Representing science in the UK news media: ‘Life on Mars?’, cell nucleus replacement and Gulf War syndrome

Holliman, Richard Michael (2000). Representing science in the UK news media: ‘Life on Mars?’, cell nucleus replacement and Gulf War syndrome. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis addresses contemporary debates in the sociology of science, the sociology of media and the public understanding of science by examining the UK television and print media coverage of three substantive scientific issues. The first case study follows the debate as to whether a Martian meteorite (ALH 84001) provided evidence of ancient bacterial life-forms that could prove primitive life had once existed on Mars. The second case study tracks the use of cell nucleus replacement to “clone” mammals. The third case study examines the scientific and political controversy over the existence, symptoms, causes and response to “Gulf War syndrome”. The empirical research employed methodologies developed at the Glasgow Media Group, providing a comparative analysis of the production, content and reception of news media coverage of the case studies. The methods included interviews with scientists, journalists, media professionals and interest groups, a two-year content analysis of press and television news and focus group interviews. The content analysis discovered that media coverage of the case studies was extensive, unevenly distributed over time and emphasised scientific and science-based controversy as news values. The production analysis highlighted the importance of the interaction between scientific institutions and the media. For example, science journalists regularly draw on scientific journals as credible source material. The scientific community actively maintained this situation through information subsidies as a way of generating science news. The reception analysis demonstrated that news media, especially television news, provided an important source of information for audience members. Audience members were active consumers of science news, based on their education, gender, age and personal experience of science. Motivation to consume science news was also a key factor for audience members, varying according to the scientific issue being covered by the media. Overall, this thesis has highlighted the contested interactions that construct and interpret news media coverage of science. By analysing these complex interactions, this thesis contributes to contemporary concerns about the public presentation of science.

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