A “food immersion”: a comparison between Italian daily newspapers and science magazines’ coverage of food and science

di Andrea Rubin

A pure white dish of bread, lettuce, sliced tomatoes and 150g of a juicy hamburger. The mood of the night on 5th August 2013, with tasters and chefs rallied in west London, is very different from the relaxed, bucolic mood of a friends’ barbecue. The location is a TV set connected, live and via the web, to millions of people. Because what Josh Schonwald, an American kitchen expert, and Hanni Rützler, Austrian researcher, are about to taste is the first burger from beef stem cells. Sitting next to them is the scientist Mark Post, its creator, waiting in trepidation. Then, the awaited verdict comes: “It’s close to meat. It’s not that juicy. The consistency is perfect … (but) … it’s missing salt and pepper!” is Hanni Rützler’s comment, to everybody’s great satisfaction.

This short story gives us all the elements and actors determining the relationship between food, science, technology and society: scientists, entrepreneurs, research institutes, governments, general public and, obviously, the media.

Scientists and biotechnologists have been working in the food industry for many years, as demonstrated by the large number of companies involved in food research and development. Clara Foods®, for example, is a company that seeks to develop an animal-free egg. Real vegan cheese® is a consortium of biohackers and citizen scientists that aims to reach the production of a vegetable cheese. Other start-ups like Beyond Meat® and Impossible Foods® are trying to resemble something similar to meat using only vegetable substances. A goal already achieved, some time ago, for example, by Memphis Meat®.

The attention reserved at food from science and technology also increased but, at the same time, food and eating issues have become very relevant today in the media agenda by virtue of their intersection with numerous social aspects.

To understand how the use of food issues has become a public resource within the public sphere, I analyzed how the topic of food and eating – in a technoscientific frame – has been structured within the media. For this purpose, I conducted an analysis and a comparison of these main topics among three of the most popular Italian newspapers (“Corriere della Sera”, “la Repubblica” and “La Stampa”) and three most popular scientific magazines (“Focus”, “National Geographic – Italia” and “Le Scienze”), all of which covered, in Italy, the theme of food and eating in the period between 1 January 2010 and 31 December 2016.

It has been shown that the non-specialized media perform an extremely complex role  particularly in the communication of science. A role that in certain circumstances may act as a “filter” and an “arena” for different actors.

img contributo Rubin 1

One of the most important aspects to understand the public attitude about food innovations is the communication process via which the public is reached. Popular scientific magazines are one of the most important ways of spreading serious and “unofficial” technoscience information for a large public. In fact, these publications are important in connecting not only with science followers, but with a large number of general consumers.

The articles were submitted to a quantitative analysis, in order to verify the degree of coverage that the media reserved to the food issue during the period considered in question; and to qualitative one, with the aim of identifying the presence of some emerging themes in the public space. To analyze the way in which newspapers and magazines talk about food and eating, an automatic topic detection procedure was used.

Figure 1. Coverage of food issue in Italian newspapers and science magazineimg contributo Rubin 2

As far as newspapers are concerned, we focused on the importance of the food theme within the 49,351 articles that, in the period 2010-2016, were characterized by having a content significantly related to technoscience. In the newspapers, the articles with relevant scientific and technological contents that dealt with the theme of nutrition were a total of 6,759, or 13.7% of the total.

In the case of popular scientific magazines, the corpus of articles concerning food and eating, in the same period, consists of 2,070 articles, equal to 5.7% of the total of published articles.

Applying the topic modeling procedure to the articles of the three dailies (“Corriere della Sera”, “la Repubblica” and “La Stampa”) it was possible to observe the recurrence of some motifs in the public presentation of the food theme (Fig. 2). 

Figure 2. Ishikawa diagrams when are rappresented 10 principles topics in newspaper and popular science magazinesimg contributo Rubin 3

The analysis conducted on the coverage given to the food issue in the italian newspapers and in the popular scientific magazines showed characteristics and trends that can provide useful indications on how the media process food and eating. In particular, from the comparison between the different newspapers and magazines it was possible to detect:

• an increase in the coverage of the food theme both in absolute terms and in relative terms.

• food (and eating) are often used as a metaphor to describe the scientific method and to build, in the public imagination, a relationship of proximity between science – often perceived as distant – and everyday life;

• in the context of nutrition, science assumes an ambivalent role: on the one hand, it can help to recover the ancient flavors now lost; on the other hand, it can represent an element of risk, manipulation that enters the food production process, increasing its perception of artificiality;

• although the considerable differences, we find common procedures of news selection and framing for both newspapers and specialized magazines.

However, the most important result is:

• the coverage of the food theme is linked to a dominant trend regarding the public communication of science: a process of “medicalization”. In fact, the food theme is increasingly presented in relation to biomedical issues.

Although we turned our attention to content with relevant technical-scientific substance, the food issue has a salience that never falls below 10%. The food issue is transversal and tangent to numerous and composite themes, such as the environment, or to economic and social repercussions.

What is one of the most general and evident results of monitoring deserves consideration: the expansion of food coverage over time, and in particular of its turning to the biomedical field. Health is presented as a recurring interpretative frame that was found in both the analyzed corpora. Basically, it is an already known trend that sees biomedicine as a media emblem of technoscience. The analysis presented here does not allow to infer the anchoring modalities between the alimentary theme and science, in particular biomedicine. It is therefore difficult to understand whether food is a heterogeneous theme, flexible to be adapted to the criteria of news or, vice versa, biomedicine encounters in the food theme an anchor that allows an approach to everyday life.

To come to a conclusion in this regard would require an analysis beyond a predominantly descriptive one such as ours. However, it is possible to present some hypotheses.

The first one would bring the increased interest in the food issue of the press, specialized or not, to a strategy of anchoring and objectification for the inexorable interest in the biomedical issues. This strategy, typical of professional journalistic practices (Hansen, 1994), emphasizes the cultural role of science, which thus becomes a source of cultural enrichment, aesthetic pleasure and even entertainment.

A second hypothesis would instead focus on a broader trend that is recorded in our society: the increased public shift of interest from topics of collective interest to those concerning individual, physical and mental well-being. This trend is part of a more general cultural change that characterizes contemporary societies. Thus, the binomial food-biomedicine forms a continuous and undisputed thematic context that creates more than a simple frame of interpretation but a masterframe, as scholars of public discourse have defined it, which reinforces the relevance of science in the public sphere through the exaltation of the benefits of its applications.

Finally, the results obtained so far cannot be considered conclusive in any investigation of a complex issue such as that of food. The relationship between food and society – and even more between food, media, science and society – deserves to be explored with further research. The work done, therefore, does not intend to present itself as exhaustive but rather as an exploratory survey that requires new and different insights.

*** AWARD ***

For my final thesis of the Post-Graduate Course in Science Communication at International School in Advanced Studies (SISSA) I won the “best thesis award in memory of Franco Lutman – 2017 edition”. Motivation: With a clear and concise writing and a strong and precise methodological approach, Andrea Rubin provided an interesting framework of communication on the theme of food in the period considered, at the center of many interests, not only media and scientific, but also social, economic and industrial. The quality of the research should also be noted, as Andrea Rubin used a methodology, the so-called “data science for social research”, which is at the cutting edge and still little used in the national panorama of social research on science communication”.


21 dicembre 2017 | in: Contributi,