From Devil’s Bargain to Postmodern Uncertainty: How the media ‘packages’ science

I’m learning a lot on my MSc course, but one thing I’m enjoying more than I thought I would is applied semiotics – the study of signs, symbols and meaning(s). I just had an essay back in which I looked at an article in the Financial Times (pictured) and tried to work out what it says.

Decisions, decisions: all the elements of this page turned out the way they did because of editorial choices.

I’m not going to go into my semiotic analysis (I ended up talking about the connotations of the protestor ‘teetering on the edge of uncertainty’ – which, frankly, no one but my lecturers should have to wade through!) But the idea of the media ‘packaging’ information is important. So what’s a package? It basically means a frame through which you view a topic. I was looking at energy science, and this is an enormous topic: it would be impossible (also probably boring and wrong) for the media to try to present the whole of it. So instead the topic is ‘packaged’ to make it easier to deal with and read about. One popular package employed when talking about nuclear power is the ‘devil’s bargain’ package. This basically says that nuclear power is a kind of trade-off – there are great benefits (e.g. a lot less CO2 production compared to fossil fuel power stations, and a decreased reliance on oil imports) but there are also minus points (like the possibility of melt-downs or the rise of nimbyism). If using this package a newspaper article would discuss newsworthy pieces of information, but they would be woven into a framework which tells us that there is a Devil’s Bargain going on.

Here’s a look at the full page briefing

Packages morph into different ahpes over time. Before the Devil’s Bargain  package (ca. 1960’s) was the Progress package (1950’s). The latter framed all the information in terms of the progress we were making as a society. If a pressure group were campaigning against nuclear power they would be portrayed as ‘getting in the way of technological progress’. Notice that this package takes a side (nuclear power is ‘progress’, and progress is good), but packages don’t have to take a side (the Devil’s Bargain doesn’t, for example).

The reason these packages are important is because the media influences the way we see science. If we constantly see science portrayed as a bargain between technological progress and the risk of unexpected negative outcomes, that will have some bearing on what we think about it. I’m not saying that’s bad, necessarily, but I do find it interesting. Scientists often complain that the facts in an article aren’t quite right. But what about the bigger picture? How the media package science must have a much greater impact on public views of science.

I came to wonder whether packages like the Devil’s Bargain are still used in the media today (scholars were talking about the two above in the 1980’s). Or is there some new way that the media package science these days?

Reading the article in the FT I found what think is a ‘new’ package. In my essay I called it ‘post-modern uncertainty’. The fundamental position that lies behind this package is that we can’t know what the best course of action is with respect to energy. I got to this conclusion through semiotic analysis kind of way. It’s too academic to go into in any detail here, but interestingly even the headlines can show us at a glance how the piece connotes uncertainty:

‘Dash for gas unsure of averting shortage while policy lacks clarity

‘Delays to new power stations add to fears of the lights going out’

This illustrates part of how packages work. Information is presented, but there is a deeper meaning, connoted by the cultural associations we have with words, images and symbols. The thing about the media is that it is constructed – someone wrote the article and took the photograph. And someone cropped the photo and decided what it would show.

These packages may sound obscure and unimportant. But the key point is that they close down possible alternative viewpoints. It would be hard, for example, to come away from the FT article thinking that there was a well-defined way forward for energy science in the UK.

Our cultural imagination is shaped by the media; that’s why packages are important . If we never hear anything about a revolution, we’ll find it hard to imagine one – let alone have one. And if all the science in the media gets packaged in postmodernist uncertainty, we will, without making a conscious effort to ignore the packaging, find it hard to make up our minds about where science should go from here.

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