality to determine constraints on construct parameters and release strategies. Parameter variation from simulation baselines captures much of sub-Saharan African epidemiology and shows high potential for gene drive constructs to provide transformational tools to facilitate elimination of malaria, even in the most challenging settings. This analysis provides insights into performance characteristics necessary for each approach to succeed that can inform their further development.
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Non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT) is an emerging technology for detecting chromosomal disorders in the fetus and mass media may have an impact on shaping the public understanding of its promise and challenges. We conducted a content analysis of 173 news reports to examine how NIPT was portrayed in English-language media sources between January 1 and December 31, 2013. Our analysis has shown that media emphasized the benefits and readiness of the technology, while overlooking uncertainty associated with its clinical use. Ethical concerns were rarely addressed in the news stories, which points to an important dimension missing in the media discourse.
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Transparent public discourse about translational stem cell research promotes informed hope about scientific progress and the sustainable development of biotechnologies. Using an a priori coding scheme, we surveyed articles from leading news media about stem cell interventions for neurodegenerative diseases (1991-2014) from United States (n = 83), Canada (n = 29), and United Kingdom (n = 65). While, this analysis of translational contexts in the news demonstrates a lingering tendency to celebrate the benefits of research with little context of its caveats even for chronic neurologic diseases, in a departure from many previous studies, the data also reveal conscientious reporting about stem cell tourism and timeframe estimates for the development of relevant therapeutics.
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Gene drive systems that enable super-Mendelian inheritance of a transgene have the potential to modify insect populations over a timeframe of a few years. We describe CRISPR-Cas9 endonuclease constructs that function as gene drive systems in Anopheles gambiae, the main vector for malaria. We identified three genes (AGAP005958, AGAP011377 and AGAP007280) that confer a recessive female-sterility phenotype upon disruption, and inserted into each locus CRISPR-Cas9 gene drive constructs designed to target and edit each gene. For each targeted locus we observed a strong gene drive at the molecular level, with transmission rates to progeny of 91.4 to 99.6%. Population modeling and cage experiments indicate that a CRISPR-Cas9 construct targeting one of these loci, AGAP007280, meets the minimum requirement for a gene drive targeting female reproduction in an insect population. These findings could expedite the development of gene drives to suppress mosquito populations to levels that do not support malaria transmission.