Genetic optimism: Framing genes and mental illness in the news

P. Conrad

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    110 Citations (Scopus)


    Over the past two decades the pace and specificity of discoveries associating genetics with mental illness has accelerated, which is reflected in an increase in news coverage about the genetics of mental disorder. The news media is a major source of public understanding of genetics and a strong influence on public discourse. This paper examines the news coverage of genetics and mental illness (i.e., bipolar illness and schizophrenia) over a 25 year period, emphasizing the peak period of 1987-1994. Using a sample of 110 news stories from 5 major American newspapers and 3 news magazines, we identify the frame of "genetic optimism" which dominated the reporting of genetics and mental illness beginning in the mid-1980s. The structure of the frame is comprised of 3 elements: a gene for the disorder exists; it will be found; and it will be good. New discoveries of genes were announced with great fanfare, but the most promising claims could not be replicated or were retracted in short order. Despite these disconfirmations, genetic optimism persisted in subsequent news stories. While the scientific accuracy of the gene stories is high, the genetic optimism frame distorts some of the findings, misrepresents and reifies the impact of genes on mental disorder, and leaves no space for critics or an examination of potential negative impacts. The stances of reporters, scientists and editors may all in different ways contribute to the perpetuation of genetic optimism. Genetic optimism presents an overly sanguine picture of the state of genetics; as we enter the genetic age it is important to balance the extraneous "hype and hope" contained in news stories of genetics and mental illness.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)225-247
    Number of pages23
    JournalCulture, Medicine and Psychiatry
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 01 Jun 2001

    Bibliographical note

    Copyright 2004 Elsevier Science B.V., Amsterdam. All rights reserved.


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