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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

Is the negative more relevant than the positive?
Cognitive responses to TV programs and newspaper articles on genetic engineering

Hans Peter Peters   Forschungszentrum Jülich, Germany

That media reporting on technologies has a strong impact on the corresponding beliefs and attitudes of the audience is an often expressed but hardly proven assumption.A number of hypotheses have been proposed and empirically tested.Due to methodological difficulties the results were often inconclusive. The work described here uses an approach different from those used in previous studies. It is based on the “cognitive response approach“ as the methodological and analytical framework. The main hypothesis is that the same media messages may evoke very different cognitive responses in the recipients and, hence, may have different impacts on e.g. attitudes.

Two empirical studies were conducted. In the first study 338 test recipients read three short newspaper articles on genetic engineering. After finishing each article they were asked to remember and verbalize the thoughts they had had when reading the text. In the second study 51 test recipients watched three short TV films on genetic engineering. They were asked to “think aloud“ and to verbalize their thoughts while watching the films. In both studies questionnaires were administered before and after the reception of the stimuli, measuring (among other variables) pre- and post-attitudes, knowledge level and psychological features of the test recipients.

In total, more than 4,500 “cognitive responses“were documented and analyzed. All in all, both studies yielded consistent results. About 60 percent of the thoughts were evaluative responses to different aspects of the films or articles. The recipients reacted far more often with criticism and negative evaluations than with approval and positive evaluations. Furthermore, there were more than four times as many thoughts critical of than favorable to genetic engineering. No consistent relationship between the slant of the stimuli (pro or contra genetic engineering) and the ratio of critical and affirmative thoughts during their reception was found. The only strong predictor of the ratio of responses positive or negative to genetic engineering is the recipients’attitudes. Consistent with the cognitive response approach, attitude change effects could be attributed to the number of positive and negative responses evoked during reception.

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