Public opinion of gene-editing in agriculture: A mixed-method study of online media and metaphors



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As products of gene-editing technology get closer to retail shelves, it is important for science communicators to disseminate information regarding the applications and implications of the technology. Public acceptance of gene-editing in agriculture will be influential to overcoming the challenges of a growing world population and a changing environment. The overarching purpose of this study was to understand how the United States’ public and news media discuss gene-editing applications in agriculture and what impact the context in which the topic is discussed has on public opinion. To accomplish this purpose, three independent, yet interconnected, research phases were conducted to describe the public discussion, examine the news media discussion, and test the influence of metaphors on public acceptance of gene-editing in agriculture. During phase one, a Meltwater social media monitor collected N = 13,189 relevant tweets for analysis. Between September 1, 2018 and December 31, 2019, the amount of conversation regarding gene-editing in agriculture, the number of contributing Twitter accounts, and the reach of the conversation was relatively stable. In contrast, engagement with the conversation was on the rise and the sentiment of tweets was became increasingly positive. Public accounts with the most reach were predominantly news organizations, while accounts with the greatest engagement were a mix of news accounts and individual accounts. During phase two, the Nexis Uni database was utilized to collect 26 U.S. news articles concerning gene-editing in agriculture published online by four national news media between 2015 and 2019. These articles facilitated a qualitative systematic metaphor analysis; that is, they were examined to identify the metaphors used to describe gene-editing in agriculture in terms of process or product. The metaphors were then analyzed to develop a list of underlying metaphorical concepts and their frequency of occurrence. The articles conceptualized the topic as creation, a coding program, a fighter, math, targeting, a text editor, and a tool. Overall, the concepts address the complexity, detail, and skill required by gene-editing technologies in agriculture. During the final phase of the study, a between-subjects, experimental survey research design was used to investigate which metaphorical concept for gene-editing in agriculture causes the most issue-relevant thinking and willingness to share on social media. The metaphors of gene-editing as creation, text editor and tool were embedded into mock news articles. A control mock news article was also created. Three hundred participants provided demographic information, indicated their deference to scientific authority, and responded to items regarding their perceived and factual knowledge of gene-editing in agriculture. After reading the randomly assigned mock news article, participants shared their thoughts and indicated their willingness to subsequently share the article on social media. Even when controlling for confounding variables, the results indicated no significant differences between the treatments on issue-relevant thinking or willingness to share the article on social media. The results of this study give researchers, science communicators and agricultural communicators a more complete understanding of the current conversation around gene-editing in agriculture in terms of who is participating, what is being said, and how it can be explained to the public. This study indicated there is steadily increasing interest in the topic of gene-editing in agriculture, yet the most effective way of explaining the complex science of the topic remains unclear.



Public opinion, Gene-editing, Agriculture, Media, Metaphors