The reporting of genetic engineering in the Japanese media since 1973

- Satoko Hayashi & Darryl Macer,
Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Tsukuba,
Tsukuba Science City 305-8572, Japan
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 9 (1999), 105-107.

As revealed in surveys of people's attitudes to biotechnology and genetic engineering, the media is the major source of information on not only the facts but also the issues associated with biotechnology as they are introduced into society.

For example, as shown in a Nikkei science survey in 1983 (Macer, 1992), 86% of Japanese businessmen said they obtain the information about biotechnology from "newspapers", 55% said from "television", 37% said from "industry newspapers", and 22% said from "ordinary magazines". And in the science and technology survey of Macer in 1991 (Macer, 1992), 45% of Japanese public answered that to find information on biotechnology, they read magazines that are devoted to science or technology "occasionally" or "frequently", while 77% said they watch television programs about science or technology and 79% said they read some articles or reports in newspapers, magazines about science or technology. Later surveys also confirm this (Macer et al., 1997).

Therefore a study is being conducted on how the media chooses and uses the information about science, technology and the associated bioethical issues. An International Study of Policy, Media Coverage and Public Perceptions, is being coordinated by the Science Museum in the UK, which includes media analysis for articles about biotechnology on newspapers and magazines. Our research is related to this. For the Japanese media study a major newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, was chosen as the material. The morning edition of every second day over a year of sample years was read and articles copied that were judged relevant to a set of about 60 key words or concepts, related to biotechnology and genetic engineering, food and vaccine safety, reproduction, diseases and bioethics in a broad sense. Because the coding of articles into keyword lists by computer is not always inclusive, the reading by eye was necessary.

The frequency of the appearance in the newspaper, of some of these concepts, are shown in Table 1. The years included in this study to date are: 1975, 1977, 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1990, 1995, 1997, and Table 1 only shows the progress results for years completed. The results reveal some broad trends in coverage, 44 articles about genetic engineering in the newspaper for every second day, which means about 90 articles in the year. On average that is one story every 4 days. In contrast there were very few articles on GMO release, with it only appearing 4 times in the 1990 papers, meaning about once every 7 weeks. Reproduction includes assisted reproductive technologies, abortion and surrogacy, and it appears about once every 10 days, as do articles on birth control.

Table 2 shows a breakdown of the genetic engineering topics, showing some differences. For example, in 1995 we see many papers on DNA research, and few on genetic engineering. This could mean that the media has began to focus on the more serious issues of research into genetics, for example, clarifying genes which express functions or diseases, rather than the novelty of genetic engineering. Also human gene therapy appears as a subject about once every 3 weeks, and there were an increasing number of articles on genetic diagnosis and diseases.

We see many articles on reproduction in 1985 when IVF became successful in public. There was an article, which said that these successes led to the faculties of medicine and medical schools to set up ethics committees. IVF was picked up as the application of new technology in reproduction which it said most people feel is a natural area, but the number of articles decreased every year. This could indicate that this technique came to be accepted gradually.

The number of articles on the safety of the laboratory and environment has increased every year. One trend is that the more new technology advances, the more uneasiness people feel over the influence of the technology, however, the media also explained the safety of technology scientifically together with some of these fears. Part of the study will be to investigate if the media plays a role in suppressing excessive uneasiness by offering information.

More detailed analysis of each article included analysis of the size, contents, actors, location of event, benefits and usefulness, type of benefits, risks and costs. Each article is being rated, with a judgment on the negative or positive valuation of biotechnology.

To illustrate the way that the articles were analyzed, 4 examples are given (note English translations are used here). The first slide, example 1 is on Gene therapy. The headline was "Acceptance of gene therapy / On the condition of excluding germ-line cells." It was on the front page, and of medium size. Regarding the contexts, the story included gene therapy is permitted; an explanation of gene therapy. Safety and ethical problems. With an example (adenosine deaminase ADA deficiency). The actors included CIOMS and the Science Council of Japan. The location was Japan. The controversy was balanced.

It discussed the impacts and outcomes, benefits and risks mentioned included therapy for genetic diseases (scored as two pluses ++); safety issues (scored as four minuses ----); and ethical problems, influence to society (scored as three minuses ---). The judgment, which means negative / positive valuation of biotechnology, and genetic developments, was to express uneasiness (negative).

Some comments were made. Gene therapy is an application for humans, so the article was negative and expressed uneasiness about genetic engineering. There was some uneasiness about safety. This article would make people feel uneasy about gene therapy and it would probably lower public acceptance.

Example 2. It was on Interferon from 1980. The headline was "Interferon production in large quantities, epoch-making method for the cancer research. / Using colon bacillus". It was also on the front page, and had large size. The story discussed the success of making interferon from genetic engineering, Methods of interferon production, Technical difficulty, and Clinical research. The actor was the Cancer Institute, the location; Japan and the world. The controversy was imbalanced. Only benefits were expressed for the successful method, with a Judgment of great promise (positive).

This article indicates only the success of genetic engineering. It does not include any risks or uneasiness. We would feel positive towards genetic engineering. But some other articles in the same week about interferon indicates uneasiness, so controversy would be balanced with them.

