Something wicked this way comes: How well did UK newspapers support the public debate of Avian Influenza as a wicked problem?

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The news media in general, and newspapers in particular, are supposed to provide a forum for public debate. These expectations of news media take on a heightened relevance in the case of wicked problems precisely because of the irreducible complexity, the inherent tensions, and the multiplicity of stakeholders and conflicting interests involved in such issues. Both their material complexity and lack of consensus make wicked problems difficult to address. This study uses British newspaper coverage of the H5N1 avian influenza outbreak (2003–2008) to determine if under near ideal conditions, newspaper coverage in the UK is compatible with the expectation that newspapers provide a forum that supports constructive societal debate of a complex, wicked problem. We chose to work with avian influenza because it was extensively covered, evidence rich, and not captive to clear partisan constructions. Our frame analysis examined 254 relevant newspaper articles published in seven national circulation outlets between 2003 and 2008. Newspaper coverage did reflect multiple problem definitions and causal interpretations of avian influenza, which is consistent with the expectation that the media inform and open up public debate. Coverage did not, however, link avian flu to other related issues, engage in systemic contestation or problematise structure. Finally, we found that, despite heterogeneous problem definitions, there was near consensus on a single technical solution. This coverage does not appear to support the open, constructive and informed public debate whose promise justifies the privileges given to news media.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 10 Dec 2020

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