Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry

, Volume 25, Issue 2, pp 225–247 | Cite as

Genetic Optimism: Framing Genes and MentalIllness in the News

  • Peter Conrad


Over the past two decades the pace andspecificity of discoveries associating geneticswith mental illness has accelerated, which isreflected in an increase in news coverage aboutthe genetics of mental disorder. The newsmedia is a major source of public understandingof genetics and a strong influence on publicdiscourse. This paper examines the newscoverage of genetics and mental illness (i.e.,bipolar illness and schizophrenia) over a 25year period, emphasizing the peak period of1987–1994. Using a sample of 110 news storiesfrom 5 major American newspapers and 3 newsmagazines, we identify the frame of ``geneticoptimism'' which dominated the reporting ofgenetics and mental illness beginning in themid-1980s. The structure of the frame iscomprised of 3 elements: a gene for thedisorder exists; it will be found; and it willbe good. New discoveries of genes wereannounced with great fanfare, but the mostpromising claims could not be replicated orwere retracted in short order. Despite thesedisconfirmations, genetic optimism persisted insubsequent news stories. While the scientificaccuracy of the gene stories is high, thegenetic optimism frame distorts some of thefindings, misrepresents and reifies the impactof genes on mental disorder, and leaves nospace for critics or an examination ofpotential negative impacts. The stances ofreporters, scientists and editors may all indifferent ways contribute to the perpetuationof genetic optimism. Genetic optimism presentsan overly sanguine picture of the state ofgenetics; as we enter the genetic age it isimportant to balance the extraneous ``hype andhope'' contained in news stories of genetics andmental illness.

genetics mental illness news media science reporting 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peter Conrad
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Sociology (MS-071)Brandeis UniversityWaltham

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