Example 3, was on Gene patents from 1982, and in the headline includes several concepts: "Japan-USA, thinking about different levels of technology./ Gene patents / The unity of basic science and industry."

It was also on the Front page, and was a large story. It gave some examples of GE products, Patents for gene recombination and basic science, and Cooperation of Japanese and American companies.

The actors were Genentech company, US Patent Office, and some other companies. The location Japan and USA. The controversy was balanced. The benefits and risks discussed included the Development of genetic engineering (scored as two pluses ++), but the Japanese future is in risk because basic genetics research started later (scored as four minuses ----). No judgment upon biotechnology There is no judgment upon genetic engineering, but on economics. Because they started late in genetic research, Japanese companies face economic risks. It is good to inform people of the influences upon society not only technical difficulties or ethical problems caused by genetic engineering.

Example 4. It is on regulation, and in the English slide, the headline reads "Hope for relaxing regulations on genetic engineering." This story was in the middle as an editorial. The story discussed relaxing the regulations on recombinant genes, Safety and ethical problems, and Promoting the opening of research information. The main actor was the Science Council of Japan. It was imbalanced, focusing on the Safety of genetic engineering (scored as 4 minuses----); whether it was Unethical to nature (scored as three minuses---), with a little discussion on the application of genetic engineering (scored as one plus+). It was very critical about the relaxation of regulations (negative)

This article is an editorial, so it would be this paper's valuation of genetic engineering. It indicates some risks and uneasiness over genetic engineering, and also some hope for relief of regulation for recombinant genes. It is imbalanced, for making public guidelines and control over highly advanced genetic engineering, newspapers should write more critically about the facts.

The media has a large responsibility to communicate science, and scientists should also inform people about science. The media also has a responsibility to present balanced information, on the benefits and risks of alternative technology and to do this independent of commercial Interests. At the same time, the media has a responsibility to criticize science and help to watch the development of science, when it may be misused for unethical or unacceptable applications. Maybe, the media acts as a substitute in this bioethical role in the place of researchers. From these images people's descriptive bioethics evolve. We can say the media has much impact on the people's knowledge of, and therefore probably on their attitude to biotechnology. The Asahi newspaper is one of the four major

Table 1: Survey of number of articles in Asahi Newspaper (every second day)
Topics19751977 19801982 198519901995
Genetic engineering10 104444 312630
GMO release (Labelling=0)0 100 042
Safety in lab or env. from genetics2 536 4812
Food Safety17 956 382
I.D. and Privacy0 412 1244
Testing and Population Screening5 525 4216
Insurance00 101 00
Patents and Economics2 469 1168
Pharmaceuticals and Vaccines23 101418 232422
Reproduction (IVF, AI, Surrogacy)3 0414 241814
Public opinion1 100 000
Biodiversity1 002 048
Legal regulation7 322 480
Voluntary regulation3 115 220
Policy on biotech/genes5 152 202
education / literacy / conference3 697 4204
Eugenics (human inheritance=0)1 011 020
Biowarfare21 460 410
Ethical20 166 68
Other biotechnology e.g. cell fusion16 9148 28268
Artificial organs (eg pacemaker, blood) 1146 1488 2
Birth control6 71415 121614
The pill in Japan5 444 000
Abortion72 6710 128
Abnormality / deformity / mutation14 161221 91010
Pesticides66 000 42
Disease (e.g. vaccinations, or ID of)3 674 4(HIV)6 10
Court case about meds&patent cases 442 044 2
Immune system7 1084 340
Cancer138 18109 2226
Carcinogen35 433 02
Others211 11125 122

Table 2: Survey of number of articles about genetic engineering in Asahi Newspaper (every second day)
Topics19751977 19801982 198519901995
Genetic engineering7 62432 23102
GMO release (Labelling=0)0 100 042
HGR00 000 40
DNA research3 4137 7822
Testing, diag. & popln. screening2 324 1210
Gene therapy1 020 088
Disease (e.g. vaccinations, or ID of)0 000 204
Cancer and immunosystem1 0122 344
Pharmaceuticals and vaccines0 1119 840
Reprodn.,birth control, & abortion 101 030 6
Abnormality, deformity1 222 202
Patents and Economics2 112 202
Legal regulation0 211 020
Voluntary regulation2 115 200
Safety13 053 20
Policy00 412 02
Economic issues0 126 122
Insurance00 001 00
Education / literacy / conference1 125 144
Court case on meds & patent cases0 010 000
Ethical issues0 001 144

newspapers in Japan, and it would be interesting to compare different articles about same topic and between different newspapers.


Macer, Darryl R.J., Attitudes to Genetic Engineering: Japanese and International Comparisons, 162 pp. (bilingual English and Japanese), ISBN 0-908897-02-2, Japanese and English (Christchurch: Eubios Ethics Institute, 1992).

Macer, Darryl R.J., Bioethics for the People by the People; 460pp., ISBN 0-908897-05-7 (Christchurch: Eubios Ethics Institute, 1994).

Macer, Darryl, H. Bezar, N.Harman, H. Kamada, N. Macer "Attitudes to Biotechnology in Japan and New Zealand in 1997, with International Comparisons", EJAIB 7 (1997), 137-151.

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