Communicating controversy in the mass media

  • Jon Palfreman

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    This doctoral submission grew out of a series of long form documentaries that I wrote, produced, and directed between 1993 and the present. The films, which were broadcast on US television's PBS network, all deal with scientific, medical, or environmental issues that developed into prominent national and international controversies. DVDs and scripts of the seven programs are provided along with a detailed overview.

    The submission is organized as three projects and an overview.

    1. Project One (discussed in chapters 3-7) consists of three documentaries: the first about a novel therapy for autism 1 ; the second dealing with the alleged health effects of power line electromagnetic fields 2 ; and the third focused on the silicone breast implant controversy3 .

    2. Project Two (discussed in chapters 8-11) consists of programs on nuclear energy,4 Gulf War Syndrome, 5 and genetically modified foods6 .

    3. Project Three (discussed in chapters 12-14) features a two-hour special investigation of global warming. 7

    4. The Overview, Communicating Controversy in the Mass Media not only provides an overarching analysis of the portfolio of films and the attendant theoretical issues, but also serves to summarize the works themselves. In the Project sections of the written overview (chapters 3-14), the analysis is interwoven with extracts from the various documentaries.

    This portfolio and overview tells the evolving story of a body of work at the intersection of documentary, investigative journalism and science. It reveals the journey of one producer who started out with an interest in unpacking complex controversies, but became increasingly fascinated with the psychological and political dimensions of these narratives. Whether a particular controversial belief holds up under scrutiny is undoubtedly important. But there are other fascinating questions: why do people adopt such beliefs in the first place; why do individuals cling to their beliefs in the face of contrary scientific evidence; and what roles do special interests and the media play in amplifying or attenuating the public's hopes and fears?

    This portfolio and overview, therefore, not only examine a series of high profile controversies, but go further by: explaining the process by which these topics were turned into documentaries; exploring the way humans analyze, perceive and communicate benefits and risks; and critically examining the validity and ethical standing of modern television journalism.

    This submission represents a significant contribution to knowledge in several ways. First this series of in-depth, original investigations of environmental and health controversies from one producer is unparalleled in broadcast journalism. Second, the overview's analysis synthesizes and extends a wide range of social science research on risk assessment, risk perception and risk communication and applies this research to the featured controversies and the media's role in them. Third, the portfolio and overview reveal how a blend of documentary, journalism and science is an especially effective way of advancing public understanding of and engagement with modern scientific controversies and goes on to suggest some exciting new directions for communicators.

    Finally, the case studies in this portfolio provide a basis of knowledge about how communicators can effectively use audiovisual media to navigate the world of risks and benefits that permeates many of society's most crucial policy dilemmas.

    Date of Award2005
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorSteven Blandford (Supervisor)


    • mass media
    • environmental and health controversies
    • documentary film
    • investigative journalism
    • television journalism

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