Finding the Right Key: An Analysis of Genetic Makeup Metaphors Used in Online Media

Sunday, 15 February 2015
Exhibit Hall (San Jose Convention Center)
Yulia A. Strekalova, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL
Background: Genomics was labeled a perfect information-seeking problem because of the complexity and probabilistic nature of the information. However, it is also a perfect communication problem. Genomic discoveries can provide the public with better understanding of possible health risks, but increased coverage of the risks may amplify risk perceptions beyond an expert assessment, reaffirm a deterministic view of genomic makeup that can decrease the self-efficacy to take individual action to pursue healthy lifestyles. At the same time, mass media are the most effective source of communication about genomics and its possible implications for human health. Therefore, finding an effective way to communicate information about genomics is necessary to effectively inform the public about scientific discoveries. The goal of this study was to identify the metaphors used by mass media to explain genomics. Methods: To identify what metaphors were used to explain genomics, this formative analysis was based on a random sampling of online news on genetics and genomics published in the last 2 years. The articles from online newspapers, news wires, and blogs were obtained through Factiva, a database that includes over 32,000 online sources. The search terms included [(atleast5 genom* OR atleast5 genet* OR atleast5 "gene" OR atleast5 "genes" OR atleast5 DNA) AND (health* OR medic*)]. The search returned 61,943 results, and 120 articles were included in the systematic qualitative analysis. Articles were read and coded for the metaphors using constant comparative method until saturation was reached. Results: Most pronounced metaphors included the discussion of genomic makeup as a deck of cards, mystery still left to be solved, building, blueprint, tree, ecosystem, secret with a key, (gene) factory, and map. Key words and phrases associated with each metaphor have been identified and pre-tested for large-scale quantitative text mining and analysis. Conclusions: Systematic conceptualization of these metaphors makes both theoretical and practical contributions to the understanding of heuristics in risk perceptions and decision-making. These results showed that many metaphors are used to explain genomics and communicate about genes. Further analysis can uncover which metaphors dominate current news coverage, and which metaphors lead to increases in knowledge without unwarranted increases in risk perceptions. Experimental investigation can provide necessary insights into how to better use metaphors to promote self-efficacy and response-efficacy among the general public.